Weed Wanderings herbal eZine with Susun Weed

April 2004

Childbearing & Mothering
Vaginal Ecology
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 or infection.

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
Womancare Practitioner
Teacher Of Womancraft & Wholistic Sexuality
Women’s Health Care Provider, Educator, Midwife, Massage Therapist

Sheri 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.




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Susun Weed is one of America's best-known authorities on herbal medicine and natural approaches to women's health. Her four best-selling books--recommended by expert herbalists and well-known physicians--are used and cherished by millions of women globally. Topics include childbearing, breast health, menopause, wellbeing, and more.

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