Stress and Vaginal Infections: What’s the Link?

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Stress is a normal part of our lives, and our bodies are made to handle these stressors through a tightly regulated hormonal system. Hormones that are involved in stress include adrenaline, epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol, to name a few. We rely on these hormones to protect us against the impact of physical and emotional stressors, and without this system we, nor our ancestors, would have ever made it this far. 

The impact of stress is widely recognized in medicine, but it isn’t actually stress itself that is the problem. In today’s day and age, it’s the everyday, low level stressors that are having the most impact on our health. Chronic stress is the silent killer. 

In the olden days, true stress was usually a result of two things: widespread famine and/or being chased down by a wild animal. In these crucial moments, our ancestors’ hormonal system adapted to stressors like these by producing mass amounts of stress hormones, adrenaline, epinephrine and cortisol. This temporary surge of hormones allowed us to store excess fat around the belly (in times of famine), shut down reproductive function (because who wants to get pregnant when there’s not enough food available?), and to run extra fast to escape that wild animal. The production of stress hormones is a survival mechanism that is adaptive to the stressors of the time. Cortisol, otherwise known as the “fight or flight” hormone, is the main driver. 

But we don’t have the same problems as our ancestors anymore. Now, our society works 9-5, sits in traffic for several hours, and deals with much more minor stressors than our ancestors did. It’s this low level, chronic stress that is wreaking havoc on our society, our microbiome, and the chronic disease epidemic as a whole. 

The vaginal microbiome: how chronic stress impacts the vagina and your overall health

The vagina is an incredible organ with a protective epithelium and diverse microbial ecosystem. The vaginal tract is rich in all sorts of “commensals”, meaning microbes that are non-harmful and even beneficial for the vagina and our health. The largest species of microbes in the vaginal tract are called lactobacillus, which you may have heard of if you take oral probiotics. Any potentially harmful microbes in the vagina are kept at bay by our unique acidic pH. 

So, how does chronic stress throw this strictly regulated system out of balance? Science suggests that cortisol inhibits vaginal glycogen deposition which then leads to infection. Our estrogen production as females increases the vaginal glycogen & epithelial maturation that is necessary to maintain adequate vaginal health. Chronic production of cortisol disrupts this important process.

What can you do? 

Since stress itself is inevitable, cortisol has the capacity to disrupt the vaginal microbiome and its ability to fight infections of the genitourinary tract. Researchers from the University of Illinois have even found a potential link between pandemic-related stress and the increase in STI’s amongst young women. The data from this small, but fascinating study found that young women who reported higher levels of pandemic-related stressors also had increased odds of infection. Professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, Mehta, suggests that the uptick in stress-related infections is likely due to changes that occur in the vaginal microbiome during times of chronic stress. This study sheds light on the impact of environment & psychosocial factors on our physical health, as women. 

Another study in the Frontiers of Endocrinology found that exposure to chronic stress led to a significant decrease in lactobacillus microbes in the vaginal tract. As mentioned above, the lactobacillus species is one of the most significant “commensals” in the vagina, providing us with protection against invaders and therefore amplifying both the severity and frequency of vaginal infection. 

In addition to infection, women can actually experience decreased libido and increased vaginal dryness as a result of cortisol suppressing sex hormones like testosterone. Do you see how important it is for us to get a handle on our stressors? But how? 

Handling stress in stressful times

Address nutrient deficiencies 

Did you know, it’s not just mental and emotional stress that increases susceptibility to infection? Nutrient deficiencies are a significant physical stressor on our body and lead to a suppression of immunity and therefore an increase in infections, like HPV and bacterial vaginosis. Taking your daily dose of Papillex is a wonderful, evidence-based way to correct some of the most important and prevalent nutrient deficiencies in our community.

Try therapy 

Sometimes stressors are rooted in childhood or other areas of our lives that we may need help exploring with a professional. Therapy can help you uncover some of the root causes of your vaginal infections, and address the stress that is potentially causing them. Because women’s health research still lacks in many areas, we do not currently know the exact link between trauma and vaginal-related infections, but more and more research is pointing us in that direction. There is no shame in therapy. It might just be the step you need to take to move your healing journey in the right direction. 

Protect the immune system 

Once you have addressed nutrient deficiencies and the root of your stress, adaptogenic herbs and mushrooms are an incredible addition to your healing. We love to use herbs like Ashwagandha, which has been shown in studies to not only reduce the impact of stress on the body but also reduce our actual perception of the stressor that is occurring. Additionally, mushrooms like AHCC have been used in traditional medicine for centuries to help combat a wide variety of infections, and have recently been studied for clearing high-risk HPV. A combination of herbs and mushrooms, unique to your physiology, can be a crucial addition to your treatment plan.

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