Coping with Candida

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When I experienced my first major health issue
at age 43, I found myself stumbling in the dark — I had candida, a
disorder I’d never even heard of. Although my nurse practitioner
diagnosed it and tried to treat it, I actually became worse over
time. When I looked up my illness on a well-known holistic
physician’s website, I read that he did not think such a disorder
truly existed. Not being one to have health issues, and feeling as
bad as I did, I knew my problems weren’t psychosomatic. My search
for answers continued.

Putting the Pieces Together

I can’t even remember how I finally put the pieces together,
because I was incoherent at the time — one of the common symptoms
of the disorder is foggy-headedness. In addition, my symptoms
included muscle weakness, fatigue and some vaginal irritation. My
skin appeared gray, and the whites of my eyes disappeared under a
red glaze. If I didn’t eat every two hours I became extremely weak
and unable to think.

The first clue came from my yearly physical exam with my nurse
practitioner, when she discovered I had a vaginal yeast infection.
At the time, I had no noticeable symptoms. Though I took the
prescribed drug (Diflucan, an antifungal), in the next several
months I began to experience muscle weakness and foggy-headedness.
Then one day I went for a bike ride and had a flat tire. Oddly, I
found myself unable to either manipulate the tire or determine how
to get home.

After the bike incident, I went to the health-food store to get
help — the clerk told me about candida and how to treat it with
herbs and diet. Because my symptoms had intensified, she surmised
that the vaginal infection had spread to my intestines (or vice
versa). This “diagnosis” of an overgrowth of Candida albicans, a
yeast strain, in my intestines was later confirmed by a naturopath.
It is difficult to know for sure where it originally started, but
it might have been brought on by antibiotics I took for a tooth
abscess early in the year and then become exacerbated by stress,
lack of sleep, and a bit too much sugar, flour and wine.

Testing Treatment Options

The Diflucan my nurse practitioner prescribed knocked the
candida out temporarily, but the yeast always came back in a few
days. I took the medication several times over the course of about
six months whenever my symptoms were strong, but I always ended up
frustrated when the candida returned. Starting with the information
from the store clerk, I began to learn how to undertake a cleanse.
I cut out sugar and alcohol and took herbs the clerk recommended to
kill off some of the yeast in my body, but I had no idea how long
to continue my “treatment” or what foods to eat.

A friend suggested I see an Ayurvedic practitioner, who
recommended taking soil-based microorganisms and probiotics,
drinking kefir and eating a lot of vegetables. I improved but was
not cured in three months, as she said I would be. I talked to a
nutritionist and an acupuncturist and followed their advice. On a
very restrictive diet free of sugar, alcohol, yeast, wheat and
gluten, focused on lots of organic vegetables, I felt my digestion
improve further. Doing yoga, getting massages and Reiki, and going
to bed early every night helped my immune system keep the yeast
under control.

But after nine months, I was still physically weak and
susceptible to flare-ups with the slightest detraction from my
diet. I consulted a naturopath who tested my blood, saw nothing
terribly amiss and suggested I eat some meat and take some trace
minerals and the amino acid glutamine to restore my intestines and
muscle strength. He said to alternate taking garlic, caprylic acid
(a long-chain fatty acid) and oregano oil to keep the yeast count
down, and to continue the probiotics to restore floral balance.
With these changes, I finally regained my full muscle strength and
digestive health.

What Is Candida?

Candida refers to various yeasts that normally inhabit the body,
including the intestinal tract. Under certain circumstances,
candida proliferates, causing infection, particularly in warm,
moist areas. Often called a yeast infection, a candida overgrowth
can show up in the mouth (called thrush), the vagina or in folds in
the skin where moisture is trapped (often in babies).

“The reason the yeast overgrows is that the tissue is weakened
by a previous or another concurrent illness, a nutritional
deficiency, or a medication or toxic compound in the body,” says
John Hibbs, a naturopathic physician at the Bastyr Center in
Seattle. Prolonged stress and lack of sleep also can create
conditions favorable to yeast overgrowth, he adds.

No official studies have determined the prevalence of candida
overgrowth, and indeed, it can be difficult to diagnose. Some
physicians don’t recognize it, probably because candida exists in
the body anyway, says Terry Willard, a clinical herbalist and
president of the Canadian Association of Herbal Practitioners.
Willard says he never saw candida overgrowth among his patients in
the early ’80s but began to see it in the latter part of the
decade. By the early ’90s, he saw it in his Calgary clinic in about
60 percent of females and 30 percent of males.

In the community of holistic physicians, candida was “all the
rage” when it came on the alternative health scene 20 years ago,
Hibbs says. “Fortunes were made in treating everyone for candida.
Some doctors still overdiagnose it, because there are a lot of
things that can cause GI symptoms that an anti-candida diet will
fix.”

Critical thinking and a differential diagnosis are therefore
important, Hibbs says. “A person might be allergic to one of the
foods that’s removed on a candida diet.” Just because a patient’s
symptoms improve with candida treatment doesn’t necessarily prove
they had candida, Hibbs says.

Both Willard and Hibbs agree that the conditions of modern life
contribute to the problem. “There are so many more drugs and
chemicals around that depress immunity and so much more stress and
sleep deprivation, more processed foods, more diabetes. It would
have to correlate with that,” Hibbs says.

“The problem seems to increase with the size of the city and the
amount of fast-food restaurants,” Willard says. “The more processed
and packaged foods there are, the more people who have the yeast.”
It also seems to have something to do with the social aspects of
modern life, Willard notes. He associates the disorder with
increasing population and degradation of our ecosystem.

Willard adds that many people have semi-addictive eating habits,
particularly to flours and sweets. “I’ve definitely seen a higher
level of candida in vegetarians than I do meat eaters,” he says.
“And it’s probably mostly because they’re eating more flour and
sweets to fill the void from eliminating meat.”

A Difficult Diagnosis

Each practitioner seems to work out his or her own way of
diagnosing candida, and there is much variance in dietary and
supplement recommendations. Most practitioners look for particular
symptoms, as blood and fecal tests can be inconclusive.

“Diagnosis is a can of worms,” Hibbs says, “because broad
symptoms, like fatigue and PMS, that in some people are
legitimately caused by candida, also could be caused by many other
things.” Over time, Hibbs has developed a set of symptoms and
predisposing factors, and if he sees a significant number of the
symptoms and risk factors coming together in a person, he finds
they are likely to improve with candida treatment.

Hibbs’s criteria, developed from his observations and readings,
include chronic abnormal GI symptoms (gastritis, gastroeso-phogeal
reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, gas and bloating, loose stools)
and visible yeast or fungal infections on the body (including
vaginitis, oral thrush and tinea). People who’ve had a history of
immune-depressing circumstances or medications, such as
corticosteroid use, sleep deprivation, intense periods of prolonged
stress or significant antibiotic use, may have candida. Nutrient
deficiencies (a very low protein or plant-nutrient diet) and family
or personal history of high blood sugar or diabetes often are also
associated with candida overgrowth. Taking birth control pills has
an effect on blood sugar and can make women more susceptible to
candida than men.

Willard uses a symptoms questionnaire in his diagnostic process:
Is there a sensitivity to perfume and smoke? Is there fatigue;
hypoglycemia; a feeling of bloating after a meal; reflux; or a
craving for sweets, flour or dairy products? Sometimes he can smell
candida on the breath or see it in the eyes or on the tongue, he
says. And some people with candida get barometric headaches or
eczema related to oil metabolism (candida inhibits how the liver
processes oil).

“If the candida overgrowth is advanced, you start getting
significant mood changes, a lot of times reactionary,” Willard
says. At higher levels, candida can cause microperforations in the
bowel, leading to irritable bowel syndrome, which has an effect on
the overall immune system. “The person’s immune system becomes
compromised, or you could almost say ‘hijacked’ by the yeast,” he
says. “Then you can get into a cascade of immune issues and
symptoms that don’t directly look like they’re yeast-oriented.”

Another interesting fact, Willard notes, is that “a lot of
people who are at the first stage of low thyroid function actually
have a yeast problem. If you get rid of the yeast problem, the
thyroid problem seems to disappear.”

Treatment Requires Diligence

“A big part of the first step of treatment,” Hibbs says, “is to
look at what’s created susceptibility in the individual.” The
factors he tries to address with treatment are those that created
the vulnerability. For example, blood sugar and carbohydrate
consumption are factors that can contribute to yeast growth. If the
person has high blood sugar, then simple carbs must be restricted
over the long run to prevent adult-onset diabetes and yeast
overgrowth. If the patient doesn’t have high blood sugar, they will
likely only need to reduce carbohydrate intake for the duration of
the candida treatment.

Hibbs also addresses GI symptoms, digestive strength (too little
hydrochloric acid can contribute to yeast growth), diabetes, taking
birth control pills, a very low-protein or low-phytonutrient diet,
and taking immune-suppressing drugs, such as prednisone, for an
inflammatory illness. He’ll recommend reducing stress, losing
weight to reverse insulin resistance, and exercise for those who
need it. “We’re setting the stage for the anti-candida treatment to
work for the long run,” he says.

Treatment generally involves a diet stripped of foods that feed
yeast (particularly sugars); herbs and supplements to devour the
yeast; and probiotics to help build up the healthy bacteria in the
body that has become dominated by yeast. While practitioners’
dietary recommendations range from very restricted to more
flexible, all recommend eating fresh vegetables and good proteins.
Some suggest taking glutamine when the yeast settles down, to
repair the intestines.

To starve the yeast, Willard advises a strict diet, eliminating
all dairy, flour and sweets for a month or two. After that, he
allows flour products but not yeasted ones. He believes the
structure of the grain might be the important factor. “It seems the
finer the mechanical molecules, the stickier it gets in the system,
and that creates a breeding ground in the intestinal tract,” he
says. (For example, Willard believes rice is okay but not rice
flour.) Dairy seems to feed yeast and help it breed by creating a
mucus lining in the digestive tract. He prohibits tropical fruits
because they have a high sugar content, and oranges because they
have fungi on them. Peanuts and grapes contain yeast, as well.
Foods patients can eat include vegetables, meat and grains (not the
flours), as well as beans.

To starve the yeast, practitioners advise a strict
diet.

Taking supplements speeds up the process, making it a three- to
nine-month program, depending on whether the patient cheats and how
bad the overgrowth is, Willard says. (A strict cleanse at the
beginning of the process can speed things up.) One supplement
Willard favors is homeopathic candida. He also prescribes an
overall immune antioxidant containing beta-carotene, vitamin C,
zinc and B6.

Willard almost always suggests digestive enzymes because one of
the causes of candida, he says, is sluggish intestines that don’t
properly digest food, allowing it to ferment in the digestive
tract. “That gives a perfect breeding ground for the yeast,”
Willard says.

In addition, Willard gives patients probiotics and continues the
program for three to nine months. If the person gets stuck, he uses
caprylic acid or pau d’arco (Tabebuia spp.).

Hibbs simply recommends the following dietary changes, while
acknowledging that it is possible he might not be encountering
patients with severe cases of candida (who may need a more radical
treatment). He has patients avoid any food that’s altered to taste
sweet, including dried fruit and fruit juices. He stresses eating
antibiotic- and chemical-free food, especially fresh vegetables.
The diet should be high in fiber, nutrient-rich and include healthy
fats and carbohydrates, as well as good protein. Hibbs’s treatment
lasts for a minimum of eight weeks, though some people need a
longer treatment or to repeat the treatment later.

Hibbs puts all candida patients on two or three antifungals at a
time because there are many candida species, and each has different
sensitivities. He usually prescribes nystatin, an antifungal taken
as a pill or topical cream. It only can be prescribed by medical
doctors in most states, and by naturopathic physicians in
particular states. Hibbs rarely prescribes Diflucan because it can
be harsh on the liver.

The supplements Hibbs recommends include caprylic acid,
berberine, oregano oil or garlic extracts. “Most of the herbal oils
are antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral because they’re very
important parts of the plants’ immune systems,” Hibbs says. “These
are the compounds that the plants use to fight off the same
creatures from invading them.”

Finally, Hibbs puts patients on a probiotic with Lactobacillus
bifidus and acidophilus. He says he has found the Pharmax HLC
series (available online at www.RockwellNutrition.com) to be very
effective. “A good probiotic functions as an antifungal in itself
simply by successfully competing for space and food. They’ll
suppress the colonization by the other undesirables,” he says.

Both Willard and Hibbs note that candida overgrowth can recur.
Patients might need to repeat the healing regimens recommended or
do periodic cleanses to keep their immune and digestive systems
strong.

Lessons Learned

As I look back on my bout with candida, I’m grateful I had an
illness that taught me good habits. I learned to provide my body
with optimal nutrition, cleanse it and care for it using yoga,
massage and Reiki. I peeled away another layer of my social
conditioning (in the area of diet) and gained a more rewarding
connection with the fruits of the earth — its wonderful nurturing,
healing plants.

For more information and specific dietary and supplement
recommendations, visit our website at www.HerbsForHealth.com.


Lynda McCullough is a freelance writer in Loveland,
Colorado.

Resources

Arise & Shine
(800) 688-2444
www.AriseAndShine.com

Body Ecology
(800) 511-2660
www.BodyEcology.com

Flora Inc.
(800) 446-2110
www.FloraHealth.com

Garden of Life
(561) 748-2477
www.GardenOfLife.com

Nutrition Now, Inc.
www.NutritionNow.com