Natural and Alternative Solutions to Vaginal Yeast Infections

You can treat vaginal yeast infections with natural remedies if you would like to avoid taking prescription medication. According to the Mayo Clinic, these are some of the most popular natural remedies:

  • vinegar douches
  • tea tree oil cream
  • garlic or boric acid vaginal suppositories
  • yogurt taken orally or inserted in the vagina

How to Prevent Vaginal Yeast Infections

In many cases, you may know exactly what led to your yeast infection. For example, some women experience these infections every time they take antibiotics. By recognizing your own risk factors, you can prevent future infections.

Here are some common methods of prevention, most targeted at avoiding bacteria growth near the vagina:

  • avoid wearing tight pants, pantyhose, tights, or leggings
  • avoid using feminine deodorant or deodorant tampons/pads
  • do not sit around in wet clothing—especially bathing suits
  • eat a well-balanced diet
  • eat yogurt or take supplements with lactobacillus
  • wear natural fibers such as cotton, linen, or silk
  • avoid sitting in hot tubs or taking frequent hot-tub baths
  • wash underwear in hot water
  • avoid douching
  • change feminine products frequently
  • Read More: Yeast Infection No More

Urinary Incontinence: What you can do at home

Urinary incontinence treatment — what you can do right now

Bladder issues are like so many health-related concerns — the sooner you attend to them the easier they are to treat. So here’s what you can do:

See your healthcare provider. If you are noticing any urine leakage or an increased frequency of urination, the first step is to get checked out by your healthcare practitioner. Depending upon the situation, you may find it useful to consult further with a gynecologist, urogynecologist, or urologist.

When we see women for bladder problems, we first try to figure out what kind of urinary incontinence they are dealing with. Most often this is some form of mixed incontinence that can be treated through alternative therapies.

Pelvic floor exercises. In cultures where women squat to do their work, there is a much lower incidence of incontinence. Most women don’t do much in the way of that kind of labor anymore — but we’ve got Kegel exercises! Incontinence can often be arrested or reversed with Kegel exercises alone. Named after an American ob/gyn, these simple exercises are really an adaptation of the “root lock” of kundalini yoga without the trappings. You can do them anywhere, anytime — and you should.

To do a Kegel, imagine that you are trying to stop yourself from urinating. Practice both short and long Kegels. You can even do an anticipatory Kegel before you sneeze or cough and prevent leakage! For more information on Kegel exercises for urinary incontinence, visit the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics’ website.

A wonderful added benefit of Kegels is that the increased muscle tone can increase sexual pleasure in both sensation and orgasm. Male partners are happier too!

Sometimes women have trouble identifying the muscles that control the bladder and get frustrated attempting Kegels. This can be a natural result of conditioning the brain to ignore bladder stimulation. How many of us are too busy to go to the bathroom when we feel the urge, then “forget” we had to go. Over time, it’s possible that our brain just stops paying attention and we disconnect. It can take some work to get those pathways talking again.

If Kegel exercises don’t seem to be working well for you, you can try insertable cones or balls (available through your doctor or on the internet) to help you train your PC (pubococcygeal) muscle. Biofeedback practitioners use electronic monitors inside the vagina to help women learn how to identify and tone muscles related to the bladder. Both tools can be very effective.

Any kind of physical exercise that engages your core will help strengthen your pelvic muscles, but Pilates and yoga in particular are great inner toners. Both focus on building a firm core or root. They also use deep breathing and mindful movement to reconnect the brain to the body.

Acupuncture is another method that has provided symptomic relief for some women. It helps tone muscle and increase blood flow to the bladder. It can boost the immune system, soothe inflammation, and restore balance to the hormones.

Pelvic physical therapy (PPT) is sometimes effective in difficult cases. Practitioners use several diagnostic tools, including sonograms, physical exams and lower back screenings to evaluate the cause of incontinence. Treatment may include external and internal pelvic floor massage, relaxation training, biofeedback, strengthening, bladder retraining, and home exercises. This is especially useful when patients have adhesions or physical anomalies due to radiation treatment, injury or surgery. Many women who undergo PPT report increased libido and enjoyment of sex in addition to better bladder control.

Nutrition is vital to restoring a healthy balance to your endocrine and immune system, which in turn is important for maintaining muscle tone and preventing infection. Eating a diet of whole foods with plenty of fruits, vegetables, protein and some whole grains will promote adequate nutrition and help level out your hormones. Be sure to take a robust multivitamin/multimineral formula to support your body. And try supplements with cranberry extract — just be sure they don’t have added sugar.

Allergies may exacerbate an overactive bladder. If you think you may have food allergies or sensitivities, we recommend trying an elimination diet (avoiding a suspicious food for two weeks, then re-introducing it for a day or two).

Drink plenty of water and herbal tea. Flushing your urinary tract regularly will help evacuate bacteria. Cranberry juice and extracts can help prevent urinary tract infections by changing the pH of the bladder, but again, be sure you choose one with no added sugars. (Excess simple carbohydrates in the diet only encourage UTI’s).  If you are getting up in the middle of the night to urinate, stop drinking a few hours before bed.

Internal or surgical methods. If you’ve tried everything and you still can’t go out for an evening without worrying, you may want to consider a form of internal intervention. If urinary incontinence is keeping you from fully enjoying your work, love life, hobbies and pursuits, then fitted internal devices or surgical interventions are a reasonable next step.

Fitted pessaries, sometimes referred to as prolapse pessaries, are removable umbrella-like support rings that can help lift your pelvic organs up off your bladder. A pessary can be a great non-invasive choice for a woman with a cystocele or uterine prolapse.

New techniques like bladder laparoscopy and bladder slings can be helpful for treating severe stress incontinence in some women. Currently the most common procedures are known as the Burch colposuspension technique and the fascial sling. In the past, bladder suspension surgeries had a useful life of about four years. In the Burch, the urethra and bladder are secured with sutures to the pelvic wall. The new bladder slings use life-like materials that move with the body and act like real muscle.

Unfortunately, however, a study published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that neither of these surgical procedure offers terrific results for the women who have them. Known as the Stress Incontinence Surgical Treatment Efficacy Trial (SISTEr), the fascial sling was compared with the Burch colposuspension technique for treating stress urinary incontinence — the type of leaking that can occur when we run, laugh, sneeze, cough, or lift heavy objects. A mere two years following surgery, only 47% of the sling patients and 38% of the Burch suspension patients experienced good resolution of their stress urinary incontinence. Even so, the better results of the sling appeared to be offset by higher rates of UTI’s, problems with voiding, and even urge incontinence.

As with any surgery, we recommend getting as much information as possible and discussing your options with a few practitioners. More progressive doctors are using the latest technology to re-engineer a leaky bladder without excessive trauma and scarring. There are now gynecologists who specialize in urology (urogynecologists), and more women are going into urological surgery (formerly an exclusively male specialty). It’s safe to say that the more experience a surgeon has with a procedure, the more likely it is that you will experience the results you are looking for.

Emotional work. Understanding our hidden fears and anger or reluctance to “let go” can be a powerful remedy in dealing with incontinence. Many women have found relief with the Feldenkrais method — a mind-body technique that can help heal physical conditions through the release of emotional blockages with movement.

Because the brain and the bladder are intimately connected, it only makes sense to approach incontinence on both fronts.

2 Week Cleanse for Women

How long has it been since you felt truly great? Stop for a moment and take inventory of how you feel right now. Are you feeling tired, bloated, moody, flabby, achy or spaced-out? Do your clothes fit a little tighter than you might like? Are you suffering from allergies or chemical sensitivities? Or are you so used to feeling “off” that it now feels normal? If so, let me tell you how you can feel better in just two weeks by simply paying more attention to what you eat.

I can’t think of a patient who hasn’t been skeptical when I tell them how life-changing the Women to Women Quick-Cleanse can be – but it’s true. You are what you eat. It’s that simple. Of course, diet is not the only factor — getting to the root of health issues is complicated. But it is a fundamental piece of the puzzle. With this elimination diet plan, you’ll eliminate the dietary “clutter” that is taxing your digestive and immune systems and slowing your metabolism. From here, you can quickly determine which foods fuel your unique biochemistry and which ones get in your way. The reward will be increased energy and focus, clearer skin, more efficient digestion, and an improved muscle-to-fat ratio — you may even lose a few pounds.

This is the same eating plan we recommend to all our new patients and members — to resounding success. The cleansing plan is simple and can be customized to suit your comfort level. Changing eating habits can be discouraging, difficult and confusing — which is why most conventional doctors don’t go there. They don’t believe women can do it! But I know differently because I’ve seen the solid evidence every day in my office. So take it slowly — and don’t give up! Try this plan for two weeks and see how you feel. If you fall off, try again a few months later. I promise you that the self-knowledge and vibrant health you gain will be worth it.

So let’s get started!

How a quick detox diet works

A Quick-Cleanse plan helps turn down the noise in your body and frees up your immune system to deal with other, potentially more hazardous concerns — like viruses, accelerated aging, or unchecked cell division. Because you will be eating whole foods, simply prepared, and supplementing with a probiotic and fiber supplement, the plan allows your upper GI tract to cleanse, rest and restore itself – which in turn boosts your liver’s ability to detox efficiently, quiets inflammation, heals the lower gut, revs up the metabolic fire, cleanses the colon, and reminds your body to burn fat, not sugar, for fuel.

No diet is a cure-all. In fact, I don’t like the word diet because it brings to mind fads and self-deprivation, and in my experience most diets of that nature just don’t work. Because the science of weight loss is so much more complex and variable with the individual than we ever previously thought, it wouldn’t surprise me if traditional dieting became a thing of the past. So while the specifics of an effective elimination diet are complex in that they depend upon an individual’s unique make-up, the basic idea is simple: certain foods and nutrients will fire up your metabolism and certain foods and substances will derail it.

Because everyone’s biochemistry is different, multiple factors come into play in a successful cleansing plan, including your age, genetic profile, the degree of inflammationin your body, hormonal balance including thyroid levels, hydration, exercise, rest, and above all, your liver’s ability to detoxify. But it’s safe to say that stress, environmental exposure, poor exercise habits, and suboptimal nutrition begin to take their toll on women universally by the time they reach their late 30’s to early 40’s. An improved diet and nutritional supplementation can undo much of the damage wrought by our modern lifestyle. But to really flush your system out you will need to identify which foods are optimal for your individual “blueprint” — and which are best avoided. And that’s what the Women to Women Quick-Cleanse diet is all about.

The Quick-Cleanse Plan

Our Quick-Cleanse plan is adapted from the nutritional and lifestyle guidelines that form a mainstay of our plan. The cleansing plan and guidelines work hand-in-glove with each other because you cannot sustain hormonal balance without a nutritionally rounded diet, while at the same time it’s tough to choose healthy foods when your body is experiencing erratic hormonal fluctuation (ask any woman with undeniable PMS cravings). There is a powerful action/reaction equation at work here. Stubborn weight gain, PMS, fatigue, GI issues, joint and muscle aches, increased food sensitivities and mood irregularities are just a handful of the many diet-related symptoms that can worsen and diversify with hormonal imbalance. So regardless of where you may fall on the severity scale (if you aren’t sure, take our Homone Health Assessment), our Quick-Cleanse plan can help your hormonal symptoms, and may put an end to your discomfort altogether.

Don’t be surprised if you feel fatigued in the early days as your body works to eliminate toxins. At the end of two weeks, you should be feeling more alive in your own skin, energized, and focused, and experiencing less pain and improved digestion. You will also be more in-tune with the requirements and rhythms of your own body.

Quick-Cleanse guidelines

The basic idea of the Quick-Cleanse plan is to progressively remove certain foods and food categories from your diet for two weeks, then phase them back in and monitor how you feel. This plan is challenging, but it is not calorie-restricted. You may eat as much as you want of the recommended foods. The goal at the end of two weeks is to bring your biochemistry closer to baseline. As you reintroduce certain foods, you will have an undiluted reaction and be better able to judge their overall effect on you.

While on the Quick-Cleanse plan, I recommend you eat three balanced meals and two snacks every day. We suggest eating your snacks at mid-morning and mid-afternoon. To simplify life while you’re on the plan, shop ahead to the degree you are able using ourQuick-Cleanse shopping guide, and clear a special place in your refrigerator and kitchen shelves for your foods. Here are further guidelines in detail :

  •  Eat at least 3-4 oz of lean protein with every meal and 1-2 oz with each snack (3-4 oz is about the size of a deck of cards).
  • Try to keep overall carbohydrate intake to 60 grams per day, with about 15 grams per meal and 7 grams per snack, unless you are working out regularly (more than 4 days a week).
  • Use oils with a high smoke point for cooking. Grape seed oil is our favorite, but there are many other good choices. Extra-virgin olive oil and flax seed oil are good choices for dressings. Store all oils in a cool, dark location.
  •  Do not skip meals. Your body burns fuel during the day when you are busy and stressed, so that’s the best time to give it the nutrients it needs.
  • Do not eat after 7:00 pm. This will allow your digestive system to rest while you sleep.
  • Drink eight to ten 8-oz glasses (at least 2 quarts) of pure, filtered water each day.
  •  Take a rich multivitamin with calcium and magnesium. We also recommend essential fatty acids and 500 mg of vitamin C.  Eat or drink something nutritious when taking your nutrients to help absorption, and be sure to drink at least one big glass of water with them. This approach will help prevent the stomach upset some women experience with nutritional supplements.
  • Take a fiber supplement each morning and evening. I recommend buying fresh flax seeds and a small coffee grinder in which to grind them. Sprinkle ground flax seeds on breakfast porridge or salads — they are a great source of fiber and alpha-linolenic acids.
  • You will also need to take a good probiotic twice a day, 30 minutes before eating or according to directions.
  • Do some form of gentle exercise each day. We suggest 30–45 minutes of walking (15 minutes after each meal, if you like). If you already work out, don’t stop now. Continue your regular routine as per usual, or tone it down if you feel fatigued. If you find you are hungry, eat a banana (or any of the other recommended foods) before or after your work-out.
  • If you can, try to go to bed by 10:00 pm. This is not imperative, but it will help your body detox by reestablishing a natural circadian rhythm, which will in turn smooth out your hormonal cycles. After two weeks you’ll notice that you sleep better at night and have more energy through the day, when you need it.

Foods to exclude

A list of three levels listing foods to exclude, ranging from less strict to very strict, follows. We encourage you to customize what you eliminate according to your own emotional and physical comfort level.

Depending on your preferences, you can approach an elimination diet from one of two ways: either beginning at Level III and becoming less strict over two weeks, or vice versa, beginning at the Level I and eliminating more foods as you progress. Trust your intuition on this, and don’t be afraid to experiment a little. The important thing is not to give up if you don’t get overnight results.

In general terms, we have found that the stricter you are, the more quickly you will see results — but you may also feel worse before you feel better, and this approach isn’t right for every body. Some of the symptoms that can arise in the first week as your body rids itself of stored-up toxins and fat include headaches, increased fatigue, depressed mood, nausea, lightheadedness, joint or muscle stiffness, and changes in GI function. This is normal, so do your best to stick with it. If you don’t make it the full 14 days the first time, don’t beat yourself up; just resolve to go a little longer the next time. Good health is an evolving process!

If you prefer to take a moderate approach, you can start at the first level and see how you feel. If you do not experience a change, or as you are energized to go further, proceed to the next level. Eliminate the foods on each successive list, again checking in with how you feel at each stage along the way. Alternatively, you can start your cleansing plan by eliminating all of the foods listed at once. (Do be cautious about discontinuing caffeine cold-turkey. For hints on how to wean yourself, see our article). If you begin with level III and work backwards, once again gauge the rate at which you add foods back in according to how you feel.

Level I — Least strict. Eliminate the following…

  • Alcohol
  • Packaged and processed foods (good rule of thumb: if it has more than three ingredients on the label, don’t buy it!)
  • Caffeine
  • Chocolate and cocoa
  • Condiments: ketchup, relish, chutney, barbecue sauce, teriyaki and soy sauce
  • Fats: shortening, margarine, processed oils
  • Grains: wheat, spelt, barley, kamut, rye, triticale, corn
  • Juices that are not fresh or raw
  • Peanuts
  • Processed meats: canned meats, cold cuts, bacon, sausage
  • Pork
  • Salt, in excess
  • Shellfish
  • Soy and soybean products: tofu, tempeh, soy sauce, etc.
  • Soft drinks
  • Sweeteners: refined sugar/white sugar (sucrose), brown sugar, raw sugar, evaporated cane juice, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, barley malt

Level II — All of the above, plus…

  • Beef and veal
  • Dairy, including butter
  • Mayonnaise and mayonnaise-like spreads
  • Nightshade vegetables: tomatoes, eggplant, peppers
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Salad dressings

Level III — All of the above, plus…

  • Citrus fruits (except lemon, if it agrees with you)
  • Egg yolks
  • High glycemic-index fruits: bananas, dates, figs, grapes, pineapple, raisins, watermelon
  • Vinegars
  • Mustards

Foods to enjoy

For a complete list of the many foods you may enjoy on the Quick-Cleanse plan, see ourshopping guide. One recommendation we make to all women and their families, but especially to anyone on an elimination diet, is to buy organic and locally-grown food whenever possible, and to always wash produce thoroughly. Do not eat fruit (or anything else) with mold on it.

The best lean protein is boneless, skinless chicken and turkey breast and egg whites (preferably free-range, organic, and antibiotic-free). Certain fish are okay, such as smaller ocean species like sardines and mackerel, white fish such as flounder or cod, or farm-raised tilapia or rainbow trout (again, organically farmed, if possible). Grass-fed organic beef is acceptable in limited amounts (no more than 12 oz per week). We also recommend buying brown rice protein powder to blend into filling smoothies.

Beans and legumes are a great choice to add bulk and lean protein, whether you are vegetarian or not. You may also eat steamed brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, teff, wild rice and millet (again, see our shopping list for a complete guide). These grains are whole, complex carbohydrates that can provide a steady supply of energy throughout the day — especially when combined with legumes or other protein complements. But again, we see every woman as a unique individual, and just as some find that animal protein does not agree with them, other women cannot tolerate a diet high in vegetable protein sources.

As for vegetables, these are fairly limitless in possibilities. Green leafy vegetables are particularly known for their cleansing, alkalizing properties and have been prized for centuries for flushing toxins, including Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic medicine.

Seasoning is another way to add infinite variety and antioxidants to the foods you choose for your detox diet. Buy fresh spices whenever you can, or grow your own! See ourshopping list for the full complement of spices you can include.

Snacking is heartily encouraged on the elimination diet — but you may have to rethink your idea of what makes a good snack! Half a steamed chicken breast with snap-peas? Almond butter and rice cakes? Or half an acorn squash stuffed with quinoa, lima beans and scallions, anyone? You may need to add an extra snack, especially if you work out, or if you are just simply famished. Listen to your body. There is no rule that says you can have only two snacks per day.

This may seem like a trivial thing, but we have also found that something as simple as varying the texture and color of your foods can play a huge role in how satisfied you feel. For an example of what one day on our Quick-Cleanse diet might look like for you, click here.

Hints for success

The Quick-Cleanse plan is not without its challenges, and many a woman has burst into tears in my office at the very thought of changing her diet so radically — even for two weeks! If you are have similar feelings or your emotions flare up once you’re following the plan, don’t worry. It’s okay — food is an emotional thing. Do your best and don’t get down on yourself. If you manage to cut out even two potential offenders in two weeks, you’ve done yourself some good! Next time you may succeed in cutting out a couple more.

To assist you with the process, we’ve come up with a few hints and watch-out-for’s. We have found these tips to be tried and true after years of working with women from all walks of life. See how they work for you:

  • Schedule wisely.  Look ahead in your calendar and choose two weeks that are relatively stress-free. Holidays, family gatherings, and major deadlines are in direct opposition to your efforts.
  • Pre-shop.  Shop ahead for all of your detox/elimination diet foods and supplements. We’ve provided a quick-and-easy comprehensive shopping list for you to print out and take to the store. Establish a special shelf in the fridge, cupboards, or countertop for your cleansing program foods.
  • Limit entertaining, going out to eat and to parties.  It can be hard to stay focused on your Quick-Cleanse plan during social gatherings, so try to keep them to a minimum for just two weeks.
  • Be honest.  Tell your friends and family about what you are trying to do. Ask them for their active support — you may be surprised how inspiring you can be!
  • Journaling. Use a food diary, scheduling a time each evening to write and chart your progress, including any difficulties and symptoms. This will help you notice improvements.
  • Enlist a friend.  Have a friend join you in the cleansing program and pre-arrange special treats to enjoy together — a daily walk, yoga class, or weekend shopping expedition.
  • Reward yourself.  Think of your absolutely favorite (non-food!) things to do. Enjoy at least one every day. Take a long hot bubble bath. Get a massage or a manicure and pedicure. Borrow or buy yourself a new CD or take a leisurely bike ride. Allow yourself time each day in the natural world. Think of this short time as “me” time and revel in it. Don’t feel guilty; your neurochemical reward response can help you hard-wire positive behavior!
  • Get adequate rest.  This is especially important when your system is ridding itself of toxins. If you can, luxuriate in the occasional nap. This can be very cleansing and restorative!
  • Breathe!

Phasing food back in

Once you hit the two-week mark, pat yourself on the back and give yourself a hearty congratulations. Hopefully you will be feeling significantly better. If you want to continue the plan, go ahead! If you have had enough, it’s time to reintroduce foods back into your diet.

Depending on what you’ve given up, reverse the process, eating a lot of a particular food category (like dairy) for two days and see how you feel. Try to introduce last the foods you crave the most. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes our minds and bodies get addicted to abnormal states (see our food sensitivities article) and undermine our efforts to implement healthy changes.

Most common food sensitivities (wheat, dairy, corn, soy, yeast, sugar) become blatantly obvious after two weeks on the Quick Cleanse. You may find you suffer from a vicious “food hangover” upon reintroducing certain foods that never seemed to bother you before. Take this as a sign of your success! You now have some valuable information with which to go forward. Keep track of any changes in your food journal and remember your food triggers — that way you can choose wisely during times of stress.

Moving toward wellness

The Quick-Cleanse plan is not intended to solve chronic health or weight issues. It is meant to be a first step in acquiring new understanding of your unique physiology. It should allow you to see your body’s ability to detox as a limited resource, one that you can foster with a bit of extra attention and self-care. Once you know what kinds of food make you feel well and which make you feel sick, you put yourself in the driver’s seat of your own long-term health and weight loss.

Digestive Health for Women

Sometimes a patient will ask me what I consider to be the secrets of good health. Of course, they already know many of my “secrets” — my patients are very well-read. But frankly I am surprised by how few women know the importance of the tiny, ever-busy microorganisms that inhabit our digestive systems, and what can be done to help them flourish.

There are trillions of these microorganisms colonizing our bodies — tenfold more numerous than the cells of our bodies. When we are healthy, it is in large part because they are healthy. Called beneficial flora, these small friends digest and help us absorb our food, shore up our immune systems, even contribute to the manufacture of vitamins. The term probiotics, a word you may be hearing more often these days, refers to foods or supplements containing live beneficial microbes, primarily bacterial strains, that are used to fortify or rebuild our natural gut flora.

By contrast, impaired or imbalanced intestinal flora are implicated in heart disease, allergies and asthma, skin disorders, obesity, IBS and digestive problems, some cancers, Alzheimer’s and much more — both acute conditions and chronic diseases. Daily probiotic use is an effective preventative and therapeutic measure to help keep the balance of intestinal flora tipped toward the positive side.

The truth is that feeling well depends on keeping your friendly bacteria happy — think how sick you feel when the unfriendly microorganisms get the upper hand with a case of food poisoning, Montezuma’s revenge, or intestinal flu. You can keep them happy with a good diet, good health habits, and supplementing with probiotics. Many dairy manufacturers are now advertising probiotic-enhanced foods, and natural food stores carry several varieties of probiotics. It can be overwhelming trying to choose what’s best — so let’s talk about what you need to know.

Chronic GI Support Nutritional Supplement System
The flora in your GI tract — it’s a jungle in there!

Imagine that your mouth, intestines, colon and vagina are a lush organic garden, filled with exotic plants. Provided with adequate nutrients, water, beneficial insects and soil microbes, your garden flourishes. Even when disease or pests present themselves, your garden gate is strong and the bad guys are easily repelled. But what happens when conditions are suboptimal, or the ground is razed? Your prized specimens weaken and succumb, pests and weeds take hold, and the whole delicate ecosystem is overrun.

At last count, scientists estimate that around 750 trillion bacteria, yeast and other microorganisms inhabit a healthy woman’s digestive system and vagina. They make up 3–5 pounds of your total body weight and outnumber your cells ten to one. In the buzzing metropolis of your GI tract, there is plenty of surface area for these microbes to colonize, but competition for real estate is high. Through a process of “competitive exclusion,” how you treat your body determines which bacteria get residence — good, bad or indifferent.

Of the trillions of microbes in your system, researchers have identified some — but by no means all — of the friendly flora species. Categorized through a complex process of culturing and DNA isolation, essential players include Escherichia, Lactobacillus, and Bifidobacterium. Other common inhabitants include Bacteroides, Clostridium, Fusobacterium, Eubacterium, Streptococcus and certain yeast (Candida) strains.

What’s truly amazing, though, is not just how many different kinds of these tiny creatures are present, but how complex the differences among them are. Individual species themselves can be beneficial or detrimental, for example, depending on a number of factors: their numbers; life stage; whether they’ve mutated into a beneficial or harmful strain (antibiotics impact this big time); location in your body; even which tinier microorganisms might be hyperparasitizing them!

This is the case with E. coli, Candida and strep. Regarding location, for example, E. coli behaves when it’s in your intestines and colon, but causes infection once it gets into your urinary tract. (That’s why it’s so important to wipe front-to-back when you use the bathroom!) As for hyperparasites, E. coli itself can contract a virus (a bacterio-phage = “eats bacteria”) and get wiped out. We are only just beginning to comprehend how complex life can be!

Over millennia, we’ve evolved a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship with our gut flora. As long as we provide a hospitable environment, they remain as paying guests, helping digestion and maintaining a balanced immunological response to potential allergens. As infants, our intestinal tract cannot mature efficiently without them. Many researchers believe that some allergies are rooted in a deficiency of friendly flora in childhood, resulting in an underdeveloped GI tract and compromised immune response.

Beneficial bacteria can be inhaled (like most microbes), but more often than not they find their way into the body with what we eat. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir and yogurt contain active cultures of beneficial bacteria. The first beneficial microbe in our gut, Bifidobacterium infantis, is introduced through breast milk during the initial days of life, helping us digest milk sugars. As we mature, other species, like Lactobacillus, colonize the intestines, colon and vagina.

All these microorganisms are sensitive to acidity (pH) levels, and prefer their environments warm and dark. They flourish when they get the right food and languish when they don’t. What you eat early on influences which strains colonize your GI tract. Evidence suggests that a kind of microbial template is established in the early years of life that may reflect an individual’s initial diet and birth culture. This begs the question of whether inherited food sensitivities, like gluten intolerance, are more the product of primary gut flora or genetics. Perhaps research will tell us more in the future.

All gut flora are susceptible to sudden changes in their environment, and will die off in the millions when conditions aren’t right. Illness, stress, and antibiotic use affect the balance of microorganisms, as well as the speed of peristalsis (the wave-like action of the digestive system). But because gut flora get their food by breaking down what we eat, diet is the most important factor.

Beneficial bacteria, digestion and nutrition — a dynamic partnership

All gut flora have specific DNA codes that define their mechanism of action. Individual species inhabit certain sections of the GI tract and target certain sugars, proteins or fats for digestion. Scientists have only decoded about 10% of friendly gut flora, but even these preliminary data prove how dependent we are on them.

Many species of beneficial bacteria — such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus and L. thermophilus, which are used in fermenting yogurt, as well as the near-ubiquitous E. coli — manufacture B vitamins and vitamin K. They also break otherwise indigestible carbohydrates down into short-chain fatty acids, providing us with energy and nutrients. Other forms of bacteria digest proteins, freeing up amino acids for absorption. And some target the digestion and storage of fat, helping us normalize our cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Acidophilus and Bifidobacterium strains increase the bioavailability of minerals that need short-chain fatty acids for absorption, such as magnesium, iron, copper and manganese.

Good intestinal flora regulate bowel movements, and help prevent bloating, gas, and yeast overgrowth by controlling the pH level of the intestines through production of lactic acid. In babies, they stem diaper rash, diarrhea, and colic, as well as preventing allergies.

Gut flora and immunity

Beneficial bacteria reinforce the mucosal barrier of the intestines, which is associated with the gut-associated lymph tissue (GALT), helping to prevent pathogens, toxins and allergens from entering the rest of the body. In this way, their presence “teaches” the immune system which allergens and toxins are tolerable and which need to be disposed of.

Some bacteria have a stimulating effect on the immune system, by increasing T–cell counts, for example. In a recent study reported by the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, the number of certain T–lymphocytes that target cytotoxins (T2, T3 and T4) jumped by more than 28% in healthy young female test subjects after they ate conventional yogurt daily for one month.

Other good bacteria produce natural antibiotics and antifungals. For instance, Streptococcus salivarius manufactures an antiseptic that neutralizes the sulfur compounds responsible for bad breath (halitosis). Friendly flora also keep unfriendly bacteria in check by depriving them of nutrients and secreting acids (acetic, lactic, and formic) that create a hostile environment for pathogens.

Gut flora, hormones, and metabolism

Beneficial flora metabolize and recycle hormones, including estrogen, thyroid hormones, and phytoestrogens from food sources, which can help offset symptoms of menopause, PMS and perimenopause. In this way, they help maintain proper hormonal balance, and may protect bone and breast health as well. There is evidence that some probiotics may have anti-tumor, anticancer effects by helping us metabolize specific food components (like antioxidants and flavonoids) into useable forms.

Vaginal yeast infections and systemic yeast — an example

Candida albicans is a type of yeast organism that normally helps us digest carbohydrates. Candidiasis, or yeast overgrowth, is an example of what happens when there is an imbalance in the body environment. Like weeds in the garden, once the balance has been shifted toward the negative, it can take a lot of work to regain a desirable floral balance. Without proper and consistent attention, weeds will grow back and run riot, as in cases of chronic vaginitis or systemic yeast overgrowth.

While conventional doctors accept and treat the reality of vaginitis, there is still a lot of resistance in Western medicine to the concept of systemic yeast. But the truth is, the causes and effects of bacterial and yeast overgrowth, and thus the treatment protocol, are similar. The basic idea is this: weed out the bad guys through deprivation and antimicrobials, then repopulate with beneficial species.

Conventional medicine excels at the first part. There are scores of prescription antifungals and antibiotics that will knock out the invasive species. But not much is done about the second — and most important — phase, repopulation with good bacteria.

Using vaginitis as an example, we understand that when the good microbes are in the majority, they keep the vaginal environment slightly acidic and hostile to infectious agents. If the environment changes in pH from antibiotic use, illness, or poor dietary choices, the immune system is weakened. Then if infectious bacteria are introduced from the anus or other sources, the tables are quickly turned and infection established, marked by increased discharge, itching, burning, and odor.

At Women to Women, we tackle yeast vaginitis with a three-step approach. First we starve Candida of sugar, their favorite food, by recommending a sugar-free and yeast-free diet. Then we use an antimicrobial supplement, such as Candex, to decrease the number of yeast. Many women feel worse for a while as huge numbers of yeast die off, producing toxic by-products. Third, we counteract this “die-off effect” by inoculating the vagina and intestines with a good probiotic supplement.

In fact, it is not uncommon for a woman suffering from chronic vaginitis to take an antimicrobial two hours before a meal and then a probiotic with her meals. This yin-yang approach helps the good bacteria more quickly reestablish balance. We often tell patients with less severe yeast vaginitis to dip a tampon into plain, active-culture yogurt and insert it into the vagina for an hour to achieve a similar result.

For such an easy fix, it’s remarkable to me that more doctors don’t talk to women about probiotics, especially when antibiotics are prescribed so routinely — particularly for children.

Antibiotic use and intestinal flora — don’t throw baby out with the bath water…

Antibiotics have changed the course of human history. They have prolonged our lifespan by wiping out many of the infectious diseases that were the scourge of humanity for centuries. They are life-saving and absolutely essential — when used judiciously.

Broad-spectrum antibiotics work by wiping out most of the bacteria in your system. Other forms of antibiotics target certain strains of bacteria. Either way, it’s imperative that the right kinds of bacteria grow back once the bad strains have been decimated, or the bad guys will be back soon enough. Depending on your overall health, stress levels and diet, this repopulation often doesn’t take place, and other problems can develop as a result.

What’s more, bacteria are living, evolving organisms that can become resistant to chronic or improper antibiotic use and increasingly virulent. This is especially worrisome in children and the elderly. I think we are seeing now that treating every ear infection with antibiotics actually has a diminishing return.

Moreover, conventional medicine’s complete silence on the topic of probiotics doesn’t help matters. I am amazed by how many people are put on a course of antibiotics with no mention of what to do once they’re through. The good news is that using probiotics is easy and safe, even for children on antibiotics, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. And they may just help ward off further complications.

Who needs probiotics?

In my experience, everyone in our modern, industrialized culture could benefit from daily supplementation with probiotics. Our Western diet, filled with sugar, fatty meat and chemicals, along with our use of antibiotics, give unfriendly flora the advantage. How do you know if you have an imbalance, or could otherwise benefit from probiotics? Chances are if you’ve been sick or taken antibiotics recently, you need to repopulate the good bacteria in your system. Indications for probiotic use include symptoms of floral imbalance, as well as many other conditions:

GI sensitivity (cramps, diarrhea/constipation)
Bloating or foul-smelling gas
Dysbiosis, including IBS or partially-digested stools
Yeast infections, thrush, cold sores, diaper rash
Headaches, migraines, joint aches
Chronic bad breath/halitosis
Rosacea, acne
Fatigue, irritability
Anorexia and/or bulimia
Stuffy nose, increased mucus production
Increased symptoms of PMS, perimenopause, or menopause
Worsening sensitivity to sugar and fermented products
Worsening symptoms of inflammatory conditions, like asthma
Although many of the above symptoms can indicate floral imbalance, they can also indicate more serious conditions. See your healthcare provider with any ongoing concerns.

A digestive stool analysis and allergy panel are both useful in determining the state of the flora in your gut. Genova Diagnostics provides several good options. Testing for yeast sensitivity and parasites may also be helpful. See our article on “Digestive System Problems – Causes And Diagnostics” for more information. Any woman taking antibiotics should supplement with probiotics during and for at least two weeks afterwards. I also recommend supplementing with probiotics during cold and flu season and to help ward off food poisoning and parasites while traveling.

Supporting probiotics with diet

It’s important to support probiotic use and your existing friendly flora through optimal nutrition, especially by minimizing refined sugar and processed foods in your diet. For more information refer to our nutritional and lifestyle guidelines.

Good bacteria feast on fiber. The bad guys love refined sugar and animal fat. Given a ready supply of vegetables, legumes and whole grains, good bacteria live long and prosper. Polyphenols, found in foods like garlic, green tea and ginseng, are also helpful in fostering friendly flora.

Fermented foods such as miso, tempeh, soy sauce and yogurt are renowned for their health-boosting qualities. They introduce active probiotic cultures that help wedge out unfriendly bacteria by competing directly with two main food poisoners: the toxic strains of E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus. Many longevity experts have extolled the health benefits of eating fermented foods — now you know why!

A few nutrients called prebiotics have been isolated that set the stage for probiotic survival. These include fructooligosaccharides (FOS), and inulin, which are natural sugars found in bananas, chicory root, onions, leeks, fruit, soybeans, sweet potatoes, asparagus and some whole grains. Prebiotics help probiotics survive passage through the acidity of the stomach and foster their growth in the intestines and colon.

We are only just beginning to understand how these prebiotic saccharides work in the gut to impact our health and longevity. Foods high in inulin and fructooligosaccharides have been shown to lower cholesterol levels, stabilize blood sugar, and improve calcium absorption.

The mechanism proposed for the latter benefit is that prebiotics decrease the pH in the colon, making it more hospitable for certain beneficial gut flora, which in turn do the job of absorbing any calcium remaining in the food by the time it gets to the colon. Though we don’t understand all the steps in this process or whether the effects hold true across a lifetime, we do see a positive association between a diet high in these foods and higher bone density, with the expected decreased risk for osteoporosis.

It’s interesting to note that archaeologists studying prebiotics in our ancestors’ diets believe that the earth ovens used to slow-roast root vegetables helped preserve inulin molecules through the cooking process. When it comes to an optimal diet, there really is something to be said for “slow food!”

The lowdown on probiotic supplements

For many of us, however, diet alone is not enough to repopulate our systems with good bacteria. Age, poor diet, stress, disease, and drugs all take their toll on our intestine’s little helpers. Remember, we are talking trillions of bacteria here! You need a steady, consistent supply of probiotics to make even a drop in the bucket. To get the bare minimum from yogurt, for example, you would have to eat a quart of unsweetened, highly active yogurt every day. Likewise, drinking a few glasses of probiotic–enhanced milk may be better than nothing, but it’s just not enough. In order to make a difference you need to add probiotic supplements.

The best probiotic supplements come in powdered or capsule form and should be kept refrigerated. Look for supplements that contain Lactobacillus, Acidophilus and Bifidobacteria in the billions. There is some controversy over whether it is better to take each strain separately, but most practitioners agree that the powdered form is more potent than the freeze-dried. Probiotics lose potency with age, so buy smaller quantities more often to ensure you are getting the most active cultures. Women to Women has a specially formulated, high-quality probiotic that you can order here.

You should begin to feel a difference within a week or two if your probiotic supplements are effective. If not, try a different variety, combination or brand the next month. These supplements are remarkably safe, so it’s okay to experiment. If you buy a smaller quantity, you won’t waste your money — but be sure to give it a couple of weeks to show benefits.

Good things come in small packages

Like everything else, even the best probiotics are no substitute for good overall health practices. But they do work extremely well as part of a balanced approach, combined with a healthy diet and lifestyle. In that context, consumption of probiotics can make a real, sustained difference in your long-term health. The old adage, “You are what you eat” could be reworded: “You are what your intestinal flora eat!”

Each commitment we make to positive change is an important one. Many of us get discouraged when we fail to live up to major resolutions, so take a tip from the microscopic organisms in your own body and begin by paying attention to the little things. Sometimes they turn out to be the most important of all. Women to Women is an excellent source of the micronutrients that are so important to digestive health. Click here to explore what we have to offer you.