The vagina is a dynamic and finely tuned ecosystem in which homeostasis depends on mutually beneficial interactions between a human female and her resident microorganisms, an ecosystem that can be thrown off balance by a wide variety of both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Although a functional equilibrium provides stability to the ecosystem considered crucial to maintaining vaginal health, “normal flora” is a concept currently being redefined. New methodologies enable molecular analyses of the vaginal microbiota which have widened the definition of “normal” from a single specific microbiological profile to a range of functional microbial equilibria dependent upon pertinent host and microbial factors. One of the strongest influences on the vaginal microbiota is the hormonal changes that define the reproductive phases of a woman’s life. The vaginal environment is particularly responsive to estrogen, a hormone that creates distinctive changes in the vaginal microbiota. This review summarizes the components of a healthy vaginal ecosystem during the reproductive years, including the characteristics of a healthy equilibrium and factors that can disturb a functional balance. It also summarizes what is known about the vaginal microbiota in childhood and after menopause. Healthful ecosystems at any stage of a female’s reproductive life will be characterized by a microbiota that both maintains physiological function and though changeable, adapts to normal perturbation without succumbing to disease.
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