If you’ve had one itchy, burning, painful vaginal fungal infection, you never want another one. Some women are more prone to them and require frequent treatment that can be messy, expensive or both. Because of increased blood glucose levels, diabetic women are more susceptible and there is also a greater incidence in pregnant women. The fungus involved is almost always the yeast candida albicans.
As late as the 1950s, there was no real cure for vaginal yeast infections and some women were so uncomfortable that they required sedatives to help them sleep. Gentian violet used for long periods of time was thought to be helpful. When the bacterial balance returned, the affected women got better. However, the overgrowth of yeast tended to recur, especially in diabetics.
Just as a loss of good intestinal bacteria causes problems, so does a loss of probiotic bacteria in the vagina. The yeast is always present, but it only overgrows and creates symptoms when it is not kept under control by the bacteria. The main vaginal bacterial species are Lactobacillus which includes the Lactobacillus acidophilus found in live-culture yogurts and other fermented milk products. These good bacteria thrive on glycogen, which is a stored form of glucose as well as on glucose itself. To complicate the balance, yeast uses the same food sources.
The balance factor is critical to healthy vaginal tissues. A healthy growth of good bacteria maintains the correct pH to discourage growth of other species. The colonies of lactobacilli must outnumber the yeast cells and prevent them from colonizing. They compete for the available glucose and glycogen. During the latter part of pregnancy, the vaginal cells stockpile glycogen to increase the number of lactobacilli. Pregnant women are prone to yeast infections with this increase in glycogen if the bacteria and yeast get out of balance. During the birth process, the baby is bathed with lactobacilli to establish the first probiotics in his system.
Taking probiotics and yogurt by mouth are beneficial to the entire body. To specifically restore and maintain vaginal probiotics, it is possible to directly inoculate the vagina with lactobacilli. Dr. Katherine Van Kessel and her colleagues reported in 2003 in “Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey” that a review showed there is promise for the use of probiotics in the treatment of both yeast infections and the bacterial vaginosis that can occur when harmful bacteria outnumber the good. They also noted that there is some patient resistance to using yogurt directly in the vagina and that there is a need for more comprehensive studies to reach a scientific conclusion.
Live-culture plain yogurt can be used or probiotic capsules or the yogurt can be supercharged with probiotic capsules. If you choose yogurt, allow a few tablespoonfuls of yogurt to warm to room temperature. Liberally coat a tampon with the yogurt and insert in the vagina. Leave in place for several hours or as recommended by your physician. This treatment can be repeated. The capsules can be inserted into the vagina where they will dissolve. If you notice yeast infections occurring in relation to your menstrual cycle, use the treatment in advance of that time. The yogurt can also be applied to the vulva where a lot of the itching occurs. Dr. Van Kessel considers this direct form of treatment to have “little potential for harm.”
The probiotic treatment is not intended to replace the medical treatment for yeast infections, but may reduce the number of yeast overgrowth situations. The use of douches of any kind, including yogurt and water, should only be as prescribed by your doctor. Douching washes out the probiotic bacteria. The vagina is self cleaning via the mucous membranes. If you are pregnant, check with your doctor before using any product for yeast or other vaginal infections.
- “The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy”; Ed. Charles E. Lyght, MD; 1956
- "U.S. Pharmacist": Probiotics and Microflora
- PubMed.gov: Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey”, Common Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Yeast Vaginitis and Bacterial Vaginosis: A Systematic Review
- The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library: Vaginal Itching and Discharge
- Go Ask Alice, Columbia University Health Q&A Service: Yogurt for Yeast Infections?