The Microbiome In Love
written by Shea Sweeney
So, you’ve taken a lover. You begin spending copious amounts of time together and wondering what the hell you’re doing. One night a week turns into three, into four. Perhaps borrowing an article of clothing. A pair of socks. Eating off the same tube of raw cookie dough (you’re wild sometimes). Drinking out of the same water glass. And maybe one time you forget your toothbrush…and you share…..No, no, you resist. It’s a toothpaste on the finger type night. But anyway, this goes on, you decide you’re like, in love? And maybe you even move in together (gasp). Some time later you wake up, your now partner rolls over to cuddle and you notice something….interesting. You always sleep to the right of them and you realize that their left and right armpits smell…different from each other. And not only that, but their right armpit - the one that you sleep next to - actually kinda smells like….you.
No, this is not an indie horror about body odor premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. It's a real phenomenon. It turns out we do actually colonize our lovers’ lives in more ways than just leaving a toothbrush or being the hot new addition to an awkward family gathering. The people with whom we share our most intimate physical relationships can actually begin to reflect us on a microbiological level and visa versa.
Our bodies are literally covered in bacteria and microorganisms that make up each of our personal microbiomes. A 2017 study concluded that cohabiting couples altered one another’s skin microbiomes. “After testing the samples,” Medical News Today reported, “The researchers noted that microbes had been swapped between couples to a significant enough extent that computer algorithms were able to link a person to their partner with an accuracy of 86 percent.” Well, damn.
The story I told at the beginning is partially biographical: a friend of mine has managed to accidentally alter the scent of her partner's armpit on the side that she sleeps on, which now smells like her. We went back and forth as to whether this was actually possible. And, turns out, it is. According to New Scientist, it is actually so possible that one can perform an armpit bacteria “transplant” of sorts in order to aid those who suffer from bad B.O. It seems that if given the proper conditions, bacteria from one body will gladly proliferate on another.
I did wonder how this all figured into the vaginal microbiome. I’d heard a number of anecdotal accounts of people breaking up with sexual partners partially or entirely because of microbiome incompatibility issues.
“I had everything in the book,” one source said of a past relationship, “BV, UTIs, he gave me HPV. And I also, at the same time, was taking every supplement and probiotic in the book. I was doing all of the things, and I just could not combat these problems. And then, you know what, we broke up. And now I’m dating someone new. No issues. Not a single problem.”
We discussed how isolating it can be for people with vaginas to deal with chronic issues when the burden of sexual health is often placed squarely on our backs. “I feel like men just have no idea that women go through this. I was dating him for quite a while. A year. Meanwhile just going through dramatic things. I was having to go to the gyno, use antibiotic cream, and take oral antibiotics. He wasn’t going through anything that I was going through."
She said something else that really stood out to me, in a way it's sort of the whole thesis. “My body physically rejected him, but I still thought that while we were dating our sexual attraction would be enough to keep us going. And I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I wish I’d listened to the signs from my body a little bit more.” A lot of the time our bodies and our subconscious know things before we allow ourselves to consciously accept them. There seems to be a lot of power in learning how to listen to that.
So, as a person who is also BV-prone, am I going to stop dating someone every time I get it? For me it definitely seems to correlate with sex, however it's too inconsistent to successfully track. I can’t be certain about what’s going on. Trying to find and address its origins so it doesn’t happen again feels like trying to find Moby-Dick. Endless and existential.
To be honest I started to feel a little adrift on the sea of vaginal health while writing this article. Until, suddenly, I looked down into the water and there it was; a study about the bacteria of the literal (Moby) dick.
This 2020 study was a deep dive into whether the bacteria of the penile microbiome directly correlates with bacterial vaginosis. And guess what…..it does! Ding! Ding! Ding! “The results show that men’s microbiota has a role in BV onset and that BV-related bacteria present in men’s penile microbiome can be used to predict with high accuracy BV incidence in their female partner.” The researchers were quick to note that this revelatory outcome does not mean that any one party should be blamed for BV, but rather that the treatment of vaginal conditions should be approached more holistically. Perhaps it's not only women who should seek treatment for BV-causing bacteria, and maybe one day there will be treatment options for male-bodied people so they can support their partners’ health. “I would like for clinicians, researchers, and the public to be inclusive of male sex partners in their efforts to improve women’s reproductive health, “A researcher says, “Not to place directionality or blame on one partner or another, but to increase the options and opportunity for improved reproductive health, and hopefully reduce stigma from BV."
I, for one, would love to live in a world where a partner and I take full co-accountability for our shared microbiome. Sexual partners are co-captains on the ship of vaginal health and in this world where our bodies are connected in so many ways we can’t even see, it’s important to support each other’s microbiome as much as we possibly can.