A healthy microbiome plays an important role when it comes to reproductive health for women and their offspring. Most folks have heard about the gastrointestinal microbiome (gut bacteria) and how important gut health is to overall well-being. However, the lesser mentioned vaginal microbiome is equally as important. The ecosystem between the GI microbiota and the vaginal microbiota typically mirror each other. The exact combination of ideal gut & vaginal bacteria is unknown and will differ with age and ethnicity. It is generally accepted that Lactobacillus is an important dominant bacterial strain; it generates lactic acid, which lowers PH, making it difficult for pathogenic bacteria to multiply.
An imbalance of healthy to unhealthy bacteria is called dysbiosis, and it increases the risk of inflammation, which is the root cause of many chronic conditions. For example, an unfavorable vaginal microbiome increases the risk of HIV transmission, herpes infection, human papillomavirus (HPV), and other sexually transmitted infections. Other opportunistic infections such as yeast and urinary tract infections are more prevalent as well. Colonization with healthy bacteria such as lactobacilli helps keep the “bad” bacteria or candida (yeast) at bay.
Poor vaginal health impairs fertility, predisposes one to vaginal infections, increases the risk of Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID), and preterm birth. During the reproductive years 20-50% of women will experience Bacterial Vaginosis (BV), a common vaginal infection. It has been associated with impaired fertility and is considered a risk factor for preterm birth. Another condition linked with vaginal dysbiosis is endometriosis, however, the exact mechanism as to why is not well understood. Endometriosis can significantly impact reproductive health and fertility as well.
What Factors Disrupt Vaginal-Gut Bacteria?
- Antibiotics use
- Processed foods
- Hormonal Birth Control
- Your sexual partner’s microbiome
- Synthetic lubricants
- Conventional tampons
- Copper IUD
- Fragranced products for “down there” care
What Can Be Done to Improve Vaginal Health?
- Consume colorful fruits and vegetables daily
- Supplement with Probiotics
- Eat probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut, kefir, yogurts, and kombucha
- Limit sugar consumption
- Opt for organic tampons, pads, a menstrual cup, or disk
- Avoid douching
- Opt for “vagina friendly” lubricants & condoms
- Use condoms with new partners
Impact of Vaginal Birth vs. Cesarean Birth on the Microbiome
Do you realize the mode of your delivery whether it was vaginal or via cesarean impacts your future health? A vaginal delivery helps colonize the infant with the maternal vaginal flora. The alternative is colonization with whatever bacteria is on the hospital equipment/environment. Infants born via cesarean section are much more likely to be colonized with Clostridium Difficile or C-diff, which is considered a pathogenic type of bacteria. Interestingly enough infants born via cesarean after their mother initiated labor have a microbiota that is more similar to a vaginally born infant than a cesarean born infant.
What is Vaginal Seeding?
Vaginal Seeding is the practice of wiping the cesarean-born infant shortly after birth with his/her mother’s vaginal fluids. The idea behind this practice is to attempt to colonize the infant with the maternal microbiome to help reduce the risk of allergies, asthma, and other immune-triggered diseases. ACOG currently doesn’t recommend the procedure outside of an appropriate clinical trial due to the potential concerns of transfer of pathogenic bacteria or viruses, and limited data on the procedure’s benefit.
Breast vs. Infant Formula: Does it impact the microbiome?
The short answer is yes; the infant’s microbiome is going to vary according to how they are fed. An infant who is exclusively breastfed is going to have the dominant species Bifidobacterium according to research. This species naturally lowers the vaginal-gut PH preventing the overgrowth of disease-causing bacteria. An infant who received both breastmilk and formula will have a lower number of Bifidobacterium in their gut compared to the exclusively breastfed infant. The infant who receives only formula will be colonized with an entirely different bacteria profile than the breastmilk-fed infant.
There are certain factors that we have no control over such as how we were born. Other factors we have limited control over is how our babies are born or whether we need to supplement with formula or not. In those situations we can only make the best-informed decision for our individual situation, and accept we live in an imperfect world. Our goal at Mama Coach is to provide you with evidence based information so that you can make informed decisions. Whether you deliver via c/section or vaginally, exclusively breast or formula feed, none of those scenarios guarantees perfect health or dooms you or your child to chronic illness. We are all humans with amazing and incredibly adaptable bodies.
Connect with your local Mama Coach to learn more about evidenced-based childbirth practices.