Childbearing & Mothering
by Sheri Winston
Author of Women's Anatomy of Arousal: Secret Maps to Buried Pleasure
Vaginal Ecology is the concept that the vagina
is a complex integrated environment. It involves the study
of that environment, with the goal of understanding that there
are inherent safeguards in place to try to maintain a state
of healthy balance. Also, that the vaginal environment is
susceptible to influences that can alter it's state of balance.
And that, through understanding this system, we can gain control
of our vaginas, keeping them working well by supporting the
natural systems. And when the natural balance is disturbed,
resulting in vaginal imbalance and infection, this information
gives us the power to remedy the situation.
When all the factors that influence the vagina
are in a state of balance, the vagina feels good, works well,
has a faint, pleasant odor and a small amount of discharge.
When factors are present that can influence the environs and
they cause a shift, a healthy vagina can compensate for the
temporary imbalance and restore a state of health. If the
vagina is unhealthy or out of balance to start, the health
promoting mechanisms will be overwhelmed, the balance can't
be remedied, and vaginal infections result. Some extremely
contagious infectious agents, such as those that cause sexually
transmitted infections will overwhelm even healthy defenses,
resulting in infection requiring professional care.
A normal vagina is hot, at core body temperature
or very slightly above. It is moistened by a normal discharge
that is partly from glands in the cervix, partly from the
cells lining the walls and partly from 2 sets of glands. This
fluid doesn't itch, burn or smell bad. It varies in color
from clear to white, depending on where you are in your cycle,
if you are a 'cycling' woman. When it dries it may appear
yellowish. Pre-pubertal girls and post-menopausal woman are
drier and less varying. In women who are having normal fertility
cycles the amount also varies depending on where in your cycle
you are, and ranges from scant to moderate. If there is profuse
discharge, that's usually abnormal and a sign of imbalance
pH is a complex concept but can be understood
simply. It is a scale with acid on one end and base or alkaline
at the other. Acidic is easy to understand, it is like lemons
or vinegar--its tart. Alkaline is a bit harder to grasp, but
think of it as bland. there is a spectrum in between the two
extremes, with the midpoint being neutral. Numbers are used
to describe where on the scale anything lies. The most acidic
is 1, the most alkaline extreme is at 14. A healthy vagina
is a bit acidic (a little tart, as it were). On the pH scale,
it is usually around 4.0, although the normal range is between
3.5 to 4.5.
Normal vaginal discharge contains a small amount
of natural sugars, but not much unless the woman is diabetic
or pregnant. A normal minimal level of sugar helps to discourage
yeast overgrowth, while an increased level promotes it.
Finally, one of the most important factors,
that is often overlooked by medical practitioners, is the
presence of healthy bacteria. These good bacteria, called
Lactobacillus acidophilis, have an important job to do. They
keep other microbes from taking over. The types of lactobacilli
that reside in the vagina produce hydrogen peroxide, which
produces oxygen, which kills certain non-friendly bacteria
and yeasts. The friendly flora hold a place in the vaginal
ecosystem, preventing invaders from taking over, much like
having a garden filled with healthy plants, prevents most
weeds from growing.
There are a variety of things that can act to
disrupt or shift the vaginal equilibrium.
Both blood and semen are alkaline and their
presence can provide an environment more likely to nurture
hostile bacteria or yeast. A healthy population of beneficial
bacteria can quickly restore the natural acidity.
The vaginal environment also shifts slightly
during the course of the normal female cycle. Just prior to
menses, the vagina is driest and most tender, with a slight
shift towards a less acidic level due to decreased populations
of the good bacteria and other hormonal influences. This is
frequently a time when women are most prone to vaginitis.
Also just after the period, when there is still some blood
present is another time when the environment is more at risk
of being shifted out of balance.
Douching upsets the vaginal environment in a
number of ways. It shifts the pH, it causes direct irritation
and inflammation of the vaginal mucosa (the delicate lining),
and it washes away the good bacteria. So do not douche. It
can also drive bad bacteria up into the uterus and increase
the risk of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID, infection of
the uterus and fallopian tubes). Women who douche, even infrequently
are much more prone to the common vaginal infection, Bacterial
Vaginosis (BV). All so-called 'feminine hygiene products'
(suppositories, sprays, cleansers, etc) are useless, potentially
disruptive, totally unnecessary and a waste of your money.
Also avoid any strong chemicals, such as deodorant soaps,
anti-bacterial soaps, strongly perfumed soaps or body washes
as they can all have negative effects on the beneficial flora
and lead to infections and irritation.
Certain forms of contraception can affect the
vaginal environment. Any product that contains Nonoxynol 9,
the chemical that is in all spermicides can be problematic.
One woman out of 3 or 4 will be sensitive to the chemical
and will have inflammation as a result of its use. This includes
condoms with spermicide as well as all spermicidal creams,
jellies and suppositories. Hormonal birth control methods
(birth control pills, the depo shot, Norplant implants, progesterone-containing
IUDs, the ‘Patch’, the ‘Ring’), all
work by tricking your body into thinking that its already
pregnant and therefore doesn't need to ovulate. So just like
in actual pregnancy, there may be slightly higher amounts
of natural sugars in your vaginal discharge and hormonal shifts
in the pH that may promote vaginal imbalance and infection.
For post-menopausal women, the vaginal walls
tend to become thinner, there is less vaginal lubrication
and the ph may also shift slightly, making them more prone
to imbalance. Also for those who chose to take hormone 'replacement'
therapy, they may also cause shifts such as mentioned above
for hormonal birth control.
Essentially, the genitalia is a self-regulating,
self-cleaning system and the less you disrupt the natural
balance, the better off you’ll be. When you understand
the concept that an imbalance exists before an infection is
fully manifest you have the power to shift the ecology back
into a healthy direction and prevent most problems.
Sheri Winston, CNM, BSN, RN, LMT
Teacher Of Womancraft & Wholistic Sexuality
Women’s Health Care Provider, Educator, Midwife, Massage
Winston is a Teacher of WomanCraft & Wholistic Sexuality,
a retired Midwife, a Womancare Practitioner, Blood Witch and
Pelvic Priestess. She's also a Registered Nurse, Health and
Sexuality Educator, Women's Health Issues Counselor, Licensed
Massage Therapist, Writer and Artist. In over 20 years of
working with women's health, she's attended over 500 births
and provided clinical health care, counseling and education
for thousands of women. Sheri currently offers wholistic gynecological
health consultations and teaches classes and workshops on
women's health, female anatomy, wholistic sexuality and birth.