Candida albicans is a species of yeast — a single-celled fungus, in fact – that lives naturally in the body. This yeast is a normal part of the microbes that live on your skin and in your gastrointestinal tract, but under some circumstances it can multiply out of control.
Small amounts of Candida albicans also live in various warm, moist areas throughout the body, including on the skin, in the mouth and gut, and also the rectum and vagina.
Candida’s numbers are usually kept in check by the colonies of ‘friendly’ bacteria and other microorganisms that live both in your gut and on your body.
Most of the time, Candida albicans doesn’t cause any problems. We all carry this little yeast in and on our bodies without even thinking about it. It even plays a part in digestion and nutrient absorption.
In some cases, however, Candida albicans can multiply out of control. This is when it becomes Candidiasis, also known as thrush, a yeast infection, or Candida overgrowth.
The resulting infections can cause pain and inflammation throughout the body, both on the skin and in the gut or genitals. Candidiasis is most often noticed on the skin, mouth and vaginal infections. Candida overgrowth is also a common cause of diaper rash.
An intestinal Candida overgrowth can inflame and weaken the walls of the intestines, releasing toxic byproducts which may lead to many different health issues, from digestive disorders to depression.
These can be unpleasant infections, but are not generally life threatening except in those with severely compromised immune systems. Even so, Candidiasis should be treated promptly before it can affect your overall health and quality of life.
What the Research Says
Many Candida albicans infections, even yeast infections, can be traced back to an overgrowth of Candida in the gut.
Unfortunately, conventional medicine rarely recognizes intestinal Candida overgrowth (or Candida Related Complex) as a serious issue. Although many people today are affected by gut dysbiosis and the major impact it has on their health, Candida overgrowth is sometimes portrayed as a false illness.
However, emerging studies have shown that Candida overgrowth does indeed exist and can be responsible for a number of health concerns. Researchers explain that a high-level Candida colonization is often associated with several diseases and symptoms of the gastrointestinal tract. (1)
In addition, results from animal studies have demonstrated that Candida colonization delays healing of inflammatory conditions, and that this kind of inflammation promotes further colonization.
While the causes and symptoms are sometimes difficult to pinpoint and diagnose, it’s important to be able to recognize what may be causing your health issues.
How Does Candida Overgrowth Develop?
Normally, the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut are able to keep your Candida levels under control. Unfortunately, when these good bacteria are weakened in any way – such as by antibiotics, illness, or poor diet – they may fail to do their job properly.
This is especially common when your diet contains a high amount of refined carbohydrates and sugar, alcohol, or the body is simply low in beneficial probiotics.
The oral contraceptive pill and some medications can also affect your ‘good’ bacteria, as can chronic stress. Certain medications may increase the risk for developing candida overgrowth. The most common causes include topical corticosteroid medications, PPIs, birth control pills, and antibiotics.
In all these cases, a Candida yeast population can quickly get out of hand.
An Opportunistic Pathogen
Candida albicans is able to adapt quite quickly in order to protect itself from the harsh environment of the gut.
For example, Candida can exist in at least three different forms. The yeast form survives well in acidic conditions, while the fungal form thrives in a neutral or alkaline pH. As the conditions in your intestines change, Candida is able to switch between these two forms and survive dramatic alterations in its environment.
Another way that Candida adapts is by adjusting the pH of its immediate environment. It releases metabolites like ammonia that actively raise the pH of its surroundings, enabling Candida albicans to switch from its yeast form to its fungal form. (2)
In its fungal form, it turns into an elongated hyphal cell. In this form, it is better able to break through the gut lining, which may lead to a condition called intestinal permeability (often known as Leaky Gut). (3)
A weakened intestinal membrane allows food particles, Candida metabolites, and other elements to escape from the gut and enter the bloodstream. This can lead to food allergies and more. (4)
It may also mean that Candida is able to enter the bloodstream and invade other tissues around the body.
Anyone familiar with Lyme disease will have heard of biofilms. These protective matrices are created by pathogens like Candida and Lyme to protect themselves from your body’s immune system. Just like Lyme, Candida albicans creates these in your intestines and builds its colonies inside them.
Lastly, there is evidence suggesting that Candida albicans physically changes its cell walls when it comes into contact with an acidic environment, and uses these changes to hide even more effectively from your immune system. (5)
You can see what a versatile, dangerous pathogen Candida albicans is. It actively adapts and changes to protect itself from, and in some cases make itself invisible to, your native immune system. That’s one reason they there isn’t any ‘magic bullet’ for Candida overgrowth, and why a successful treatment plan should include probiotics, dietary changes, antifungals, and enzymes.
Signs of Candida Albicans Overgrowth
The symptoms of Candida overgrowth vary depending on the location and severity of the infection. An intestinal Candida infection is often associated with Candida infections elsewhere on the body. Symptoms can include:
- Fungal infections of the skin and nails, such as athlete’s foot, ringworm, and toenail fungus
- Constantly feeling low in energy or fatigued
- Digestive issues such as bloating, constipation, or diarrhea
- Autoimmune disease such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, lupus, psoriasis, scleroderma, or multiple sclerosis
- Poor memory or concentration, inability to focus
- Behavioral issues such as ADD, ADHD, and/or brain fog
- Skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, hives, and rashes
- Low mood, Irritability, mood swings, anxiety, or depression
- Vaginal infections or itching
- Urinary tract infections, rectal itching
- Severe seasonal allergies
- Sugar cravings
Some people may be more prone to Candida overgrowth than others. Risk factors generally relate to your age or health status. Those who are more prone to infection include pregnant women, babies, and children, but also people who are overweight or obese, or have chronic health conditions such as diabetes, hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland) or chronic inflammatory disorders.
A weakened immune system is also a major risk factor. Those who are stressed, or work in hot/wet conditions may also be more susceptible.
Common Types of Candida Infections
Candidiasis that develops in the mouth or throat is often referred to as thrush or oropharyngeal candidiasis. Candidiasis in the vagina is usually called a yeast infection.
Candida in the gut is usually called a Candida overgrowth or Candida Related Complex. The type of Candida infection is often seen alongside topical infections.
The most serious form of Candida infection is invasive candidiasis, which occurs when Candida species enters the bloodstream and spreads throughout the body. However, this is rare and usually only occurs in those with severely weakened immune systems. (6)
Also known as tinea pedis, athlete’s foot is a type of fungal skin infection that usually occurs in athletes or anything else who is regularly active. The candida strain of fungi can multiply rapidly into athlete’s foot, especially if the foot is in warm, moist conditions.
Athlete’s foot appears as dry and brittle skin between the toes. The skin on your feet maybe flaky and prone to itching. Small, painful blisters may also appear, usually between your toes or on the sole of your foot. Skin discoloration is also likely.
Although generally considered a mild sort of skin infection, it’s a good idea to treat athlete’s foot as soon as it appears as it can spread to other areas of the body, including the groin, face and scalp.
Oral thrush, or oral candidiasis, develops on the tongue and inside of the mouth. Although a small amount of Candida fungus can live in your mouth without causing harm, it can grow out of control and develop into an infection.
Oral thrush is most common in babies and toddlers, appearing as white bumps on the inner cheeks and on the tongue. Fortunately, the infection is usually mild and doesn’t cause major health issues, but should be treated as soon as possible.
One of the most unpleasant of Candida infections, a vaginal yeast infection is also one of the most common. Around 75% of women will suffer one of these infections at some stage during their life. (7)
Symptoms include itching, burning, smelly discharge and pain. The pain may be worse with intercourse. Up to 90% of these infections are caused by Candida albicans. Other forms of Candida are usually responsible for the remainder of yeast infections.
Fungal nail infections can lead to severe irritation under the nail that causes pain and swelling, and may make the nail separate from the finger or toe.
This type of infection can cause the nails to become thickened and dull, which may cause them to split and fall off. Because these fungi are microscopic, diagnosis usually requires examination of the debris under the nail in a laboratory. This fungus can affect both fingernails and toenails, but most commonly occurs in toenails.
This type of Candida infection is often seen at the same time as the above conditions. An imbalance in the gut microbiome allows Candida albicans to out-compete the other microorganisms in the gut.
As it grows its colonies, Candida albicans releases metabolites like ammonia and acetaldehyde that create a wide range of symptoms, including fatigue and brain fog. It weakens the intestinal walls, causing chronic inflammation and even allergies, and spreads to appear as topical infections in other parts of the body.
Almost everyone has Candida albicans in their gut, and a significant proportion of us may have too much of it, or a Candida overgrowth. Candida albicans only starts to cause trouble when there is some change in your body that allows it to overgrow and disturb the healthy balance of microorganisms in your gut. This change could be one of many factors, including a course of antibiotics, a prolonged diet rich in carbohydrates and sugar, and even something as common as a lengthy period of stress at work.
If you suspect that you have a Candida overgrowth, the first place to look is your lifestyle to find what could have caused this imbalance. Antibiotics? Oral contraceptives? A diet high in sugar and carbohydrates? Alcohol and drugs? Stress? Or all of the above? Eliminating all of these risk factors is a crucial step in tackling your Candida problem.
Many sufferers of Candida Related Complex remain undiagnosed by their doctors and unaware of their condition. Unfortunately, many doctors don’t recognize the systemic problems that a syndrome like Candida Related Complex causes.
How to Treat Candida Overgrowth
Treating a Candida overgrowth infection depends largely on the type of infection. However, the root cause is often the overgrowth of yeast in the gut, which generally stems from an imbalance in the intestinal microbiome. That’s why diet is one of the most important first steps in tackling the infection.
A Low Sugar, Anti-Inflammatory Diet
The correct diet can help to reduce the spread of Candida albicans in the gut. This means eliminating inflammatory foods like junk food and gluten, and avoiding the added sugars that Candida albicans needs to grow and spread.
Adding antifungal foods such as coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, and garlic can also help to halt the growth of yeast in the gastrointestinal tract. Fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut provide some of the probiotic bacteria that your gut needs to repair and rebalance itself.
Cutting your intake of refined sugar and carbohydrates is the most important aspect of this diet. The Candida yeast needs sugars to build its cell walls, expand its colonies, and create the biofilms that it uses to hide from your immune system. Refined sugars should be eliminated completely, but natural sugars should also be kept to a minimum. (8, 9)
The Candida diet is an anti-inflammatory, low sugar diet that is designed to deprive Candida albicans of the food that it needs, repair the gut, and rebalance the intestinal microbiome that is so important for our health.
Probiotic foods and supplements help to restore the ‘friendly’ bacteria that work to overcome or crowd out harmful yeasts and ‘bad’ bacteria.
Taking a high-quality probiotic supplement that contains a variety of strains (mainly Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria) is essential for treating Candida overgrowth. It’s especially recommended following a course of antibiotic treatment, as antibiotics tend to kill off healthy bacteria populations.
Probiotics will help to restore the natural balance of the digestive system and replenish healthy bacteria. At the same time, probiotics can help to boost the immune system and support the body’s natural defenses in overcoming opportunistic yeasts. (10)
Adding probiotic bacteria to your meals is easy: simply choose probiotic foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut or unsweetened yoghurt. A probiotic supplement is a more convenient means of delivering a high dose of healthy bacteria directly to the gut.
In both adults and children, probiotics are effective in preventing gastrointestinal colonization by Candida and reducing the risk of fungal colonies spreading throughout the gastrointestinal tract. This can go a long way in reducing the rate of bacterial and/or fungal infections.
Antifungal treatments tend to come in two different forms for Candida.
There are topical antifungal treatments, like coconut oil or prescription creams, which are used to treat skin infections. And there are also antifungal treatments like nystatin or caprylic acid, which are used to treat internal infections.
Most antifungals work by disrupting the cell walls of Candida albicans. Prescription antifungals tend to come with a long list of side effects and are not always well tolerated. Natural antifungals like caprylic acid and grapefruit seed extract are excellent choices for tackling an intestinal Candida infection.
Antifungal foods can be another useful addition to your toolkit. For example, virgin coconut oil harbors powerful antifungal properties. It’s great for applying directly to topical yeast infections such as athlete’s foot. It may even help to prevent skin infections from developing.
Coconut oil is also a good example of an antifungal food. Foods like coconut oil, rutabaga, garlic, ginger, and cinnamon all have antifungal properties that have been shown to slow down or inhibit the activity of Candida albicans. (11)
In the case of fungal skin infections, a major contributor to their development is poor hygiene. Your feet especially can be a warm, sweaty environment which is great for helping microorganisms to thrive.
Footwear and clothing should be washed regularly, and skin should be allowed to breathe as often as possible by going barefoot. Shower every day and try to wear only cotton clothing against the skin, as the natural fibers allow better ventilation.
Oregano oil and tea tree oil are two well-known treatments for athlete’s foot. Tea tree oil is recommended by the American Cancer Society as a topical antiseptic when used on the skin to kill germs – even those resistant to other antibiotics. Both are effective in treating many other types of fungus. Oregano oil is also available as an oral supplement to treat Candida of the gut. (12)
Taking Care of Candida Albicans Overgrowth
If you have been unwell with digestive issues, or you’ve noticed a fungal skin condition, it’s important to act as quickly as possible.
Candida overgrowth won’t go away by itself, and it must be attacked from all angles. This means a low sugar diet, antifungal treatments and probiotics should form the basis of your treatment plan.
If you have a topical Candida infection, good hygiene practices will also play an important role.
Candida albicans is a really unique microorganism. It uses various strategies to protect itself and hide from your immune system.
These strategies make Candida difficult to treat with a single therapy, and they are why Dr Eric and I recommend a multi-faceted treatment plan in our Candida treatment program. Using a combination of diet, probiotics, and antifungals is the best way to get relief from Candida.