When it comes to vaginal health, it’s crucial for women to pay attention. After all, a healthy vagina is an ecosystem in itself. This canal, which starts at the opening of the uterus, is able to clean itself – all thanks to a healthy combination of good bacteria and delicately poised pH levels. Together, these two things help healthy bacteria thrive and discourage harmful microbes from growing. However, this combination is also easy to tamper with. And while unhealthy hygiene practices are often responsible for most vaginal infections, even antibiotics can upset the healthy balance of vaginal microbes.
This is exactly why maintaining prime vaginal health is key. By following these healthy habits, you can take care of the vagina and avoid uncomfortable infections once and for all.
1. Wipe From Front To Back
Wiping after a bowel movement seems like a trivial task. Yet, there is a healthy and safe way to go about it. Start from the front and move backward. In women, the openings of the anus and vagina are fairly close together. If you wipe from back to front, you increase the risk of bringing bacteria from the anus into the vagina. This move can trigger bacterial vaginosis, a vaginal infection characterized by a fishy smell, discharge, and itching. It is also marked by a burning sensation that amplifies when you urinate. So make it a point to start from the front and work toward the back. It may take some getting used to, but it’s the type of habit that will protect your vaginal health.1
2. Avoid Douching
Douching is the act of cleaning the vagina by spraying it with water or other fluids. Many believe that this practice will get rid of bad odor and menstrual residue. It’s much different than a simple rinse around the vagina, though. (The latter doesn’t do any harm, and can be a part of a regular shower or wash.) However, about 1 in 4 American women ages 15 to 44 years douche. Popular products include prepackaged douches containing vinegar, iodine, and baking soda. These douches are made to be inserted into the vagina using a nozzle or tube.2
Unfortunately, this can adversely impact the natural balance inside the vagina. From dryness to irritation, douching can cause problems that weren’t there in the first place.3 Douching doesn’t just flush out the good bacteria but can also help bad bacteria flourish, leading to conditions like a yeast infection and bacterial vaginosis. A healthy vagina needs certain levels of both bacteria, after all. And if you already have a bacterial infection? Douching can encourage the bacteria to move into the uterus, ovaries, and Fallopian tube. This can also cause an infection that can transform into pelvic inflammatory disease, a serious inflammation of the reproductive organs.4
Needless to say, douching should be avoided for prime vaginal health. The vagina naturally cleanses itself by emitting discharge and mucus. And while it may be tempting to speed it up, the vagina is perfectly capable of handling it on its own.
3. Ditch Feminine Hygiene Products
From deodorants and wipes to sprays and soaps, the market bombards us with an assortment of products made for feminine hygiene. In fact, products that claim to clean and treat the vaginal area constitute a $3 billion market in the United States.5
But do we really need them? Most soaps are basic in nature, while the natural vaginal pH tends to be acidic. When you wash the vagina with these soaps too often, the natural state is thrown for a loop. It gives harmful microbes a chance to grow, causing bacterial vaginosis and fungal infections. Fragrances in soaps, cleansers, and gels can also irritate the vagina.6
According to a report by Women’s Voices for the Earth, feminine hygiene products use ingredients that are suspected to be carcinogens, allergens, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.7 Make an effort to protect your vaginal health by avoiding these products. Stick to plain water and unscented soap to wash around the vagina every now and then. This will help keep skin irritation, itching, and any discomfort at bay.
While there’s a ton of debate on this topic, there’s no proof yet that vaginal washes can actually maintain an acidic pH. Yet, many products claim to do so. The vagina can maintain a healthy pH by itself. And if it is unable to do so, symptoms of itching and a foul-smelling discharge will manifest. At that point, a doctor’s intervention is the only thing needed.
4. Eat Probiotics
While a nutritious, balanced diet is important for reproductive health, probiotics have an exceptionally special role. The vaginal canal has a natural level of good bacteria that keep it healthy. Most notably, this includes the Lactobacillus bacteria. Research even speculates that inadequate amounts of this bacteria in the vagina can lead to a greater susceptibility to infections, from yeast infections to HIV type 1.8 So if you’re looking to optimize your vaginal health, eat foods that are rich in probiotic bacteria. Need ideas? Yogurt and fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, or miso are all tasty options.
5. Maintain Good Menstrual Hygiene
With the invention of high-absorbency pads, it’s easy to forget how important it is to change them regularly. Otherwise, bacterial overgrowth, rashes, and general discomfort may occur. To prevent these conditions from developing, experts recommend changing pads every 6 to 8 hours.9
Change tampons 4 to 5 times a day.
Tampons aren’t much different. Leaving them in for longer than 8 hours has been known to increase the chances of a potentially fatal condition called toxic shock syndrome. Your best bet is to change them at least 4 to 5 times a day.10 The Women’s Voices for the Earth report also points out that the dioxins, pesticidal residues, and fragrance chemicals in tampons and sanitary pads may pose a risk to reproductive and endocrine health, aside from causing allergies and infections.11 Looking for an alternative? Consider a reusable menstrual cup instead of these conventional products.12
6. Practice Safe Sex
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with protecting your sexual health when you’re with a new partner (or multiple partners). Use physical barriers such as condoms and diaphragms to protect yourself from contracting a sexually transmitted disease.13
Another safe sex practice is urination after sexual intercourse. This simple habit can help get rid of bacteria in the urethra and bladder. You can also wash around the vagina after sex to prevent unwanted bacteria and foreign bodies from entering the vaginal canal after sex. But remember, these actions won’t prevent sexually transmitted infection. A physical barrier is still your best option.14
7. Perform Kegel Exercises
The vaginal canal is made up of muscles just like the arms and legs. Pelvic floor exercises that involve contracting and relaxing muscles in the hip region can be very helpful in keeping the vagina strong and flexible. This is especially ideal post-pregnancy when the vagina loses some of its elasticity. By doing these exercises often, it can be restored to its previous physical state.15
8. Give Yoga A Shot
Performing yoga regularly can also help your vaginal muscles. The ashwini mudra (horse pose) can increase blood flow to the pelvic region, tone the vaginal muscles, and keep the vaginal tissue healthy.16Specifically, this move entails contracting and releasing muscles in the pelvic region.
Different asanas such as frog pose (mandukasana), fish pose (matsyasana), and wind-relieving pose (pawanmuktasana) can also be very beneficial for urological problems. These issues may include tense pain of the vulva or prolapse in the vaginal area. Yoga can alleviate the symptoms associated with these conditions.17 As always, a professional yoga teacher is the best person to guide you.
9. Visit A Gynecologist For Preventive Care
Whether you have a mild itch or a suspicion of something serious, a doctor is a good person to turn to. If you have a persistent itch for more than a week or if it turns into inflammation with a smelly discharge, see a doctor immediately. And if there’s a new vaginal hygiene practice that catches your attention, a doctor is the best person to assess if it is right for you.
All women over the age of 25 are advised to get their cervix screened for abnormal changes. Regular screening will help detect and remove abnormal cervical cells that could become cancerous.18
|↑1||Vulvovaginitis – overview. US National Library Of Medicine.|
|↑2||Key Statistics from the National Survey of Family Growth – D Listing. CDC.|
|↑3||Zhang, Jun, A. George Thomas, and Etel Leybovich. “Vaginal douching and adverse health effects: a meta-analysis.” American Journal of Public Health 87, no. 7 (1997): 1207-1211.|
|↑4||Douching fact sheet. Office on Women’s Health.|
|↑5, ↑7, ↑11||Scranton, A. “Chem Fatale: Potential Health Effects of Toxic Chemicals in Feminine Care Products.” Missoula, MT: Women’s Voices for the Earth (2013).|
|↑6, ↑9||Keeping your vagina clean and healthy. NHS Choices.|
|↑8||Martin, Harold L., Barbra A. Richardson, Patrick M. Nyange, Ludo Lavreys, Sharon L. Hillier, Bhavna Chohan, Kishorchandra Mandaliya, Jackoniah O. Ndinya-Achola, Job Bwayo, and Joan Kreiss. “Vaginal lactobacilli, microbial flora, and risk of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 and sexually transmitted disease acquisition.” Journal of Infectious Diseases 180, no. 6 (1999): 1863-1868.|
|↑10||Personal hygiene. Better Health Channel, Victoria State Government.|
|↑12||Zoller, Henry. “Cup-shaped device for the collection of menstrual fluids and intended for internal use.” U.S. Patent 3,845,766, issued November 5, 1974.|
|↑13||Holmes, King K., Ruth Levine, and Marcia Weaver. “Effectiveness of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted infections.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 82, no. 6 (2004): 454-461.|
|↑14||Personal hygiene. Better Health Channel, Victoria State Government.|
|↑15||Kegel, Arnold H. “Progressive resistance exercise in the functional restoration of the perineal muscles.” American journal of obstetrics and gynecology 56, no. 2 (1948): 238-248.|
|↑16||Sander, Ellen. “Menopause The Yoga Way”. Yoga Journal. Jan-Feb 1996.|
|↑17||Ripoll, Emmey, and Dawn Mahowald. “Hatha Yoga therapy management of urologic disorders.” World journal of urology 20, no. 5 (2002): 306-309.|
|↑18||Cervical Screening. NHS.|