Does this scenario sound anything like your own experience?
"I wake up, groggy as usual, to the sound of my alarm. I'd love to roll over and give my partner a kiss, but my morning breath is dragon-like at best, so instead I stumble to the bathroom to brush my teeth. My tongue is, as usual, coated with this stubborn white 'uck'. I put lotion on my legs, which have started itching again, and try to get ready for my day. By the time I walk into the living room to look for my keys I've forgotten why I was going in there in the first place; I don't remember the last time my mind was clear and my attention focused. To top things off, it feels like (if I'm female) I'm getting yet another yeast infection!"
What does that indicate, and what is Candida overgrowth?
These symptoms, and many others, can be attributed to an overgrowth of a fungus that lives in your gut called Candida albicans. It's supposed to be there, but usually the healthy bacteria in your microbiome keep the levels in check. Different reasons, such as a diet high in sugar, alcohol, and processed carbs, or a strong course of antibiotics, can be enough to upset this balance and lead to Candida overgrowth.
Western/allopathic medicine recognizes the presence of Candida in a healthy gut, and four Candida related conditions (aka Candidiasis).
1. Oral candidiasis or thrush: yeast infection of the mouth or throat
2. Genital yeast infection: yeast infection of the vagina or penis
3. Diaper rash: yeast infection of the upper thighs, genital area, or baby butt
4. Candidemia: an invasive yeast infection of the blood stream, very serious and requires immediate treatment (typically only occurs in immunocompromised individuals)
Western/allopathic medicine does not, however, recognize that fungal overgrowth can lead to symptoms outside of the mouth or genitals (at least not yet) that isn't the threatening candidemia. If you talk to your primary care doctor about it, he or she may not be responsive. If you have a vaginal yeast infection they will often prescribe an anti-fungal that may help with all of your symptoms, and that's great, but they won't be able to offer much other guidance.
How do you know if you have Candida overgrowth?
Functional medicine physicians, naturopathic doctors, and others who practice integrative medicine may have their own individualized treatment protocols, but they will all recognize your condition and should be able to test for it. I won't go into how you medically test for Candida overgrowth here, because one of those practitioners can better explain the options and order them for you (a stool test, for example).
There is one at-home Candida test that has little to no scientific credibility, but I've found produces consistent results. It's called the "spit test." First thing in the morning, before eating or drinking anything or brushing your teeth, fill a clear glass halfway with water and spit into the center of the glass. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, watch what happens (you can just check on it 3-4 times). Healthy spit will stay primarily at the top of the water. If you have Candida overgrowth, the spit develops "legs" (strings that reach down) and may even sink to the bottom of the glass. It's free, harmless, and certainly worth a try. The mirror tongue test is another good indicator; if your tongue has a white coating on it most of the time, it can also be a strong signal that you have Candida overgrowth.
Symptoms that may be associated with Candida overgrowth include:
- digestive issues: bloating, constipation, diarrhea, gas
- intense sugar and/or carbohydrate cravings (that's the yeast begging for a meal)
- brain fog/an inability to think clearly or not space out
- poor memory
- difficulty concentrating, and possibly even an ADD diagnosis
- bad breath, especially in the morning
- multiple food sensitivities
- anxiety and irritability
- skin issues: acne, rashes and bumps, itchy skin
- athlete's foot or other foot fungus
- women's health issues: vaginal yeast infections, chronic UTIs
- headaches (although to be fair, headaches are on almost every symptom list)
- lethargy or chronic fatigue
If many of these symptoms sound like you (and/or the at-home tests are positive), what can you do about it?
Get help. Ideally, you'll make an appointment with a functional or integrative medicine practitioner, but those can be difficult to find in certain areas (certainly in Kentucky!). Well-educated health coaches and traditional naturopaths can also guide you through a Candida diet and recommend supplements. I do not suggest going through a Candida overgrowth treatment protocol without at least one person to support you, as it can be physically and emotionally draining for a few weeks, depending on how badly you feel when you begin.
The protocol I use with clients is the same protocol I used for myself, and involves both dietary changes and a supplement regimen for approximately 6 weeks. The goal of the dietary changes is to essentially starve the yeast by removing its food of choice: sugar. This means no sugar, little to no fruit, no grains, and no alcohol (basically a sugar-free Paleo). Any food sensitivities must also be avoided, as usual, notably dairy. The supplements I find most helpful include: good-quality probiotics, caprylic acid, pau d'arco tea/olive leaf extract/grapefruit seed extract on rotation, saccharomyces boulardii, and something to break up the biofilm. Prescription anti-fungals can also be a helpful addition in severe cases. The first couple of weeks on the protocol you can actually feel a bit worse (they call this a die-off reaction), but that doesn't happen to everyone, and by the 3rd week the veil begins to part and health and clarity return.
Many websites and some practitioners say the diet must be followed for 3 months to a year. I've found that for most people, it only takes 1-2 months to get the overgrowth under control. After that, it becomes more about keeping a watchful eye for symptoms returning. If I overdo the sugar, I'll notice a bit of a breakout, brain fog, or itchy legs, but all it takes is a few days of careful eating to take care of it. I do take probiotics and caprylic acid/MCT oil on a regular basis as a preventive measure (and notice when I skip them!).
If you're interested in talking to me about whether Candida overgrowth may be causing your symptoms, please reach out here. If you're already eating fairly well, I typically take clients through my Reset program to address this root problem.