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Can stress affect your vagina?

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Reviewed byHeeral Patel

Lady with blue hair walking down street. Happy expression
Could your vaginal health be linked to your stress levels? Find our how they might be linked, as well as how to nurture good bacteria.
Just like getting a good night’s sleep, looking after your gut, or protecting your skin from the sun, taking care of your vagina is important too. But what is vaginal health and how can it impact our overall wellbeing?

In short, it’s all about taking care of your genitals in a way that nurtures and encourages a balance of healthy bacteria and its environment. The mix of microbes, genes and environment are known as a microbiome.1 We’ve all heard of ‘good bacteria’ to support other areas of the body – and intimate areas are no different. The species of bacteria most commonly found in a healthy vulva’s microenvironment is Lactobacillus – a crucial part to the vagina’s defence system.2

However, there are so many other factors that contribute to your vaginal balance, and like a fingerprint, everyone has a unique microbiome.3 Especially with so many hormonal, hereditary, and lifestyle influences, such as the menstrual cycle, contraceptives, pregnancy, diet, ethnicity, and stress.1

As individual as your eye colour, every vagina responds differently to these external factors, from particular period products irritating your labia (the folds that surround the opening of the vagina) to certain foods triggering an imbalance in your pH (naturally between 3.8 and 5). Stress might be just another of these factors to keep in mind when your vagina isn’t quite feeling its best.

Can stress affect your vaginal health?

When you’re feeling stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. Emerging evidence shows that in turn, increased cortisol levels may lead to a decrease in Lactobacillus.4 As an important bacterium for a happy vagina’s ecosystem, this can result in something known as ‘vaginal dysbiosis’, which is essentially the term for an imbalanced microbiome.5

As Lactobacillus helps to protect against germs, your vagina might be sensitive to infections such as bacterial vaginosis (BV), thrush, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Much of the research in this area has been done on animals, so more human studies are needed to explore the role of stress in affecting vaginal health. However, although we might not understand how this happens, many experts believe stress does impact vaginal health.

Stress can cause vaginal dryness too. In fact, 17% of women aged 18-50 experience it. Dryness is sometimes down to a psychological reaction, as your body can go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This mental distraction and increased blood pressure can hinder your arousal during intimacy. Certain soaps, washing powders, and even certain medications can also dry out the vagina’s natural moisture.6

How to support a healthy vagina

If you’re already doing something to clean your vulva – take a moment! You might not actually need to do anything. The vagina has a self-cleaning eco system which is often best left without fancy lotions and potions. In fact, methods like douching are known to cause vaginal dysbiosis, actually making you more likely to experience an infection.3

It’s normal to want to feel like you’ve freshened up in the shower, so if you do use intimate wash products, look out for fragrance free, pH-balancing formulas. But all you really need to do is use clean, warm water and your body will do the rest.

Antibiotics can also cause disruption in your vaginal health. If you’ve been prescribed them, you should absolutely take your doctor’s advice and finish the course. However, there’s evidence that regular antibiotic use can create an imbalance in your body’s ‘good bacteria’ reserves. Probiotics such as D-lactic acid, glycogen, and oligosaccharide may stimulate bacterial growth and help restore the balance.7
So, when you’ve finished your medication, taking prebiotic supplements or eating probiotic foods might be a good route to consider, although evidence for probiotics is still growing, some studies have shown promising results. Please speak to your doctor before taking probiotics, especially if you have a weakened immune system or pre-existing conditions.8

Handpicked content: Healthy vagina tips

How to reduce stress

Did you know nearly 75% of us admit to feeling overwhelmed by stress?9 And with stress affecting our cortisol levels, this possibly affects the vaginal microbiome balance.4 There are a few things that you can do to support your wellbeing and control your stress levels, which might also help with your vulva too:
  • taking deep breaths 
  • practicing mindfulness 
  • finding your favourite exercise 
  • using essential oils alongside aromatherapy breathing techniques 
  • healthy balanced diet10

How to soothe vaginal dryness

There are so many common reasons for vaginal dryness, such as menopause, breastfeeding or certain medications.11 What’s more, it’s totally normal.

If you notice dryness regularly, you might want to chat to your GP to help get to the root cause. If you’re just looking for occasional support with lubrication, there are water-based lubricants which can help.

The final say 

It’s important to look after your mental wellbeing just as much as your physical health, as research shows how so much of it is linked. By looking after yourself and getting support through stressful times, you might just be taking care of your vaginal health too.

This article is for information purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Please speak to your doctor if you are experiencing any issues with your vaginal health.

Sources

1. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Microbiome [Internet]. North Carolina. NIEHS. Available from: https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/science/microbiome
2. Valenti P, Rosa L, Capobianco D, Lepanto MS, Schiavi E, Cutone A, et al. Role of Lactobacilli and Lactoferrin in the Mucosal Cervicovaginal Defense. Frontiers in Immunology [Internet]. 2018 Mar 1;9(376). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5837981/
3. Holdcroft AM, Ireland DJ, Payne MS. The Vaginal Microbiome in Health and Disease—What Role Do Common Intimate Hygiene Practices Play? Microorganisms. 2023 Jan 23;11(2):298. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36838262
4. Amabebe E, Anumba DOC. Psychosocial Stress, Cortisol Levels, and Maintenance of Vaginal Health. Frontiers in Endocrinology [Internet]. 2018 Sep 24;9. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6165882/
5. Amabebe, Anumba. Figure 1, Front Endocrinol (Lausanne) [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2024 Apr 3]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6165882/figure/F1/
6. Women's Health Concern. Vaginal Dryness [Internet]. Currie Dr. H. Women’s Health Concern. 2023. Available from: https://www.womens-health-concern.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/25-WHC-FACTSHEET-VaginalDryness-OCT2023-B.pdf
7. Amabebe E, Anumba DOC. The Vaginal Microenvironment: The Physiologic Role of Lactobacilli. Frontiers in Medicine [Internet]. 2018 Jun 13;5(181). Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmed.2018.00181/full
8. NHS Choices. Probiotics [Internet]. NHS. 2019. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/probiotics/
9. Mental Health Foundation. Stress: statistics [Internet]. Mental Health Foundation. 2018. Available from: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/statistics/stress-statistics
10. NHS. 10 Stress Busters [Internet]. nhs.uk. NHS; 2021. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/self-help/guides-tools-and-activities/tips-to-reduce-stress/
11. NHS. Vaginal dryness [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2017. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaginal-dryness/
 

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