For most women, yeast infections are an occasional nuisance. Forget to change out of your wet bikini and twelve hours later you’re cradling a box of Monistat 3 in the CVS checkout line. But for some of us those infections keep coming back, no matter how many tubs of Greek yogurt we eat. Why, and how do we break the cycle?
Imbalance ≠ invasion
Our microbiomes are powerful, intricate ecosystems that regulate normal body processes and protect us from disease. In other words, the mix of bacteria, archaea , viruses, fungi and in and on our bodies can affect our immune response, our skin health, and even our weight.
Repeated courses of antibiotics and diets low in fiber and high in processed foods (looking at you, toaster pastry) can lead to systemic imbalances in our microbiomes. So can stress and pH-altering soaps and detergents.
Most yeast infections occur when otherwise healthy Candida albicans yeast overpopulates the vaginal canal, or when it penetrates into deeper cell layers. The latter happens when the mucous lining is compromised—think vaginal dryness or irritation from douching, hormonal changes, medications, spermicides, or other types of infection.
Disinfect your laundry
Most household water heaters are set to about 120°F and dryers usually max out at 135°. But Candida albicans can survive in temperatures up to 153°, so your underwear may continue to harbor yeast even after washing, making you susceptible to reinfection. To kill yeast while protecting laundry colors, add 5-10 drops of lavender or tea tree essential oil with your detergent and a cup of white vinegar to your rinse cycle. If you’re washing whites, hydrogen peroxide bleach is an excellent antifungal that’s gentler than chlorine bleach. If you can, hang-dry your laundry outside—UV light kills most yeast and bacteria.
Boost your probiotics
Probiotics, particularly Lactobacillus strains rhamnosus and reuteri can have powerful Candida-regulating properties, but oral supplements and fermented foods alone probably aren’t enough to maintain vaginal health. Enter prebiotics.
Prebiotics are foods that help fuel colonies of beneficial bacteria in the colon, and are usually high in fiber. Leafy greens are good bets, as are bananas, asparagus, avocados, brown rice, legumes, and alliums like garlic and onion. Add these foods to your daily diet and they’ll help your probiotics balance your microbiome over time.
Support your hormones
Hormonal birth control may make you more vulnerable to yeast infections, so consider asking your doctor for alternatives—particularly if you suspect your birth control is causing vaginal dryness, painful sex, or thinning tissue.
If you’ve reached menopause, herbs like sarsaparilla, and black cohosh can encourage healthy hormone balance, which fortifies vaginal tissue. These herbs work best in synergistic blends. Phytoestrogens like licorice root may also help improve vaginal atrophy caused by hormonal fluctuations. Look for blends that also contain hormone-helping shatavari and maca.
If you’re still dealing with chronic or recurrent yeast infections after following these steps, consider asking your health care provider for a vaginal culture to figure out which species of bacteria and yeast are causing your symptoms. While Candida albicans is likely to blame, other less common strains of Candida may be at work and could require a different treatment course. It’s also a good idea to ask about underlying health conditions like diabetes, which can lead to high blood sugar levels that feed yeast.
Fungi: not as bad as you think
Fungus gets a bad rap. There’s yeast infections and athlete’s foot and ringworm, for starters, plus a few species of delicious and deadly wild mushrooms. Some researchers classify entire cultures as either mycophilic (mushroom-loving) or mycophobic (mushroom-fearing), with English-speaking societies historically landing in the anti-fungus camp.
But fungus helps us more often than it harms. It’s instrumental in the creation of foods like bread, cheese, wine, kombucha, kefir, and soy sauce. For people of a certain generation or spiritual bent, fungus can even be the wellspring of life-enhancing hallucinogenic experiences (writer and Baby Boomer Michael Pollan writes about his late-life mushroom trip in How To Change Your Mind).
Mounting scientific evidence shows that trees rely on fungus networks to share nutrients and communicate through hormonal signals and electrical impulses, making fungus a hybrid circulatory-system-internet of the natural world. If you’re struggling with yeast infections, remember that fungus is a champion regulator and communicator—it may only be telling you that your body needs some help rebalancing itself.