Aunt Vadge: Why do I keep getting yeast infections?

Dear Aunt Vadge,

How can I prevent vaginal yeast infections?

I am constantly getting them this year. I take probiotics and have to use a topical anti-fungal my GYN gave me and I still get them here and there. Could this be related to diet & exercise?

Yours,
Yeasty

________

Hi Yeasty,

Thanks for your email. You are suffering from a very common problem – recurrent thrush, or vaginal yeast infection – and it may have a theoretically simple solution. (But the application can be harder work.)

Without knowing anything more about what you put into your body every day, here are some home truths:

Your gut bacteria are directly linked to your vaginal bacteria, particularly where yeasts are concerned. Recurrent vaginal yeast overgrowths generally indicate a broader gut problem with yeast, meaning that yeast has a foothold in your gut, and it is having a flow-on effect into your vagina.

Yes, your diet is directly related to this. Exercise, not really, though it contributes to a healthy body, and therefore is supportive of your gut health, but directly, it does not really affect your microbes.

You need to provide a good environment for your good bacteria, and of course ingest sufficient new varieties of good bacteria through fermented foods, not just a probiotic with a couple of strains – this will not be enough to support your entire gut. This means not just one kind of fermented food either, but several. So let’s talk about what you put into your body, and how this impacts on your good microbes, because ultimately this is not just about getting enough good bacteria in, because that is pointless unless they have a good place to live – they will simply die and be pooped out.

Things that kill good microbes, either by robbing them of their food source (prebiotics) or poisoning them outright:

  • Alcohol
  • The Pill (oral contraceptive pill)
  • Some medications
  • Some recreational drugs
  • Junk food – fatty, sugary foods
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Artificial colours, flavours, preservatives

How this works:

The microbes can be killed, or phased out, by a couple of methods.

One method is a direct hit, so dumping poison on top of them (binge drinking, hard liquor, fatty animal products that are deep fried or otherwise damaged or toxic, a lot of sugar, medication, artificial colours, flavours or preservatives – poisons). You can probably tell immediately if the food you are eating would be friendly for your microbes, so that nice salad is good for you in simple terms because it supports your microbes, and that burger is five kinds of problem, despite being delicious, because it has germ-murdering capacities.

The second is by not providing the microbes with a healthy home, which means providing food (prebiotics) and the right acidity. If you eat a lot of foods that cause acidity in your bowel, you can create an environment that favours other unfriendly microbes (including yeasts, which are very opportunistic and easy-breeding), leaving you without the ones you need for healthy bowels, and therefore, a healthy vagina.

Good-quality food easily allows your body will create the right acidity levels, but you can’t just eat whatever you want and expect your body to always do the right thing. It just doesn’t work like that.

Poor-quality food means a lack of good gut flora, and a lack of good gut flora means your immune defences are less solid, you get overgrowths more readily (as you are experiencing) and eventually you’ll start to get bowel problems, food intolerances, and even allergies and ultimately, you may develop some types of autoimmune disorders from leaky gut. It’s all bad news. And, what’s more, is you won’t get away with having a bad diet, even if you think ‘nothing is happening’.

What you eat matters, not because of some moral imperative to “be healthy”, but to support your body systems – providing everything you need, not just to survive, but to be well – and to do so in a way that supports the ecosystems of microbes that actually keep your flesh and body healthy. These microbes digest your food, fight off other bacteria and viruses, and have symbiotic relationships with your skin, both inside and outside of your body.

Recurrent vaginal thrush indicates you need more good bacteria in your entire body.

How to get more good bacteria

Fermented foods are the way to go, also ensuring you are getting plenty of prebiotic fibres to support their long, productive life – you want the good microbes to have a massive orgy and reproduce like crazy, and colonise your gut wall – killing off any unfriendly microbes that may have made themselves at home. This will take a concerted, ongoing effort on your part.

Ferments

Fermented foods need to be bought fresh, usually from your local health-food store, NOT from the supermarket – supermarkets rely on things being able to sit on their shelves for long periods of time, but a jar of fermented (alive) vegetables will eventually build up gas and pressure and explode, like ginger beer is famous for doing.

To avoid these inevitable supermarket explosions, food must be pasteurised, which means heating the jar to high temperatures to kill all the germs. You can get a jar of fermented sauerkraut, for example, but once the fermenting is done and the flavour is achieved, they kill all the germs so they can ship it out and sell it to you. You do not want pasteurised ferments! They are dead, and therefore useless for your purposes.

Fresh, alive ferments are the only way to go, and these are cheap, easy to make at home, and there is a very vibrant community of fermenters online who are more than happy to share their fermenting wisdom with you.  People absolutely love this stuff, so you will never run out of great, free information on fermenting on the internet.

The prescription

It is difficult to decide just how much is enough, but basically the more, the better. Keep in mind that at first, you are likely to end up with a germ war in your gut, when you introduce the new bacteria. There will be the process of the other bacteria and yeasts going to war with the new ones, and if all goes well, dying, while the new bacteria sets up shop. This can produce gas, diarrhoea and other uncomfortable gut sensations, so don’t plan any hot dates the week you get onto ferments!

Your gut will adjust quickly, but don’t expect it to be smooth sailing straight away. If you start off slow, and work your way up, you can avoid a lot of gas and so on, and also keep in mind it doesn’t happen to everyone, but consider yourself fart-warned. If this happens, you should celebrate, because it means your gut is being put into a happy place.

You can’t just eat a couple of fermented things and expect your gut to change overnight. You have to keep this up, every day, several times, so figure out a schedule. It might look something like this:

Ferments suggestions

1. Half a cup of milk kefir in the morning every single day – this can be with fruit, in a smoothie, or just by itself.

2. Always have a jar of sauerkraut fermenting, so once one jar is done, you can get the next one started. Eat a few decent spoonfuls of sauerkraut with one meal. It’s great on sandwiches, with meats, and by itself off a fork straight from the jar.

3. Ferment some water or milk kefir, or kombucha, and drink at least a cup full during the day.

4. Make kimchi or fermented vegetables, to have with meals, one serve per day.

5. Add tempeh to your diet. If you can’t find it at your regular supermarket, ask at your local Asian grocer.

6. You can buy high-quality biodynamic and organic yoghurt with the good bacteria in and it remains alive when it gets to you. Read the labels – if it doesn’t say anything about having alive good bacteria, read another label. You are more likely to find better-quality yoghurt in your local health-food store, and the person running the shop should be able to tell you what the best yoghurt is for bacteria count.

Diet

Eat well! Every plate at lunch and dinner should be a third vegetables, a third a wholegrain like brown rice, and a third a good source of lean protein. Eat raw nuts and seeds as a snack, drink plenty of fresh, clean water, and keep this up for all of your life, and you will have happy microbes.

This is not just a short-term fix for a yeast infection, but a long-term treatment for a long-term problem. Also keep in mind that everybody is different, and not everyone will respond the same to these foods or changes in diet. If you need help, see your local qualified, experienced naturopath or holistic nutritionist for advice.

If you need any more help, let us know.

Warmest regards,
Aunt Vadge

Fermented foods for guts and vaginas

 

Jessica Lloyd - Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica Lloyd - Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica is a degree-qualified naturopath (BHSc) specialising in vulvovaginal health and disease, based in Melbourne, Australia.

Jessica is the owner and lead naturopath of My Vagina, and is a member of the:

  • International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease (ISSVD)
  • International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health (ISSWSH)
  • National Vulvodynia Association (NVA) Australia
  • New Zealand Vulvovaginal Society (ANZVS)
  • Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS)
Read more about Jessica and My Vagina's origin story.