Candida is a fungal yeast which, if allowed to flourish and grow out of control in the body, can lead to infection and cause a range of unpleasant symptoms. A very common Candida infection is known as thrush.
Although a Candida albicans overgrowth can affect both sexes, it is particularly common for women to have some Candida in and around the genital area without displaying any symptoms and, therefore, without even knowing it's there. Men can also get Candida infections and these most commonly occur in the groin area, particularly if it regularly gets hot and sweaty (e.g. during exercise).
Candida albicans is an opportunistic organism - a parasite, which will use any period of weakness or vulnerability to grow and spread. For instance, if there is an imbalance of gut flora (dysbiosis), or if conditions in the body change (e.g. because of hormonal changes at different times in a woman’s menstrual cycle or during periods of weakened immunity). In such circumstances, the yeast can thrive, multiply very quickly and cause symptoms.
The role of diet and lifestyle in Candida infections
Diet and lifestyle also have a key role to play in a person’s susceptibility to Candida infections and their rate of recurrence. For example:
- a high toxic load (brought on by, for instance, pollutants and chemicals in the food we eat, air we breathe and water we drink and bathe in)
- use of medication (such as antibiotic therapy, birth control pills and steroids)
- heightened stress
- surgery or illness
- a weak immune system
- certain health conditions (such as diabetes)
- travel to countries with poor water or food hygiene
- and, perhaps most importantly, a poor diet high in sugary foods and/or alcohol.
These factors can all cause an imbalance in healthy bacterial growth in the body - in other words, the levels of "friendly bacteria" in the gut and elsewhere. Of course, they are not mutually exclusive; often, more than one factor is in play when a Candida infection occurs. For instance, a period of illness may call for the use of medication, both of which can have an impact on the immune system and the level of good bacteria in the body.
Candida starts life as a harmless yeast-like form and is naturally present in everyone’s body from birth but, given the opportunity and the right environment, it can turn into into an invasive, parasitic and filamentous fungus form. At this stage, it is a harmful organism which the body has to work hard to defend against.
It is thought that one of our bodies’ key defences against such organisms is the naturally-occurring friendly bacteria present in all of us, which compete with harmful organisms (like bad bacteria, fungi and yeast) for space and food, thereby helping to keep them in check.
Our bodies contain several thousand billion of these helpful organisms, but (as already mentioned above) numbers can drop for many reasons, leaving us more vulnerable to infection. It is also worth noting that, as we age, we naturally experience a dwindling in the levels of good bacteria.
It is very important to address overgrowth of, and infection from, fungi and yeasts (such as Candida albicans), which can produce toxic and carcinogenic substances. If left unchecked, these substances can be absorbed into the bloodstream and may contribute to other diseases. This can then lead to a vicious circle of recurring infection, as the antibiotics taken to cure diseases cannot distinguish between good and bad bacteria and destroy them both.
Eating the right foods can help. As Candida thrives on sugar, a low-sugar, low-yeast diet is recommended for sufferers of infection. The following tips may also come in helpful for meal planning:-
A fibre-rich diet can be beneficial, because intestinal bacteria consume dietary fibre and metabolise it into organic acids that can help to inhibit the growth of bad bacteria.
Yoghurts made with live, active cultures can offer a source of probiotics, but beware - yoghurts are usually made from dairy products (which can aggravate the digestive system) and are often high in sugar.
Fermentation is a process that has been used for thousands of years, in populations and cultures across the world. It has been used for food preservation, but also to increase the bio-availability of nutrients. Not only are fermented foods rich in phyto-oestrogens, they have a high level of enzyme activity, support digestion and help to re-populate the colon with friendly bacterial flora. Examples of fermented foods include sauerkraut, kefir, miso, tempeh and fermented tofu.
One note of caution: While fermented foods are ideal during periods of health, if you know or suspect you have a Candida (thrush) problem, avoid them for a while, as well as sugars, until the healthy bowel flora are re-established.
Probiotic and prebiotic supplements
Another way to support your levels of friendly bacteria is to take a high-strength probiotic supplement daily. You may also want to take a prebiotic - food for friendly bacteria - such as FOS (Fructo-oligosaccharide), a complex sugar derived from plants which is actually good for you! What is unique about FOS is that it is not broken down by digestive juices like other sugars. Instead, it passes directly to the gut, where it is digested by “good” bacteria, thereby encouraging their growth.