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The Insidious Yeast Infection We All Have—and How to Treat It

Functional medicine expert Dr. Amy Myers’s Austin-based practice is largely devoted to solving women’s health issues that are common but extremely difficult to treat. Some of them are more well-known that others, for instance, thyroid dysfunction; others, like Candida, are not as widely understood. Myers says nine out of ten patients she sees have an overgrowth of Candida (a form of yeast), and she estimates that nearly half of women have some form of Candida imbalance, with the body producing too much yeast (we need a certain amount of it) and overpowering the good bacteria. While we typically think of a vaginal yeast infection when we think of a yeast issue in the body, the signs of a Candida overgrowth can be much subtler and ambiguous—e.g., fatigue, bloating, eczema, dandruff, sugar cravings, a bad memory. Encouragingly, though, treating an overgrowth is largely a matter of diet. Below, Myers outlines her Candida cleanse, along with the basics of diagnosing an overgrowth and healing from it.

A Q&A with Dr. Amy Myers

Q

What is Candida—where does it live in the body, and how does it differ from other fungus and yeast infections?

A

Candida is a fungus (which is a form of yeast). A lot of people use the terms “yeast overgrowth” and “Candida” interchangeably, and there are hundreds of different types of yeast, but the most common form of yeast infection is known as Candida albicans.

Candia lives throughout our bodies in small amounts: in our oral cavity, digestive tract, gut microbiome, and vaginal tract. Its job is to aid with digestion and nutrient absorption—which it does when it’s in balance with the good bacteria in your microbiome. I think of the microbiome (clusters of mainly bacteria, plus other organisms, found in our skin, nose, mouth, gut, urinary tract) as a rainforest: When everything is in balance, the body is in harmony and runs smoothly.

The problem occurs when there is too much Candida in relation to your body’s good bacteria, and it overpowers the bacteria, which can lead to leaky gut and a host of other digestive issues, as well as fungal infections, mood swings, and brain fog (see below for a more complete symptom list). People generally equate Candida with a systemic overgrowth—i.e. a vaginal yeast infection in a woman, or a nail fungus. But the signs of Candida overgrowth can be subtler. Conventional medicine only recognizes the systemic and often fatal form of Candida overgrowth known as Candidemia, which is when Candida invades the blood. About 90 percent of the patients I see (people who are sick, have autoimmunity disorders, leaky gut, etc.) have Candida overgrowth that while not fatal, is extremely disruptive to their health. Like, say, adrenal fatigue, which also has pervasive, seemingly vague symptoms, this level of Candida overgrowth is not really recognized by conventional medicine.

The symptoms of different kinds of yeast infections overlap greatly (although some lead to infections in different parts of the body) and the vast majority of treatment is the same. Lab work (more below) can distinguish which type of yeast infection you might have.

Q

What causes an overgrowth of Candida?

A

There are a number of factors that can contribute to Candida—the major ones are:

DIET: A diet high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods makes it easy for yeast to multiply and thrive—these are the foods yeast lives off of. Alcohol, which tends to involve a lot of yeast, sugar, and carbs (i.e. beer and wine), is also problematic.

ANTIBIOTICS & OTHER MEDICATIONS: Taking even one round of antibiotics can kill too much of your body’s good bacteria and throw off the balance of your microbiome. A mom’s microbiome also affects her baby’s developing microbiome—so if a mother takes antibiotics while pregnant, or had yeast infections, that can contribute to yeast overgrowth in the child. As can C-sections, which affect a baby’s microbiome. Steroids can also cause a yeast overgrowth, as can acid-blocking pills (you need enough acid to kill bacteria and parasites on your food, some yeast, as well as viruses).

ORAL CONTRACEPTIVES: Yeast likes high estrogen conditions, so we see a correlation between birth control use and yeast overgrowth.

STRESS: A high-stress lifestyle can also cause Candida to overpower the good bacteria in your microbiome.

Q

What are the symptoms of Candida overgrowth?

A

When the body overproduces Candida, it breaks down the wall of the intestine, causing leaky gut and releasing toxic byproducts into your body. Leaky gut disrupts your body’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients (causing nutrition deficiencies), and can lead to health issues beyond digestive concerns, including autoimmunity and thyroid dysfunction.

In addition to leaky gut, the other overarching problem associated with Candida is a suppressed immune system. About 60 to 80 percent of our immune system lives in our gut. With yeast overgrowth, the production of IgA—the antibody immunoglobulin A, which is vital to our immunity—is suppressed. Most of the patients I see with Candida overgrowth suffer immunity issues.

The common signs of Candida overgrowth are:

  • Brain fog, poor memory, ADHD

  • Mood swings, anxiety, depression: 95 percent of serotonin is made in gut. With a yeast overgrowth, the yeast effectively forms a layer over the gut and spreads out in sheets, suppressing your body’s ability to make serotonin (and suppressing your immune system).

  • Fatigue and/or fibromyalgia

  • Autoimmune diseases connected to leaky gut (as mentioned above)

  • Digestive issues—gas, bloating, constipation

  • Skin issues, including eczema, hives, rosacea, rashes

  • Seasonal allergies/chronic sinus infections

  • Dandruff (is yeast)

  • Skin and nail fungal infections (ringworm, athlete’s foot, tinea versicolor—when you get white spots in the sun): An external fungus can be an isolated issue, but is often a sign that the rest of the body is imbalanced.

  • Vaginal infections, UTIs

  • Sugar cravings: Sugar is food for yeast.

  • Mercury overload: Some alternative medicine experts think yeast overgrowths can manifest to surround and protect mercury in the body.

Q

How do you test for Candida? Can people self-diagnose overgrowth?

A

The tests I use to diagnose Candida are:

ANTIBODIES: Check for total IgG, IgM, IgA antibodies to see if your immune system is mounting a response to an infection—i.e. if your levels are high. A low level of IgA (as outlined above), however, could indicate that you have a suppressed immune system and that your body is not able to mount a response. Also check for IgG, IgA, and IgM Candida antibodies in your blood—high levels of these antibodies indicate that you have a Candida overgrowth that your immune system is responding to. You don’t need to see a functional medicine doctor—any lab can order this blood test.

COMPLETE BLOOD COUNT (CBC): A low white blood cell count (WBC) has been associated with yeast overgrowth, as well as a high neutrophil and low lymphocyte count. Although not specific to yeast, I see this pattern frequently in patients with Candida overgrowth.

STOOL TEST: You’ll need to seek out a functional medicine doctor, and ask for a comprehensive (rather than standard) stool test, which will include a check for Candida in your colon/lower intestines. (It will also check your level of IgA in stool.) From a stool test, the lab can usually identify the type of yeast (if it is not Candida) and the most effective treatment path.

URINE ORGANIX DYSBIOSIS TEST: Looks at a marker of the Candida waste product (like anything, yeast excretes waste) called d-Arabinitol. A high level indicates that there is yeast overgrowth in the upper gut/small intestines.

INFECTION: A swab of a yeast infection can be sent off to the lab for analysis to determine which type of yeast you have.

There is a self-spit test (find it with simple Google search)—which doesn’t have a lot of scientific data around it—that I know many of my patients have done on their own before coming into the office. Most of the time, I find the above tests confirm that the patient has an overgrowth, but again, the spit test is not as exacting as these medical tests.

Q

What’s the best treatment plan?

A

The best way to treat Candida is with a three-step approach:

1. STARVE THE YEAST

The first key is to eliminate foods that have yeast in them and foods that yeast likes to eat.

This means cutting out vinegar, beer, wine, mushrooms (as part of the fungi family, they can cross-react with Candida) and sugar, refined carbs, processed foods.

But you also want to limit healthy carbs like legumes, grains, starchy veggies to 1 cup a day, and a single piece of fruit a day—because even good carbs unfortunately feed yeast.

Along the same lines, I tell people to hold off on good fermented foods (not something all doctors agree on)—i.e. sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi—until they’ve killed off the yeast. While these foods are beneficial for the good bacteria in your microbiome, they also are good for yeast (which isn’t helpful if you have an overgrowth).

2. OVERPOWER THE YEAST

Some patients need a prescription anti-fungal (like Diflucan or Nystatin).

Anti-fungal supplements can be effective, too: My two-go supplements are caprylic acid (naturally found in coconut oil) and candisol (contains enzymes that break down parasitic and fungal cell walls). Some people take oil of oregano, which is broad spectrum, meaning that it will kill good and bad organisms in the microbiome, but I try to stick with more targeted supplements that really only kill yeast.

3. REPLENISH GOOD BACTERIA

During treatment, take high-quality probiotic supplements, which help protect your body against future infections. You don’t want to take prebiotics while you’re trying to get rid of Candida—which feed good bacteria and yeast—but you can add them in, along with fermented foods down the line, once your Candida is under control.

Q

Are there ways to get rid of Candida without going on an as restrictive diet? Are there beneficial foods you can add to your diet to combat Candida?

A

It’s really hard to get rid of Candida without adjusting your diet—even if you’re on an anti-fungal prescription, you need to take away the foods that are contributing to the overgrowth.

Foods you want to add to your diet to fight Candida are:

  • COCONUT OIL: Contains caprylic acid (mentioned above), which kills yeast cells.

  • OLIVE OIL: The antioxidants in olive oil help your body get rid of Candida.

  • GARLIC: Contains allicin, a sulphur-containing compound with specific-to-Candida anti-fungal properties.

  • CINNAMON: Has anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory benefits.

  • APPLE CIDER VINEGAR: This is the only vinegar I recommend consuming while you’re treating a Candida overgrowth—its enzymes may help break down Candida.

  • LEMONS: Has some anti-fungal properties; and helps your liver detox.

  • GINGER: Has anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal properties, plus it supports your liver.

  • CLOVES: Very effective (internal) anti-fungal. Clove oil can also be used as a topical aid for infections.

  • CRUCIFEROUS VEGGIES: Broccoli, radishes, brussels sprout, cabbage, etc. have sulphur- and nitrogen-containing compounds that attack Candida.

  • WILD SALMON: Omega-3 fatty acids fight fungal infections.


Balls in the Air

Dr. Myers’s goop Wellness Protocol

Equal parts defense and offense, this vitamin and supplement regimen checks the boxes for you.

Q

How long does it typically take to get rid of a Candida overgrowth?

A

It largely depends on what caused the Candida overgrowth. Let’s say it was a one-off scenario: You had bronchitis, went through two rounds of antibiotics and then got Candida. After a few weeks of a Candida cleanse (i.e. following the above diet guidelines), you can likely get rid of the overgrowth, and restore your gut microbiome and move on. This thirty-day program can get you started.

If it wasn’t a one-off situation, it likely won’t be a quick fix. While this doesn’t mean that you can’t ever have a glass of wine or a slice of cake again, you might find that you feel your best with longer-term lifestyle adjustments to your diet.

Amy Myers, M.D. is the founder and medical director of Austin UltraHealth, a functional medicine clinic based in Austin, Texas. Dr. Myers specializes in women’s health issues, particularly gut health, thyroid dysfunction, and autoimmunity. She is also the New York Times bestselling author of The Autoimmune Solution and The Thyroid Connection.

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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