Why You Should Care About Your Vaginal Flora

Photo: Stocksy/Amy Covington

Biohacking has inspired a head-to-toe body-awareness revolution—one where your relationship with your physiology feels less like a clinical transaction and more like an ongoing dialogue. Perhaps you're already celebrating this trend by optimizing your coffee order or boosting your brainpower with nootropics. But according to Jessica Richman, PhD, co-founder and CEO of uBiome, you should also be checking in on things below the belt. (Yep, she's talking about your vagina.)

Now entering the cadre of women's-health-focused biohacking tools is uBiome's SmartJane, "the world’s first sequencing-based clinical microbiome screening test for vaginal flora, HPV, and STIs," according to Dr. Richman. In layman's terms? Your reproductive tract has a microbiome just like your gut does. And while other at-home STI tests exist, SmartJane is the first to decode the DNA of the unhealthy and healthy bacteria in your vaginal microbiome—so in addition to learning whether you have chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, or HPV (and, more specifically, which strain), you also get a snapshot of your vaginal flora's status.

"So often we worry, 'Oh no, what's wrong down there?'" says Sarah Gupta, MD, a psychiatrist who studies the mental and physical effects of the microbiome. "But the exciting thing about this test is that it includes info about what's right." And that's super empowering.

You can think of lactobacillus as your vaginal bodyguard.

So, what exactly is this good bacteria, this vaginal flora? (It sounds pretty!) "Vaginal flora are the bacteria that grow normally in the vagina. They're part of what prevents infection and part of what keeps the vagina healthy and at the right pH," says Dr. Richman. "Unlike the gut, where it's good if the microbiome is diverse, for the vaginal flora, you want them to be basically a monoculture—just lactobacillus bacteria."

You can think of lactobacillus as your vaginal bodyguard. "The higher level of lactobacillus, the better off you are," says Dr. Richman. "When women have other bacteria living there, it's a risk factor for bacterial vaginosis, vaginitis, and other conditions." Studies show that women with low lactobacillus are more likely to develop high-risk strains of HPV (the kinds that can cause cervical cancer).

Dr. Gupta adds that vaginal health doesn't just affect the individual, it has an intergenerational impact. "If you have a healthy vaginal microbiome and you give birth vaginally, you’re going to set your infant up for a healthy microbial life as well," she says.

So, what can you do if you learn that your lactobacillus could use a helping hand?

Dr. Gupta and Dr. Richman share 3 lifestyle changes you can make to promote a healthy vaginal microbiome.

woman in bathtub
Photo: StockSnap/ Karla Alexander

1. Don't over-wash

Douching has long been considered a pH-imbalancing no-no, but Dr. Richman and Dr. Gupta stress that over-washing in any form takes a toll on your vagina's health. "It’s a self-cleaning organ. It doesn't need perfume or anything else on it," says Dr. Richman. Just water and a very gentle soap will do.

Probiotic yogurt parfait
Photo: Pixabay

2. Incorporate probiotics into your diet

Just in case you needed one more excuse to stock up on kombucha and greek yogurt, Dr. Richman has got your back: "Eating yogurt and things that bring up lactobacillus good for the vaginal flora and gut flora—they’re just plain good for us. They're healthy bacterias that will evolve with us." You can also take probiotics orally or use suppositories to boost your lactobacillus count.

What is vaginal flora
Photo: StockSnap/Imani Clovis

3. Experiment to find what works for you

We made it back (full-circle!) to biohacking. Dr. Richman and Dr. Gupta explain that just like with biohacking in general, vaginal well-being is all about finding what works for you. "Being able to understand what’s happening in your body and track it over time is really valuable," says Dr. Richman, "A pelvic exam does a lot more than just a single test, but this is a good way to track things in the meantime for people who are prone to self-experimenting. Does it help if I change my underwear? Does it help if I eat more yogurt? Does it help if I only have sex at certain times?"

Both Dr. Richman and Dr. Gupta stress that SmartJane—and the knowledge that comes with it—doesn't replace your annual trip to the doctor or OB-GYN. Instead, it prepares you to represent your body in the best way possible when you do show up for these appointments. "In our current medical culture in the United States, you do have to be your own advocate and you do have to have a good partnership with your physician," says Dr. Gupta. "And the more you know about your own body, the more you can be engaged in a partnership that feels right to you—and the more you can feel empowered in really taking care of your health."

Speaking of healthy vaginas—here's what your discharge is telling you and (yikes!) even more reasons not to over-wash down there

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