You may be thinking that candida overgrowth (a type of yeast infection) is a health issue that only affects women. However, those with candidiasis can have fungal infections on the skin, in the mouth and throat, in the vagina, or within the digestive tract. Localized fungal infections are easier and quicker to treat, but can be more tricky if it becomes systemic and affects the whole body.
Systemic candida overgrowth is more common than people realize because it can cause (or be caused by) a number of chronic diseases as well as various digestive, mental/emotional, and whole-body symptoms. Systemic candida overgrowth begins with a candida imbalance in our gut that then breaks into our bloodstream and travels freely throughout our body causing a myriad of symptoms. As soon as our gut function is compromised, treatment for candida overgrowth becomes more specialized and involves several steps including a therapeutic diet and targeted supplements. A person diagnosed with candida overgrowth in their gut should work with a physician trained in functional, preventative, or lifestyle medicine.
Here we will discuss what candida overgrowth is, how it’s caused, and the various stages of treatment. Specific treatment protocols will vary among physicians depending on the needs of each person, and may well differ from what is discussed here. It is best to work with your physician to learn of your specific treatment program.
What is Systemic Candida Overgrowth?
Candida is a genus of various types of yeast species that exist normally within the human body, specifically our mouth and intestine. Normal levels of candida, along with our good gut bacteria, help with our digestive process. In fact it is our good bacteria that keeps our candida growth in check. Our immune system also helps keep candida balanced. The presence of candida is not the problem, rather it’s the overgrowth that causes symptoms.
When there is an overgrowth of candida in the gut, it can compromise the barrier between our intestine and our bloodstream, leading to what’s called leaky gut. Read more about leaky gut here. Furthermore, candida releases toxic byproducts (like acetaldehyde and ethanol) that then enter our bloodstream and cause a host of symptoms as our immune system tries to fight off the invasion.
Common symptoms of candida overgrowth include fatigue, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, bladder infections, food sensitivities, chemical sensitivities, allergies, muscle aches, brain fog, skin rashes, hormone imbalances, and depression.
Why Testing is So Important
You can see how the symptoms listed above are not isolated to one part of the body, but rather affect multiple body systems. This is because any pathogen or foreign invader that enters the bloodstream can freely travel throughout the body and affect any organ system it can. This is true regardless of the type of pathogen, which means that these symptoms can be caused by any number of invaders, not just a candida overgrowth. This is why it’s important to get to the root cause of your symptoms through appropriate testing. Otherwise you might be treating a condition that you don’t have while the real cause is still affecting you, unchecked. A common situation in cases of chronic health issues is that there are multiple underlying causes. Additional testing would need to occur to ensure there are not any secondary (or primary) causes.
Urine and stool tests are best for identifying an active fungal overgrowth. Specialty labs including Doctor’s Data, Genova, and Great Plains Laboratory all provide in-depth testing that can reveal any fungal overgrowth. Your practitioner can order the appropriate tests and interpret the results to create the best treatment plan for you.
So how does an overgrowth of candida occur? The answer is different for everybody and, as mentioned above, often involves multiple causes. Recall that our gut bacteria and our immune system are both responsible for keeping candida within normal limits. So any insult that weakens or reduces our microbiome or our immune response would also allow candida to grow unchecked. Causes of gut and immune imbalances include:
-Chronic constipation or diarrhea
-Other digestive disorders
-Multiple years of antibiotic use
-Medications such as steroid hormones, anti-inflammatories, ulcer medications, acid blockers, and immunosuppressant drugs
-Born via cesarean section
-Exposure to toxic metals, chemicals, or molds
-Certain genetic disorders like celiac disease or hemochromatosis (iron overload)
Keep in mind that each of these potential causes are also implicated in the development of other chronic health concerns. Experiencing any of these life factors can cause candida overgrowth in one person but cause SIBO, mold toxicity, crohn’s disease, thyroid issues, or even lyme disease in another person. Same cause but a different outcome.
Steps of Treatment
Treating systemic candida overgrowth is a multi-step process that takes 3 – 4 months on average to fully recover and heal. First we starve out the excess yeast and bring it down to within normal limits. This is accomplished through a therapeutic diet and various antifungal remedies. Once the overgrowth is contained, it’s imperative to repair your gut and rebalance your good gut bacteria and yeast. This will prevent further recurrence of fungal overgrowth down the line. Making long-term changes and adopting healthy habits will bring balance to your gut and enhance whole-body functioning for a lifetime. Let’s break down each of these steps into more detail.
There is no one specific diet that treats candida overgrowth. The candida diet and the anti-candida diet are both easily found online, but these are just two of the several types of diets that help control fungal overgrowth. Other dietary plans that have been successful for people include the GAPS diet, the SCD diet, the low-FODMAP diet, or a low-carb Paleo diet. There are pros and cons to each type of diet so it’s important to find out which eating style gives your body the most improvement.
The main criteria for any eating style meant to reduce fungal overgrowth is to severely reduce or eliminate sugars and certain carbohydrates. This is because fungi (and bacteria) in our digestive system feed upon glucose molecules. Glucose is found in sugars and carbohydrates in varying amounts. Some types of carbohydrates are harder to digest than others, causing them to remain in our gut longer. This makes them more accessible as a food source for fungal and bacterial overgrowths. The difference between the varying diets for candida is determined by which types of carbohydrates (and thus sugars) are avoided and which are allowed. For example, some of the diets avoid all grains, legumes, and dairy while others allow gluten-free grains, limited legumes, and some types of dairy.
However, there are commonalities among all the therapeutic diets that control fungal overgrowth. Below is a list of the usual food items that are avoided and allowed:
Commonly Avoided Foods
-Most sweeteners: cane sugar, coconut sugar, HFCS, honey, maple syrup, and aspartame
-Alcohol, soda, and any sweetened beverages
-Gluten containing grains
-White and red potatoes
-Fruits with a high glycemic load: bananas, dates, raisins
-Dried fruits and fruit juices
-Peanuts, cashews, pistachios
-Refined oils: canola oil, soybean oil, grapeseed oil, corn oil, margarine, and “spreads”)
-Condiments that contain sugar or vinegar
Commonly Allowed Foods
-Animal protein: eggs, fish, and unprocessed meats
-Fruits that have a low glycemic load
-Most nuts and nut butters
-Fermented foods (moderate)
-Monk fruit extract, Stevia, xylitol (limited)
-Oils: coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil, flaxseed oil
-Apple cider vinegar
Selective Carbs in Moderation
-Gluten free grains
-Some dairy, if tolerated
-goat or sheep milk, raw cows milk, butter, ghee, plain probiotic yogurt, kefir, fresh unaged cheeses
When The Diet Ends
Whichever therapeutic diet works best for you, be sure to follow it for 4-6 weeks or as directed by your physician. Therapeutic diets are never meant for long-term adherence and should only be followed until your endpoint is reached, i.e. improved symptoms and normalized candida levels. Once achieved, it’s time to reintroduce the starches and complex carbohydrates back into your diet that were previously avoided or limited. This reintroduction process is best done by testing foods one at a time and waiting a couple days to see if symptoms appear before testing the next food. If a food causes any symptoms, continue to avoid it for a few months before testing it again.
In essence, you want to return to a whole foods way of eating without the additional restrictions of the therapeutic diet. Expanding your food choices in this way will provide the right kinds of fibers and carbohydrates that feed your good yeast and gut bacteria. Keep in mind that processed foods, refined grains, added sugars, and hydrogenated oils will always be avoided as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Carbohydrates – Don’t Go Too Low!
While each of these diet plans impose various limits on carbohydrates, keep in mind that the goal is to eradicate the overgrowth of candida, not eliminate candida entirely. Remember that candida is a normal and healthy part of our digestive process when within normal levels. Since carbohydrates are the food source for candida, it’s important to eat small amounts of it to ensure a healthy balance of candida while controlling the overgrowth. Avoiding all sources of carbohydrates will drastically lower the levels of healthful yeast and bacteria by eliminating their food source. This can cause gut dysbiosis and reverse any progress towards normal candida levels.
The type of carbohydrates we’re talking about are starchy carbs that have a low glycemic load. This means they do not cause a quick spike in blood sugar but rather a slow release of glucose over time along with a much lower plateau before tapering off. A glucose response that is slow and low is thought to not overly feed candida or contribute to fungal overgrowth. Starchy carbs with a low glycemic load include sweet potatoes, winter squash, beets, peas, parsnips, beans, quinoa, buckwheat, and rolled oats.
Another concern with avoiding all carbohydrates is that a person may reach a state of ketosis, where the body begins using fat for fuel instead of its usual glucose (carbs). This can be a problem for those with fungal overgrowth because several studies have shown that candida (and other yeasts) can actually feed on ketones. For this reason we do not want to follow a ketogenic diet nor any diet that is too restrictive on low glycemic carbohydrates.
Along with a limited carbohydrate diet, antifungals are quite effective against candida overgrowth. Antifungals include pharmaceutical drugs and natural compounds. Some of the more commonly known natural compounds include:
-Spice oils such as thyme and oregano oils
These botanicals and nutrients can be quite potent and effective when used over the long term. They also have far fewer side effects and don’t harm the gut biome as is seen with pharmaceutical drugs. A functional medicine practitioner should always guide and monitor your use of natural remedies for treating health conditions.
Sometimes pharmaceutical drugs are necessary in cases when a person has recurring or severe fungal overgrowth. Nystatin and Sporanox are two antifungal medications that can help. Sporanox has more severe side effects than Nystatin so it is not used as frequently.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Probiotics and prebiotics are started after the antifungal treatment is completed. This is because they support healthy yeast and therefore would be powerless against treatments that kill yeast.
Probiotics are live bacteria of the same strains found in our gut. They also serve to keep harmful yeast in check. Probiotics are found in foods such as kefir and sauerkraut. There are specific probiotic species that inhibit and prevent excessive candida growth. It is important to focus on these strains by taking a high quality supplement(s) that contains them.
-Saccharomyces boulardii (beneficial yeast species that have probiotic properties)
Prebiotics are most effective when taken with probiotics. They are a type of soluble fiber that selectively feeds and benefits only our good gut bacteria and yeast. This selectivity is what sets them apart from other fibrous foods.
-Apples and bananas
-Garlic and onions
Support and Repair Gut Function
Once you have expanded your diet and reintroduced the foods that were once avoided (described earlier), it’s time to restore gut function and balance your microbiome. These steps occur after candida levels have returned to normal ranges as determined by your physician. It is counterproductive to begin these steps while still following the therapeutic diet. This is because we don’t want to begin the repair process while an overgrowth is still causing damage.
In these steps we will ensure that the digestive process works smoothly by adding digestive supplements as needed. We’ll also replace any nutrients that are commonly deficient with candida overgrowth. Lastly, we will repair the leaky gut caused by candida by healing the lining of our intestinal wall.
Replace Digestive Aids
-Gut motility agents
Replace Vitamins and Minerals
-Fat soluble vitamins
Repair the Gut Lining
Do not attempt to take these supplements on your own. After recovering from candida overgrowth, people will have varying levels of gut function and imbalances such that you may need more (or less) of the supplements listed here. Your particular status can only be determined by a functional medicine physician and specialty lab testing.
In addition to treating the actual overgrowth, a person must address the underlying cause(s) of how the overgrowth began in the first place. Recall the list of common causes at the beginning of this article. Preventing a recurrence of candida may mean adopting new habits such as stress reduction activities, mold remediation, avoidance of unnecessary antibiotics, eating a whole foods diet, or removal of household chemicals and fragrances. Without removing the root cause of fungal overgrowth it is common to experience a recurrence.
If you aren’t sure what caused the overgrowth, it is best practice to eliminate any environmental substance that harms our gut and immune system. Following each of the avoidance activities listed above is a great way to get started. Not only will you help prevent candida overgrowth from recurring but you’ll also help normalize your gut, hormones, blood sugar, mood, immunity, inflammation, and detox pathways! Building a lifestyle of avoiding harmful environmental inputs drastically reduces your risk of developing chronic disease, including candida overgrowth.
Talk to our team at Health Connections if you have concerns about candida overgrowth! We support whole-body wellness by addressing the root cause of chronic conditions so your body can truly heal.