WTF is Candida Overgrowth?
In short, Candida is a type of yeast, or fungus. Sounds hideous, but we all have it and it has beneficial role in digestion when balanced properly. Key word: properly. The problem occurs when Candida outnumbers the friendly bacteria and becomes overgrown.
Candida is a single-cell microorganism that normally takes up residence in various niches in the body such as the skin, mouth, intestinal tract, and vagina. Candida has to have a host to survive, and it’s commensal, meaning it’s opportunistic and benefits from its association with other organisms.
Candida belongs to the kingdom of organisms known as fungi, which also includes mushrooms, mold, mildew, and more. Along with a spectrum of different types of microbes, everyone has some amount of candida in their gut. If you’re a healthy individual, other microorganisms that make up your body’s unique flora (the total sum of which is called your microbiome), such as bacterial constituents Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum, work synergistically to maintain a balance with one another so that one or more don’t become problematic to your health.
You may already be familiar with the more common types of candida overgrowth like oral thrush (often seen in babies and older adults) or vaginal yeast infections. Generally, a candida infection isn’t life-threatening, though it may make you feel lousy. But if overgrowth remains untreated, it can spread to the bloodstream, causing a serious infection called invasive candidiasis, which can affect the blood, certain organs, bones, and more, states the CDC.
The symptoms of a candida infection can range from mild to severe, and they vary from person to person. For instance, one person may experience bloating and nothing else; another may struggle with every possible side effect. Candida overgrowth symptoms include any number of the following:
Oral thrush (characterized by creamy white bumps on the inner cheeks and tongue)
Recurring vaginal yeast infections
Chronic urinary tract infections (UTIs)
Unrelenting fatigue or chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
Bowel disorders such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
Digestive issues (gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea)
Sugar and carbohydrate cravings
Joint pain and muscle aches
Anxiety and depression
Mood swings and irritability
Recurring sinus infections
If you’re thinking that sounds like a long laundry list of symptoms that could easily be confused with a number of other health problems, you’re right. What’s more, candida infections rarely exist by themselves. Most likely, if you have an overgrowth of the yeast, you also have an surplus of other opportunistic microbes in the gut, and it can be difficult to differentiate between them.
The Primary Causes
If we all carry some candida in our body, why do some of us experience overgrowth and miserable symptoms, but the rest of us never know the fungus is even present? Here are the common underlying causes for candida infection.
1. Impaired immune function
For candida overgrowth to occur, you must experience a disruption in your immune system. We are regularly exposed to microbes that can make us sick, but often our good flora are able to keep those pathogens in check.
It’s the balance of the microbiome that we’re finding is so important to disease, candida overgrowth, in particular, is a symptom of someone’s immune system being trashed, and their microbiome being disturbed — which is not in itself, an illness.
Underlying immune dysfunction can be a result of chronic illness (including chronic Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome) or any immune-weakening disease or condition. A number of lifestyle factors may also be at play, including lack of sleep, chronic stress, and inactivity—all of which can hamper immune function and upset your body’s balance of flora.
2. Gut dysfunction
Candida overgrowth is typically preceded by a breakdown in your gut health, and microbiome imbalance is soon to follow. Conditions such as leaky gut syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and gluten intolerance often coincide with candida overgrowth. Chronic stress is a top culprit, as is consuming excessive refined carbohydrates (candida thrive on starch—more on that below).
3. Antibiotic use
One way the gut flora can be disrupted is through the use of antibiotics, such as when treating Lyme disease and common co-infections like mycoplasma and bartonella. Antibiotics target bacteria – including the ones that are helpful to your body. Researchers discovered that when antibiotics kill off various beneficial bacterial species in the gut, the balance of microbes that normally keeps candida in check begins to shift. This creates favorable conditions for fungal communities to flourish, and can set the stage for candida overgrowth, as stated in the journal, Trends in Microbiology.
4. A carb-loaded diet
The diet most common in modern Western society – excess carbohydrates, refined grains, and saturated fats, and minimal fresh produce, lean protein, and healthy fats – is neither natural nor nourishing to our bodies. The reason sugar and refined carbohydrates get a bad rap is that they act as fuel sources for candida. When you feed candida, you facilitate overgrowth and microbiome disruption, which further disrupts the immune system and impairs its ability to maintain a symbiotic relationship with numerous other microbes.
5. Environmental toxins
Another cause of yeast overgrowth includes exposure to environmental and chemical toxins. A prime example of an environmental toxin is mold. All houses have some mold inside of them, about half of which are at problematic levels. Both mold spores and mold metabolites, known as mycotoxins, are present in the air. When inhaled, they can suppress your immune system and allow candida overgrowth. Plus, candida itself can produce its own mycotoxins that make you miserable.
Finally, empower and educate yourself about your condition. While most people with candida overgrowth are able to get a handle on the problem all on their own, sometimes a stubborn infection calls for additional support. So if you do consult with a healer of choice, you’ll be armed and ready with plenty of information to discuss your needs and treatment options with them.