Vaginal health is an important part of reproductive wellness. Women often have questions about what’s normal, what’s not, and how to best take care of this part of their reproductive system. This guide helps to dispel myths about the vagina, concerns to watch out for, and how to best support vaginal health, naturally.
Vagina Anatomy: The vagina (also called yoni) is a tube-like, elastic muscular organ (around 4 to 5 inches long in adults) that connects the external vaginal organs to the uterus. It extends from the vulva (external vaginal opening) to the cervix (lower portion of the uterus).
The vagina is strong and adaptable; and able to accommodate and recover from childbirth. Still, having occasional challenges is a normal part of a woman’s life. Below are common challenges women reach out to us about.
Vaginal pH- Its Function and How to Stay Balanced
Vaginal pH ranges from 3.8-4.5, or slightly acidic, for most of the menstrual cycle. The acidic pH of the vagina creates an important barrier to harmful organisms like bacteria and candida yeast overgrowth.
However, the acidic pH of the vagina can weaken or even kill sperm. This is why vaginal pH naturally fluctuates during the cycle. During ovulation, hormonal shifts and an increase in cervical mucus causes the pH to move into the 7 plus range- more alkaline and favorable for conception.
While pH generally works without any need for intervention, at times, the vagina loses its balance. When pH becomes imbalanced, you may see symptoms like:
- very thick or runny discharge
- changes in vaginal odor
- itchiness or burning in the vaginal area
If you’re unsure, you can check your pH by purchasing an at-home vaginal pH test kit from a pharmacy. Simply use the test strips as directed. Instructions should be included to tell you what your vaginal pH is.
pH is strongly influenced by your diet and the products you use. Dehydration and lack of fruits and vegetables can create an overly acidic vaginal pH. Strong cleansers, perfumes and excessive douching also throw off pH for many women. The good news is pH problems are very responsive to diet and lifestyle changes. Seek advice from your Ob/Gyn if your concerns persist.
Vaginal Discharge- What to look for
Some discharge is completely normal and necessary. Normal vaginal discharge is mild, clear and or milky white. It’s not irritating, itchy; nor does it have a very strong odor.
Egg-white cervical mucus (EWCM) is a distinct type of discharge and an excellent sign of fertility. EWCM has the consistency of an egg white, can often stretch between the fingers, and may be clear or white. EWCM increases in the 3-4 days before ovulation, and acts as a delivery route to get sperm to the egg.
Abnormal discharge is often very thick, has an unpleasant odor (fishy or sour), and may be itchy or irritating. Abnormal discharge can be yellow, green, grey, or have a cottage cheese-like consistency.
If you’re experiencing a problem with discharge, have a medical evaluation for analysis and treatment. Natural therapies may also be helpful in overcoming or recovering from many types of these vaginal concerns.
Odor- What’s normal and what’s not?
The vagina is home to many types of bacteria (mostly lactobacillus) and naturally has an odor. This is perfectly fine! The vagina may smell mildly sour, musty or sweet. During the menstrual cycle, the vagina can have a metallic odor. If you eat a lot of garlic or onions, your vagina and urethra may smell a bit like these foods, too.
In contrast, a fishy or foul odor can be a sign of bacterial imbalance or other concern. This could be related to a problem requiring medical treatment, or to a tampon that needs to be removed.
If you’re going through this, try not to be embarrassed when seeking medical attention. A proficient Ob/Gyn has a lot of experience with odor concerns and can help you address it quickly. For at home care, supplementing with prebiotic and probiotic foods enhances beneficial microflora and supports a return to normalcy.
How to Cleanse the Vagina: The vagina is, for the most part, self-cleaning. It does not require an intense cleansing routine. Normal vaginal discharge helps to cleanse the vagina, forms a protective barrier, and boosts natural fertility. Still, vaginal changes caused by intercourse, menstruation and hormone fluctuations can benefit from a gentle cleansing routine.
For cleansing, avoid strong soaps; commercial douches and vaginal care products; or cleansers with artificial fragrances. Essential oils are not suggested. These types of products imbalance pH; and irritate the vagina, and external genitals (labia, urethra and clitoris).
Instead, use pure water and a small amount of plain soap, like unscented natural soap for example. As another option, consider a natural vaginal wash from the health food store for hygiene needs. An occasional vaginal steam is a nice choice for cleansing, too.
The Real Story on Vaginal Tone and Tightness
While the vagina’s muscle tissue is elastic, cultural messaging on vaginal tightness versus looseness is really not based in scientific fact. The size and shape of the vagina is dynamic. Vaginal tone varies through the cycle. As women know, it changes as a result of stimulation and hormone fluctuations. In fact, relaxation of vaginal muscles is actually a sign of greater sexual arousal than tightness.
The pelvic floor muscles surrounding the vagina are responsible for much of what is perceived as vaginal tightness.
“Usually, there is no space inside the vagina unless it is stretched open—for example, during an examination, sexual intercourse, or childbirth. The lower third of the vagina is surrounded by elastic muscles that control the diameter of its opening. These muscles contract rhythmically and involuntarily during orgasm.” Dr.’s Jennifer Knudtson and Jessica E. McLaughlin of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio
Strengthening the pelvic floor muscles through exercises like Kegels goes a long way to promoting healthy vaginal tone. Kegels can also decrease some types of reproductive pain and bladder control problems. Moreover, pelvic floor exercises encourage the proper position of the uterus, bladder and bowel. They are especially useful for women preparing for or recovering from childbirth. Another bonus: As the pelvic muscles become stronger, so do orgasms!
Kegels are easy to do at home. Here’s how:
Pause urination midstream to find the correct muscles. If you’re urinating and can stop during full flow, these are the muscles. Then, contract and relax these muscles 10 times. Repeat three times a day for the best results. For chronic concerns with the pelvic floor muscles, physical therapy with an experienced professional is highly effective.
Vaginal Health is Key To Healthy Fertility
As you work on your fertility, pay attention to your vaginal health. Take notice of any changes you experience. Learn what’s normal for you and what’s not. This guide offers basic guidelines, but everyone is different. Further, the vagina is constantly changing. It is perfectly normal to experience vaginal changes throughout the cycle, before and after childbirth; and as you grow older.
If you experience changes that worry you, share your questions with your Ob/Gyn. Ob/Gyns are trained with these exact concerns in mind and can help you to determine if anything could be wrong and your next best steps.
- Knudston, J. (2019). Female Genital Organs. Retrieved from: https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/women-s-health-issues/biology-of-the-female-reproductive-system/female-internal-genital-organs
- Barton-Schuster, D. (2019). Douching May Increase Infertility Risk. Retrieved from: https://natural-fertility-info.com/how-to-douche-no-way-vaginal-douching-increases-infertility-risk.html
- Molasses to Pennies. All the Smells a Healthy Vagina Can Be. (2019). Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/health/womens-health/vagina-smells
- Druet, A. (2016, April). Vaginal Tightness. Retrieved from: https://helloclue.com/articles/cycle-a-z/vaginal-tightness-tips-myths-what-you-need-to-know-about-pelvic-floor