There are things you can talk about with everyone: the weather, books and movies, pets and kids.
There are things you talk about with close friends: sex, money, that funny thing that happened at work.
And then there are the things you talk about with no one at all, like vaginal discharge and vaginal odor.
But vaginal discharge and vaginal odor are not just normal and expected aspects of having a vagina, but they are important indicators of health. We need more discussion about them, not less.
Today’s blog is all about what you need to know about your vaginal odor and discharge. I’m here to tell you that the vulva and vagina have a natural scent, that some types of discharge throughout your cycle are normal, and that—when vaginal odor and discharge are ‘off’—you can use them as a guide to what’s going wrong and how to fix it.
All Vaginas Have a Characteristic Scent
If you take away one thing from this blog post, I want it to be that your vulva and vagina have a natural, normal, scent. This is NOT an unpleasant odor. When your vaginal ecosystem is healthy, you should notice a musky scent. This scent will have similar characteristics to how you smell when you work up a sweat. And it’s unique to you, like a fingerprint.
Women have been conditioned to believe that vaginal odor is gross - thanks patriarchy—from about 1900 to around 1950, it was common practice to douche with lysol!—but the vagina has a natural, earthy, smell. We do far more damage to our health when we try to eradicate that natural odor.
The vagina’s natural smell is related to the vaginal microbiome. To understand why getting familiar with your unique scent is so important, it’s essential to understand how the vaginal microbiome protects the vagina against infection and what can throw the vaginal microbiome—and, hence, vaginal odor—out of balance.
What is the Vaginal Microbiome?
Just like the gut, the vagina is colonized by a diverse community of bacteria. When the good and bad bacteria in the vagina are healthy and in balance, you should notice your baseline musky smell. When the balance of bacteria gets off kilter, that’s when you’ll notice pungent odor and unusual discharge. Keeping the vaginal microbiome healthy is critically important because a balanced vaginal ecosystem helps prevent vaginal infections and other problems. A healthy vaginal microbiome is a first line immune defense against conditions like bacterial vaginosis and other unpleasant infections.
What Damages the Vaginal Microbiome
Lots of things have a negative influence on vaginal flora. One factor is low estrogen, which can happen when estrogen drops during the luteal phase (the week before your period) and during the week of your period; when estrogen drops after giving birth; when estrogen starts behaving erratically and, ultimately, trending lower during perimenopause (the average onset age of perimenopause is 35); and during menopause, when estrogen production largely stops altogether.
How does low estrogen negatively affect the vaginal ecosystem? Estrogen helps feed the healthy bacteria in the vagina. When estrogen dips, so does that colony of good bacteria. Less estrogen also correlates with vaginal dryness—and a drier vagina is more susceptible to invasion by unwelcome bacteria.
But low estrogen isn’t the only thing that messes with the vaginal microbiome. Synthetic fragrances and chemicals—like those found in douches, scented menstrual products, and scented laundry detergent—are bad for vaginal bacterial balance. So is hormonal birth control. A high-glycemic diet is another big problem. Yeast thrives on sugar, which makes eating sugary treats one of the best ways to add fuel to the fire of a yeast infection. And new sexual partners, as delightful as that can be, can bring its own vaginal woes. New bacteria can find its way into the vagina during intercourse, causing microbial discord.
Finally, if your overall microbiome is off, this can affect your vaginal microbiome. There is some evidence that taking oral probiotics may help restore a healthy balance of microbes in the vagina, suggesting a link between the health of the gut microbiome and the health of the vaginal microbiome. That gives women one more reason to prioritize gut health as part of their overall strategy for staying healthy.
Understand Your Own Signature Scent
Every woman has a slightly different baseline smell, and it is normal to notice slight differences in your own smell from time to time. These shifts are triggered by diet and other environmental factors that ebb and flow during the course of life.
It’s important to become intimately familiar with your own signature scent. That way, you will be able to tell immediately when something changes in your vaginal ecosystem and you can take steps to fix it. When your natural scent becomes more pungent or turns unpleasant, it’s a sign of infection or other imbalance that requires your attention.
By becoming an expert on your own body, you can prevent problems before they start and take effective steps to correct imbalances if/when they get triggered.
Be On the Lookout These Two Types of Vaginal Odor Changes
If your vaginal odor becomes unpleasant and fishy smelling, it can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis (BV), which requires treatment. It can also be a sign of trichomoniasis, which is a sexually transmitted disease that is often mistaken for BV because it is also accompanied by an unpleasant odor and discharge. If you suspect either condition, consult a licensed healthcare practitioner for treatment.
In rare cases, a foul-smelling shift in vaginal odor can be a sign of abnormal cells on the cervix. Other symptoms of cervical abnormalities include bloody discharge, bleeding in between periods, and pelvic pain. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms and it’s been a while since you’ve had a pap smear, make haste to the OBGYN’s office and get a check-up. In the vast majority of cases, it’s something benign, like a bacterial infection, but it is best to err on the side of safety.
Most types of vaginal discharge are normal. Here’s what you can and should expect to see in your underwear — and when you want to seek treatment.
- White (or clear) discharge throughout your cycle. This thin, relatively odorless discharge is called leukorrhea and it helps keep the vagina clean. You will notice it in your underwear, but otherwise it shouldn’t itch, be clumpy, or cause problems.
- A stretchy, slippery discharge with the consistency of egg whites during ovulation. This is cervical fluid and it is completely normal. It helps sperm travel into your vagina and fertilize an egg. Some women see a lot of cervical fluid during ovulation and this, too, is normal. It just means you’re healthy and fertile!
- Thin, gray discharge. A grayish tint to your discharge, accompanied by a pungent fishy smell, is a sign of BV. If you notice these two symptoms in combination, schedule an appointment with an OBGYN
- Greenish or grayish discharge. Along with a negative shift in vaginal odor, a greenish or grayish color can be a sign of trichomoniasis. As with BV, make sure to see a trusted health care practitioner if you suspect trich.
- Yellowish-green discharge. This can be a sign of a bacterial STD, like chlamydia or gonorrhea. (You may also notice burning with urination.) If you suspect a bacterial STD is the cause of your abnormal discharge, see a healthcare practitioner...and get your sexual partner(s) tested, as well. These infections can be treated with antibiotics, but if both of you don’t seek treatment, you will just pass the infection back and forth, no matter how many antibiotics you take.
- White, clumpy discharge. If your symptoms also include itching, this is probably a yeast infection.
Prevent Odor and Discharge Problems Before They Star
Here’s my top advice on protecting your vaginal ecosystem and preventing odor problems before they start:
1. Pay Attention to What You Eat — And What You Don’t Eat. Gut health has a profound impact on hormone health and vaginal health, and optimal hormone health is the best starting place for building a healthy vaginal ecosystem. When your vaginal ecosystem is healthy, your signature scent is mild and pleasant.
Eat high-fiber, high-phytonutrient, low-sugar foods to support your microbiome (think avocadoes, cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens, nuts and seeds) to support your microbiome, and make sure extra sugar isn’t sneaking into your daily routine in the form of beverages like soda or fancy coffee drinks. Yeast feeds off sugar, so the more you have in your diet, the greater the chance of getting a yeast infection (or making one worse).
2. Never, ever use douche. These products are marketed as a way to improve vaginal odor, but—ultimately—they do the exact opposite. The harsh chemicals and synthetic fragrances in douche disrupt the vaginal microbiome, which predisposes you to bacterial infections and, yes, a fishy, foul smell. When it comes to smelling great, douching is your enemy.
3. Choose natural menstrual products. You want everything that comes into close contact with your vulva and vagina to be natural — no harsh chemicals, no heavy perfumes, synthetic fibers. Avoid scented menstrual products and tampons or pads with dyes. Look for condoms and lubes with safe, non-toxic ingredients. I like Sustain Natural’s Organic Lubricant, which eschews silicone, petroleum, parabens, and other gnarly additives. Plus, 95-percent of its ingredients are organic. For solo pleasure time, try Aloe Cadabra or Coconu, which are both a vaginal moisturizer and a lubricant.
4. Reconsider your birth control. Hormonal birth control (the pill) can interfere with the balance of good and bad bugs in the microbiome, which can predispose you to a bacterial infection. Then, treating the bacterial infection with antibiotics can further disrupt the microbiome, setting the stage for even more infections. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that results in an unpleasant smell. Consider switching to a non-hormonal form of birth control (though always consult a doctor before making any changes) and talk with a trusted healthcare practitioner about natural remedies like boric acid suppositories or D-mannose supplements, which has been shown to be just as effective as antibiotics at preventing recurrent UTIs and unwelcome odors.
5. Choose the right underwear. Cotton, cotton, cotton! This is your mantra when choosing underwear. Your vagina needs to be able to breath (which cotton allows) to smell its best. Organic cotton is ideal, if you can find it. Make sure to launder your underwear with unscented laundry detergent that is free of toxic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. I recommend sleeping sans underwear when you can. Wearing nothing at all is great for vaginal health. Kala makes great organic cotton underwear!
6. Use condoms and dental dams. These help keep unwanted, microbiome-disrupting bacteria out of the vagina. Condoms and dental dams can also help stop pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID, which happens when unwelcome bacteria travel from the vagina to the uterus, fallopian tubes, or ovaries.
7. Use The Cycle Syncing Method™ to even out dips in estrogen. Because low levels of estrogen can trigger imbalances in the vaginal ecosystem, you’ll want to engage in phase-based self care to regulate and harmonize the natural ebbs and flows of your 28-day hormone cycle (this is particularly important if you are in perimenopause). Your levels of estrogen will naturally go up and down during the month, but when you engage in phase-based self-care, they should go up and down within a range that doesn’t trigger unwanted symptoms.
Natural Remedies for Vaginal Imbalances
Sometimes a bacterial infection or other imbalance strikes no matter how careful you are to prevent it. Here’s what I recommend if that happens.
If you get a yeast infection: I recommend taking Vitanica Yeast Arrest and Jarrow’s specially formulated vaginal probiotic.
If you get bacterial vaginosis (bv): As a first step, I recommend tending to your gut health. Imbalanced gut flora can be a trigger for imbalanced vaginal flora. Take a high-quality probiotic supplement every day and emphasize probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut and kimchi.
To treat BV naturally and directly, consider trying a natural vaginal suppository. Vitanica makes a high-quality suppository for BV. Or look for one that contains berberine, which may help combat treatment-resistant biofilms that can make BV a chronic condition.
Always remember that once you have the right information about how your body really works, you can start making health choices that work for you. You can do this – the science of your body is on your side!