You may have heard of Candida albicans before, but perhaps you don’t quite understand the full picture or how this nasty little fungus could be at the root of your health problems. One reason for many people’s lack of understanding is the fact that it is not something traditional doctors acknowledge in their practice. Conversely, Candida albicans, often shortened to just candida, and its relationship to many chronic illnesses is very well established within the alternative and functional medicine communities. As I have had to rid myself of this extremely resilient yeast, I would like to shed some light on it for you as well as share my own experience with overcoming it.
First things first…
What is candida?
Candida is a fungus, which is a form of yeast that lives in our mouth and intestines. When our gut ecology is in perfect balance, this common yeast’s job is to aid with digestion and nutrient absorption. However, when overproduced, candida spores through the intestinal wall and penetrates the bloodstream, releasing toxic byproducts, causing leaky gut, and producing a multitude of various health problems, such as digestive issues, brain fog, and depression, just to name a few. Candida can be tricky to identify as it’s a great mimicker of a lot of different health conditions and has a wide range of symptoms.
What are the most common symptoms of candida overgrowth?
- Fungal infections of the nails/skin (such as athlete’s foot or toenail fungus)
- Vaginal infections (thrush), urinary tract infections, rectal or vaginal itching
- Digestive issues such as bloating, flatulence, constipation, or diarrhea
- Brain fog, difficulty concentrating, lack of focus, poor memory, ADD, ADHD
- Chronic tiredness, feeling worn down
- Severe allergies, sinusitis, itchy ears, sensitivity to perfume, smoke and other chemical odors
- Irritability, mood swings, anxiety, depression
- Headaches, muscle aches, joint pains or in-coordination
- Skin issues such as eczema, hives, psoriasis, or chronic skin rashes
- Premenstrual tension, abdominal pain, menstrual irregularities, loss of sexual interest
- Strong sugar, refined carbohydrate, and alcohol cravings
- Food allergies and intolerances
- Autoimmune disease such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Rheumatoid arthritis, Ulcerative colitis, Lupus, Scleroderma and Multiple sclerosis
What are the contributing factors to candida overgrowth?
- Diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar – sugar is yeast’s favorite food
- Diet high in alcohol – alcohol is a simple sugar (beer and wine are the worst as they are fermented)
- Contraceptive pill or HRT (hormone replacement therapy)
- Broad-spectrum antibiotics – these non-specific antibiotics wipe out all bacteria in the gut so they kill all your friendly bacteria too
- Use of acid blockers – blocking stomach acid inhibits your ability to kill off fungus, bacteria, yeast, parasites, etc. that come into the stomach in food and water
- High stress lifestyle
- Hormonal changes, i.e. puberty, pregnancy, menopause
- Exposure to environmental molds
Is candida overgrowth only a female problem?
No, not at all. While vaginal yeast infections are one way candida manifests in women, other forms of yeast infection include athlete’s foot, ringworm, oral thrush, jock itch, and other fungal skin irritations. (Delightful things to discuss, ey?) While men can certainly get candida as well, it is more common in women as, over their lifetime, many women are exposed to synthetic estrogens (contraceptive pill and HRT) which drive candida.
How do you diagnose candida overgrowth?
In view of the wide range of symptoms associated with candida, it is best to seek a medical professional for diagnosis to ensure your symptoms are not related to another potentially more serious condition. The guidance of a naturopath, herbalist or functional medicine doctor can help you with addressing the root cause of the symptoms and identifying complicating factors such as food allergies and healing a leaky gut. This website is a great resource for finding a functional medicine doctor in your area.
How do you test for candida overgrowth?
- Blood test – candida suppresses our immune system so this test checks levels of candida specific IgM, IgA and IgG anti-bodies
- Comprehensive stool test – very accurate in identifying candida in the colon and lower intestines
- Urine Organix Dysbiosis test – this determines if there is candida in the upper gut or small intestines
How do you treat candida overgrowth?
Depending on the severity of your case, you can go about it in one of three ways:
- Diet + herbal remedies
- Diet + herbal remedies + prescription anti-fungal medications (such as Diflucan or Nystatin)
Diet is the key component in treating candida overgrowth but it is also the hardest part. It requires a change to a very low carbohydrate diet. Sugar is what feeds yeast so you have to starve the yeast by eliminating sugar. Strictly speaking, this means sugar in all its forms, including healthy sugars such as those found in fruit and complex carbohydrates like whole grains. Even though fruit and grains are good for us most of the time, they still break down into sugar in the body and, thus, feed yeast. If you are using diet alone to kill candida, it can take between six weeks and six months depending on the severity of the case. You can find comprehensive lists online of foods to eat and avoid on the candida diet, but below is a good guideline.
What to avoid
- All sugars: brown or white sugar, honey, molasses, rice syrup, maple syrup, agave, malt, chocolate, etc. – check all labels for added sugar!
- All alcohol – if you absolutely MUST have a drink, stick to vodka water with lime
- All yeast-containing or yeast-derived foods – check labels!
- All grains, particularly refined grains like white flour, etc.
- Anything fermented – condiments, pickles, etc.
- All fruit, except lemon, for at least the first three weeks – no grapes, melon, or any dried fruit
- Breaded, cured and smoked meats and fish
- Dairy products
- Nuts, unless freshly cracked, as they contain mold – no peanuts or pistachios
- Unrefined oils: safflower, sunflower, soy, walnut, corn – shouldn’t be eating these anyway!
- Mushrooms – they are a fungus
- Tea and coffee
- All artificial sweeteners, preservatives and chemical additives
What to eat
Lots of low starch vegetables – raw and cooked
Onions and garlic
Avocados and lemons
Seeds – pumpkin, sunflower, sesame chia, hemp, flax
Organic meat, eggs, and fish
Coconut oil and olive oil
Rice cakes - good substitute for bread
Coconut, oat and rice milk – check labels for additives!
Herbal tea - rooibos tea and dandelion coffee are most similar to black tea and coffee, respectively
Clean, filtered water
Other tips and tricks
If you decide not to use prescription meds from the doctor, you can find these anti-fungal medications at health food stores and/or pharmacies:
- Caprylic acid
- Garlic cloves and powder
- Homeopathic candida dilution extract
- Pau d'Arco
- Taheebo tea
- Cantrol by Nature's Way
- Candida Cleanse by Rainbow Light Nutritional Solutions
- Yeast Fighters by Twin Lab
It’s essential to restore your healthy bacteria so taking a high quality probiotic is a must. Additionally, some people find colon cleansing is very effective to move out the toxicity as quickly as possible when dealing with massive candida die off. You can do this with colon hydrotherapy or magnesium-oxygen products.
For years (we’re talking since high school, so let’s say six), I had been wrestling with a range of various health woes but never put much thought or effort behind identifying the cause or learning about my body. For a long time, I ignored all signs that my body was out of whack and accepted my symptoms as just being how things were. I suffered from frequent bloating, gas and constipation. I was plagued with recurrent bouts of urinary tract infections and vaginal yeast infections (thrush) that usually came as a savage pair. I felt worn down, irritable, and often anxious, especially at night before trying to go to sleep. I had strong sugar cravings in the afternoons, particularly after a night of drinking, which I tried to satisfy with a “healthy” sweet option which, even still, made me more bloated and uncomfortable. The final straw that led me to seek out professional advice was a fungal infection on my toe. The thought of it made my skin crawl and having to look at, much less touch it, was beyond my limits (I have a fear of rashes and all things fungus).
At the breaking point about two years ago, I went to see a naturopath who suggested that I had candida overgrowth. She advised that I follow a candida cleanse diet which, at the time, seemed extremely strict to me. As soon as I saw “no alcohol” at the top of the ‘avoid’ list, I dismissed the program as impossible. It took me a good six months of continuing with these relentless symptoms (although I managed to get rid of the disgusting toe infection!) for me to entertain the idea of taking the “drastic measures” the naturopath advised were necessary. As I rarely, if ever, take things at face value, I decided to do my own research into whether or not candida was really the culprit for much of my suffering over the years. This question mark diagnosis was quickly confirmed while reading The Yeast Connection by William G Crook. This book brought so much light to my niggling health concerns and helped me identify them as most certainly yeast-related.
My history of long-term use of tetracyclines (broad-spectrum antibiotics) for acne in my teens was a major risk factor for yeast-connected illness. These broad-spectrum antibiotics wipe out all the good bacteria in the gut and give yeast free rein to grow unchecked. Adding fuel to the fire, I was on the Pill for about eight years during my late teens and early twenties. Progesterone in birth control pills causes changes in the vaginal mucous membrane making the vagina a perfect breeding ground for yeasts to multiply (ew, I know!). As if I was trying to make things worse, around that same time I was also consuming a lot of alcohol, particularly in my four years in college. Alcohol converts to simple sugar as soon as it’s ingested fueling yeast overproduction. While I never slammed straight up candy bars, I did eat quite a bit of “healthy” sugar in the form of fruit, dried fruit, chocolate, dairy products and natural sweeteners such as honey and agave. Again, sugar and yeast are best of friends.
With all my research and reading in hand, I had my answer and knew I had to do something about it. I decided to quit sugar - completely and totally eliminate all sugar from my diet in all its forms. I didn’t eat any form of fruit (except lemon) or grain for about eight weeks. I was very pedantic about checking labels for added sugars in store-bought food products and chucked out all “healthy” sugars (i.e. honey, etc) in my pantry. I was very careful with starchy vegetables (i.e. sweet potato, beetroot, carrot) and only ate them on rare occasions. I also cut out alcohol which was the biggest one for me as I had rarely gone a weekend for six years without it. During this time, I emphasized fruit-free green juices and smoothies, lots of low starch veggies (esp leafy greens and avocados), organic lean meat, fish, eggs, freshly-cracked nuts and seeds. I also supplemented with an anti-fungal product that I purchased at Whole Foods in the U.S.
It took me about three months to really feel like I had turned the corner on candida. While I can’t say getting control of candida is easy, it’s the best thing I could have done for my health and well being. I thought eliminating fruit and alcohol from my diet would be impossible, but once I started noticing increased energy, clearer thinking, less bloating and fewer cravings, I completely stopped missing them. I learned so much about my body and the process of healing throughout this whole endeavor. It opened me up to a holistic approach to health and healing whereby the body will heal itself with its own intelligence (vital force) given the right conditions. For the first time, I actually listened to my body rather than blaming it for my symptoms which, I now understand, are really just a result of the body’s intrinsic response to defend itself. Most importantly, through this process, I owned my own healing and realized that it was my job to provide my body with the conditions it needed for healing rather than relying on a doctor to “fix” me. This was a very empowering realization for me. It is this empowerment that brings healing and, in turn, healing brings bliss!
I hope none of you ever have to deal with this condition but, if you do (or suspect you do), I would love to support you through treating and overcoming it!