Our entire body is covered in a variety of tiny organisms, so much so that microbe cells actually outnumber our own body’s cells. In general, we live with these bugs in a symbiotic relationship, they are incredibly beneficial or inert. They silently protect us from infections and help our body process food. But, sometimes some of them can get a little out of hand. One of these that can sometimes become a problem is a yeast called Candida albicans. This fungi is commonly found on the skin and in the digestive tract. When it is in balance, usually kept under control by other bacteria, it doesn’t cause a problem at all. But, sometimes Candida grows uncontrollably, causing a condition called candidiasis or Candida overgrowth. This yeast is actually the most common cause of fungal infections in humans (1).
Since it is such a common infection this means that there is a ton of information out there about how to get rid of it. And just like anything, some of this information is really bad and totally wrong! Before we dive into the worst advice we have heard about Candida, let’s first talk about how to know if you have it. Then we will bust a few common myths about it, tell you what the actual truth is about this every day yeast, and help you figure out what to do if you have a problem with it.
What is candidiasis?
As we mentioned, candidiasis is an overgrowth of a yeast called Candida albicans. It is one of many different types of yeast that live in our bodies, usually causing no major issue. But, this particular strain is known for getting out of control and this can happen almost anywhere on the body. It is an opportunistic yeast, when it sees that the environment is just right for its growth (usually dark, wet, and where other bacteria are not living), it takes over. When this takeover occurs in the mouth, common in babies and people with low immune system, it is referred to as thrush (2). If it happens in the vagina, it is commonly referred to as a yeast infection and no one wants that.
Why does this happen? Common causes of candidiasis are (3,4):
- Taking antibiotics
- Excessive alcohol intake
- A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates
- Birth control pills
- A weak immune system
- Uncontrolled diabetes or blood sugar
- Chronic stress
As you can see from this list, many of us might be at risk for Candida overgrowth at different points in our lives. Sometimes it is obvious when we have a Candida problem, as in the case of an infection, but sometimes the symptoms can be a little less-specific and you may not be aware they are being caused by Candida.
Common Candida Symptoms
When there is an active Candida infection, such as thrush or a yeast infection, it is pretty obvious. There is usually some type of white growth or discharge in the affected area, which is a sign that the yeast cells are taking over. The affected area can also have a “yeast-y” smell, kind of like baking bread, but not in a good way. Most of these infections can also be quite painful and may cause swelling and redness (5). Not fun at all.
But, candida overgrowth isn’t always linked to a painful infection or limited to a particular area of the body. Candida can actually colonize the entire body, causing a variety of odd symptoms that can really make you feel pretty awful. Some of these common symptoms include:
The fatigue caused by Candida overgrowth is likely related to a combination of a poorly functioning immune system, nutritional deficiencies and the impact on neurotransmitters. It is natural to feel tired when your immune system is not functioning well, as it as to work extra hard to keep you healthy. Not only that, it is already weak and fighting the candidiasis. In addition, Candida infection impacts your body’s stores of magnesium, vitamin C, and zinc, lowering your energy (6). Candida in the digestive tract has also been linked to an increased risk for chronic fatigue syndrome (7).
Most of the bacteria and yeast in our bodies lives in the digestive tract, so it’s no surprise that when there is an imbalance caused by overgrowth that your digestion gets out of whack. The reason is that when Candida takes over, it kills off other bacteria that help process fiber and certain sugars. When these things are not properly digested this can lead to inflammation in the gut, causing pain, bloating, gas, and other digestive problems. Candida has also been associated with an increased risk of inflammatory bowel diseases, like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis (8).
Candida, if left unchecked, can travel all over the body and even infect the joints. This leads to a very painful type of arthritis and even an infection in the bones. This type of infection is more common after surgery or in people with a weak immune system and usually doesn’t occur in healthy individuals (9).
Skin and Nail Infections
Candida can grow uncontrollably on the skin, particularly in areas that are dark and moist, this is its favorite environment! Athlete’s foot is a common type of Candida infection that occurs on the sweaty feet of athletes, but can also happen in the groin or armpits. Even toenail fungus can be caused by Candida (10). For skin, the bottom line is that anything that changes the pH level or kills off healthy bacteria can lead to candidiasis. For example, overuse of antibacterial products, changes in environment, excessive sweat, or the use of personal care products that change skin pH.
Chronic Sinus Infections
Chronic sinus infections can be hard to treat because they are actually commonly caused by Candida and not bacteria. Symptoms include constant runny nose, headaches, and nasal congestion. Sadly, the first line of treatment for a sinus infection is antibiotics, which can make the infection worse if it is being caused by Candida (11). So, if you have a sinus infection lasting longer than a month, ask your doctor if it may have another underlying cause and may need a different course of treatment.
Uncontrolled Sugar Cravings
These little yeasts can even influence what you want to eat. They love carbs and sugar! So, when they are growing out of control, they make you eat more carbs and sugar to feed them. They really are quite powerful! Candida overgrowth can cause you to feel completely out of control with your sugar cravings.
Many of the symptoms caused by candidiasis are not life-threatening, but for people with immune problems, untreated candidiasis can lead to severe infection and even death (12). Regardless some of these symptoms can be quite annoying or embarrassing. If you have any of these, you probably want to find a solution.
The Worst Candida Advice
Since Candida overgrowth is so common, any Google search will give you a ton of hits on how to treat it. Many “health” bloggers and semi-professionals have developed their own protocols for treating Candida based on some questionable information and poor understanding of microbiology. Here is some of the worst advice we have ever heard about Candida and the actual truth about this little yeast:
1.Trying to get rid of all Candida.
First of all, Candida is a normal microbe that lives on our bodies and some is necessary for a normal digestive tract. The bacteria in our gut live in a delicate and perfect balance (most of the time), when you kill one off, others are allowed to take over and other problems occur. When people are prescribed anti-fungal medications for too long, killing off our lovely Candida, it can lead to something called gut dysbiosis or bad bacterial overgrowth (13). So, we don’t want to kill off the Candida, we want to just keep it in check. We need some of it to maintain that beautiful balance.
2. Blindly Self-Treating
As we discussed above, some of the symptoms of Candida are pretty non-specific. Joint pain, skin issues, and digestive problems can be caused by several other conditions, not just yeast. Overgrowth of other types of microbes or parasites, Lyme disease, and thyroid conditions can all cause similar symptoms. So, it’s important to get tested for Candida before starting a treatment protocol because you don’t want to be treating the wrong thing. Many people with candida tend to have other types of medical conditions, like leaky gut or autoimmune disease. Some of those other conditions may need to be addressed first or at the same time to see real improvement. .
3. Focusing Only on the Candida Diet
If you Google “Candida Diet” you will see multiple sites devoted to low to very low carbohydrate diets to starve Candida. Remember they love sugar, so this seems logical right? Not really. The thing is that starving them doesn’t always kill off the yeast because they can actually live off ketones, which are produced when you are on a low carb, moderate protein, high fat diet (14). So, really you are just replacing one food source with another. Tricky aren’t they? In addition, it seems that the immune system is slightly weakened in a very low carb diet, making it harder for your body to fight the yeast naturally.
Also, before jumping into an elimination diet, you will need to look at what is causing the Candida to get out of control in the first place. Were you on antibiotics that killed off the healthy bacteria that were keeping the yeast at bay? Maybe you need some probiotics first. How is your stress level? If it’s out of control it can be one trigger of candidiasis. Maybe what you really need is some stress management, like yoga or meditation, to help lower your Candida levels. So, as you can see, you can eat a low carb diet all day, but if you don’t address the underlying cause of the imbalance, it will likely just come back.
4. Not Replacing Healthy Microbes
Candida is a yeast of opportunity, cropping up when other microbes that keep it at bay are killed off. Without the right type of microbes, the Candida will just keep coming back. So, a big part of a treatment plan for Candida is to replace microbes to keep the yeast in check by taking a quality probiotic or eating fermented foods, like kombucha or sauerkraut. Also, be sure to eat plenty of prebiotic foods to feed the probiotics to keep them healthy and thriving.
5. Using Supplements Forever
Anti-microbial supplements are frequently recommended for periods of active infection. But, sometimes people stay on these for extended periods of time. These types of supplements are not meant to be taken forever because they will continue to kill of the beneficial bacteria, after the yeast have been put in their place. Examples may include grapefruit seed extract, lauricidin, garlic, caprylic acid and many others.
6. Thinking you are “cured”
As we mentioned, yeast thrives on alcohol and a high carb diet. Once you have candidiasis you are prone to get it again, and returning to your old habits will just allow the yeast to regrow. Yeast is a microbe of opportunity, when it sees that the right environment is in place to support its growth, it’s going to go for it!
If you do have active candidiasis or suspect a yeast overgrowth, what can you do to treat it? What is the best way to get those pesky little microbes back in balance and make yourself feel good again?
The Candida Diet
The first thing you will need to do is get tested to see if you really are fighting yeast. If you have an active infection, like a yeast infection, it is usually pretty clear what it is. A doctor may still want to take a swab of the area to make sure it truly is yeast and then they can determine a proper treatment.
But, if your symptoms are more non-specific, a fecal test is recommended to measure the amount of yeast in your digestive tract. A doctor can order these types of tests to help you determine your plan.
The next step is to change your diet to help kill off some of the yeast and support the growth of healthy microbes in its place. Let’s start with foods you should add to your diet that are naturally anti-microbial:
- Garlic. Allicin, an anti-fungal compound found in garlic, has been found to kill off Candida (15). You can take garlic in capsule form or even better add it to your food.
- Turmeric. The active ingredient in turmeric, called curcumin, has significant anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. It is believed that it works by actively damaging the cell walls of the yeast, killing them off (16). But, some studies have found that it is not quite as effective in killing yeast as anti-fungal medication (17). Regardless, add a little turmeric to your food, it is highly anti-inflammatory and will help your body fight off the infection.
- Coconut Oil. A 2016 study found that coconut oil was almost as effective in fighting yeast as a common anti-fungal medication. This is likely because of a specific fat found in coconut oil called lauric acid that has antimicrobial properties. For oral thrush, coconut oil can be used as a mouthwash to help manage the infection (18).
- Pomegranate. One study showed that pomegranate can inhibit the growth of yeast cells. If you want to add pomegranate to your Candida diet, consider consuming the fruit directly, instead of the juice, which can be very high in sugar (19).
- Kombucha. A 2012 study found that kombucha made from both black and green tea had antimicrobial properties against several different bacteria and yeasts. Green tea kombucha was found to be the most powerful against Candida (20). The combo of the probiotics and the antioxidants in the tea that make for an incredible immune-boosting, yeast fighter. So, if you have Candida, be sure to drink that ‘booch”.
- Aloe Vera. This medicinal plant has been used for its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, particularly for oral thrush (21). Pure aloe can be consumed as juice (it is quite bitter, so mix it with water) or it can rubbed directly on the affected area.
- Green tea. This tea is well known for its health benefits, but has also been shown to be effective in fighting Candida. The active ingredient in green tea called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which is effective against fighting several different types of infections, including yeast (22, 23). To help ward off Candida, add a warm cup of high quality green tea to your morning for a healthy caffeine and antioxidant boost.
- Probiotics. Probiotics are healthy bacteria that help prevent the overgrowth of less than healthy bacteria and microbes that can cause infection. Several have been extensively studied and found to be effective in fighting candidiasis (24, 25). If you are looking for a probiotic for Candida be sure it includes the Lactobacillus strain, which is the most effective against yeast.
- Essential oils. Although essential oils are not a food, they have been extensively studied for their benefit in fighting candidiasis. Essential oils that might be particularly beneficial include lemon, eucalyptus, pine, tea tree oil, and cinnamon, all of which have anti-fungal properties (26, 27).
Many of these oils are quite potent and should not be taken orally. But, they can be used topically to help kill yeast, particularly on affected areas, like the feet or armpits. Essential oils can be quite potent, so if you have never tried them before be sure to test a small quantity on a non-infected area first or consider mixing the oil with a carrier oil like jojoba or coconut oil.
Now that we have covered the foods you should add to your diet, let’s talk about what you need to avoid. We have mentioned that the blind elimination of carbohydrates and sugar doesn’t actually work for candida, since they are tricky little bugs and are able to survive (and maybe even thrive) on ketones. Also, limiting carbohydrates to treat Candida has not shown to be effective in the research (28). So, what should you do instead?
The key is not to eliminate all carbohydrates, but only specific ones, those that the yeast really love to eat. Yeast love to break apart complex, short chain fermentable carbohydrates called FODMAPs. This acronym stands for fermentable, oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols. Whew, that’s a mouthful! The elimination of these types of carbohydrates seems to be enough to help reduce yeast overgrowth, without eliminating all carbs and going into ketosis, which isn’t beneficial anyway. The FODMAP diet works for yeast specifically because it cuts out the carbohydrates that seem to be most prone to fermentation. These particular carbs tend to hang around the digestive tract longer, where they can be eaten by yeast. When these carbs are not available, there aren’t any for the yeast to eat, and they die off.
Which foods contain FODMAPs? Sadly, many healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy, and grains are high in FODMAPs. But, it’s always best to focus on what you can eat, rather than what you can’t, so here are some of common foods that are allowed on the low FODMAP diet (29, 30, 31):
- Vegetables: bell peppers, carrots, green beans, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, ginger, olives, potatoes, turnips.
- Fruit: oranges, grapes, melons, bananas, blueberries, grapefruit, kiwis, lemons, limes, oranges, strawberries.
- Protein foods: beef, pork, chicken, fish, eggs, soy.
- Grains: rice, oats, quinoa
The thing is, particularly for Candida, this diet is meant as a temporary treatment or a Candida cleanse, not as long-term way of eating. As you can see, the foods that can be eaten on this diet are pretty minimal. Expect to follow it for 6-8 weeks, then you can begin to add back some of the healthy foods you eliminated. Go slowly when adding foods back in to prevent symptoms from recurring. As with any elimination diet it is best to work with a practitioner who can give you guidance on how to tailor it to your specific needs and medical concerns.
As you can see, this little yeast can really cause a ton of havoc on your system. With it being such a common infection, it’s no surprise there is a ton of misinformation out there about how to deal with it. The most important takeaway is that if you are having non-specific symptoms that you think might be Candida, get tested first before starting any type of treatment. This can help rule out other conditions that can have similar symptoms that would need to be addressed first. Once you know what you are dealing with, you can start the most effective treatment plan to get you feeling better right away.
Learn more about how to take care of your gut for the long term with the 131 Method!