Marketed in everything from drinks and yoghurts to capsules and powders, probiotics are seemingly everywhere these days. The word ‘probiotic’ simply refers to friendly bacteria that may benefit our wellbeing in various ways, for example by helping to support gut health and helping to make our digestive systems work more effectively. Some experts suggest that they are also important for the health of the vagina and can help to treat and prevent conditions such as Bacterial Vaginosis (BV). Because of this, vaginal probiotic supplements are becoming increasingly popular, including pills that are taken orally and pessaries that are inserted into the vagina.
But can taking probiotics really help with BV? Here, we delve into this area of research to help ensure you’re in the know.
What is BV?
To understand the treatment options available for BV, it’s important to know what this infection is and what causes it. BV is an infection that occurs in the vagina due to an imbalance in the naturally occurring bacteria present in this part of the body. The vagina contains many different types of bacteria; some are ‘good’, meaning they help to keep the area clean and healthy, while others are ‘bad’ and can lead to infections. If bad bacteria overtake the good bacteria, this causes your body’s natural pH levels to increase, which can put you at a greater risk of developing BV and other infections.
Lactobacilli are one of the most important forms of good bacteria. They helps to maintain pH levels between 3.5 and 4.5 and can kill harmful bacteria and viruses. If women don’t have enough Lactobacilli, they can be more susceptible to BV. Symptoms of this condition can include a strong, fishy smell, especially after sex, as well as thin, watery vaginal discharge that’s greyish-white in colour. However, it’s important to be aware that many women with BV experience no symptoms.
Will probiotics cure BV?
The theory behind using probiotics to cure BV is that they can increase the number of good bacteria in the vagina, to help restore the natural floral balance and normalising the vaginal pH. In turn, this could treat BV and prevent its recurrence. Supporting this idea, a review published in the Journal of Lower Genital Tract Disease suggested that most studies carried out in this field have been in favour of probiotics in the treatment or prevention of BV, and no adverse effects have been reported. The researchers concluded that it may be helpful for women to take daily probiotic products.
However, not everyone is convinced. According to Dr Caroline Mitchell, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynaecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, there is ‘scant evidence’ to support the effectiveness of treating BV with probiotics and many of the studies in this area have been poorly done.
How long do probiotics take to work for BV?
A review carried out at the Alfa Institute of Biomedical Sciences in Marousi, Greece highlighted trials which suggested that probiotic pessaries when used for 6 to 12 days, or probiotic tablets when taken orally for 2 months, cured BV and/or reduced recurrences of the condition. The study also found that using probiotics over these time periods resulted in an increase in Lactobacillus significantly more frequently than when placebos or no treatment were given. However, the review went on to point out that other trials have produced less positive findings.
Given the uncertainty surrounding how effective probiotics may be in treating BV, it’s impossible to give a definitive answer in terms of how long they may take to help relieve the infection.
What other treatments can I use for BV?
BV is usually treated with antibiotics, but there are non-antibiotic treatments available too, such as BETAFEM® BV Gel. Designed to help restore your body’s natural vaginal flora and balance your pH levels, it can both treat and prevent recurrent BV, offering relief from unpleasant odours within 24 hours.
There are also things you can do to reduce your risk of getting BV. For example, avoid using scented toilet paper or sanitary towels, and clean your intimate area with soap-free washes. Steer clear of overly perfumed soaps, bath liquids and shower gels too, and don’t use strong detergents to wash your underwear. Quitting smoking can also cut your risk of developing BV.
If you keep getting BV, your doctor should be able to help you identify what is triggering the condition.