Overcoming the taboo of vaginal health – the next frontier of probiotics

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A paradigm shift is needed to force delicate women’s health issues like vaginal infections and discharge out into the open, says industry microbiologist.

Marketers of probiotics for gut health may think they have a hard time getting consumers to think about digestion and stool frequency, but for Dr Jessica Younes, science liaison for Winclove Probiotics’ women’s health portfolio, vaginal health represents a far greater taboo.

Younes elicited giggles at a panel discussion at this year’s Probiota event when she asked the audience: “How many of you discuss vaginal discharge with your partner?”

Speaking with NutraIngredients after the event in Amsterdam she said many women were embarrassed by this topic and had unspoken concerns about what was ‘normal’ particularly when it came to vaginal discharge.

Industry and health care efforts were needed to empower women with greater information about possible strategies against infection like probiotics, which may be an alternative to or used in conjuntion with antibiotics, as well as a greater understanding of their bodies more generally.

The women themselves were also key in this, she said.

“I think there’s a bit of a paradigm shift coming and I think women need to start to be not only their own … ‘activist’ is a bit of a strong word, but I think they need to start taking charge a little bit more of their own health and become more informed and on the other side of that, the information that comes to them should be reliable and they should know where to trust.”

Neglecting these issues had a huge impact of quality of life for women affected – and for wider society in terms of absences from work and impact on relationships.

Healthy women also meant healthy children, she said.

Start simple

Younes said this paradigm shift could be led by circulating simple health messages, for example advising women not to ‘douche’.

Douching refers to the practice of washing the inside of the vagina. The vagina is self-cleansing and discharge is part of this natural process.

Women misinformed about discharge may douche to 'clean' the vagina, but this upsets bacterial and fungi balance and can lead to thrush or bacterial vaginosis.

Younes said this came down to informing women about what ‘normal’ discharge was. 

“Talking about these things, there are always questions that start to come into your head as a woman like: ‘Is this normal?’ So you start to look on the internet a little bit and hopefully you can find some quality information, but you never know.”

Onus of responsibility

Health care professionals and the probiotics industry could do more to educate women on these issues.

However, Younes said in her experience there were some differences between male and female health care professionals that had to be addressed.

For obvious reasons, male gynaecologists tended to lack an understanding of what it was actually like to have a vaginal infection or other related conditions.

“I’m not questioning how aware the doctors are, but I think it’s also a little bit about a cultural perspective maybe or even just humanistic or just a lack of understanding of the situation.

“If you’ve ever had a vaginal infection you can understand what you go through. You don’t want to go to work. You’re constantly thinking about the redness or the itching or the pain […] And there’s lost man hours, there’s lost time, and sometimes I think physicians need to really dig a bit deeper.”

Several probiotic players have shown their confidence in women's health probiotics in recent years, including Canadian Lallemand Health Solutions which launched a suite of probiotics addressing women’s health issues in 2014. 

Last year Danish firm Bifodan created a second business unit for probiotics targeting women’s intimate health, splitting the business between dietary supplements and over-the-counter (OTC) medical products.

Last year a study using Bifodan’s patented EcoVag probiotic suggested the product was effective against recurrent vaginal infections when used alongside prescribed medication. 

Winclove also caters to this market with its probiotic product Ecologic FEMI+. 

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