Yeast infections are painful, itchy, and uncomfortable—not to mention sometimes messy to treat. If you’ve ever had one or find yourself dealing with recurrent infections, then you’ve probably tried all kinds of DIY remedies to prevent them, from eating more probiotic-rich foods like yogurt to considering putting garlic in your vagina (um, a word of caution about that one).
But lately, the idea that stress can cause a yeast infection has been making the rounds on social media. If this is true, it’s good news to the 75% of women who will have at least one yeast infection in their lifetime. Instead of late-night drugstore runs for anti-yeast creams, think more yoga classes, self-care, and other anti-stress measures.
So is stress behind your yeast infection? “Stress is always a factor, but we don’t really have any great controlled clinical studies that prove that stress in and of itself can cause a yeast infection,” Donnica Moore, MD, ob-gyn and president of Sapphire Women’s Health Group in New Jersey, tells Health.
Just like bacteria, yeast is normally present in the vagina; it’s only when something throws off the ratio of bacteria to yeast does an infection occur. Antibiotics, hormonal birth control, and poor vaginal hygiene can upset this balance, says Dr. Moore. Pregnancy and breastfeeding can also make you more susceptible to yeast infections, thanks to changes in estrogen levels.
But no evidence shows that being stressed out can actually cause yeast to grow out of control and land you an infection. Rather, stress may be a contributing factor making the infection more stubborn and more likely to recur—but only if one of the above factors triggers it in the first place, says Dr. Moore.
The stress-yeast connection has to do with cortisol, a hormone released when you’re tense. “What we do know is that prolonged stress causes your cortisol level to go up, which causes your blood sugar to go up, and yeast loves sugar,” Dr. Moore explains. The yeast already present in your vagina thrive on this sugar and grow pretty quickly, resulting in an infection. “So yes, chronic stress can lead to chronic yeast infections, but there are many, many other factors,” Dr. Moore adds.
Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale Medical School, says if a patient is struggling with recurrent infections, she first tests her blood to rule out diabetes; she also tests for HIV, which can weaken the immune system and make a woman more susceptible to a yeast infection. If those are negative, she’ll check cortisol levels.
“If you have an environment where you’re getting a higher sugar [level], it is possible that you might end up with a higher chance for getting a yeast infection,” Dr. Minkin tells Health. If you keep getting repeat yeast infections or have had a stubborn infection that was resistant to treatment, high blood sugar brought on by high cortisol could have something to do with it.
So how should you deal? First, treat the yeast infection itself, either with an over-the-counter cream or a prescription anti-yeast pill your ob-gyn can prescribe. (And if you’re not 100% sure what you’re experiencing is a yeast infection, see your doctor for a quick test and a recommendation for the best treatment option for you.)
Then take steps to de-stress, say by getting to the gym more often, plugging into a meditation app, dialing back on work or life responsibilities, or even seeking therapy. Dr. Minkin also recommends eliminating sugar from your diet. “I always tell people, if you want to try to prevent yeast infection, piss off the yeast and don’t give them what they like. Make them mad, don’t give them sugar.”