Vaginal Balance & Ecosystem

The Vaginal Ecosystem – What It Is

Understanding the vaginal ecosystem as well as how it maintains vaginal balance empowers women to work with their bodies for their best health. The vagina is a canal from the outside world to a woman’s inner body, with a complex environment that is constantly changing over the course of a woman’s life. The vagina at times inhibits, and other times optimizes, sperm transport during different stages of a woman’s cycle. It allows sperm to swim inside the woman’s body to meet the egg, while at the same limiting access to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that can also be present with semen. It lets blood flow out during our periods. It undergoes chemical changes to help trigger labor and allow for delivery of a baby. And it helps keep bad bacteria and viruses from invading and establishing disease.

Each woman is protected during all this coming and going by a complex vaginal ecosystem consisting of her own vaginal cells and about 100 million good bacteria that line the vaginal canal.

These bacteria come from a woman’s mother during birth and become part of her vaginal ecosystem within 24 hours after she is born.

The good vaginal bacteria (e.g. lactobacillus and related species) produce lactic acid that acidifies the vaginal environment and keeps it at a routinely low pH less than 4.5. These good bacteria REQUIRE nutrients from a woman’s vaginal cells to survive. These vaginal cells are constantly being exfoliated or shed into the vaginal canal to release the compound glycogen which is broken down by the enzyme amylase (the same type of enzyme as in human saliva). The amylase breaks glycogen down into simple sugars the good bacteria can eat. In exchange for this “free lunch”, the bacteria make the lactic acid, which keeps the vaginal ecosystem at a healthy, balanced pH (~4 pH).

How the Vaginal Ecosystem Works (Simplified)

Using the illustration for your reference, here’s how the vaginal ecosystem keeps the tightly controlled acidic balance that maintains a healthy vaginal ecosystem:

  • A) Fresh vaginal lining cells (called mucosal cells) make ->
  • B) Antimicrobial proteins (small natural antibiotics).
  • C) Vaginal mucus fibers are secreted by the vaginal lining cells. This mucus lines the vaginal canal, giving the vagina its wet, slippery, appearance, and providing the mucus “armor” coating of the vagina.
  • D) Aging vaginal lining cells become flat and thin and are exfoliated (sloughed). These exfoliating vaginal cells produce ->
  • E) Glycogen, which is a carbohydrate used by the good bacteria to make lactic acid.
  • F) Lactobacillus, “good” bacteria, eat the glycogen made by the vaginal cells for energy, and in turn these bacteria produce ->
  • G) Lactic acid molecules in the vaginal canal which keeps the vagina at ~pH 4.
  • H) Bad bacteria, yeast, and viruses are stopped from infecting the woman by a combination of:
    • 1) being damaged by the low pH lactic acid environment produced by the good bacteria;
    • 2) being trapped in the mucus lining of the vaginal canal along with the exfoliating vaginal cells;
    • 3) being washed out of the vagina, trapped in the normal, healthy vaginal discharge.

Fresh vaginal cells, mature and turn over daily so it is critical for the mucus “armor” and the good bacteria to be constantly replenished. Normal vaginal discharge clears the vagina of mucus, exfoliated vaginal cells, and bad bacteria, yeast, and viruses.

Douching is bad for a woman’s ecosystem because it washes away too much. The high volume of fluid washes out not only odor but the mucus armor coating, exfoliating vaginal cells, glycogen for the good bacteria to eat, and the good bacteria themselves.

What Can Impact pH Balance?

Daily fluctuations in pH are natural and normal, and the vagina is designed to handle them. Many day-to-day activities increase vaginal pH in the short term. Blood from our periods, semen from intercourse, and cervical mucus during our fertile days each month, all coat the vagina in fluids with a neutral pH of 7. Heavy sweating from exercise or sitting can also impact pH in the vagina as can urinary incontinence and hormonal changes. When the pH increases at these times, more vaginal cells are triggered to grow and be exfoliated, more glycogen and amylase are produced, and more good bacteria create more lactic acid, which balances the vaginal ecosystem yet again.

Longer periods of disruption to vaginal balance can occur after pregnancy or during menopause when hormonal changes are pronounced. The vaginal ecosystem ultimately moves to a pH level of above 5.4 for post-menopausal women due to a decrease of glycogen and sugar to feed good bacteria.

When the vaginal balancing act gets a bit out of sync, unwanted feminine odors are often the first sign. If the vagina can’t rebalance back to a normal, acidic pH over time, infections or other vaginal problems can occur.

How is Fertility Affected by pH?

pH affects fertility

Too low or too high pH levels in our bodies are important and often overlooked factors when it comes to trying to conceive.The increased exposure to semen (~7 pH) during baby-making can tax the vagina’s self cleaning and balancing mechanisms. Immediately after the fertile window, the vaginal ecosystem pH becomes more neutral (~7 pH) during your period.

Prolonged exposure to a neutral pH (~7 pH) can eventually overwhelm the acidic environment of the vagina and may lead to odors, or even serious diseases (bacterial vaginosis, vaginitis, postpartum infections), increased STD/HIV rates, preterm labor (van de Wijgert et al., 2014), and perhaps even increased levels of preterm birth (Critchfield et al 2013). Women with disruptions in the vaginal ecosystem and pH have recently been reported to have decreased fertility and take longer to conceive. Delays in your journey to pregnancy become real when pH is out of kilter.

Are Over the Counter Products Safe for the Vaginal Ecosystem?

Our scientific understanding of the healthy vaginal physiology has only come to light over the last few years. Alarmingly, most leading vaginal products utilize formulas that have been around for a decade or more, before this ecosystem was well studied. And almost no products have been designed to support or optimize the complexity of the woman’s vaginal ecosystem or even to acknowledge the fundamental presence of this system.

Consumer products for sale in the Feminine Hygiene aisles of stores contain ingredients and/or formulas that have been identified as toxic to the cells in the vaginal ecosystem. Such ingredients are often overlooked because they are considered inactive carriers. These carriers include chemicals like parabens, glycerol, and propylene glycol, all of which have been shown to have increased toxicity profiles against cells in the vaginal ecosystem.

New, Patent-Pending IsoLove® BioGels

Products with safer compositions will help preserve and optimize the vaginal ecosystem and healthy female function. The New IsoLove BioGels are revolutionary for their focus on preserving the vaginal ecosystem. IsoLove Gels differ from other feminine products on the market because of the isotonic technology that matches the natural salt concentration of vaginal cells.

Fairhaven Health is committed to bringing the latest science forward in women’s health. IsoLove products are the first isotonic and paraben-free vaginal gels available. Each ingredient in the IsoLove Family of Gels has been carefully selected to create and maintain biocompatibility with the sensitive tissues of the perineal skin, vulva and vagina.

More Reading

The vaginal ecosystem impacts all women on a daily basis: young and old, sexually active or not, those who have children and those who do not. And yet our scientific understanding of how the vagina maintains healthy balance has lagged far beyond other fields of medicine. But in good news for all women and the men who love them, new science is helping us understand how supporting a healthy vaginal ecosystem is critical to many aspects of women’s health.

We recommend reading these full articles below for the newest medical science.  In the event you are pressed for time, these Cliff notes for each of the studies will help you better understand why supporting your own natural vaginal balance is so important!

Anderson DJ et al, 2014: “When in balance, the vagina is best at fighting off disease. The cells directly lining the vagina are older cells that are exfoliated (just like skin cells) with fresh cells appearing every 4 hours. This exfoliation of vaginal cells helps shed any bad bacteria that contact the vagina. As these cells shed, they release the glycogen that produces sugars to feed good bacteria in order to make lactic acid and maintain a healthy vaginal pH. These vaginal lining cells are also covered with a mucus layer, which is enriched with antimicrobial proteins. This mucus layer traps and kills bad bacteria and viruses. A healthy vaginal ecosystem can best fend off diseases three ways: 1) by exfoliation of the vaginal cells into the canal, 2) by providing glycogen to bolster good bacteria and create a low pH; and 3) by producing mucus and antibacterial agents that trap germs before they can penetrate deep into the vagina.” Dr. E Summary

Mirmonsef P et al, 2014 & Mirmonsef P et al, 2015: “The glycogen from vaginal cells (which is broken down into sugars to feed the good lactic acid producing bacteria) is up 30 times lower in women after menopause than in younger women. It is also lower in women who smoke and women who have chronic vaginal infections. Douching may also disrupt healthy glycogen production. This decrease in glycogen and sugars for good bacteria to eat results in lower numbers of good bacteria; a higher vaginal pH; and a dramatic increase in the rate of vaginal infections.” Dr. E Summary

Spear GT, 2015: “Optimal vaginal ecosystem balance and health depends on BOTH healthy vaginal cells and good bacteria being present. The vaginal cells produce glycogen and the amylase to break down the glycogen into sugars the bacteria eat. And the bacteria produce the vaginal lactic acid needed to restore balance during the day- to -day changes in vaginal pH. When the healthy vaginal ecosystem experiences a higher pH (such as after a period, after sex or during ovulation), the body increases vaginal cell turn over and the conversion of glycogen to sugars to encourage good bacteria growth, which in turn lowers vaginal pH. Once the pH becomes balanced at its healthy low level, growth of good bacteria slows to keep the vaginal ecosystem in balance.” Dr. E Summary

Spear GT, 2014: “For optimal balance, vaginal products need to not cause irritation or toxicity to the vaginal cells; as well being able to support good bacteria and a healthy pH. Many vaginal products such as powder, lubricants, gels or douches cause damage to vaginal cells as well as decreasing healthy vaginal bacteria numbers. As a result, data is now showing that the use of irritating vaginal products is associated with increased STD transmission rates, sexual cancer and infertility.” Dr. E Summary

Nasioudis D, 2015: “Increased vaginal amylase levels are associated with more rapid vaginal cell exfoliation, higher lactic acid levels and lower vaginal pH. Women with vaginal infection or imbalance have lower levels of vaginal amylase. Their vaginal ecosystem is less able to restore or maintain natural vaginal balance, at the time they need it most.” Dr. E Summary

Hickey RJ, 2012: “Menstruation causes a change in vaginal balance in 3 out of 4 women. Douching and the use of spermicides also change the vaginal ecosystem. A resilient vaginal ecosystem can recover from these changes and restore balance. Douching washes away the exfoliating vaginal cells, the antimicrobial mucus layer they produce and the good bacteria. Douching can lead to an increase in harmful bacteria that the vagina has trouble bringing back into natural balance.” Dr. E Summary