You know the best foods to eat for other parts of your body: You consume lean protein when you need steady energy, good fats for healthy hair, skin, and nails, and whole grains to fill you up and keep your system running smooth.
But what foods are best for keeping your vagina in top shape? Believe it or not, what you eat really can help keep your lady bits happy and healthy by easing cramps, fighting infections, and alleviating dryness. On the other hand, too much of some foods can mess with you below the belt, so it's smart to leave them off your plate as much as possible.
For the health of your hoo-ha, find out what the ob-gyns we spoke to suggest you feed your V, plus what items you should keep out of your kitchen.
Remember way back in chemistry class you learned that pH is the measure of how basic or acidic something is? Just like the pH measurements you came up with in lab, the vagina also has a pH—and it’s an acidic one, between 3.5 to 4.5 on a scale of zero to 14. Everything from exercise to stress to sex can change the pH of your vagina, but when your vagina is healthy, it can usually maintain its pH balance all on its own.
“We don’t want vaginal pH to fluctuate,” Taraneh Shirazian, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells Health. When vaginal pH does shift, the vagina becomes a better environment for bacteria and other organisms to grow, leading to yeast infections and especially bacterial vaginosis, an itchy infection that may also leave you smelling less than pleasant south of the border.
Here’s where the nutritional power of yogurt comes in. It's a probiotic, meaning it contains live bacteria cultures. Varieties that contain a bacteria called Lactobacillus acidophilus may help keep the pH of the vagina in the acidic range, driving down the risk of yeast and other types of infection, Alyssa Dweck, MD, a New York–based ob-gyn and co-author of The Complete A to Z for Your V, tells Health “Probiotics can help keep vaginal pH at the same level, no matter what else is going on,” adds Dr. Shirazian.
Other probiotic foods, such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir (a fermented drink similar to yogurt) might also help your vagina maintain the right pH balance, as may a probiotic supplement containing Lactobacillus acidophilus.
Concentrated cranberry juice
You've already heard that you should drink cranberry cocktail to prevent or ease a urinary tract infection. But the healthy-sounding sip may be less effective than most people think—and it's often loaded with sugar too. Instead, drink concentrated cranberry juice if you’re prone to UTIs, suggests Dr. Dweck.
There’s a particular ingredient in cranberry—proanthocyanidins or PAC, a type of plant compounds—that makes the bladder slippery (and therefore more resistant) to E. coli, the bacteria that’s linked to the most common type of urinary tract infection,” she says. There’s more PAC in the concentrated form of the juice, says Dr. Shirazian, since concentrated cranberry juice is closer to the real fruit. The more you drink, the higher the likelihood that you flush out the bacteria before they breed and begin triggering telltale symptoms like pain while peeing.
Pure cranberry tablets may work even better, she says. “Stick to just cranberry,” Dr. Dweck advises, as opposed to sugary, diluted drinks.
Staying well-hydrated helps boost energy and circulation, and it has positive benefits for your lady bits as well, says Dr. Dweck. She recommends that women who are experiencing vaginal dryness drink six to eight 8-ounce glasses of H2O each day.
Just like dehydration can make the skin of your face or hands feel parched, skimping on water might make the skin on your vulva (the external parts of your genitalia) feel dry or itchy. Scratching that itch could make you more susceptible to infection, so don’t risk it and stay hydrated. In addition, drinking enough water is a simple way to help prevent UTIs. All that liquid means you’ll have to pee—often—which helps flush out bacteria before they have a chance to create an infection.
A study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that ginger was just as effective as ibuprofen for relieving painful period-related cramps. In the study, women took either 250 milligrams of a ginger powder in capsule form or 400 milligrams of ibuprofen, four times a day for the first three days of their periods.
Ibuprofen falls into a class of pain meds called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, which, as the name implies, fight inflammation, include some that causes period pain, Dr. Shirazian says. Ginger is well-known for its anti-inflammatory properties, so it may work to quell cramps in a similar way.
Though the study focused on ginger capsules, it can’t hurt to try adding fresh ginger to stir frys or ground ginger to homemade desserts. Or whip up a batch of our ginger tea: Add two tablespoons of fresh ginger root to water and let it steep for 15 minutes before straining.
Soy products such as tofu and edamame contain isoflavones that mimic estrogen, says Dr. Dweck. Although this isn't proven by science, some experts suggest that the plant estrogen can have a similar effect as the estrogen a woman naturally produces, alleviating vaginal dryness caused by hormonal changes.
When you eat soy, your body breaks it down into some phytoestrogens, which are “part of the cascade of estrogen production,” says Dr. Shirazian. “When we think about adding estrogen to a woman’s body, it’s to improve symptoms that are estrogen-dependent, like vaginal dryness,” she says, and theoretically, added estrogen from soy products would too.
But it hasn’t been so clear-cut in studies examining post-menopausal women, who often deal with vaginal dryness. Some of the research has found soy helped to minimize hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and other symptoms of menopause, while other studies found no benefit at all, Dr. Shirazian says.
You’d likely have to eat quite a lot of soy to get any real estrogenic effect, explains Dr. Dweck, but there’s some concern that eating too much soy may actually be problematic for some women. That’s because certain diseases, like some breast cancers, may be fueled by estrogen. “For women with a personal or family history of breast cancer, soy is not one of the more innocuous things to try,” says Dr. Shirazian.
Sure, a little dark chocolate can alleviate the frustration of PMS. But in general, excess sugar is not vagina-friendly. “People prone to yeast infections should cut back on sweets and fruit, since sugar can promote yeast growth in the vagina,” Leena Nathan, MD, ob-gyn at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, tells Health. Vaginal secretions contain sugar, says Dr. Nathan, and yeast tends to thrive in sweet, moist environments.
Dr. Shirazian adds that eating foods high in sugar can change the pH of your vagina, allowing for an overgrowth of yeast and other infection-causing organisms.
Even though you might want to decompress on the couch with a glass (or a bottle!) of red wine during your period, alcohol may also worsen menstrual cramps. (And, don’t forget, drinking might also cause other unpleasant period-like symptoms, like headaches and bloating.) Occasional imbibing is okay—generally, experts recommend sticking to no more than one alcoholic drink a day—but avoiding booze as much as possible is probably a good idea when it comes to keeping other female-only body parts healthy.
Studies have linked even just that limited intake of alcohol to increased breast cancer risk. While cutting out alcohol altogether doesn’t sound all that fun, it might be the smartest approach for some women, especially if they already have a high risk of breast cancer. Other women may opt to reduce their alcohol intake from one drink to a day to, say, one drink every other day.
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