Infections and Insurrection:
The Great Yogurt Conspiracy
In September 1972, two founders of the Federation of Feminist
Women's Health Centers, Carol Downer and Colleen Wilson were arrested for allegedly
practicing medicine without a license. Their Los Angeles Self-Help
Clinic was raided by the California Department of Consumer Affairs and the Board
of Medical Examiners. The Self-Help Clinic presented the local medical establishment
with competition. Concerned with the potential loss of revenue for the local physicians,
one doctor, three uniformed police and several plainclothes investigators confiscated
four truckloads of supplies and equipment, in order to shut down operations of
the women-controlled clinic. The reason for the arrest? Downer had inserted yogurt
into the vagina of a women's center staff member.
The trial became known
as the, "Great Yogurt Conspiracy" and was a crucial turning point in
the women's health movement. Downer was found not guilty by arguing that applying
yogurt as a home remedy for an ordinary yeast infection is not practicing medicine.
The verdict reinforced women's control over their own bodies and established that
at-home methods of self-care are, indeed, lawful.
Women have known for a long time how to recognize and
treat an overgrowth of vaginal yeast, or a "yeast infection." Technically
a fungus, yeast is also called "Candida" or "Monilia." It
results from an upset of the vaginal Ph or an imbalance of the vagina's acid and
base elements. It is not a true "infection" since there is no outside
bacteria that enters the body to cause a problem; rather, the "infection"
is an overgrowth of monilia naturally found in the vagina. To diagnose, a clinician
takes a "wet mount" and looks at the vaginal secretions under a microscope.
Yeast is easy to identify without this test, however, since it announces itself
with itching (not burning, unless the area is scratched raw) and a discharge.
Typically, a yeast discharge will be white, thick and lumpy (this is usually described
as "cottage-cheese-like"). Yeast is not dangerous and unless its symptoms,
discharge and itching, are bothersome, it is not necessary to treat.
The feminist movement fostered Consciousness Raising
(CR) groups, small friendship networks of women who gathered to share their life
stories and create change in their lives. Carol Downer brought a plastic speculum
into her CR group and the group began to focus on self-help, vaginal and cervical
self exam. Later, she and the others founded the LA Self-Help clinic to share
what they'd learned with other women.
These self-help groups flourished
around the country as women investigated what was, for them, new territory in
women's health. They researched natural, home remedies and discovered useful tools
to self-care, such as yogurt to combat yeast infections. These groups spread the
knowledge to other women and together they demanded simpler, easier, alternative
treatments to common conditions such as yeast.
"Self-helpers" used their
knowledge to critically examine the medical establishment. Why were women relying
on healthcare providers for things they could do themselves? Many of these women
began political work, using their new knowledge to advocate for women's healthcare
more generally. These activists had a decades-long battle with the Food and Drug
Administration, pharmaceutical companies and medical care providers preceding
the FDA's approval of yeast medications for over-the-counter (OTC) sale. For decades
after the Great Yogurt Conspiracy, women were still required to make and pay for
an appointment at the gynecologist, have a pelvic exam, and fill a prescription
to cure this easily recognized and easily treated condition. Women had been spending
millions of dollars a year for care of problems they can easily manage themselves.
Yet, when women's activism finally finally paid off with FDA approval for
OTC sale of yeast creams, the cost of a one time dose ranged from $13 to $20.
Further, there are even easier to use prescription methods available now, created
after the standard treatment became available OTC. In order to obtain these simpler
and easier methods, effective in just a fraction of the time the older medications
take to work, women must still see a doctor. Drug companies, male-dominated healthcare
institutions and federal health policy-makers control women's healthcare: what
medications are available, what the standard of care is for women's health problems,
what health conditions are investigated and who can treat women. Yeast treatment
is just one item on a long list of issues in women's healthcare, such as HIV/AIDS,
breast cancer and heart disease, that has been overlooked and mishandled by those
in control. The journey yeast medications have taken shows us that evidently this
control will not be easily surrendered.
The OTC medication manufacturers have been advertising
aggressively since the FDA approval. Today, it is as common to see TV ads for
Monistat or Gyne-Lotrimin as it is for breakfast cereal. These brands, as well
as the three or four others in the running, provide a chemical neutralization
for the buildup of vaginal yeast. They are creams inserted with an applicator,
usually at bedtime, over the course of 7 days. During the treatment, a woman is
supposed to avoid baths and sexual intercourse.
At-Home Methods to Rebalance the Vaginal Ph
Many women use non-medical
methods for treating yeast, because the cost of over-the-counter methods is high,
because they are unimpressed with OTC methods, or simply because they prefer more
natural methods. Following is a partial list of at-home methods that may be helpful.
- Insert unpasteurized, plain yogurt with a small spoon or spatula or vaginal
cream applicator. Insert at night and wear a pad. Repeat for three to seven nights,
until symptoms disappear. Douching with yogurt and water can help, too. It also
helps to eat a lot of yogurt.
- Katie recommends: Another option is to
create a douche with water and yogurt and insert it via a squeeze bottle. Straight yogurt is painful for her.
- "Paint" the vagina, cervix (you'll
need a speculum) and vulva (outside area including the labia or "lips"
of vagina) with gentian violet. It stains so you'll want to wear a pad. This usually
works after one treatment.
- Insert a garlic suppository. Carefully peel
one clove of garlic. Wrap in gauze and insert into the vagina. Leave in for up
to twelve hours. Repeat as necessary. It also helps to eat a lot of garlic.
cranberry juice. Unsweetened is best.
- Insert Potassium Sorbate. This
is used in home beer-making and can be found at wine-making stores. Dip a cotton
tampon into a 3% solution (15 grams of Potassium Sorbate in one pint of water)
and insert into the vagina at night. Remove in the morning.
- Drink or
eat Acidophilus. It's available in powder or capsules in health food stores or
found in some milk and yogurt products. (Read the label; some dairy products
have added acidophilus.)
- Douche with a vinegar/water solution. One tablespoon
of vinegar to one quart of water, once a day. Especially effective when used with
- more ideas
and Systemic Yeast
Some women are prone to yeast conditions and
get them frequently. These women may want to pay attention to precipitating factors,
which can vary from person to person. Some things which commonly cause or worsen
yeast overgrowth are stress, sudden diet and weather changes, birth control pills,
use of the contraceptive sponge, and most commonly, a high sugar, carbohydrate,
caffeine, or yeast diet. Frequent douching can increase yeast problems. Some health
conditions, such as pregnancy and diabetes, can instigate an overgrowth.
the biggest contributing factor in the creation of yeast overgrowth, however,
is the use, and overuse, of antibiotics. Although designed to kill "bad"
bacteria (those that make us ill) antibiotics, to varying degrees, kill "beneficial"
bacteria (those that keep us well, such as the digestive bacteria in our intestines.)
Any use of antibiotics will kill off some good bacteria and prolonged and overly
aggressive use of antibiotics can cause systemic problems for both men and women.
When the balance of good and bad bacteria is thrown off, yeast can build up in
the intestines and cause a whole host of health problems. Whenever you take antibiotics,
keep in mind this is strong medication. Ask your provider: How does it work? Is
there a topical antibiotic I could use instead? Sometimes, antibiotics are needed
but their overuse can cause serious problems. Adding acidophilus and bifidus to
your diet (in capsules) can re-balance the intestinal bacteria, and build up resistance
to future overgrowths.
Women experiencing persistent vaginal yeast overgrowth
who are using a cervical cap or diaphragm, need to wash and dry it well after
use. Some women have found relief from tenacious conditions with the "sucking
air" method of douching. In a bathtub, a woman can insert yogurt, vinegar
or other remedy. Lying on her back, hands at her side and palms down, she can
bring her feet back over her head. This action causes the vagina to balloon out
and pulls the vinegar or yogurt all the way in to fill the vagina and get every
fold of skin.
Systemic yeast is a system-wide infection/overgrowth throughout
the body. It requires dramatic changes in diet and long-term attention to avoiding
things that encourage yeast to grow.
Having a yeast condition can increase your susceptibility
to contracting HIV, since vaginal irritation may allow easier passage of the virus
into the bloodstream. For years women's health advocates worked to demonstrate
that the common perception of HIV and AIDS was based on men's experiences, and
it is now recognized that nearly-constant yeast overgrowth can be a marker of
HIV infection in women. The immune system suppression from HIV can cause an imbalance
in the vagina's chemistry, resulting in persistent yeast overgrowth.
a woman experiences yeast that is chronic, severe, and resistant to treatment,
and she and her healthcare provider have ruled out other possible causes such
as systemic yeast or overuse of antibiotics, she may want to consider being tested
for HIV. Because there is a precedent of discrimination against people who test
for HIV (regardless of their results), the Feminist Women's Health Centers recommend
anonymous testing. We offer this service at both our Renton and Yakima clinics.
The vagina is a self-cleaning
organ, and as such, does not need "washing." In fact, regular douching
can be harmful because it creates an upset in the normal vaginal Ph. In a healthy
vagina, douching can actually cause a yeast infection!
douches, deodorants, scented tampons, soaps and perfumes would have us believe
the vagina is dirty. In order to sell their products they must make us believe
women's bodies are naturally unclean and have unpleasant odors. However, a healthy
vagina has a pleasant, lightly musky odor and chemicals like these can mask changes
in that odor which may signal an infection. These chemicals can also be harmful,
by irritating the skin, mucous membrane, and Ph balance of the vagina. Unless
it is used as a method for treating problems such as yeast overgrowth, douching
is unnecessary and potentially harmful.
Written by Lynne
Vickery, a health worker at Cedar River Clinic, wrote this article in the fall
of 1993 at the end of her first year working in an abortion clinic. Lynne has
Bachelor Degrees in Human Sexuality Education and Counseling and Womens
Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Lynne worked at Cedar
River Clinic for four years.
more resources on yeast :
more resources on the self-help
about "self help"
Feminist Women's Health Center