A fungus among us: Candida (yeast)

Originally Published: January 19, 1995 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 9, 2010
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Alice,

Candida lives in one's intestines, but it may "escape" into the body and cause all kind of vague complaints. Could you tell me more about it; how to detect it, its symptoms and cure (diet?)?

Thanks,
T.

Dear T.,

Candida, the scientific name for yeast, occurs naturally in our bodies. Usually our immune systems can keep Candida levels in balance with the rest of our internal flora and fauna. But when a person gets sick, or takes antibiotics, Candida is capable of explosive growth that can throw the body's natural balance out of whack and cause infection.

Candida grows best in a mildly acidic environment. Multiple pregnancies, diabetes, menstruation, and taking birth control pills and some antibiotics can cause the body's pH level to be more acidic than ideal, providing a favorable environment for Candida growth. Some people believe that stress, inadequate nutrition, pollution, steroids, hormones in animal products we consume, sugary foods, and refined carbohydrates can also allow for a proliferation of Candida. People particularly at risk for Candida overgrowth are very-low-birth-weight babies, surgical patients, hospitalized patients or patients with a central venous catheter, and those with a compromised immune system.

The list of physical problems associated with an overgrowth of Candida is long and ranges wide. Some conditions thought to be the result of Candida's activity are:

  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • depression
  • constipation and bloating
  • thrush (a yeast infection that causes white patches in your mouth)
  • vaginitis
  • athlete's foot
  • migraine headaches
  • allergy to perfumes, chemical odors, and tobacco smoke
  • and joint swelling

Many of the symptoms above can be caused by conditions other than a proliferation of yeast, but Candida can be diagnosed rather easily by examining a sample from the affected area under a microscope. Luckily, Candida overgrowth is highly treatable — yeast infections in the vagina or anus can be treated with medicated suppositories, thrush can be treated with a medicated mouthwash or lozenges, and systemic Candida often responds well to taking a probiotic supplement. As you noted in your question, diet is also shown to have a significant affect on Candida levels in the body. Eating foods with a high probiotic content (mostly fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut), and avoiding refined sugars and flours can be very helpful in keeping your body's yeast levels in check. If you suspect you're having an overgrowth of Candida, you can also try to limit the amount of yeasty foods (like bread and beer) you consume.

Candida has had its time in the spotlight in the past few years as the awareness of diet, hormones in our food, and antibiotics has increased. Sensible food choices and perhaps a probiotic supplement when you're sick or on antibiotics is often enough to keep Candida at the right levels and in the right places.

Alice