Why Your Vaginal Bacteria Is Important to Your Health

Good bacteria, the same types that are in your gut, are essential for sexual health too. Here's how to keep them in sync.

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They're tiny but powerful. Bacteria help make your entire body healthy-even below the belt. "The vagina has a natural microbiome that's similar to the gut's," says Leah Millheiser, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University. It contains good bacteria that keep everything running smoothly and bad bugs that can lead to issues like yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis. (Both are potential reasons why your vagina smells.)

And just like the bugs in your GI tract, certain meds and other factors can cause the vaginal microbes to fall out of balance, increasing your risk of infection or irritation. Keep your good bugs-and your vagina-healthy with these four science-backed strategies.

Don't Be a Clean Freak

Most of us know by now that douching is not a good idea. But recently, a practice called vaginal steaming-which involves sitting over a pot of steaming water filled with medicinal herbs-has been getting attention. Fans of the treatment say it does several things, including "cleansing" the uterus and rebalancing hormone levels. Ignore the buzz. "Douching or steaming can get rid of good bacteria," Dr. Millheiser says. If you're worried about odor, it's fine to occasionally use wipes after exercise or during the day, but stick to unscented ones and don't overuse-a swipe is plenty. Dr. Millheiser also says to stop immediately if you experience burning or irritation.

Pop a Probiotic

Choose one that contains at least two strains of lactobacillus, like RepHresh Pro-B Probiotic Feminine Supplement ($18; target.com), which can increase healthy vaginal bacteria levels. So can probiotic yogurt-eating it or, if advised by your doctor, delivering it straight to the source. "If a patient has a yeast infection and is taking oral antifungals, I'll occasionally suggest using a syringe or an applicator to place two tablespoons of plain, probiotic-rich yogurt into the vagina," Dr. Millheiser says. (Again, check with your physician before trying this.)

Do a Quick Change

Many of us sit in sweaty gym clothes while grabbing a bite or running errands. "That creates a warm, moist environment known to lead to the overgrowth of yeast," Dr. Millheiser says. Change before you leave the gym. If you can't, wear underwear with a cotton gusset-it's breathable, so you'll stay drier, giving yeast and unhealthy bacteria less opportunity to overgrow.

Pick Lubricant Wisely

Avoid any that contain glycerin. It's a common ingredient, but it breaks down into sugars, which may encourage bacteria or yeast overgrowth. Look for glycerin-free options, and never use petroleum jelly-women who did so were 2.2 times more likely to have bacterial vaginosis, the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology reports.

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