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Understanding the Vaginal Microbiome

Vaginal health is more than just sexual health. When a woman’s vaginal health suffers, her whole body is affected. Dryness, discharge, odor, inflammation, irritation, and pain in the vaginal area often prevent women from enjoying their lives, and not only sexually.  One of the most highly unreported kinds of pain is vaginal pain.  What’s worse is that for many women, this type of discomfort can go undiagnosed for years. And no different, from chronic gut pain, when vaginal pain is an everyday experience, it impacts everything from social activities, mental health, and relationships.  

Similar to gut health, the kind of bacteria that live in healthy vaginas are called lactobacilli. They make the vagina acidic, keep bad bacteria from growing, and are key to maintaining a healthy immune system. When conditions aren’t conducive to maintaining healthy lactobacilli and they die off, the entire vaginal environment changes. It loses its acidity, allows bad bacteria to grow, and the body’s immune system is activated, causing discomfort, discharge, and bad odor. The bacteria plus the vaginal environment together are called the vaginal microbiome, and the vaginal microbiome is foundational to vaginal health.

In addition to influencing daily symptoms, a healthy vaginal microbiome protects against sexually transmitted infections and helps prevent pregnancy complications. Whereas a poor vaginal microbiome can make you more susceptible to getting HIV/AIDS, herpes, genital warts, trichomonas, and chlamydia, and can cause pregnancy complications like preterm birth, low birthweight, and infections in a mother’s uterus or in a newborn baby.

Research on women’s health and specifically the vaginal microbiome has begun, but there are still more questions than answers when it comes to the most common conditions and illnesses that millions of women are diagnosed with every day.  There is so much more to be discovered. While we know that the vaginal microbiome changes significantly after menopause, we don’t understand how these changes impact the health of older women. And although we know there are clear associations between vaginal microbiome health and cancers of the ovaries, uterus, and cervix, we don’t understand yet whether a bad microbiome causes cancer, or whether cancer causes changes in the microbiome. For reproductive cancers we don’t understand how the relationship of organisms in the vaginal microbiome the cause or effect are.

The same holds true for conditions like endometriosis, lichen sclerosis, vulvodynia, and many other women’s health conditions that impact millions of women. It may even be that the vaginal microbiome affects every woman’s health condition…or even beyond. The gut and the immune system both are affected when the vaginal microbiome is upset. What’s going on in the vagina literally affects and reflects what is happening in the rest of the body.

Medically speaking, when women have a vaginal condition, there are generally three approaches to treatment – antibiotics, steroid creams or pills, and hormones. These have been the standard of care for over 50 years, even though millions of women have endless cycles of vaginal conditions, antibiotics, and recurrence of the same or new vaginal conditions.

Why aren’t there better treatments that help women get healthy and stay healthy? One reason is that until 1991, federal funding rules didn’t require researchers to include women in any clinical studies – so we are literally decades behind in understanding women’s health. Although women make up half of the population, only about 4% of research dollars are spent on women’s health. And even in that funding, a tiny amount is spent on vaginal conditions.

We are proud to have founded Vaginal Biome Science, our sister bio-tech company to contribute to a deeper understanding of women’s health, starting with her microbiome. All our product formulations are based in this science and is the why behind everything we do at Good Clean Love.