Photo © iStockphoto.com/tunart
According to the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN; Washington, DC), 71% of adult women in America take dietary supplements.1 That sisterhood comprises a spectrum of age groups, ethnicities, economic and education levels—in short, a cohort of women so diverse that they defy any attempt to boil them down to “the typical female supplement consumer.”
Except in one sense: Every one of them has a vagina.
And increasingly, health issues involving that anatomical feature are driving women to the supplement shelf. As Maj Britt Larsen, scientific advisor, Human Health & Nutrition, Chr. Hansen (Hoersholm, Denmark), observes, “The growing availability of dietary supplements for vaginal health is assisting women’s awareness” of the subject and sparking their interest in products to manage that health.
The fact that these options even exist, and have a growing body of science to support them, is a sign of progress—both in the seriousness with which the public now takes women’s health and in the research that allows the supplement industry to serve it. As that research uncovers new relationships between nutrition and the female urogenital tract, the opportunities for supplement users and the companies that court them will only grow.
We’ve Come a Long Way
Time was when vaginal health wasn’t fit for polite discussion. Fast-forward to today, when entire websites and blogs now cover the topic. What does this efflorescence signal to Kimberly Kawa, natural-products specialist at SPINS (Chicago), a leading information provider for the natural and specialty products industry? “I think we’ve come pretty far,” she says, “considering the patriarchal system we live in.”
Those cracks in the glass ceiling haven’t shattered yet, but third-wave feminism, wellness education, the Internet’s “sharing culture,” the relentless march of research—“really, all of the above,” Kawa says—have made vaginal health a more approachable, and understandable, subject. “There’s a vast amount of knowledge available at our fingertips,” she says. “Our natural functions are now being celebrated, not shunned.”
But what, exactly, do we talk about when we talk about women’s vaginal health? Issues surrounding menstruation and menopause are part of the conversation, as are sexually transmitted diseases like herpes, HIV, chlamydia, and the like. But setting those aside and focusing on the urogenital tract specifically, the main concerns, Larsen says, are bacterial vaginosis (BV), yeast infections or yeast vaginosis—typically Candida infections, Larsen notes—and urinary-tract infections (UTIs).
Each condition varies in the severity of symptoms, which range from the mild discomfort, odor, and discharge of BV to the itching and pain of yeast infections, as well as the pain with urination—and frequent urge to do so—that accompany UTIs.
Each condition also carries the possibility of complications. “For UTIs,” Larsen says, there’s a risk of infection of the upper urinary tract, which will result in serious pain and fever.” Stephen Lukawski, global director of sales and marketing, Fruit d’Or Nutraceuticals (Lourdes, QC, Canada), notes an association between BV and increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, gonorrhea, and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), as well as for miscarriage and preterm labor and delivery in pregnant women.
Public and Private
Given that BV alone affects 21.2 million, or 29.2% of, women aged 14 to 49—84% of whom report no symptoms—it’s hardly a frivolous matter. And given that the first line of treatment for the condition—which occurs when the vagina’s normal microflora tilt off balance—is often antibiotics, its ramifications can resonate more broadly than might at first be apparent.
To wit, treating BV as well as other urogenitary infections with antibiotics—as is often done—increases the risk that resistance to those antibiotics will develop, while also introducing women to further complication like the vaginal dysbiosis or gastrointestinal imbalance that comes with antibiotic or even antimycotic use.
And because these conditions are commonplace and have a high rate of recurrence, they send many women to their physicians for the requisite scrips for antibiotic treatment, thus increasing healthcare costs, sapping worker productivity, threatening the potency of our antibiotic arsenal, and making women’s lives generally less fantastic than they ought to be. The upshot: women’s urogenital health is a public and private concern.
Yet “many women still might not even want to discuss these issues with their own GPs, either because of the ‘delicate’ nature of the problems or because they’ve not been taken seriously when they’ve discussed them before,” Larsen says. Many women are also simply fed up with recurrent infections that conventional treatment fails to vanquish.
Still, “Many women will not accept that nothing can be done about an issue that they find important, especially those women who suffer from recurrent infections,” Larsen says. So they’re taking matters into their own hands and turning to supplements.
As Kawa notes, “Supplementation, along with dietary and lifestyle changes, can help ‘turn the corner’ or provide natural symptom relief” for women. Indeed, as awareness of vaginal-health supplements grows, women increasingly “welcome the possibility of treating these problems using natural means” rather than antibiotics or antimycotics, Larsen adds. However, “there are still many women who don’t know of any nutritional products in this area.”
STORY CONTINUES ON PAGE 2
- Beerepoot MA et al., “Lactobacilli vs antibiotics to prevent urinary tract infections: a randomized, double-blind, noninferiority trial in postmenopausal women,” Archives of Internal Medicine, vol. 172, no. 9 (May 14, 2012): 704-712
- Beerepoot MA et al., “Cranberries vs antibiotics to prevent urinary tract infections: a randomized double-blind noninferiority trial in premenopausal women,” Archives of Internal Medicine, vol. 171, no. 14 (July 25, 2011): 1270-1278