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When it comes to the modern-day lifestyle, stress is inevitable. Unfortunately, this inevitable stress has several negative impacts on our health—especially if it persists and is ill-managed. From acne and premature signs of ageing to hormonal imbalances and heart-health problems—the hormone cortisol produced as a result of your body’s fight-or-flight response to a stressful situation is capable of doing immense damage to your health.
But can stress affect your vaginal health?
“Stress has a negative impact on your vaginal health,” says Dr Uma Vaidyanathan, senior consultant, gynaecology and obstetrics, Fortis Hospital, Shalimar Bagh.
Why and how, you wonder?
“A healthy level of the hormone estrogen is needed to maintain a balance of protective bacteria in the vagina such as lactobacilli. Additionally, the acidity of the vaginal secretions(pH balance) is also essential to prevent the growth of infectious organisms in the vagina, which again is maintained by estrogen,” Dr Vaidyanathan explains.
“Stress leads to an increase in the levels of cortisol and other stress hormones like norepinephrine. These hormones inhibit the estrogen-related maintenance of the vaginal lining and glycogen accumulation,” she says.
Well, the disturbance in your vaginal ecosystem due to stress can pave way for several intimate-health and gynaecological issues:
1. It can cause an infection in your genital tract or the vagina
According to Dr. Vaidyanathan, stress hormones can decrease the levels of vagina’s free glycogen and the lactobacilli bacteria leading to a decrease in lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) synthesis.
She further explains that this can lead to a decrease in the pH of the vagina and consequentially, create an environment conducive for the proliferation of female genital tract infections like bacterial vaginosis.
2. It can increase the risk of STIs and STDs
Stress can also make a woman more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhoea, chlamydia trachomatis, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and fungal infections such as candidiasis.
“Basically, the overall effect of stress is an imbalanced vaginal ecosystem where protective responses are blunted, which encourages upper genital tract infection with deleterious gynaecological sequelae,” Dr Vaidyanathan mentions.
3. It can lead to pregnancy complications as well
As per Dr Vaidyanathan, women who are pregnant are also at risk of letting stress ruin their vaginal health as it can also lead to pregnancy-related complications such as pre-term labour and infection in the uterus.
4. Your vagina may give foul-smelling signs of stress
Stress hormones can also cause an increase in the amount of vaginal discharge. This may be a foul-smelling discharge if a woman has caught an infection.
5. In fact, your sex life might have to take the hit
“As cortisol rises due to stress, testosterone (essential for your libido) will dip. This may lead to vaginal dryness and discomfort during sexual intercourse. This can eventually impact your sexual relationship with your partner further compounding the stress,” Dr Vaidyanathan warns.
So, how can you manage stress so that it does not impact vaginal health?
Perhaps, the only way to protect your vaginal health from the wrath of the stress hormones is to manage stress better. Dr Vaidyanathan suggests the following ways of doing so:
1. Find time for meditation and exercise.
2. Develop a hobby to divert your attention from negative thoughts which can lead to an increase in stress hormone levels.
3. Get enough sleep.
4. Eat healthily.
5. Avoid caffeine or high-sugar foods which give you jolts of energy that wear off quickly.
6. Avoid dealing with stress in unhealthy ways like drinking too much alcohol, using drugs, smoking, overeating or partying away with no proper food or sleep. These coping mechanisms may help you feel better in the moment but can add to your stress levels in the long term.
7. Avoid using vaginal douches or over-the-counter vaginal hygiene products without consulting your gynaecologist. Overuse of these products ends up washing away the protective bacteria further leading to increased risk of a vaginal infection.
8. Be organized and create a healthy work-life balance.
Hence, ladies, make sure that you stress less to keep everything down there healthy!