Gynecological Healthcare: Learn How Your Reproductive Microbiome Is Essential To Your Health

Written by on December 11, 2017 in Health, Prevention with 0 Comments

Can you guess what this is? Lactobacillus is the primary colonising bacteria in a healthy vagina. (Getty Images: Science Photo Library)

By Olivia Willis | ABC Health & Wellbeing

You’ve probably heard about the microbiome in your gut.

It’s the collection of trillions of tiny microorganisms thought to have a powerful effect on your health and wellbeing.

But did you know that a similarly complex and important ecosystem of bacteria, fungi and viruses exists in the female reproductive tract?

It’s known as the vaginal microbiome, and it plays a key role in keeping women healthy.

So how does it work?

A balance of bacteria

Just like the gut, the vagina consists of trillions of microorganisms — mostly bacteria, plus some fungi and viruses. Together, these populations make up the vaginal microbiome.

“Particular types of lactobacilli have functions that keep the environment very acidic, that interact with our host cells and keep the right mucus production going,” says Associate Professor Willa Huston from the University of Technology Sydney.

“This is what we would consider to be the healthiest type of microbiota for the vagina.”

But the relationship is complicated: not all types of lactobacilli are good, and there is at least one strain that puts women at a higher risk of acquiring a sexually transmitted infection.

On the other hand, women who lack a dominant lactobacillus in their microbiome are also at a higher risk of acquiring STIs and other conditions including bacterial vaginosis.

“It depends on the type of lactobacillus, it might depend on the function of that lactobacillus … and perhaps how it’s interplaying with the genome type of the woman,” Dr Huston says.

Disruptions to the microbiome

The vaginal environment experiences all kinds of disturbances on a regular basis, which in turn disrupts the microbiome.

“It’s a really dynamic space,” Dr Huston says.

Sexual activity, lubricants, and semen can all change the composition of the microbiome, as well as hormonal contraceptives, menstruation and antibiotics.

“Antibiotics, just like in gut bacteria, can basically eliminate lactobacillus and give the opportunity to other bacteria that are not very welcome to grow and thrive,” Professor Jacques Ravel from the University of Maryland told The Health Report.

Disruption of the microbiome can cause an imbalance of bacteria, which may lead to bacterial vaginosis. It can also trigger the overgrowth of the fungus, Candida.

The impact of diet is less clearly understood, Professor Ravel says, but it can also cause changes.

“It’s something that we are still investigating. We don’t fully understand the link that exists between the bacteria that lives in our gut and those that live in a vagina, but there is certainly a link between the two,” he says.

The ever-changing vaginal microbiome is also largely age-dependent, Dr Huston says.

“As your reproductive status changes and your reproductive physiology changes, there’s a lot of evidence that the microflora, as well as other functions, change in the reproductive tract,” she says.

Connection to disease and fertility

There is an established link between a woman’s vaginal microbiome and her risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections and other conditions.

“We know that microbiotas that have particular types of lactobacillus, or don’t have a good lactobacillus composition, are more at risk of developing STIs, bacterial vaginosis, and pelvic inflammatory disease,” Dr Huston says.

“What we don’t know yet is how much your vaginal microbiome or your upper reproductive tract microbiota can influence whether or not you get pregnant.”

Research into IVF has found the type of microorganisms present in the uterus at the time of embryo transfer interplay into the outcome of pregnancy.


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