Have you ever taken antibiotics, steroids or birth control pills? Or experienced one or two vaginal yeast infections or recurrent thrush?
Do you feel like sugar controls you so much so that you can’t walk by a bakery without stepping in?
Do you find it impossible to shake chronic health symptoms such as bloating, skin rashes, sinus problems or tummy troubles, even though you’re doing everything to eat right and live a healthy lifestyle?
And what about fermented foods? Have you tried to boost your health by eating sauerkraut and drinking Kombucha, only to find that your health problems flared up?
If you experience any or all of these symptoms, candida overgrowth could be to blame. It could be sabotaging your efforts to achieve hormonal balance, without you even joining the dots.
Candida’s Cascade of Health Problems
We all carry the fungal strain called candida albicans in our bodies. For people with healthy immune and digestive systems, it causes few health hiccoughs. But candida is an opportunistic micro-organism and it likes to party in big numbers so any chance it gets, this hardy yeast will multiply.
This overgrowth most often occurs in areas like your skin, digestive tract, mouth and vagina. Candida also helps other unhealthy bacteria and parasites take hold and thrive your body. And as your candida population grows, it starts to affect everything from your hormone balance to the function of some body systems and organs.
Not Eating Sugar? You’re Still At Risk
Just because you steer clear of sugar doesn’t mean candida won’t affect you.
Did you love lollies as a kid? Or devour cookies and soft drinks? Most days did you eat processed breakfast cereals, pancakes with maple syrup, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or take-away and snack-foods? Then even if you don’t eat much sugar now, you could still have candida overgrowth.
Around 70% of the women I work with have health issues caused by candida. When we look back at their health history, we can often trace the beginning of candida-related symptoms to their twenties or even earlier, in their teens, tweens or when they were a baby.
It’s important to remember that candida is not only kick-started by food. Many other lifestyle factors can give candida a leg-up.
How Estrogen Helps Grow Candida (and How Candida Degrades Progesterone)
Many women experience an increase in thrush infections (and issues like bloating and flatulence) during pregnancy. Ditto when they take birth control pills.
This is not just happenstance. Pregnancy and birth control pills lead to a spike in the body’s estrogen levels and estrogen can help candida grow. If certain types ofestradiol are added to candida cells in a science lab, the estrogen helps increase the number of germ tubes and appears to trigger longer germ tube length – both developments that support candida to germinate and thrive.
Another study has tested three different strains of candida in the lab and found that when estradiol (the antagonistic form of estrogen) was added to the mix, the candida showed an increase in growth and survived, even when temperatures were raised. The estrogen also helped to strengthen the Candida’s multi-drug resistance compared with cells not exposed to estrogen.
Further research at Louisa State University Health Sciences Centers looked at the effects of both estrogen and progesterone on candida and concluded that:
“Estrogen is the dominant reproductive hormone that supports and sustains an experimental vaginal Candida albicans infection and reduces the inhibitory activity of epithelial cells against Candida. Progesterone, on the other hand, has no demonstrable effect on the vaginal infection or on systemic and/or local immune responsiveness associated with the infection.”
These studies are wake-up calls for women – reminding us about the importance of hormonal balance. When women develop estrogen dominance there are many knock-on effects and one of those is clearly the risk of triggering or worsening candida issues.
In our modern world most women complain of living on the run, 24/7. And ED can sometimes kick in simply because women are so stressed that their immunity is constantly weakened and their progesterone levels drop. This makes sense, because progesterone is a calming hormone and your body doesn’t really want that on board when it thinks you’re about to fight a sabre-toothed tiger!
By contrast, when estrogen and progesterone are balanced, women enjoy the health perks of progesterone, which helps lower anxiety and stress responses. Candida can be a constant roadblock to that balance.
There is also evidence that candida can bind to estrogen and prevent it from being taken up by estrogen receptors. Women who then take progesterone to deal with hormonal issues may not feel better. In fact, many integrative practitioners believe that a negative reaction to progesterone cream is a sign of candida issues. That’s why if you suspect you suffer from chronic yeast issues, it is important to treat both candida and hormonal imbalance at the same time.
Spotting Candida Signs
According to the University of Maryland, around 75% of women will develop at least one episode of vaginal thrush in their lifetime.
When this happens, we are taught that the fungal problem is isolated to that part of the body. In reality, a yeast infection is a sign of candida overgrowth in the gut as well. And it’s highly possible that once you had your first thrush infection, your body never got on top of that overgrowth from that point on.
Unfortunately, candida is not always easy to recognize. You may get thrown off the trail because the symptoms don’t appear to be linked or may be caused by numerous other conditions. For example, bloating can be related to food sensitivities, thrush can be a sign of diabetes Type 2 and chronic exhaustion may point to thyroid troubles.
That’s why it is important to consider patterns of symptoms rather than isolated signs. If you recognize many of the following, it’s likely candida overgrowth is undermining your wellbeing or healing:
Signs of Candida
- Constantly craving sugar or carbs
- Chronic Fatigue
- Brain Fogginess
- Constant colds
- Recurring vaginal discharge, itching, stinging or thrush infections
- Recurring cystitis or urinary infections
- Stomach cramps
- Acid reflux
- Indigestion and burping after meals
- Fungal nail infections
- Athlete’s foot
- Bad breath
- Cracked tongue
- White coating on the tongue
- Cracks at the corners of the mouth
- Chronic sinusitis or nasal congestion
- Post-nasal drip
- Erratic periods
- Irritability or mood swings
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Fluid retention
- Weight gain
- Inability to lose weight
- Itchy ears, eyes or anus
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Body odor
- Sensitivity to smells such as chemicals and perfumes
- Feeling tired, slightly drunk or bloated after drinking kombucha
- Stuffy nose or itchy ears after a glass of wine
- Dinner does not feel complete without “something sweet”
How Candida Grows
Many aspects of our modern lifestyle are bad for your body but good for candida growth. This robust fungal infection can be triggered by:
- Food Choices
Candida loves to feed on foods high in yeasts (e.g., wine, kombucha and mushrooms) sugars (in all forms, including honey and certain fruits) and carbs (think bread and pasta). It can also thrive if you eat plenty of foods that have been fermented, pickled, malted, highly processed or exposed to mold in the production/growing process.
If candida growth has been triggered by other lifestyle factors (such as a course of medication), eating the wrong foods can cause further flare-ups and population surges. This means that the seemingly healthy sourdough or Kombucha tea you’ve been consuming to boost your gut health may be having the opposite effect. Yet even if you have candida, I believe you can still consume some fermented foods – if you know the right starter cultures to use (more about that in Part 2 of this series).
- Poor Gut Health
Your body works a little like a garden, but instead of different kinds of plants and insects, it is home to different kinds of micro-organisms that make up your microbiome (also called the gut flora or microbiota). If there is an imbalance between good and bad bacteria (which is common due to our Western diet and lifestyle), then candida growth can snowball and the fungus spreads like a noxious weed.
That spells trouble for your health. A compromised digestive system can’t absorb the nutrients you need, such as vitamin B12 and magnesium. In addition, candida steals some of your body’s nutrients to help it grow and thrive. Research from the University of Aberdeen in 2012, showed that candida binds to zinc.
Candida also sucks up some of your body’s iron stores, according to German research.
And all of these knock-on effects impact your hormonal balance.
Up to 95% of your serotonin (the happiness hormone) is produced in your gut. And sufficient populations of good bacteria are necessary for that serotonin production to occur. But the more candida you have the less serotonin you may be making, which may increase low mood or anxiety.
On the flip side, serotonin appears to help combat candida growth. In fact, 2005 research by the Medical University of Innsbruck, showed that serotonin actually works like an anti-fungal. So too little serotonin cannot only slam-dunk your mood, it may also leave you with one less fight-back strategy to put a stop to candida overgrowth.
If you’re always rushing, stressing feeling overwhelmed or on the verge of tears, then it’s likely that your adrenals are on high alert, constantly pumping out the cortisol hormone. Cortisol manages the immune system which is instrumental in keeping candida at bay. A stressed out person often experiences poor immune function, inviting candida to thrive.
Secondly, when in a state of stress, your body is likely to have more acidity – which is an often-overlooked side effect of stress. I will be explaining more about Ph in the next article, Candida 2.
Interestingly, science is even starting to get wise to some impacts of acidity in relation to candida. At Johns Hopkins and Harvard University researchers have been looking at drugs that render candida harmless by reducing the acidity of the vacuole, a little sac that stores nutrients the candida cells need to survive.
This research aims to help alkalize candida through medications. But food is a far more effective and body-friendly method for combating systemic acid issues. Keep an eye out for my alkalizing food suggestions in part 2 of this Candida series (even if you’re eating vegetarian or paleo you may still have too much acid in your body).
These knock out the good bacteria and the bad, creating the perfect conditions for candida to enjoy a population boost all over your body. That’s why treatment with a course of antibiotics can often lead women to develop vaginal thrush and more.
- A Compromised Immune System
In a healthy, balanced body, candida is kept under control by your immune system, which can work through mechanisms such as the saliva in your mouth or neutrophils in your bloodstream. But apart from the immune impacts of poor gut health, the following factors can also compromise your immunity:
- Food Sensitivities
- Regular alcohol intake
- Chronic worry and anxiety
- Bacterial and viral infections
- Sleep issues
- Chronic health conditions such as thyroid disease
The culprits range from toxic metals to chemicals in your food, cosmetics and environment. A good case in point, is chlorine, which you can absorb through drinking unfiltered water. This can kill off good bacteria in your gut, making your belly ecosystem even more-candida friendly.
Apart from antibiotics (which can kill off your good bacteria), taking the following medications can trigger candida overgrowth in some women because of impacts on the liver, hormones and microbiome:
- Birth Control Pills
- Hormone Replacement Therapy
- Anti-inflammatory drugs
It’s well known that candida is a problem for people who are immuno-compromised, for example, with cancer or HIV. People with chronic conditions like herpes, hepatitis, pre-diabetes (also called Syndrome X) and diabetes are also at higher candida risk. In addition, garden-variety health problems like tummy bugs (by altering bacteria composition) and high inflammation can also lower your body’s ability to stop candida overgrowth.
A Clever Shape Shifter
Candida would not be out of place in an episode of Stranger Things or the X Files. To adapt and survive, it can change from a single-celled round yeast into a long stringy shape (by producing long filaments called hyphae). These act a little like worms. They can enter your bloodstream or migrate along your mucous membranes. They can also burrow down deep into tissues, particularly in areas like your digestive system where they start to multiply, setting up little candida cities.
Other ‘virulence traits’ include candida’s ability to engage in unisex reproduction and also hide from detection by your immune system.
Why Your Doctor May Not Recognize Candida
Many traditional Western doctors treat candida as though it is a ‘made up’ condition or claim that even discussing it is quackery. Yet the reality is that medical science is only just catching up to the knowledge of integrative practitioners, who take candida overgrowth very seriously. For example, the link between candida and chronic sinus issues has only recently been confirmed by research at the Mayo clinic in the US:
“Up to now, the cause of chronic sinusitis has not been known,” say the Mayo researchers: Dr. David Sherris, Eugene Kern and Jens Ponikau, Mayo Clinic ear, nose and throat specialists. Their report appears in the September issue of the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
“Fungus allergy was thought to be involved in less than ten percent of cases,” says Dr Sherris. “Our studies indicate that, in fact, fungus is likely the cause of nearly all of these problems. And it is not an allergic reaction, but an immune reaction.”
The results, the researchers say, clearly portray a disease process in which, in sensitive individuals, the body’s immune system sends eosinophils (white blood cells) to attack fungi and the eosinophils irritate the membranes in the nose. As long as fungi remain, so will the irritation.
You can read more about the study here.
This sinus-candida connection is not news to integrative practitioners who have been recognizing the wide range of candida symptoms since the late 1970s (and even earlier). Yet many ‘traditional’ doctors don’t acknowledge the millions of anecdotal cases of people who have successfully used lifestyle changes to treat their candida overgrowth and symptoms.
Systemic candida is notoriously difficult to diagnose (and treat).
Blood Tests are not reliable. You may have a negative result for an IgG, IgA and/or IgM blood antibody check, even though you have classic or terrible candida symptoms. If your doctor is willing to run these tests, it’s a good starting point but do not conclude you are candida-free just because they come back negative. Let your symptoms speak louder than the tests!
The Spit Test is my preferred method for candida detection. Though it has not been studied scientifically, I have found in my own practice that the test is very reliable.
When women I work with have issues with candida, their tests show the candida indicators. And if they re-test after treatment and lifestyle changes, in 9 out of 10 cases, the test shows a profound change. I have also encouraged a partner to take the test out of interest because he didn’t have any candida symptoms – it came back negative.
To do the Spit Test you:
- Do not eat any dairy the day before you test.
- Fill a clean glass with filtered water at room temperature.
- Spit some saliva into the glass in the morning before you have eaten, drunk or cleaned your teeth.
- Check the glass every 20 minutes over the next hour to look for:
- Result #1: The saliva floats on top and nothing happens – it’s a great sign that you most likely do not have candida.
- Result #2: The jelly-fish effect, where strings start to grow, stretching down into the water from the saliva that is floating on the top, or specks of saliva suspended in the water – either one could be a sign of candida (that was my saliva!)
- Result #3: The saliva sinks to the bottom – very likely it’s a serious case of candida yeast overgrowth.
When you start to treat candida you need a multi-layered approach that goes well beyond avoiding sugar and yeast and may include other protocols, including anti-fungal medication.
Candida can be an incredibly frustrating and extremely resilient fungal foe to fight. But I want to assure you that it is completely reversible. And while you’re undergoing a process to conquer and heal from candida, chronic symptoms can also be managed and minimized.
I’ve had clients clear their candida through lifestyle changes and as a result, they have suddenly lost large amounts of weight, been cured of longstanding allergies and became free of anxiety or depression for the first time in or decades.
I myself was in denial about my candida symptoms for many years because I had a thyroid autoimmune condition and was so busy, traveling and working in advertising. Then I suffered a terrible, raging case of thrush that lasted for months due to a parasitic infection that impaired my immune system’s innate ability to clear candida.
Only after trying many different treatments, did I realize the main cause of my candida (in my case: a parasite) and once I addressed it, my thrush (along with some other health issues) quickly resolved. It was an enormous relief and made me feel like a new woman.
If you want to know more about my recovery, sign up for my newsletter (you can do that by signing up for the 15 Breakfasts to Rebalance Your Hormones gift), and check out Part 2 of the Candida series where I discuss my own healing from candida. I will also take a thorough look at effective candida solutions and offer tips about candida die-off, which can occur as you start to get your candida under control.
Learn how to rebalance your hormones with food in my book, Cooking for Hormone Balance.