Have you heard about using vaginal probiotics for UTI prevention? Let’s explore why would you want to put probiotic products in your vagina and what to expect.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are the tiny critters that live within us; in fact, we are made up of more bacterial cells than human ones. Probiotics are bacteria that “improve our health when taken in the right dose.” (Reid, 2004). For a quick review, look at what you need to know about probiotics.
Surprisingly, our vaginas are full of lactobacilli, a group of bacteria that keep the vagina acidic and make peroxide (Reid, 2004), the same stuff you use to disinfect skin wounds.
Unfortunately, we are not always protected. For example, over our monthly cycles, only 22% of women (Schwebke, 2001) maintain a high number of lactobacilli and this drops even further after menopause (Reid, 2004). This is exactly why you might want to start using vaginal probiotics for UTI prevention and to keep your vagina healthy.
In the past probiotic research focused on the gut. New research shows that probiotics prevent and treat vaginal infections and UTIs (Grin, 2013). Many people take a daily probiotic because the Standard American Diet (SAD) does not have any probiotics or prebiotics, the food that probiotics live on (Reid, 2004).
Of course, we can get some of these healthy bacteria from our food. Certain dairy and poultry naturally contain L. rhamnosus GR-1, a probiotic important in vaginal health (Reid, 1987). Furthermore, women who eat “fermented milk,” such as yogurt, sour milk, and cheese as well as berries three or more times a week are less likely to get UTIs. (Kontiokari, 2003).
Probiotics Are Very Important. Duh!
Bad bacteria must overcome many obstacles to get to our vaginas or bladders and wreak their havoc.
Pathogenic bacteria start life in our gut and move to the vagina and periurethral area by attaching to these organs’ walls. However, probiotics block this process by creating large biofilms, or sheets of good bacteria that form a barrier on the vaginal and bladder walls.
Lactobacilli make the vagina acidic and unwelcoming to infection-causing bacteria and make hydrogen peroxide, which kills bad bacteria.
Moreover, they also wake up the immune system, which brings in reinforcements to combat the bad bacteria and produce mucus, another barrier preventing bad bacteria from grabbing onto the vaginal walls. (Reid, 2004; Marelli, 2004). It is like an action movie in our vaginas!
Which Probiotics For Vaginal Health
With all their benefits, who wouldn’t want to try probiotics? Be cautious: there are many brands on the market and you must learn which ones are effective. L. rhamnosus GR-1, L. fermentum B-54 & RC-14 and L. reuteri (Reid, 2001) are the most studied lactobacilli for a healthy vaginal flora. Other useful ones are L. planatarium 57-B and L. gasseri 57-C (Tomusiak, 2015).
Remember to keep an eye on what you eat. Prebiotics make or break your healthy vagina aspirations. For example, yeast infections (whether in the vagina or elsewhere) thrive on sugar. This means staying away from excess sugar so that probiotics have the best chance of working.
Unfortunately, there are many probiotics on the market, with no governing body (like the FDA) ensuring quality. Don’t take the company’s word that their product does what they say, as the quality and quantity of individual probiotics may not live up to their claims. (Tomsuiak, 2015)
Once you decide to use probiotics, you will choose between two options:
- Taking them by mouth,
- Or placing them directly into the vagina. But make sure the capsules are not gelatin since it won’t dissolve.
Good news, both methods are OK and beneficial.
It is important that you start with the right probiotics in the correct container so they can safely get to the vagina (if taken by mouth) or survive in the vagina (both oral and vaginal).
Vaginal Probiotics For UTI Prevention
The obvious, if more “squeamish” option is to put the probiotics directly where they are needed- in the vagina and vulva.
This is nothing new- women have been using yogurt in their nether regions for decades to treat infections. This is still a natural way to bump up your lactobacilli population and many alternative health practitioners recommend this.
If you go this route, stick to plain live active culture yogurt free of added sugars and flavoring. Generally, vaginal probiotics are used sporadically or for a short period to prevent or treat an infection.
More mainstream medical research is coming from investigating this topic. One study showed that weekly suppositories of L. rhamnosus GR-1 and B-54 decreased recurring UTIs from six per year to only 1.6 on average.
Prebiotics worked just as well; they decreased the number of 1 UTIs to only 1.3 per year. This means that if feeding our bacterial guests well allows them to grow and thrive. (Reid, 1995). Other studies showed that vaginal suppository containing lactobacilli repopulated women’s vaginas for several months after use. (Tomusiak, 2015; Bruce, 1988).
Importantly, these studies show that not only do probiotics effectively treat UTIs and vaginal infections, they have few, if any, side effects. (Reid, 1995). When women complained, these were no worse than the complaints of women using placebos. (Tomusiak, 2015) This means that probiotics are pretty safe!
This is a marked improvement compared to side effects of antibiotics. In fact, suppositories help to revive your good bacteria after antibiotics destroy them. Generally, you can take vaginal suppositories for 3-7 days. (Reid, 2004; Tomsuiak, 2015) Of course, if you have a serious infection (or if you have fevers or body aches) or are unsure if it is a UTI, you should touch base with your doctor first.
Best Vaginal Probiotics for UTI Prevention
So, what vaginal probiotic should you get? Great question! Unfortunately, if you live in the US, this may be a tall order. Here are two options:
- Purfem probiotic: This contains one billion colony forming units (CFU) each of L. rhamnosus and L. gasseri. It helps to prevent and treat vaginal infection as well as build up the vaginal flora after using antibiotics.
- Invag: It contains more than a billion CFU of L. fermentum 57A, L. planatarum 57B and L. gasseri 57C in gelatin capsule. What’s great about this product is that it is resistant to spermicides and easily survives the digestive system (you can take it by mouth too!). Invag is available in Europe (it is from Poland) but in the US, you can only get it through through third party sellers and is quite expensive.
Here is a little trick; you can put most oral probiotics directly into the vagina. Yes, you read this correctly! If you go this route, make sure the probiotics are in powdered form in a capsule (either vegetarian or gelatin).
Insert about 2-3 inches inside the vagina after washing your hands or use a vaginal applicator. There may be some drainage, so it is best to insert the capsule at bedtime and wear a panty-liner. Studies show that if you use powdered lactobacilli in a capsule, the health-bringing critters are rehydrated in the vagina and get to work! (Reid, 2004).
Best Oral Probiotics For Vaginal Health
This is the most common option. Oral probiotics and their packaging must survive the very acidic environment of your stomach to make it safely to your vagina. You need at least one billion CFU of probiotics once or twice weekly (Reid, 2004), although many people take them daily. Commonly, you refrigerate probiotics and take them with food.
Also, oral probiotics help heal your gut flora, which vaginal capsules cannot do. Women taking L. rhamnosus GR-1 and L. fermentum RC-14 daily have less yeast and infection-causing bacteria in their vaginas. (Reid, 2004) This benefit persists in women with current or recent infections (Reid 2004, Reid 2001). Importantly, these women still had lactobacilli in the vagina up to 3 months later, after just 14 days of daily use (Reid, 2001).
So, which probiotics should you try? Great question:
- FemEcology: This contains ten billion CFUs of L. acidophilus, L. planatarum, L. reuteri, L. rhamnosus and L. salivarius. This is a good choice for your gut health as well. Take once daily.
- Jarrow Formulas Fem-Dophilus: This contains five billion CFU of L. rhamnosus GR-1 and L. reuteri RC-14 and should be taken once daily. This uses a gelatin capsule.
- Pro-Flora Women’s Probiotic: This contains between one and five billion (some of the bacteria may die during transport) CFU of L. rhamnosus GR-1 and L. reuteri RC-14 and should be taken once daily. It can be taken with or without food. This uses a vegetarian capsule.
All three of these “oral probiotics” can be used in the vagina!
Remember, probiotics are not a panacea; you must eat your prebiotics and choose wisely. Still, there is a lot of evidence that the right probiotics are a valuable tool in keeping the vagina healthy and preventing infections. You can take back your health!
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- Grin PM, Kowalewska PM, Alhazzan W et. al. Lactobacillus for preventing recurrent urinary tract infections in women: meta-analysis. Can J Urol. 2013 Feb;20(1):6607-14.
- Kontiokari T, Laitinen J, Jarvi L et. al. Dietary factors protecting women from urinary tract infections. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Mar;77(3):600-4.
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- Tomusiak A, Strus M, Heczko P et. al. Efficacy and safety of a vaginal medicinal product containing three strains of probiotic bacteria: a multicenter, randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled trial. Drug Des Devel Ther. 2015; 9: 5345-54.