The human body is a pretty miraculous thing—we’re essentially huge biospheres hosting billions of microorganism cultures that usually exist in harmony with each other. And among the most delicately balanced ecosystems is the reproductive microbiome, which has been linked directly to infertility. If you’re part of the 17.5 percent of the global population that’s experienced infertility, you probably know exactly how frustrating it can be to get a sperm and an egg together. But what if your infertility can be traced back to those tiny microbes?
The vaginal microbiome plays an essential role in overall health. This “microecosystem” naturally fluctuates along with our hormones, sexual activity, age, weight, contraception, stress, medications, habits (smoking, exercise, diet, etc.), and other factors. It’s an ever-changing environment that also plays a role in our fertility. Depending on the composition of those microbes at any given time, conception is much easier, or much, much harder.
Hearing that you have microscopic organisms living in your underwear might make you shudder, but these bacteria do serve a valuable purpose in keeping us healthy. If any part of this microscopic world within us becomes unbalanced (called vaginal dysbiosis), it can sabotage your plans to start a family without you ever realizing it.
The state of your vaginal microbiome could be the difference between another disappointing pregnancy test and finally seeing that little plus sign. So, what’s the relationship between the vaginal microbiome and fertility really like? Let’s talk about it.
Relationship with Fertility
A characteristically healthy vaginal microbiome consists of beneficial bacteria, including the Lactobacillus species; these bacteria produce lactic acid, which creates a low pH level within the vagina that inhibits the overgrowth of harmful bacteria. When you’re trying for a baby, it’s best to avoid anything that might alter this pH balance, which includes the use of certain hygiene products (we’ll get into it below).
The vagina is, after all, the entrance through which sperm travel. If this entrance is at all compromised, either by infections or disproportionate bacteria, the chances of that sperm meeting an egg are slim to none.
Certain curable conditions, like bacterial vaginosis (BV) or sexually transmitted infections (STIs), can lessen fertility by turning the environment hostile for sperm. With your immune system in high gear, your fertility suffers. You can get antibiotics for these conditions and readjust the bacteria in your microbiome fairly easily with medical intervention. It doesn’t take a full-blown infection to throw things out of whack down there, though.
On the flip side, even activity that isn’t infectious can pose harm. Just the slightest shift in bacterial composition may cause far-reaching problems with no warning or symptoms—too much or too little Lactobacillus bacteria, for instance, also wreaks havoc. The vaginal microbiome affects individual fertility intricately and can be sub-clinical (not an infection and not showing any symptoms), which is why it’s so tough to understand and so vital to protect.
The Vaginal Microbiome’s Influence
There are a few other notable ways the microbiome and fertility interact:
Cervical mucus, meet sperm: This dynamic relies on fertile cervical mucus, which is produced by the cervix during ovulation and facilitates the mobility and survival of sperm once they’ve been introduced to the woman’s reproductive tract through the cervix into the uterus. Since cervical mucus is involved in this early transport of sperm-towards-egg, it’s key that the environment surrounding it is perfectly balanced to assist in conception.
Trajectory of a pregnancy: The vaginal microbiome plays a role in early pregnancy once conception has occurred. Some studies imply that specific Lactobacillus bacteria support healthy implantation and pregnancy based on the metabolites those bacteria produce.
Assisted reproductive technologies (ART): Women utilizing intracervical insemination (ICI), intrauterine insemination (IUI), in vitro fertilization (IVF), or similar infertility interventions should prioritize a balanced vaginal microbiome. The success of these procedures can hinge on whether or not your body chemistry is where it needs to be. Better IVF outcomes have been linked to healthier vaginal microbiomes.
A general decrease in the Lactobacillus species or an increase in unhealthy bacteria could lead to fertility-related issues like higher infection risks, altered cervical mucus, reduced sperm viability, or even adversely affect a potential pregnancy.
All of this being said, the research into the vaginal microbiome and its connection to fertility is still new and ever-evolving. We still have so much more to learn from this relationship, but what we do know at this point is that a promising correlation exists: a healthy vaginal microbiome seems to be associated with increased fertility. If you’re concerned about your vaginal health or its effect on your fertility, definitely consult with your doctor.
In the meantime, there are a few ways you can improve your reproductive health to protect fertility and raise your chances of conception.
Protecting your microbiome and knowing how to care for it is a game-changer. It’s important to be aware of these ins and outs—literally and figuratively—especially if you’re struggling to conceive. Consider your vaginal microbiome and optimize your fertility in the process.
Practice good hygiene: A good rule of thumb is to maintain a clean environment when attempting to get pregnant. To do this, wash the external genital area (the vulva) with unscented soaps and warm water. Avoid using harsh soaps, douches, or feminine “hygiene” products that disrupt the natural balance of the vaginal microbiome (looking at you, douche bag). The vagina is self-cleansing, but you should regularly tend to its exterior in the shower in a gentle and non-invasive manner. Another tip—if you’re checking your cervical mucus regularly to monitor ovulation, do so with clean toilet paper instead of your bare hands; it’s more hygienic and better for your microbiome.
Minimize irritants: Keep those soaps mild and opt for breathable, loose-fitting cotton clothing to prevent discomfort. Even the toilet paper you use could irritate this sensitive area. Listen to your body and make note of any materials that cause you grief.
Try FDA-approved probiotics: These friendly bacteria support a healthy vaginal microbiome in the form of supplements or suppositories. Look for probiotic strains designed for vaginal health, such as Lactobacillus crispatus, but ask your doctor for input beforehand to see if they have a recommendation for you.
Respond to infections promptly: See a doctor immediately if you suspect you have an infection. If something feels off, trust your gut. Timely diagnosis and treatment can restore the vaginal microbiome.
Make regular checkups routine: Your gynecologist is a major ally in reproductive health as a whole, including your vaginal microbiome. Consistent doctor visits allow for them to monitor you and screen for any infections, which they can also treat. Plus, they’ll offer personalized advice regarding how to care for your microbiome in a way that supports your family planning goals.
Of course, every vaginal microbiome is different; some people have no issues while others struggle to avoid frequent upsets to this balance. The “correct” way to care for the microbiome could then look different from person to person. But being proactive about your reproductive health—whether you’re dealing with infertility or not—is always a good idea.
How PherDal Can Help
For starters, PherDal’s patented at-home FDA-cleared insemination kit puts sperm directly at the opening of the cervix instead of giving it a potentially longer journey. The syringes in our kit are the only completely sterile ones on the market (with multiple patents backing up our science), which means that using them won’t change your microbiome. Other brands can’t guarantee sterility like this, so you don’t know what their products will do to that delicate balance.
PherDal’s insemination kit is less invasive and more affordable than IUI or IVF, so it’s a logical first step in treating fertility. If your vaginal microbiome is healthy and stable, but you’re still finding it difficult to get pregnant, PherDal’s insemination kit could be the solution you’ve been looking for. PherDal bridges the gap between traditional conception and clinical fertility treatments with a sterile and affordable at-home insemination option backed by science.