There’s talk of ‘candida’ all over social media, with many users documenting their restrictive ‘candida diets’ for better gut health. But what is candida and is it really the intestinal enemy it’s painted out to be? Writer Lisa Bowman investigates.
Candida is a type of fungus called yeast that lives in various parts of our body such as the skin, mouth, throat, vagina and gut, and if social media is to be believed, we all have a problem with it. The #candidadiet hashtag on TikTok has a whopping 10.8 million views, showing that millions of people are looking for quick fixes for their candida woes.
TikTok user @skindeeptosouldeep is a holistic health coach who claims to help women with chronic yeast infections. Her post asking, ‘Do you have candida?’, lists all the possible associated symptoms… but the truth is, we all have candida. In fact, it’s a very normal part of our body.
Research reveals that candida works with bacteria in the gut to keep it healthy, so candida itself isn’t an issue – problems only arise when there’s too much of it.
“Candida is actually a fantastic thing in the body – in proper amounts,” explains Jessica Sepel, clinical nutritionist and founder of JSHealth.
“With regards to the gut, a healthy amount of this fungus will help with digestion and nutrient absorption. However, when it grows out of control, it can break down intestinal walls and get into your bloodstream. This toxic by-product can cause leaky gut and a whole host of health issues.”
FYI, an overgrowth of candida in the vagina is the reason for most vaginal yeast infections – hello thrush, my old friend!
What causes candida overgrowth?
The body is a complex machine, and there are a number of things that can cause overgrowth of this fungus. “The main contributor is anything that compromises our immune system,” advises Sepel.
“If you’re on antibiotics, both the good and bad bacteria are killed and the lack of beneficial bacteria can cause an increase in unwanted bacteria, which then contributes to the overgrowth of candida.
“A diet high in refined carbohydrates, alcohol, sweets and caffeine will raise blood sugar, and sugar is the number one fuel for candida. Food allergies e.g. dairy and gluten can compromise their immune system, which could lead to a build-up of candida.
“Extreme stress and anxiety also contributes.”
What are the symptoms of candida overgrowth in the gut?
There are many different types of candida strains in the body, but there are a few particularly troublesome strains – including candida albicans – which can cause problems when present in higher levels than normal.
“Symptoms of fungal infections generally could be an indication that you have overgrowth,” advises registered nutritionist Marjolein Dutry van Haeften.
“These include oral thrush, genital thrush, fungal nail infections and fungal skin infections. There are other symptoms that could be linked, but they are very generalised symptoms of stress and immune system.”
When it comes to the gut, overgrowth is normally diagnosed via testing a stool sample, explains Sepel: “I’ve seen a number of candida overgrowth symptoms in my nutrition clinic, including discomfort of the GI tract, bloating, gas, low energy, autoimmune conditions, skin issues, low mood, sugar cravings, itchy ears and unwanted weight gain.”
Is candida overgrowth dangerous?
While symptoms of candida overgrowth may be uncomfortable, it’s not generally a huge threat to most healthy people, but is cause for concern if you’re immunocompromised.
“Candida overgrowth is a problem for those with a compromised immune system,” explains Dutry van Haeften.
“This includes some autoimmune conditions, those on immune suppressant medication, and people with certain diseases such as HIV or AIDS. This would be something that their medical team would take into consideration.”
How to prevent candida overgrowth
If social media is to be trusted, every man and his dog is on a ‘candida diet’, which involves cutting out sugar (including some fruits), gluten, alcohol, refined oils/fats and caffeine etc. But just how legit are these kinds of ultra-restrictive methods?
“Before I trained as a nutritional therapist, I was put on this diet and it contributed to so much more stress, and exacerbated my symptoms,” says Dutry van Haeften.
“As a result, I’m not a big fan. If you’re experiencing gut symptoms there are likely many things that have contributed, so you need a multi-pronged approach – a ‘candida diet’ alone is simply not going to cut it, so there’s no point in going in hard and only targeting a yeast overgrowth.
“Beware any magical candida specific supplement – if it sounds too good to be sure, it is.”
Nutritionist Marjolein Dutry van Haeften’s for improving general gut health
Address the stress response
“This means focusing on things that support rest and digest (getting into the parasympathetic nervous response). This also helps to support immune response as the body struggles to fight off infections when we’re always in stress mode.”
Improve the terrain for the beneficial bacteria to restore balance
“Get enough fibre, include lots of herbs in the diet (very powerful impact on the gut), a variety of plant foods (pulses, nuts and seeds, wholegrains, veggies.)
Opt for balanced meals and snacks
“This means getting protein, healthy fats and complex carbs on your plate, to help keep your blood sugar within an optimal range.”
Reduce intake of foods that have an inflammatory impact on the gut
“Lower consumption of alcohol and refined sugar eg juices, pastries, cakes etc.”
If you suspect you have an overgrowth of candida, it’s best to get this verified by a medical professional, rather than self-diagnosing.