What do you eat for your vagina?

Imagine that you are able to eat healthy for your vagina. Maybe a bit of an odd thought, isn’t it? But more and more research shows that food can indeed have an effect on your vaginal ecosystem. That is why we decided to also ask questions about your dietary habits in the Isala surveys. 

After months of all kinds of complex statistical analyses and calculations, the first results from the Isala study are now in: nutrition does play a role in your vaginal microbiome. On February 11, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we came out with the preprint of that research. What appears on your plate every day can have an impact on the various bacteria that live in your vagina. We found several associations between eating certain foods and the vaginal microbiome of Isala participants. We are still very careful with such associations because they do not yet say anything about cause and consequence. But today we can already provide you with a small sneak peak!

The entire Isala team is busy in the lab with the vaginal samples from the Isala participants. For this, we use different lab techniques. The extensive questionnaires that were completed are also carefully examined. This way we can keep you always informed of our latest results and as such you are completely up-to-date.

As you already know, the vaginas of a large number of participants are dominated by Lactobacillus bacteria. These lactic acid bacteria may be invisible to the naked eye on their own, but we do not question the beneficial effect on both your and my health. You may recall that 43.2% of the women who participated in the Isala project have a vagina dominated by the Lactobacillus crispatus bacterium.

What does the large amount of Isala results reveal? Drinking sugary beverages, such as soda and fruit juice, was linked to a decrease in the number of L. crispatus bacteria in the vaginal microbiome. A drop in L. crispatus is not great news as this bacterium is mostly associated with a healthy vagina. We also notice this for meat consumption. We also found an increase in Prevotella bacteria when eating meat. Anyone who thinks of meat may immediately wonder how the current situation is for fish. Sure enough, women eating only fish and no meat seemed to have more L. crispatus and related bacteria. Eating a lot of vegetables also seems to be associated with an increase in L. crispatus, possibly due to the fibres present in these vegetables.

What appears on your plate every day seems to have an impact on your vaginal microbiome. Crazy isn’t it!? We are happy to explore this further in our lab and already provide a first insight into this very interesting research.

And what about fermented foods, yogurt and probiotics? Also an important question, because it brings us to another hot topic of the lab (for example, watch the lecture or listen to the podcast of professor Sarah Lebeer for the University of Flanders). Consumption of probiotics in the past 24 hours was associated with an increase in Lactobacillus gasseri. This bacterium is often found in the intestines and is regularly found in probiotic products because of its beneficial health effects. However, still we don’t understand why. Bacteria can migrate to the vagina via the gut and perineum, but that does not mean that they can also survive and grow in the vagina.

Why are we so careful in our vocabulary? Because all of these associations do not mean that you can really change your vaginal microbiome with food. And our findings should certainly not be seen as nutritional advice. For example, we found that alcohol consumption in the past 24 hours had a favorable association with the L. crispatus bacterium. But that does not necessarily mean that you have to consume gigantic amounts, certainly not even. After all, it has been shown before that alcohol appears to have a negative effect on the bacteria in your gut, in addition to the many other health disadvantages. Diet, lifestyle and health are also closely related. For example, we observed greater diversity in the vaginal microbiome and fewer lactobacilli at higher BMI. But again, that does not mean you have to lose weight for your vaginal microbiome. Love your body the way it is! 😊

Have you ever considered that it is possible that certain substances present in your food end up in your vagina and can also be detected there using precise lab techniques? Talking about a crazy fact! Previous research has shown that the vaginal microbiome is subject to many factors. Which external influences are responsible for these dynamics is being fully investigated in the lab of Professor Sarah Lebeer.

We immersed you in an innovative and increasingly active field of research (it was high time 😊). This was a small trip to show you the importance of nutrition in vaginal microbiome research, but we certainly haven’t landed yet. Once again we are faced with numerous challenges that certainly deserve attention in and outside the lab and we are far from having a bellyful. 😉 Make sure to stay on board to follow what the Isala team still has to offer! 😊

My name is Isabel Erreygers. Two years ago, I was very enthusiastic to join the lab of Professor Sarah Lebeer as a student in bioscience engineering at the University of Antwerp to participate in an interesting bachelor’s project. We explored probiotics for the respiratory tract and worked towards a promising nasal spray!  

Currently, while being a KU Leuven student, I am proud to tell you that I can work on a very nice master’s thesis in the same lab supervised by prof. Sarah Lebeer, prof. Jan Michiels, dr. Irina Spacova and Sarah Ahannach, and what’s more, in the Isala team! 😊 Again I was warmly welcomed and the pleasant atmosphere felt like coming home. Daily train journeys between Leuven and Antwerp are more than worth it and benefit my time management and organization skills. What am I doing in the lab every day? We take a closer look at the bacteria that we obtained from your vaginas by using the vaginal swabs! In this way, we hope to discover special properties of these vaginal inhabitants. Are you also curious what properties I am talking about? We are currently looking at bacteria that can produce vitamins. Who knows, you might soon replace the vitamin supplements you take with vitamins produced by bacteria. How cool would that be!

Newsflash: I can tell you that very recently a grant was requested for me from the FWO (Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek). Achieving this grant would certainly contribute to the continuation of Isala’s dreams and achievements. What’s new? The proposed PhD project is completely in the context of nutrition, which fits perfectly with my study specialization choice in ‘Food and Health’!