The healthy vagina contains an abundance of "good bacteria," or normal flora. The normal flora help prevent overgrowth by disease-causing organisms, including bacteria. Bacterial vaginosis, or BV, is a common condition in which the vaginal bacteria are out of balance. In BV, the normal flora are reduced and other bacteria increase dramatically leading to symptoms of vaginal discharge, irritation, or odor. BV is a common reason to visit a gynecologist, and is often treated with antibiotics. However, many women prefer alternative or natural remedies such as probiotics, botanical treatments and preventive measures.
Restoring the Bacterial Balance
The idea behind probiotic therapy is to use live microorganisms to prevent disease or restore health. Lactobacillus is the most important kind of bacteria in the normal flora. Lactobacillus may be given by mouth -- in capsules or as an ingredient in yogurt -- or directly applied to the vagina. According to a article published in the May 2003 issue of "Obstetrical and Gynecological Survey," several small, randomized trials have shown that Lactobacillus therapy reduces episodes of BV.
Tea Tree Oil?
Tea tree oil is derived from the leaves of the tea tree. It contains a class of chemicals called terpenes which act against bacteria and yeast in laboratory studies. One potential benefit of this approach for BV is that Lactobacillus is relatively resistant to terpenes. Tea tree oil is effective against many types of bacteria in vitro and is often recommended for BV. According to the Physician's Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines, however, there is little documentation of the efficacy of this approach, and risks include allergic reaction. Tea tree oil is given in capsules that are inserted directly into the vagina.
Garlic is known as a natural antibiotic. Its active ingredient, allicin, is effective against many types of bacteria in laboratory studies. The antibacterial effect is highest when the garlic is crushed, and lower if the garlic is dried or powdered or the oil extracted.
The Physician's Desk Reference for Herbal Medicine does not include treatment of BV among the recognized uses of garlic.
Many common practices, such as vaginal cleansing, douching, and use of lubricants, may disturb the balance of healthy bacteria in the vagina, leading to overgrowth by other species and the development of BV. Douching, in particular, is a known risk factor for BV. The risk of BV may be reduced by avoiding practices that disrupt the normal flora of the vagina.
Warnings and Precautions
Natural treatments may have side effects. Treatment with Lactobacillus usually does not have side effects, although some people may experience mild gas or bloating. Probiotic studies can be difficult to interpret. Some strains of Lactobacillus may be more helpful for BV than others. Other than Lactobacillus-containing probiotics, no natural BV treatments have been studied in clinical trials to determine effectiveness, proper dosing or safety. Allergic reactions may occur after using tea tree oil or garlic, and interactions with other medications are possible. Talk to your doctor about which natural remedies may be right for you.