Are Probiotics Actually the Answer to All Your Vagina Problems?
The good-for-your-gut bacteria might also boast other health benefits, including preventing vaginal infections.
You likely already know that probiotics can play an essential role in overall wellness, and are an effective way to promote gut health. There's also increasing evidence about the importance of probiotics for your skin, both when taken internally and used topically. But besides your stomach and your skin, your vagina may also benefit from a dose of these good bacteria. (Yes, really.) Ahead, a deep dive on the connection between probiotics and vaginal health, plus what you need to know and do in order to reap the benefits.
Reminder: What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are good bacteria that are naturally found in your body and are imperative for keeping your GI system in check; they also play a role in everything from immunity to muscle strength to your mood. While you're born with a whole bunch of them, factors such as a poor diet, antibiotics, and more can reduce probiotic levels. Hence why many people these days opt for getting an extra dose, be it from a diet rich in fermented foods (sauerkraut, yogurt, and pickles are all good sources) and/or taking a probiotic supplement. (Related: New Ways to Add More Probiotics to Your Diet.)
The Connection Between Probiotics and Vaginal Health
How does all of this pertain to your vagina? For starters, your vagina is just like your gut, and harbors a lot of good bacteria, says Christine Greves, M.D., an ob-gyn at the center for obstetrics and gynecology at Orlando Health in Florida. "The vagina naturally maintains a delicate balance of bacteria and yeast to keep the pH in its normal acidic range," explains Alyssa Dweck, M.D., a New York-based ob-gyn and Monistat brand ambassador. The good bacteria help fight off any bad bacteria that are introduced, but things like sexual intercourse, hormone changes, and heavily fragranced feminine hygiene products can potentially disrupt this ecosystem, she adds. And when that happens, you can end up with a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. Joy.
That's where an extra dose of probiotics can come in handy, helping to restore the much-needed balance. The key? Every probiotic contains multiple different strains of bacteria, all of which work slightly differently, making it important to seek out a product that's tailored for women's health or vaginal health, points out Dr. Dweck. Many oral probiotics are marketed as such (more on how to choose one in a minute), but it's worth skimming the ingredient label for one ingredient in particular: lactobacilli, or lactobacillus acidophilus. Lactobacilli is a strain of good bacteria that lives in your vagina and helps maintain a healthy vaginal pH, which then prevents the overgrowth of different bad bacteria, says Dr. Greves. A healthy vaginal pH typically falls a bit on the acidic side, between 3.8-4.5; lactobacilli are responsible for producing lactic acid, which in turn helps maintain this acidic pH, says Dr. Dweck. (Cool, right?)
Because probiotics are intended to propagate the good bacteria, it may help them fight bad bacteria and keep you from needing antibiotics for a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis, she adds. While there isn't a whole lot of evidence showing the benefits of probiotics for vaginal health, there is evidence that they can increase the lactobacilli in your system to help prevent pesky vaginal infections, says Dr. Greves. (Related: Why Your Vaginal Bacteria Is Important to Your Health)
Should You Take Probiotics?
But should everyone and their mother be popping a probiotic for vaginal health purposes? Not necessarily. Dr. Dweck says they're likely to be most beneficial for women who are dealing with persistent, recurrent yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis. Women who are also experiencing things known to disrupt vaginal bacterial levels—think: taking an antibiotic, going through peri-menopause, or having sex with multiple partners—may also see a benefit from taking probiotics proactively, she adds.
However, the one common issue they won't really help with is urinary tract infections (UTIs): "There's no established, definitive evidence pointing toward the benefit of probiotics in preventing a UTI," notes Dr. Dweck. For this type of infection, she says cranberry extract or supplements are a better way to go; cranberries contain antioxidant molecules known as PACs (or proanthocyanidins, a type of polyphenol), which studies have shown can help prevent UTIs. (Related: Should You Self-Diagnose Your UTI?)
The good news? Probiotics aren't risky, so you can feel free to give them a try. There's no evidence probiotics can cause a lot of harm to your body, says Dr. Greves. The only catch; you shouldn't take antibiotics and probiotics at the exact same time. Since antibiotics affect gut bacteria, they can essentially make the probiotics lose their effect and not work properly; for best results, take them at least four hours apart, she says.
The Best Probiotics for Women
With so many options out there, how do you known which one to choose? Again, if your goal is maintaining or improving vaginal health, look for formulas specifically made for women. As far as potency goes, probiotics are normally measured in CFUs (colony forming units). "There seems to be a benefit anywhere from one or two billion CFUs, all the way up to 20 billion," says Dr. Dweck. "More isn't always necessarily better, but no ill effects have been seen from taking a higher dose." You also want to choose products from reputable, research-based brands, since manufacturing or packaging the products improperly can damage the live bacteria, rendering the probiotic pretty much useless, she adds.
"If you're suffering from more frequent vaginal infections, talk to your doctor—and if they don't mention taking a probiotic, ask your doctor's thoughts on that and how it can serve you individually," says Dr. Greves. There isn't one particular probiotic that's shown the best results, but Dr. Greves mentioned that she personally takes acidophilus (a generic probiotic) to steer clear of yeast infections.
If you're prone to vaginal infections and your doctor has given you the green light to give a probiotic a shot, here are a few probiotics that could help keep yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis at bay.
Garden of Life Women's Probiotics Daily Care Capsules
With 16 different strains of bacteria, this supplement focuses specifically on boosting vaginal health as well as immunity. It also touts an impressive 40 billion CFUs and doesn't have to be refrigerated, which ups the convenience factor. (Related: Products That Help Your Vagina Feel Stronger, Fresher, and Healthier)
Renew Life Women's Probiotic
Along with an impressive 50 billion CFUs, this also contains plenty of oh-so-important lactobacilli, and is also dairy-free. (That's right: Not all probiotics are vegan or dairy-free.) You only have to take one daily—meaning, this bottle will last you about two months—and refrigeration is recommended.
Love Wellness Good Girl Probiotics
Specially formulated to maintain the acidic environment of your vagina, this relies on eight different types of bacteria, all naturally found in the vagina. Also nice: They're gluten-free and don't contain any artificial colors. (Related: The Best Foods for a Healthy Vagina.)
RePhresh Pro-B Probiotic Supplement for Women
Ob-gyns often recommend this brand (v reassuring) because it's been clinically-tested to help balance both yeast and bacteria in the vagina. Plus, the 1,600+ five-star reviews speak for themselves.
Ora Organic Lady Bugs
Along with six different strains of lactobacillus, this vegan, organic option has the unique distinction of also being a prebiotic supplement. FYI, prebiotics are essentially food for probiotics and play an important role in making probiotics even more effective. (Related: Why Your Probiotic Needs a Prebiotic Partner)