Vaginal thrush is one of the most common reasons women have abnormal discharge, irritation and itching of their intimate areas. In this blog I’m going to help you understand:
- What vaginal thrush is
- Why your vagina is amazing
- What the symptoms of vaginal thrush are
- What causes vaginal thrush
- Give you 8 simple tips on how to avoid vaginal thrush naturally
What is vaginal thrush?
Vaginal thrush, medically known as Vulvovaginal Candidiasis and more commonly as vaginal yeast infection or candida, affects 75% of women at least once in their life1, it’s the second most common cause of vaginal infections after bacterial vaginosis. Vaginal thrush is most often caused by an overgrowth of the fungus Candida albicans, a yeast species commonly found in the gut & vagina, although other candida strains can be problematic too.
It’s important to note that the Candida species is part of our normal vaginal microflora, it naturally lives there! But it’s an opportunist fungus and can grow quickly when there is an imbalance in the vaginal microorganisms and a shift in the environment that allows for candida growth. Cultivating a healthy vaginal microflora and robust immune system means thrush is less likely to become unbalanced.
The vagina is amazing
Most of us don’t realize how clever and multi-functional the vagina is. It has its own intricate strategies to keep overgrowth of candida species at bay. Healthy vaginal flora contains a rich network of friendly lactobacilli bacteria that help maintain an acidic pH by producing lactic acid which in turn helps to keep pathogenic organisms like candida from thriving.
When the vagina is healthy, the pH fluctuates between 3.6-4.5 (an acidic environment) with variation over the menstrual cycle phases being normal. The vagina produces healthy cyclical mucus that is typically white/clear/egg white colour and there is no itch or irritation, and it has a mild, musky smell which is not unpleasant.
Vaginal thrush symptoms
In vaginal thrush, discharge is typically curd white (often described as cottage cheese) and there is often itchiness of the skin around the vulva and in the vagina. The vulva can also be irritated, red and swollen and with thrush infection there can be a sweet/yeasty smell. Some women experience a burning sensation, especially during intercourse or while urinating. It’s important to remember that vulval itching, discomfort and discharge can be caused by other conditions and its always advisable to see your doctor if you are suffering, so they can safely and adequately diagnose your symptoms.Matcha tea benefits for hormonal health and PMS.
What causes vaginal thrush
The cause of vaginal thrush can be complex especially with recurrent thrush – If you get a vaginal yeast infection four or more times within one year it’s considered recurrent thrush. However, let’s look at a few of the factors that can contribute to yeast infections:
- Blood sugar imbalance/ Diabetes
- A weakened immune system
- Taking antibiotics
- Sperm & menstruation – due to the alkalinity of blood & sperm
- Hormonal changes and estrogen fluctuations during the luteal phase, menopause, pregnancy
- Damaged/irritated skin around the vulva (e.g. with pre-existing eczema or psoriasis)
- Lifestyle factors including tight synthetic clothing, douching, wiping direction, chronic stress, lack of sleep, poor diet
And it’s important to mention here that vaginal candida isn’t contagious as such but can be spread back and forth between partners, both male and female.
How we can avoid thrush naturally with 8 simple self-care tips for a healthy vaginal microflora
Always wipe front to back
It sounds simple yet wiping from back to front can introduce naturally occurring Candida yeast from the bowel into the vagina. Remembering to wipe front to back to help prevent this.
Wear natural fibre underwear
The vagina needs to breath and be comfortable; and tight, synthetic underwear made of polyester and nylon can create extra warmth and humidity, an environment that candida can thrive in. Cotton and bamboo fibres are better options as they are breathable and can absorb excess sweat, leaving you feeling fresh and dry for much longer. Try source 100% organic cotton underwear, grown without chemicals, as it’s even better for our vulvas and for the environment too!
Extra tips: Change out of wet swimsuits or sweaty gym gear as soon as possible and avoid hot baths during active infections.
Use a pH balanced vaginal wash rather than soap
Did you know that the vagina is self-cleansing? It’s important that we don’t wash inside the vagina (The vagina is the tube that connects your vulva with your cervix and uterus) as it may disrupt the bacterial balance and its ability to clean itself. But we can wash our vulva (the area on the outside of the body), using a gentle pH balanced wash that’s soap free and formulated to cleanse, freshen and soothe intimate areas.
Focus on nutrient dense wholefoods
Reducing sugar, refined carbohydrates and alcohol can be a great way to avoid thrush naturally. Our diet impacts microbial growth in the gut and the vagina, and we can cultivate a healthy ecosystem through what we choose to eat. Yeast thrives on sugar and a high sugar and refined carb diet helps Candida flourish where we don’t want it. Elevations in blood sugar levels, either by way of diet or because of an underlying issue like diabetes can leave you more susceptible to thrush infections. Including in your diet lots of colourful vegetables, healthy proteins like eggs, grass-fed meats, nuts & seeds and nourishing fats like avocado and coconut oil, will help balance blood sugars and nourish a balanced gut and vaginal microflora.
Horopito (Pseudowintera Colorata) is endemic to New Zealand’s majestic rainforests and this incredible plant has developed a unique ability for surviving in damp, dark conditions, which makes it a great herbal helper for balanced vaginal microflora.
The main bacteria in your vagina that keep everything healthy & balanced are the amazing lactobacilli. Including a daily source of fermented foods that are naturally rich in lactobacilli like kimchi, yoghurt and sauerkraut may help support optimal vaginal health & pH balance. Taking a good quality lactobacilli probiotic could also help to support “friendly bacteria” in the vagina.
Take extra care when on antibiotics
Studies show you’re more likely to suffer from Thrush when taking antibiotics, because they can disrupt the flora in the vagina that protect us from yeast infections. The bacteria, Lactobacillus, in particular can support a healthy vaginal ecosystem. You may want to consider taking a lactobacillus probiotic and herbal horopito after a course of antibiotics to help avoid thrush naturally.
Reduce stress and support the immune system
Long-term stress directly impacts our health, as cortisol, one of the hormones we produce when under stress, has the ability to supress the immune system and we need a healthy and robust immune system to help us avoid vaginal thrush. There are many ways we can reduce stress and it’s important to do things that you love! Some ideas you may like to try are deep breathing, gentle exercise like yoga, a peaceful nature walk or a daily mediation practice. Other simple ways we can support the immune system are by getting enough vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin), maintain a healthy balanced diet with plenty of fresh vegetables, healthy fats and proteins, hydrating with pure water and caffeine-free herbal teas, avoiding alcohol and making sure to get adequate sleep each night.
Chloe Chivers is a qualified Naturopath, specialising in reproductive health and hormones, immunity and gut health and is an in-house naturopath for vaginal care brand Kolorex.
The Lancet: Global burden of recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis: a systematic review. 2018