You have bacterial vaginosis again, for what seems like the hundredth time this year. You've done all the things you're supposed to — including use condoms, take probiotics, and stick to mild soaps — but it's back. You'll try anything at this point.
If you do some light googling, you'll find that some people claim to have cured their bacterial vaginosis with their diet. But is that legit? "There is very limited data about diet, so we can't say absolutely one way or the other," says Caroline Mitchell, MD, director of the vulvovaginal disorders program at Mass General Hospital. Ahead, she explains how exactly your diet could influence your vaginal health — for better or for worse.
Can diet actually affect your vagina, really?
Inside your stomach there are gut microbes that help digest food and influence your immune system, and they can even affect your mood. Vaginas also contain a delicate balance of naturally occurring bacteria, and we know that gut bacteria and vaginal bacteria are linked in some capacity, Dr. Mitchell says. "It's not a direct, straight line, but there's definitely a link," she says. In theory, if you changed your gut bacteria by changing your diet, then you might in turn alter your vaginal bacteria in a roundabout way, she says.
But the issue is that we don't have a great sense for how you can change your gut bacteria with your diet, according to Dr. Mitchell. "So, we definitely don't have a targeted way to change the vaginal bacteria with your diet," she says.
Can eating certain foods cause a vaginal infection?
Research shows that people who eat a high-fat, high-calorie, low-vitamin diet are probably at a higher risk for bacterial vaginosis, Dr. Mitchell says. However, it's hard to draw hard and fast conclusions based on that research, because it's not that easy to separate diet from other risk factors for this kind of infection, she says: "Part of the problem is we don't really know what causes bacterial vaginosis." We certainly know some factors associated with bacterial vaginosis (like having more sexual partners), but "saying that I know how to link diet and BV presumes I know what causes BV," she says.
It's totally reasonable to try and eat more healthfully, with the thought that maybe that would also help the vagina.
Caroline Mitchell, MD
Now, you've probably heard that eating yogurt with live and active cultures can help prevent yeast infections, another common antagonist of people with vaginas. Hate to be a buzzkill, but that's also not as promising as it sounds, because the individual species of lactobacilli in yogurt are very different from the species found in your vagina, Dr. Mitchell says. "If you like to eat yogurt, eat yogurt, but otherwise it's not doing you any favors," she says. Other studies have looked at whether or not taking oral probiotics can influence your vaginal health, and it turns out that most of the bacteria don't ever make it to the vagina. So again, the idea that yogurt is going to "fix" your yeast infection is probably wrong, she says.
So, can you snack your way to vaginal health or what?
Much like your overall diet, eating one specific food isn't going to be a cure-all that solves all your vaginal health issues. And you shouldn't make yourself miserable by avoiding one food because you think it's somehow linked to your vaginal issues, Dr. Mitchell says. "You're already miserable, and there's not enough data to make yourself miserable thinking you're going to fix your vagina," she says.
That said, if you are prone to bacterial vaginosis or yeast infections, and you want to see what happens when you adjust your diet, go for it. "Absolutely be your own experiment," but don't make yourself crazy over it, Dr. Mitchell says. Perhaps your best bet when it comes to your vaginal health is to just make sure that you're eating a well-rounded, vitamin-rich, plant-based, whole grain kind of diet, she says. Beyond that, there's just not enough data to suggest that any individual food is better or worse. "It's totally reasonable to try and eat more healthfully, with the thought that maybe that would also help the vagina," she says. Bottom line, though: If you end up with BV again, don’t blame your yogurt.