Vaginal Ecology – An Owner’s Guide to Care and Maintenance
by Sheri Winston
Here’s what you need to know about vaginal health — by understanding the ecology of your vagina you can learn to keep yourself healthy, and prevent most vaginal infections and problems. Your vagina is a self-regulating, self-cleaning, resilient yet delicate ecosystem and the less you disrupt the natural balance, the better off you’ll be. This is what every woman needs to know!
An Elegant System
The vagina isn’t just a nice place to own or visit, nor is it merely a passive space awaiting fulfillment; it’s a complex, integrated environment. Your vagina is a dynamic system with inherent safeguards in place to maintain a healthy equilibrium despite being susceptible to myriad influences that can alter its state of balance. After all, the vagina is exposed to fluctuating hormones, the consequences of our modern diet, our stress-filled lives and numerous artificial products that nature never intended our delicate tissues to withstand. And, of course, Mother Nature did intend our vaginas to have visitors whose presence and leavings can stimulate and impact our vaginal ecosystem. The vagina is well designed to handle many of these influences but sometimes succumbs leading to imbalance, infection and general grumpiness all around when she’s out of commission.
Vaginal ecology is the study of the environment and its interactions. By understanding the ecology, you can better handle your vagina, and keep her happy and healthy by supporting the natural systems. When, despite your best efforts, the normal balance is disturbed and you get a vaginal infection (vaginitis), knowing how your ecosystem works can give you the power to remedy the situation and restore your environment.
Nice and Normal
A normal vagina is constantly kept moist by its slick, slippery and savory natural discharge. The smell and taste of a healthy vagina is mild, earthy and slightly pungent with a pleasant, musky aroma. It certainly doesn’t smell like fish or have a strong foul odor. A healthy vagina does not smell or taste bad! In fact, it’s full of sexy scent plus fabulous pheromones, the chemicals of attraction that we don’t consciously smell. Your vaginal juice is a naturally compelling, perfumed invitation.
Vaginal fluid mostly comes from the cells lining the walls, which act similar to sweat glands, producing moisture from the inner mucus membrane surfaces. The rest of the juice is made up of small contribution from several types of glands, located in the cervix and near the vaginal opening. Normal vaginal fluid varies in color from clear to white, although when it dries it may appear yellowish.
The amount differs from one woman to another as well as for the same woman at different times, and ranges from scant to moderate. Some women are naturally wetter or drier then others, just as some people have oily skin or dry hair or sweat more or less profusely.
What’s most important for you is to know what’s typical for you in amount, color, texture and odor. The vaginal fluid reflects where you are in your cycle, your age, your sexual arousal, hormonal contraceptive use, even your diet and fluid intake.
For women who are having normal fertility cycles the shifting pattern should be similar each month. In general, most women are juiciest during the week leading up to and including the day of ovulation. Most women are driest the week before their period. Girls prior to puberty, breast-feeding moms and post-menopausal woman are drier and less varying.
The Vaginal Garden
A healthy vagina is full of friendly bacteria, mainly a particular strain of Lactobacillus acidophilus. These good bacteria protect the vagina and keep it healthy in multiple ways. Their job is to control the population of unfriendly microbes such as yeast and ‘bad’ bacteria. They do so first by filling up the space, like a garden which is profusely filled with flowers, leaving no space for weeds. Next, the acidophilus maintain the proper vaginal environment by producing two important chemicals: lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide, a liquid form of oxygen. The lactic acid maintains an acid-alkaline balance (known as pH) in the vagina that’s acidic. Your helpful bacteria also produce hydrogen peroxide to create an aerobic (oxygenated) environment that discourages bad microbes. The beneficial bacteria are the essential hard-working engineers of the ecology of your vagina. When something causes a shift away from the ideal, they get working to bring your ecology back into line.
Flux and Flow
There are a variety of things that can shift the vaginal equilibrium and swing the system out of equilibrium. To begin with there are the regular changes of the fertility cycle. The vaginal environment normally fluctuates slightly throughout the month for women during theri fertile years. Just prior to menses, there’s a normal ebb in the population of good bacteria due to hormonal influences which causes the vagina to be less acidic. This pre-menstrual week is frequently a time when the vagina is driest, most tender and more prone to irritation and infection. During your period is another time when the environment is at risk of swinging out of balance. Blood is alkaline, (the opposite of acidic) and its presence can encourage imbalance. Semen is another alkaline influence that impacts the ecosystem. Ideally, you have a strong population of good bacteria, so your body can easily accommodate these factors and shift back to an acidic state quickly.
For post-menopausal women, the vaginal environment is most like that of the cycling woman’s pre-menstrual week. In other words, it’s somewhat dry, fragile, less acidic and has lower levels of good bacteria. It pretty much stays the same all the time although internal and external environmental factors play a role. For example, frequent arousal helps to promote blood flow and keep it more moist. Avoiding vaginal environment stressors is especially important.
If your beneficial bacteria die off then your ecosystem becomes fragile and susceptible to a take-over by unfriendly bacteria or yeast. There are many influences that can induce a decline in the population of good microbes. Sometimes imbalance just seems to happen for no reason, but factors such as high stress, poor diet, misguided ‘hygiene’ practices or other factors affecting the vaginal environment are usually at work. And when you kill off all the flowers in your garden, you can be sure that the weeds will take over.
One of the most common causes of a die-off of your normal flora is taking antibiotics, which can kill off your ‘good guys’ as they do their job of killing off the bad ones that were causing infection elsewhere. Anytime you take antibiotics, you are at risk for yeast overgrowth, which can result in vaginal candida (a yeast infection) and gastro-intestinal problems such as indigestion and diarrhea. This is one of the many reasons to be careful about taking antibiotics and to use them only when you really need them.
Sweets for My Sweet
Normal vaginal discharge also contains a very small amount of natural sugars. The usual minimal level of sugar helps to discourage yeast overgrowth, while an increased level promotes it. The sugar level in the vaginal fluid is increased in diabetics and in pregnancy. Some women are sensitive to a high sugar diet and may find they need to be careful about their intake.
Keeping It Cool
Although the vagina is usually pretty steamy, at or slightly above normal body temperature (which is fairly toasty at almost 100°), its best if it doesn’t get much hotter then that. Anything that creates and holds in heat can contribute to an overgrowth of yeast and lead to a vaginal infection. A wet bathing suit on a hot day, pantyhose, lycra or spandex work-out clothes, synthetic panties or leggings, plastic-backed panti-liners, even tight jeans can all create an overheated crevice, at risk of disruption. Wear cotton panties, natural fiber leggings or tights, cotton menstrual pads, and nothing at all at night (or when you can get away with it!) Keep your crotch cool and you’ll be glad you did.
Certain forms of contraception can affect the vaginal system, directly or indirectly. Any product that contains Nonoxynol 9, the chemical that’s in all spermicides can be problematic. Many women are highly sensitive to this chemical and will have inflammation as a result of its use. This includes condoms with spermicide, the jelly used with diaphragms and all other types of spermicidal creams and suppositories. It’s best to avoid this irritating sperm-killing chemical in all forms.
Hormonal birth control methods (birth control pills, the depo shot, implants, progesterone-containing IUDs, the ‘Patch’, the ‘Ring’), all work by tricking your body into thinking that its already pregnant and therefore doesn’t need to ovulate. So just like in actual pregnancy, there may be slightly higher amounts of natural sugars in your vaginal discharge, hormonal shifts and changes in the pH that may promote vaginal imbalance and infection.
Feminine Hygiene Crap
Exposure to synthetic chemicals and cleansing products can also shift the balance and cause a reduction in the supportive bacteria. Vaginal infections are commonly associated with what can be called “excessive American hygiene”, which includes the use of douche, vaginal deodorants, sprays, wipes, washes, powders, anti-bacterial soaps, deodorant soaps, body washes, bubble baths, and all of those so-called feminine hygiene products. These products are a main culprit in vaginal infections! Avoid them all. You do not need them! Don’t fall for the mass-marketing lies that tell you that you need to be “fresh” by using their chemical concoctions. You are fresh and delicious without that synthetic junk.
While a healthy vagina produces it’s own luscious lubrication, the amount varies from woman to woman, and for any individual, from time to time. Arousal certainly increases the amount to some extent, which may or may not be enough. In general, I’m a big fan of using extra lubrication for sex play. Slather it on! And, be aware that there are a wide variety of products, some wonderful and some not so great for your vaginal garden.
My favorite natural lubricant is organic coconut oil. It smells and tastes great, absorbs easily into skin and mucus membranes and is naturally antimicrobial against the ‘bad guys’ while promoting the health of the friendly forces. The only significant caveat is that is not compatible with latex. If you use latex barriers, do no use coconut oil!
If you don’t choose to use coconut oil, there are a wide variety of natural, organic water-soluble lubes for those of you using latex for protection. Keep an eye out for products containing glycerin though – for some women it seems to encourage yeast infections. Silicon lubes, while not natural, do seem to work well without disturbing the vaginal ecology.
Keeping It Clean
Your healthy vagina doesn’t smell bad and doesn’t need artificial hygiene products to irritate it and kill off your normal flora. Clean with clear, clean water. That’s all you need. You can use your fingers to help rinse the crevices. A hand-held shower is excellent for crotch cleaning (and is also useful for self-pleasuring). A mild soap can be used on the outer areas such as the outside of the external lips but should be avoided on the internal lips and around the vaginal opening. There is never, ever a need to clean inside the vaginal canal at all. You have a self-cleaning vagina!
Signs of Problem
By knowing what’s normal, you can often catch a problem early before it becomes a full-blown infection. Imbalance exists before an infection is fully manifest. By understanding the early signs and symptoms of a shift then you have the power to swing the ecology back into a healthy direction and prevent most problems. If there is increased or profuse discharge, if it smells wrong, tastes bad, or looks odd, that’s abnormal and usually a sign of imbalance or infection. Be alert for any changes including a funny color, if it’s thicker or thinner then usual, clumpy or milky. Your vaginal juice should never itch or burn and swelling and irritation are also warning signs of a problem. So, be sure to check your own vaginal fluid regularly, so you’ll recognize any changes early.
Happy Healthy Haven
Now that you understand the basics of your vaginal ecology, you have the means to make good decisions to protect and care for your delicate environment. You can support your healthy system and avoid the things that might disrupt your natural defenses. By knowing what’s normal for you, and paying close attention, you can detect early signs of a problem and often fix it before it becomes a full-blown infection. When signs of imbalance occur, you can take action to correct the system yourself or get help from your health care provider, before things get really bad.
Essentially, your genitalia are a self-regulating, self-cleaning ecosystem and the less you disrupt the natural balance, the better off you’ll be. Don’t mess with a good thing. Appreciate your elegant system with its natural resilience and ability to maintain itself. Respect and support your vaginal ecology and you’ll have a happy healthy haven that feels good so you, your vagina and your friends can have lots of luscious fun!
All Rights Reserved. Copyright Sheri Winston. Updated 5/22/08