If you're not feeling your best, you may be surprised to learn that a battle could be brewing in your intestines. Your gastrointestinal tract is home to millions of creatures that play a key role in digestion as well as overall health. Some are beneficial, helping to break down food, create vitamins, and prevent yeast and other bacteria from taking over. Others, like the fungus Candida albicans (or candida, for short), can become a downright nuisance.
A Host of Symptoms
While struggles with constipation or diarrhea are obvious indications of intestinal trouble, the clues that you might be dealing with candida-gone-wild are so numerous-and seemingly unrelated to the digestive tract-that this condition is frequently hard to diagnose. Eczema, psoriasis, morning achiness, bad breath, recurring yeast infections, and foul-smelling gas may signal an imbalanced intestinal environment, as can many symptoms sometimes associated with aging-including memory loss, drowsiness, PMS, problems concentrating, confusion, and depression.
Also known as yeast, candida is often a factor in both hypo- and hyperthyroidism, as well as in adrenal gland exhaustion. Or you may be troubled with excessive sweating, hives, nail infections, flaky skin, or dandruff.
What Causes Candida?
A healthy intestinal environment requires a delicate balance of the micro-organisms that live there. Anything that disrupts the optimal functioning of the digestive process opens the door for candida cells.
When you take antibiotics to fight an infection, these bacteria-killers don't seek out and destroy only the bacteria causing your infection. These drugs also eliminate many of the naturally occurring, beneficial bacteria that help protect you. The side effects of taking oral antibiotics can include upset stomach and diarrhea. What do these indicate, if not a problem with your digestive system? Women suffer a high incidence of vaginal yeast infections as a result of antibiotic use. In fact, research shows that recurrent vaginal candidiasis affects 5 percent of women in their childbearing years.
Other triggers of candida growth include overeating, excessive alcohol intake, diets high in processed (boxed, canned, and drive-through) foods, pesticides, and herbicides. The combination of body fat and increased blood sugar levels of Type 2 diabetes also create an ideal environment for candida growth.
Even if none of these potential triggers applies to you, good old everyday stress can challenge digestion. A 2006 study concludes that stress is a major factor in the development of vaginal candidiasis.
The Role of Diet
High-fat, high-sugar, nutrient-deficient foods clog the digestive tract, slowing action to a crawl. Candida cells love this stagnant environment, where they begin to multiply aggressively until they outnumber beneficial bacteria. As candida cells dine, they release toxic waste products, resulting in gas, bloating, flatulence, and foul-smelling stools.
Eventually these toxins irritate the intestinal walls, causing inflammation. To make matters worse, this inflammation enlarges tiny openings in the intestine, leading to what is known as porous bowel syndrome, or more commonly, leaky gut. This condition allows undigested food particles to pass into the bloodstream. Because the immune system doesn't recognize these partially digested food particles, it attacks them. As a result, leaky gut is often a factor in food sensitivities, particularly those that don't show up on standard allergy tests.
Candida cells also use these openings in the intestinal wall to reach the bloodstream, where they travel until they find a suitable organ or tissue to call home. Candida can travel a great distance: Research shows that 96 percent of sinus infections are caused by a fungus, and 15 percent of the time, that fungus is candida.
Take Back Control
The good news is candida can be beaten, and the first step in saying a permanent goodbye to its symptoms is to make sure that your digestive system works at peak potential. Partially digested foods that hang around too long are particular favorites of candida cells.
Avoid drinking with your meals since liquid dilutes the intensity of stomach acid, leading to decreased digestion. Also limit your intake of both coffee and alcohol, which divert energy away from the digestive tract.
Unless you are trying to support weakened adrenals or you have hypoglycemia, follow food-combining rules that speed digestion. Eat fruit by itself at least half an hour before or two hours after other foods. Don't mix high-starch carbohydrates (like potatoes) with protein because this combination of foods is difficult to digest and stalls the system. Take a break from hard-to-digest foods like red meat and wheat, at least for a while.
Watch Out for Sugar
Next, deny candida its primary food source-sugar. If you've ever baked bread the old-fashioned way, you know that yeast alone contributes nothing to the mixture. But when you add sugar and keep the dough warm, yeast cells begin to multiply, creating gas that causes the bread to rise. The same scenario occurs in your warm intestines, often triggering bloating and painful cramps. Without sugar, yeast doesn't function. Be aware that sugar comes in many forms: Pay attention to food labels and avoid those "-ose" words like glucose and maltose.
If you've ever tried to give up sugar, you know what a challenge it can be. Expect to go through "withdrawal" symptoms including fatigue, lethargy, headache, and insomnia. These will pass as your body loses its dependence on sugar. Stay motivated by remembering your goal: to eliminate the symptoms-from eczema to muscle aches to PMS-that have been troubling you.
What Can You Eat?
To give your body the tools it needs to beat candida-and boost numbers of beneficial bacteria-choose foods wisely. Eat as many vegetables as you like, opting for fresh rather than canned, which lack digestive enzymes and are often packed in sugar. Select raw foods whenever you can for their digestion-boosting enzymes; raw carrots, celery, and peppers make ideal snacks.
Choose chicken, turkey, or fish for animal protein; eggs are also acceptable. Opt for organic to avoid antibiotics that can sabotage your cleansing effort. Replace wheat with rice, kamut, quinoa, or millet. And look for yeast-free, sugar-free breads.
Next, add foods to your diet that help destroy candida. Research shows that extracts from onions and garlic inhibit growth of this yeast. A 2006 study found that cloudberry, raspberry, and strawberry also inhibit growth of candida. When you reintroduce fruits to your diet, choose berries.
Japanese research finds that plant nutrients called catechins in green tea have an antifungal effect against candida and other fungal infections, leading to a decreased need for antifungal medications. Pau d'arco and clove tea also offer antifungal properties.
Supplement Your Success
To help eliminate candida, consider adding supplements to your daily regimen. Probiotics have the exact opposite effect of antibiotics and actually help to boost the numbers of beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract. Look for supplements that contain live bacterial cultures such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum.
Other useful supplements called prebiotics contain fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), naturally occurring carbohydrates that feed friendly flora, helping them to grow and multiply. Aged garlic extract (AGE) contains FOS and has proven to enhance the growth of beneficial bacteria while simultaneously killing candida cells. Taking these supplements daily will help to restore and maintain intestinal balance.
Also consider psyllium to boost your fiber intake. It's important to eliminate debris from your bowel, and drinking psyllium husk powder (mixed in plenty of liquid) will help. Aim for at least two bowel movements daily to promote colon health.
You can ease up on candida-busting food restrictions when the symptoms of imbalance disappear. Start expanding your diet with the addition of fruits, one at a time, in the morning, a few days apart. Pineapple is a wise first choice because it contains digestive enzymes.
As the wide world of food opens up to you again, remember the consequences of indulging in unhealthy choices. Don't let too many high-sugar, high-fat, nutrient-poor foods sneak back into your diet.
Instead, focus on your glowing, rash-free, eczema-free skin. Enjoy your newfound energy-your ability to bounce out of bed in the morning and fall asleep quickly at night. Revel in the fact that your "thin clothes" fit. Take that, candida!
Selected Sources: "Berry Phenolics: Antimicrobial Properties and Mechanisms of Action against Severe Human Pathogens" by L. J. Nohynek et al., Nutr Cancer, 2006 "Cell Death Mechanisms in the Human Opportunistic Pathogen Candida albicans" by K. M. Lemar et al., J Eukaryot Microbiol, 7/03 "In Vitro Antifungal Activities of Allium cepa, Allium sativum, and Ketoconazole against Some Pathogenic Yeasts and Dermatophytes" by M. Shams-Ghahfarokhi et al., Fitoterapia, 6/06 Living Beauty: Feel Great, Look Fabulous & Live Well by Lisa Petty ($21.95, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2006) "Multiple Effects of Green Tea Catechin on the Antifungal Activity of Antimycotics against Candida albicans" by M. Hirasawa and K. Takada, J Antimicrob Chemother, 2/04 "Stress as a Cause of Chronic Recurrent Vulvovaginal Candidosis and the Effectiveness of the Conventional Antimycotic Therapy" by H. Meyer et al., Mycoses, 5/06
Probiotics are living microorganisms that contain beneficial bacteria or yeasts that support metabolism, nutrient absorption and the immune system. Often recommended by doctors to counteract gastrointestinal and other side effects of antibiotics, probiotics help restore the body?s balance of gut flora.
The word is getting out about helpful germs and bacteria, known as acidophilus.
Study after study from many of the most prestigious universities in the country support and advance the concept that probiotics are as important and basic to our health as a balanced diet and exercise.