Candida: A Small Yeast with Big Health Implications
By Julie Miller ND
Candida albicans is an opportunistic fungus that can when conditions permit, can flourish in our bodies contributing to a variety of health concerns. Many people are familiar with candida as the culprit behind vaginal yeast infections and oral thrush, but candida overgrowth can occur in many places including the skin, the digestive tract, and even the bloodstream. Although candida is considered a normal component of the gut flora, its numbers are kept in check by the immune system and the beneficial bacteria in our digestive tracts. However, there are many factors that tip this balance in favor of candida overgrowth including:
- A diet high in refined sugar and carbohydrates (including alcohol) and inadequate fiber
- Chronic stress leading to increased blood sugar (which feeds the yeast) and lowered immune function
- The use of certain medications including antibiotics, steroids, and synthetic hormones including the birth control pill
- Environmental toxins such as mercury
When candida proliferates in the digestive tract, it changes form and begins to penetrate the intestinal lining contributing to a condition called “leaky gut”. This increased intestinal permeability allows undigested food particles and yeast cells to enter the blood stream which stimulates the immune system and creates inflammation. This process explains why candida overgrowth can contribute to the development of food intolerances. Furthermore, candida creates many metabolic by-products that increase the toxic burden in our bodies. Because candida can ferment the sugars and starches in food, it not only leads to uncomfortable digestive symptoms such as gas, bloating, and gurgling in the gut, but the alcohol that is produced can destabilize blood sugar levels and contribute to sugar cravings.
The symptoms of candida overgrowth are numerous and not just localized to the digestive tract:
- Generalized: fatigue, brain fog, dizziness, headaches, muscle and joint pain, blood sugar imbalance (including sugar and alcohol cravings)
- Digestion: gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, acid reflux, rectal itching, thrush, bad breath
- Skin: acne, hives, eczema, psoriasis, fungal infection of skin/nails
- Genitourinary: vaginal yeast infections, PMS, recurrent urinary tract infection, cystitis
- Respiratory: sinus congestion, chronic post nasal drip, mucous in the throat, sinusitis, asthma, hayfever
- Psychological: irritability, depression, insomnia, anxiety, inability to focus, hyperactivity
To bring candida levels back into balance requires a multi-faceted approach including a low sugar/refined carbohydrate diet, anti-fungal herbs and nutrients, and probiotics. Also, it is important to facilitate repair of the intestinal lining to heal the “leaky gut” as well as aid the liver in the detoxification of fungal metabolic by-products. When treating candida overgrowth, it is possible to experience a “die-off” reaction as the yeast cells are killed and their metabolic toxins released into the body. This die-off reaction often consists of an aggravation of pre-existing candida-related symptoms including headaches, fatigue, digestive disturbance, joint or muscle pain, and skin rashes. It is very important during the treatment to drink ample water (2L for women and 3L for men), ensure daily bowel movements, and use soluble fiber (eg from chia seed) to facilitate removal of yeast cells and toxins from the digestive tract.