Is too much yeast making you sick?
By Linda Knittel
A young woman walks into her doctor's office complaining of constant fatigue, frequent headaches, digestive problems, acne and, notably, recurring yeast infections. A routine examination reveals nothing out of the ordinary, but she's worried: Is it a rare virus? A new strain of bacteria? With careful questioning and a bit of lab work, her physician reaches a diagnosis: She is suffering from the increasingly common but potentially debilitating condition known as candidiasis, or yeast overgrowth.
Several types of harmless bacteria live in different areas of our bodies at any given time. Candida yeast (Candida albicans)—the fungus responsible for candidiasis—is naturally present in the mouth, gastrointestinal tract and vagina and is innocuous in controlled amounts. But if this yeast grows out of control, it begins to damage the delicate lining of the intestines, permitting toxins, undigested protein particles and the yeast itself to pass directly into the bloodstream. The body, believing these substances to be antigens or foreign invaders, initiates an antibody reaction, resulting in inflammation, fatigue, bloating and gas, allergies, headaches, constipation or diarrhea, acne, depression and sugar cravings. Since many of these symptoms can be linked to other conditions, candidiasis is often diagnosed after all else has been ruled out.
"Candidiasis is definitely a more common condition than it was 50 years ago," says nutritionist and author Melissa Diane Smith. "The reason is because we are eating way too much sugar and refined carbohydrates and not the fiber and nutrient-dense foods we need. Plus, most of the clients I have who've had yeast problems have taken a lot of antibiotics in their lifetime." Many everyday elements of modern life—including heavily refined foods, antibiotics, environmental toxins and hormone-based prescriptions—place considerable strain on the immune system and disrupt the natural defense systems that keep yeast levels in check. Fortunately, a few not-so-modern treatments, such as herbs, supplements and fresh, whole foods can restore balance to your delicate inner ecology and keep candida at bay.
Focus On Food
Although health practitioners differ on exactly which foods should be avoided and which can be eaten safely in the fight against candidiasis, most agree that switching to a low-carbohydrate, sugar-free diet is the most important step. To rid the body of excess candida, the yeast must be deprived of its favorite food: sugar. In fact, in a study of 49 women suffering from candida-related vaginal infections, 90 percent of those who reduced their intake of sugar drastically reduced the incidence and severity of such infections over the next year (Journal of Reproductive Medicine, 1984, vol. 29, no. 7). If you experience repeated bouts of candidiasis, eliminate all refined sugar from your diet, including packaged foods that contain sugar, and minimize your intake of honey, maple syrup, fruit, fruit juice and simple carbohydrates such as pasta, white rice and potatoes.
For most people, dairy products should also be avoided, since the lactose they contain has been shown to promote candida growth. "Yogurt might help some people, but when you are trying to correct a yeast imbalance you want to avoid any food that your immune system might react to," says Smith. "I think it's safer to get your healthy bacteria from a dairy-free probiotic supplement." Likewise, many health practitioners advise steering clear of foods that contain yeast or mold such as mushrooms, alcohol, cheeses, melons and dried fruit, as well as fermented products like soy sauce and vinegar that may encourage yeast.
According to Smith, to discourage candida overgrowth, the bulk of your diet should include lots of fiber-rich, low-carbohydrate vegetables such as dark leafy greens. Modest amounts of fish, poultry and lean meat also can be eaten, along with unprocessed oils, nuts, seeds and plenty of purified water. "I suggest my clients avoid sugar altogether and fruit for at least the first month," says Smith. "Also, be conscious of your complex carbohydrate intake, and be aware of the signals your body is sending you." For example, if you eat a small sweet potato at dinner and discover that your symptoms have flared up the next day, trust what your body is telling you.
Along with dietary changes, a number of herbs and supplements can help reduce yeast and promote a healthy digestive tract. For example, studies have shown that the antibiotic and antimicrobial properties in herbs such as garlic (Allium sativum), barberry (Berberis vulgaris), oregano (Oreganum vulgare), Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), as well as the fatty acid caprylic acid, can inhibit the growth of yeast.
Boosting good bacteria in your body can also keep the digestive tract in balance. To do so, supplement with protective flora such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum and Lactobacillus bulgaricus, as well as fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS)—a soluble fiber on which these good bacteria thrive.
A host of other supplements have shown promise in treating the symptoms of candidiasis. For instance, antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and essential fatty acids such as flaxseed can help protect intestinal cell membranes, while the amino acid L-glutamine helps repair damage to the gut wall. Naturally, it's important to work with a knowledgeable health practitioner to determine a protocol and dosages that will be safe and effective for you.
Although over-the-counter, anti-yeast medications do exist, they generally provide only temporary relief since they do not address the underlying reasons why a candida overgrowth has occurred. Only a comprehensive approach—including dietary changes and natural supplements—will rid your body of yeast overgrowth, restore balance to your bodily systems and prevent this insidious condition from recurring.
Linda Knittel is coauthor of The Soy Sensation (McGraw Hill, 2001).