A vaginal yeast infection is one of the most common reasons women have abnormal discharge, burning and itching of their lady parts. In this article I’m going to help you understand what causes yeast infections, how to prevent them, and some of the best yeast infection natural remedies to bring you relief.
What is a vaginal yeast infection?
A vaginal yeast infection refers to the overgrowth of candida, a fungal species commonly found in the vagina and gut. The issue of a yeast infection arises when there is an imbalance in flora and shift in the environment that allows for candida overgrowth.
Normally, your vagina maintains a pH range that inhibits the growth of yeast. Yup, your vagina is totally looking out for you and maintaining its own ecosystem of health. Anything that disrupts the pH of your vagina has the ability to leave you susceptible to a yeast infection. Keep reading to find out what those disruptors are.
What's the relationship between yeast infections and candida overgrowth?
Candida is the organism that causes what women refer to as a yeast infection. Candida is normally found in the vagina and is in balance with other microorganisms. While medicine has long vilified yeast, we are coming to understand the the mycobiome plays an important role in health. The issue is balance and cultivating a terrain that favors a healthy vagina.
What is Candida?
Candida is an opportunistic fungal (yeast) organism, meaning if it is given the opportunity it will overgrow. Stress, poorly controlled blood sugar as is the case in diabetes, gut dysbiosis, and medication like antibiotics can leave you susceptible to overgrowth. As I explain in Beyond the Pill, the pill is a common culprit in the development of yeast infections.
Candida albicans is the most common cause of yeast infections, but there are other candida species that can also be problematic. A vaginal culture can help you know which type of candida you’re dealing with.
What are some causes of yeast infections?
As I shared earlier, disruption in the pH of your vagina can leave you susceptible to yeast infections.
The use of spermicides, elevated blood sugar, gut dysbiosis, hormonal birth control, progesterone suppositories, pregnancy, clothing that doesn't breathe, and douching make women more susceptible to a yeast infection.
What can make you more susceptible to a yeast infection?
- Your period
- Estrogen therapy
- Hormonal birth control
Blood Sugar, Diabetes and Yeast Infections
Elevations in blood sugar, either by way of diet or because of an underlying issue can leave you more susceptible to yeast overgrowth. Sometimes a recurrent yeast infection is the first sign of diabetes for some women.
In addition, if you’re a woman with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and have recurrent yeast infections then you want to meet with your doctor to discuss diabetes screening. Women with PCOS are at higher risk of insulin resistance and blood sugar abnormalities.
Antibiotics Yeast Infections
Antibiotics that cause a shift in the flora in your vagina can also contribute to altered vaginal pH. You may have heard if you take antibiotics you should eat yogurt or take a probiotic. That is because antibiotics kill both the bad stuff and the good stuff, which can create an environment for yeast to overgrow. I typically use a spore-based probiotic in my patients who are taking an antibiotic because it supports both the terrain and healthy organisms.
Can Birth Control Cause Yeast Infections?
Definitely! Your natural hormones influence the health of your vagina and what grows there. The synthetic stuff you find in birth control can do the same.
Hormonal birth control is associated with an increased risk of yeast infections. As I discuss in Beyond the Pill, yeast can overgrow in your mouth, gut and vagina while on the pill. There’s been plenty of research and women’s stories to support this.
This isn’t just a pill issue either. Hormonal IUDs have been associated with increased vaginal yeast infections, as have vaginal sponges and diaphragms.
I recommend all women using hormonal birth control take a probiotic and eat a diet that supports gut health. Need meal plan inspiration? Grab my free hormone balancing meal plan & recipe guide here!
Can sperm cause a yeast infection?
Sperm doesn’t specifically cause yeast infections. However, ejaculate (semen) can shift the pH of the vagina. If you already have other factors that put you at risk for yeast overgrowth then the lubes you use and the introduction of semen could alter your pH and make the odds of developing a yeast infection higher.
Yeast Infection Symptoms
What does it look like to have a yeast infection? The amount of discharge can vary, as can the amount of discomfort. Here are a few of the ways to identify if you have a yeast infection.
- Thick, white, “cottage cheese” like discharge
- Itching or burning
- Swollen tissue
- Pain with urination (dysuria)
- Pain with intercourse (dyspareunia)
- Symptoms can be worse the week before your period or following your period
Do Yeast Infections Go Away on Their Own?
In some cases, yeast infections self resolve, but in my clinical experience, most women require treatment. A yeast infection is uncomfortable to say the least, so I recommend working with a doctor to help you resolve the current infection and investigate what is making you susceptible to yeast overgrowth in the first place.
Yeast Infections Treatments
There are several over-the-counter medications and natural remedies that can help alleviate symptoms and resolve the yeast infection. If you find that you are treating a recurrent infection or that symptoms don’t resolve with treatment then you want to make an appointment with your doctor to discuss these issues. There may be other infections involved or you may have a different strain of yeast that is more resistant to treatment.
When in doubt, make a visit to your doctor to ensure you’re getting the best care!
Yeast Infection Medicine
I am briefly covering a couple of the common yeast infection medications. It is important to discuss these medications with your doctor because they do have side effects and they can interact with other medications. The good news is that your doctor can help you navigate which treatment is best for you.
This is an oral medication your doctor can prescribe. It can take a couple of days to take effect, but can help clear the infection. Headaches, gastrointestinal issues, dizziness, rashes and in some cases, liver toxicity are possible side effects while on this medication. While most women do fine with a short course, it is important to chat with your doc if you do experience side effects.
If you think you might be pregnant, this medication is not for you.
Topical Miconazole (aka Monistat)
This is the most common over the counter topical treatments for yeast infections and yes, it does work well for the majority of cases. It works by breaking down the cell walls of yeast and preventing them from thriving in your vagina.
Monistat is a known endocrine disruptor (chemical that can lead to hormone imbalance. Learn more about xenoestrogens and how to protect your hormones from environmental toxins.
Yeast Infection Natural Remedies
Can probiotics be used to treat a yeast infection?
Studies have shown that bacteria, lactobacillus, in particular inhibit yeast growth and biofilm production. While older studies showed no benefit of lactobacillus species and have led some doctors to be dismissive of the use of probiotics, more recent studies have demonstrated mechanisms by which probiotics do inhibit candida overgrowth.
Vaginal application of probiotics has long been used by women in the treatment of yeast infections. As I explain in Beyond the Pill, your gut microbiome is shared with your vaginal microbiome, which is why dietary practices that support a healthy gut also supports your vagina.
I recommend women start with oral Women's Probiotic to help shift their microbiome to a more favorable state, which will support the growth of beneficial organisms.
Boric Acid Suppositories
Boric acid suppositories can be prescribed by your doctor and made at a compounding pharmacy. They can also be formulated to include beneficial probiotics. You can often get boric acid capsules prescribed to a regular pharmacy to use vaginally, which can be as effective and sometimes more affordable.
Oral use of boric acid is toxic and can be fatal, so this is a vagina only solution.
Some women notice relief within 24 hours and others can take a couple of days depending on the root cause of the overgrowth and other health conditions. Boric acid should be used only as prescribed and for only as long as your doctor recommended. If you still have symptoms you may have other infections or need a different treatment. The best way to know is to talk with your doctor.
Boric acid is an endocrine disruptor, so we want to be mindful when we use it. Keep in mind Monistat, a common yeast medication, is also an endocrine disruptor and contains parabens.
This can bring a lot of relief while you address the underlying issue. Before beginning the suppository, a culture can be helpful to identify that what you are experiencing is due to yeast and not another organism. If you have recurrent infections then getting a culture can be helpful to identify the organism and see what it is susceptible to.
Is Coconut Oil Effective for a Yeast Infection?
Coconut oil is antimicrobial and has been shown to be an effective topical treatment to yeast overgrowth. However, it is unlikely this would be sufficient to treat an acute yeast infection.
Can You Use Tea Tree Oil to Treat or Prevent Yeast Infections?
Tea tree oil is an antifungal and while it can be helpful in prevention, however, it can also be quite painful to tissue that is already inflamed and in some cases, can hurt the delicate tissue. Your doctor can compound suppositories with tea tree oil to decrease the risk of irritation.
Do apple cider vinegar baths (or apple cider vinegar in general) work?
A vinegar bath as an adjunct therapy can help shift the pH to inhibit the growth of yeast. I would not recommend douching with it for a yeast infection.
What about douching for yeast infections?
Douching is not recommended by physicians, especially in the case of infection. The action of douching can push an infection higher into the genital tract and disrupts the important organisms that protect against yeast overgrowth.
Is There a Best Diet for Yeast Infections?
I advise my patients to avoid sugar, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol to prevent yeast overgrowth and as part of treatment. Your diet largely influences microbial growth in your entire digestive tract, vagina and even skin. While sugar, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol should only ever be consumed in moderation, if you feel you can never eat these foods without experiencing a yeast infection then that warrants further investigation.
If you need help getting started on a diet to support your hormones, gut health, and help you eliminate yeast infections then I invite you to grab my free hormone balancing meal plan + recipes here. This meal plan help you optimize hormones, balance your blood sugar and support a health gut.