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What is vaginal thrush?

How to avoid Vaginal Thrush, why it can happen and if you have it, how to get rid of the problem using natural treatments and a change in diet.

Vaginal thrush affects millions of women during their lifetime and many women will have several bouts of thrush every year. Some women suffer from thrush on a monthly basis, which can be enormously uncomfortable, inconvenient and even embarrassing.

What is vaginal thrush?

Thrush is an infection caused by a yeast (fungus) called candida albicans, which occurs naturally in the gut, in the skin and in the vagina. Under normal circumstances, it is kept under control by other ‘friendly’ bacteria in the body, but occasionally it overgrows, which is when problems start.

What symptoms could you experience

With vaginal thrush you usually get a thick, white, sticky discharge with soreness and irritation. The discharge can often look like cottage cheese and can have an unpleasant smell. If you are suffering from thrush, you may experience pain during sex and when passing urine. The outside of the vagina may also feel sore and swollen.

The most irritating symptom is an intense itching around the outside of the vagina, which is definitely worse in some cases than in others.

What is the cause?

Because the yeast candida albicans occurs naturally in the vagina and other parts of your body, something has to happen in order for it to grow out of control.

There are a number of factors that can do this:

  • taking antibiotics
  • natural hormonal changes (for example, during pregnancy, around your period, or during menopause
  • taking hormones such as the pill or HRT
  • becoming run down (by overwork, for example)
  • suffering from continual stress
  • a compromised immune system (you may feel that you are always ‘coming down with something’)
  • undiagnosed or poorly controlled diabetes
  • sex with someone who has thrush
  • long-term steroid use

Your body is literally teeming with millions of bacteria, and under ideal circumstances they are kept in a healthy balance.. In other words, the healthy bacteria keeps the unhealthy bacteria in check. When your immune system is compromised, say because of illness or a poor diet, the proportion of the different bacteria can alter, allowing candida to grow out of control.

What natural treatments could be effective?

The aim of the natural treatment is to ensure that your body has all the nutrients it needs to function optimally, thereby boosting your immune system. The programme focuses on certain foods and supplements in order to do this. You’ll also encourage the friendly bacteria in your system, to create a normal balance that keeps the yeast under control.

Dietary changes

As well as eating healthily, you can help to eliminate the thrush by focusing on a few specific dietary changes. You will definitely need to avoid sugar, and any foods containing sugar, as they will promote the growth of yeast. You also need to cut out foods that contain yeast, and any products that are fermented, such as bread and wine.

Yoghurt – Live yoghurt containing beneficial bacteria can be helpful.  When researchers gave women one lactobacillus acidophilus-containing yoghurt a day over six months, there was a threefold decrease in bouts of thrush (or take a probiotic supplement).

Supplements – I would recommended you take a general multi-vitamin and mineral supplement to ensure that you are not nutritionally deficient. Other supplements known scientifically to help with thrush and to boost the immune system are also suggested.

Beta-carotene – Levels of beta-carotene (a type of vitamin A) have been found to be low in the vaginal cells of women who have thrush. It is suggested that this may effect the immune response of the cells in the vagina, which encourages (or at least allows) the yeast to overgrow

 Zinc – Zinc deficiency has been connected with women who have recurrent thrush. Adequate levels of zinc are critical for the optimum functioning of your immune system.

Garlic – Garlic is well-known for its effect on the immune system and it has both antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. Take garlic as a supplement when you are trying to eliminate an attack of thrush, and as prevention if you are prone to attacks. In clinical studies, garlic extracts have been to found to prevent the growth of candida.

Probiotics – By taking probiotics, you are aiming to increase the amount of beneficial bacteria in your system which in turn helps to control the amount of yeast overgrowth. As well as eating live plain organic yoghurt, it is important to take a probiotic supplement. Yoghurt has shown to be helpful in preventing attacks of yeast, but a probiotic supplement goes one step further to actually treat a yeast infection. The difference is that lactobacillus levels in yoghurt are high enough to work on a preventative basis, but they will not be concentrated enough to deal with an infection.

If you are currently suffering from thrush, add in prebiotic fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which are the naturally occurring water-soluble fibre in fruits and vegetables. These act as a food source for the growth of friendly bacteria.  (You can get supplements that contain both prebiotic (FOS)and probiotics, the one I use in the clinic is NHP’s Advanced Probiotic Support from local health food shops or www.naturalhealthpractice.com)

Tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) – Research has been undertaken into the effects of tea tree on candida and other vaginal infections and it has been shown to be an excellent anti-fungal and anti-bacterial agent herb.

Try adding a few drops of tea tree essential oil to your bath when you have thrush. If you are prone to thrush, it can be used on a preventative basis.

Preventing vaginal thrush

Once you have successfully treated a bout of vaginal thrush, you will need to focus on preventing a recurrence. Apart from taking the supplements noted above, and changing your diet accordingly, the following tips will help:

  • Wear cotton underwear and looser-fitting clothes because yeast grows in a warm, moist environment. If you need to wear tights for work, or simply prefer them, choose a brand with a cotton or open gusset – or wear ordinary stockings or hold-ups. You are three times more likely to get thrush if you wear nylon underwear or tights
  • Have a break from using tampons and use sanitary towels to allow the blood to flow naturally
  • Avoid perfumed soaps and bubble baths as these can alter the natural balance of your vagina
  • Use drops of tea tree oil in the bath, which can act as an anti-fungal.
  • Take a good probiotic, to encourage the growth of fungus-fighting ‘healthy’ bacteria.
  • After opening your bowels, wipe yourself from front to back as yeast can be present in the digestive system (see below) and you could be passes the yeast from your bowel to your vagina
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