The human gut is not the only place in the body that contains beneficial bacteria. Similar to the gut, the vagina houses its own microbiome. Disruptions to the beneficial bacteria in the vagina can cause yeast infections. Some research has shown that probiotics can replenish this protective bacteria and help fight yeast infections.
Vaginal yeast infections are a common and uncomfortable problem that can impact women’s health and quality of life. Available antifungal treatments are usually effective, but recurrences are common.
Various factors can disrupt the protective vaginal bacteria that ward off yeast and lead to yeast infections. Probiotics can replenish these protective bacteria and support a balanced vaginal flora.
What Are Yeast Infections?
A yeast infection, also known as candidiasis, is caused by a common yeast (a type of fungus) called Candida. Candida albicans is the most common cause of yeast infections in humans. It normally lives on the skin and in the body without issue, but an overgrowth can lead to infection.
One of the most prevalent infection sites is the vagina. Vaginal yeast infections, also called vaginal or vulvovaginal candidiasis, are one of the most common causes of vaginitis (vaginal inflammation). An estimated 70-75% of women worldwide will experience at least one vaginal yeast infection. Recurrent infections are common, and approximately 40-45% of women will have two or more yeast infections.
These infections can cause pain and discomfort and can really put a damper on your daily activities. Vaginal candidiasis in pregnancy is associated with a higher risk of preterm labor.
Candida albicans is the cause of vaginal yeast infections over 90% of the time. There has been a recent increase in documented infections with other species of Candida yeast, which may be more challenging to treat.
Vaginal yeast infections occur most often in women of childbearing age. In the majority of cases, there is no underlying health problem. Conditions that increase the likelihood of vaginal candidiasis include:
- Antibiotic use
- Elevated estrogen levels due to oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy
- Lowered immunity, such as in HIV infection or from immunosuppressive medications including corticosteroids or those used in chemotherapy
- Diabetes with poor blood sugar control
Good bacteria normally inhabit the vagina and protect against the overgrowth of yeast and pathogenic bacteria. Imbalances in this vaginal flora are associated with vaginal infections, including Candida infections.
Factors that alter the balance of the vaginal microbiota include weakened immunity and certain medications. Chronic stress can interfere with women’s resistance to vaginal yeast infections. Higher estrogen levels also increase susceptibility to yeast infections, though the reasons are unclear.
Taking antibiotics can kill off the protective vaginal flora along with the targeted bacteria. In vitro and animal studies support the theory that a Western diet high in simple sugars can also offset the balance of the vaginal microbiota, negatively affecting vaginal health.
Yeast infection symptoms can include:
- Vaginal itching, burning, and soreness
- Discomfort when urinating
- Pain during intercourse
- Abnormal vaginal discharge that may be white and curd-like or watery.
Treatment and Prevention
Typical treatment options for vaginal candidiasis are antifungals, specifically a class called azoles, given either vaginally or orally, generally for up to seven days.
Many of these treatments are available over the counter as creams, ointments, or suppositories. These medications are generally effective against Candida albicans, but other yeast species may be resistant to them. Additionally, many women suffer recurrences after treatment.
The following body care tips may help to prevent yeast infections:
- When using the toilet, always wipe from front to back
- Avoid douching as it can remove protective vaginal bacteria
- Avoid overly hot baths, bubble baths, and hot tubs
- Avoid scented pads and tampons and vaginal sprays
- Avoid clothing that fits tightly around the genital area
- Change out of workout clothing and wet bathing suits promptly
- Wear underwear with a cotton crotch
Research indicates that taking probiotics–live microbes with health benefits–can be useful in preventing and supporting the treatment of yeast infections.
How Probiotics May Help with Yeast Infections
Lactobacillus species are the most abundant protective bacteria in the vaginal microbiome. Lactobacillus probiotic strains, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus rhamnosus, have demonstrated the ability to attach to vaginal and cervical epithelial cells.
Lactobacilli protect vaginal health by guarding against harmful pathogens, including Candida albicans. Specifically, they produce substances that suppress Candida’s growth and compete for attachment sites, effectively blocking its ability to attach to vaginal tissue.
Lactobacilli produce metabolic byproducts that help maintain the acidic vaginal environment that interferes with Candida’s growth. It’s also thought that Lactobacillus species and other protective bacteria stimulate the immune system, providing further protection against infections.
There’s evidence of decreased Lactobacilli bacteria levels in vaginal yeast infections. Replenishing beneficial bacteria can help to reestablish a healthy vaginal microbiota.
Using probiotic supplements with traditional antifungal therapy has been found to aid in the resolution of vaginal candidiasis and decrease recurrence in the short term, although more research is needed on long term impacts.
The varied strains of Lactobacilli in Omni-Biotic Balance can support a healthy vaginal flora. This multispecies probiotic also contains strains that target gut health, and it may provide additional protection against infections by boosting immunity. Omni-Biotic AB 10 is another product with Lactobacilli strains which may prove helpful if yeast infections recur after a course of antibiotic treatments.
Taking Probiotics for Yeast Infections
Taking probiotics may help restore a healthy vaginal microbiota and prevent or aid the treatment of yeast infections. But what is the best way to take in these helpful microbes?
Probiotic supplements are taken orally or vaginally for the prevention and treatment of yeast infections. There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer yet as to which mode of delivery is preferable. Several Lactobacillus species have been found to improve the vaginal microbiota when taken either orally or vaginally.
There are a wide variety of options for consuming probiotics by mouth, including several food sources and an extensive selection of oral supplements.
Foods and beverages containing probiotics include yogurt, kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, and miso. The live cultures in many of these foods are thought to provide health benefits, but these cultures vary widely and specific effects aren’t well documented.
Some studies have found that eating yogurt with live cultures can help prevent yeast infections. There’s also evidence that consuming yogurt with live cultures can hasten the response to medical treatment for vaginal candidiasis. Cultured yogurts typically contain Lactobacillus species, and sometimes Bifidobacterium species are added. However, some yogurts’ probiotics may not survive their trip through the GI tract.
Kefir, a fermented milk product, can contain a variety of probiotics depending on the manufacturing method and type of culture used. One study found that kefir had anti-Candida activity higher than that of yogurt, though it varied based on the type of milk used.
Probiotics originating from food sources rather than humans may or may not effectively impact human cells and pathogenic microbes. Human probiotics may have a better ability to adhere to cells and survive in body conditions like low pH. Due to variations in the probiotics in food sources and the potential effects of processing and digestion, a targeted probiotic supplement may be a more reliable way to consume specific probiotics to fight candidiasis.
Vaginal probiotic suppositories (meant to be inserted directly into the vagina) are widely available.
In one small study, adding vaginal probiotic application to antifungal treatment for women with recurrent yeast infections boosted their cure rate slightly but not significantly. The vaginal suppository more noticeably increased the beneficial vaginal bacteria levels in women whose levels of Lactobacilli were depleted at the beginning of the study.
Another study found that a vaginal gel containing a mix of Lactobacilli probiotics was most helpful for mild yeast infections, allowing 45% of the women to forgo antifungal medication.
Researchers noted that one of the protective strains didn’t persist long in the vagina. More research is needed on the benefits of direct vaginal application of probiotics.
Many of the same species of protective bacteria are present in both the GI tract and the vagina, where they interact with each other and other body systems, including the immune system. The Lactobacillus species most prevalent in the vagina are believed to derive from the gut. Studies have confirmed that orally ingested probiotics also transfer to the vaginal microbiota. Due to the link between the two systems, probiotic strains that target the gut should also benefit the vaginal microbiome.
Lactobacillus strains are not only the most prevalent probiotic in the vaginal microbiota but also the most researched for their anti-Candida activity. Replenishing vaginal bacteria with a blend of different species may be most helpful for increasing the range of anti-Candida activity.
In addition to looking for a proven strain, it’s essential to ensure the probiotic has enough live microorganisms to reach the intestine. Research has discovered that probiotic supplements should contain at least 1 million CFU of viable bacteria to maintain effectiveness. Probiotics are susceptible to high temperatures and the high acidity of the GI tract.
Freeze-dried products like those produced by Omni-Biotic will remain viable for longer than the probiotics in dairy products. Prebiotics such as those added to Omni-Biotic products can increase the survival of probiotics as well as boosting their effects.
When choosing a probiotic, it’s also important to find a reliable product with good quality control that provides manufacturer information. Consult labels and follow manufacturer instructions for storage, as some (non-freeze dried) products require refrigeration. Side effects are typically mild and can include some GI upset as your body adjusts.
When Should You See a Doctor for Yeast Infections?
If vaginal yeast infection symptoms continue after you’ve tried an over-the-counter treatment or symptoms recur within two months of treatment, you should consult your healthcare provider. Other causes of vulvovaginitis, including bacterial infections, can cause similar symptoms but require different treatments, and delaying treatment can be harmful.
If you’re pregnant, consult your healthcare provider for advice before treatment since some antifungal medications are unsafe during pregnancy, and untreated infections can cause complications.
If you have an impaired immune system or have had recurrent yeast infections (three or more in a year), you should seek care. Your healthcare provider may recommend a longer course or different treatment.
If you’re bothered by yeast infections, you can take steps to ward them off. Take note of any changes in body care you can make to protect your vaginal health. Consider whether you’d benefit from replenishing your protective vaginal bacteria.
Probiotics, including those from targeted supplements, can play an important role. Choosing a product that provides a wide variety of Lactobacillus strains, like Omni-Biotic Balance or AB 10, is a good bet for restoring those helpful microbes.
To find the right probiotic supplement for your specific health goals, take our product fit quiz.