Have you ever lived in a share house? Or had a roommate that you kind of got along ok with, you know at first they weren’t any trouble when you lived together quite happily but then, all of a sudden something happened and they started acting erratic, throwing wild parties, eating all of your food and went on a cleaning strike?
Of course, if you were in a situation like this you would make changes and either kick your housemate to the curb or move out yourself. Well, we actually have gut bugs that act quite similarly to rude house mates and seeing as we can’t move out of our own bodies, we need to either kick them out or reel them in back under our control.
All of our gut bugs, or normal flora, have a different symbiotic interaction with us, their host. Symbiosis is defined as ‘life together’ where two organisms live in an association with one another, so technically, housemates.
When it comes to defining the types of relationships we can have with our gut bugs, we can divide them into at least three different categories:
Mutualism – In this relationship, both members benefit. An example is our lactic acid bacteria (LAB), bifidobacterium and lactobacillus, where we provide them with a comfy home and food and they thank us by synthesising vitamins for our bodies to use, neurotransmitters to keep our emotion and mood regulated and lactic acid which helps keep other, pathogenic bacteria at bay.
Commensalism – A commensal relationship is where one partner of the relationship benefits, and the other partner are neither benefitted nor harmed. Many of the flora in our large intestine feed off our undigested food but don’t actually provide much benefit or harm to us. An example of a commensal gut-bug is Candida.
Parasitic/pathogenic – This type of symbiotic relationship is not actually symbiotic at all. This is where the microbe lives at the expense of their host and can easily cause disease.
More often than not we have a mutualistic and commensal relationship with our gut-bug housemates. They are there living inside us, fed and content, providing us with certain nutritional and digestive benefits, stimulating the development and activity of our immune system and protecting us against colonisation and infection by pathogenic microbes.
A majority of our gut bugs are no harm to us because our whole body is working as one to keep everything balanced and in good order. This means our pH is controlled as well as our temperature and immune system, which keep our gut bugs in line and in check. As soon as something goes out of whack some of our gut bugs can become opportunistic. This means they strike when the time is right and take advantage of a vulnerable and weak host and create havoc, like a housemate gone rogue.
We are seeing more and more opportunistic infections from our normal flora than from pathogenic ones because we are not treating our bodies correctly, so no longer are they working in a balanced way. We are fuelling them with the wrong foods and creating too much stress. One common opportunistic gut bug is Candida.
What actually is Candida?
Candida is a type of yeast that is one of the most common inhabitants of the human gut. Candida is actually a dimorphic organism, meaning it can either exist as a round yeast cell or as a fungus, specifically a mycelia form of fungus. Mycelium fungi grow little branch like fingers that go in search of water and nutrients such as nitrogen, carbon, potassium and phosphorus, which are found in abundance in the human body! This is what can make a Candida overgrowth especially bad as these mycelia can penetrate body tissues and easily and quickly spread to places they are not meant to be.
In a healthy body, Candida is kept in line by our LAB and a healthy immune system. However, there are many changes to our lifestyle that occur too regularly these days, and this is what sees our Candida become opportunistic. Some of these changes include:
Antibiotic and steroid use
Pharmaceutical medications such as the oral contraceptive pill
Excessive alcohol intake
Refined and processed sugary foods
Low fibre diets
These are only some of the factors that can contribute to excess Candida in our bodies and as you can see, many of these factors are now considered the ‘norm’ in this day and age, which is why we are seeing more and more over-growths of Candida.
What does excess Candida do?
Candida is yeast, yeasts convert sugars to ethanol (alcohol), ethanol is metabolised in the liver by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, this enzyme is dependent on zinc and vitamin B3 to function. After ethanol has been broken down, a product called acetaldehyde is now in its place. This is more toxic to us than ethanol and is the main driver behind those dreaded hangover symptoms.
Acetaldehyde is then broken down by an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase, which is also vitamin B3 dependent, and glutathione. Glutathione is the body’s main antioxidant. It is synthesised by the amino acids cysteine, glycine and glutamate and is stored in the liver but can be quickly depleted.
Basically what all this means is the excess Candida causes a subtle yet chronic amount of alcohol to constantly be leeched into our blood stream creating this continual metabolism and by-product production. The acetaldehyde can make us feel flat, lethargic, achy and foggy. The process depletes vital vitamins, minerals, liver enzymes and amino acids and can lead to deficiencies, oxidative stress and inflammation.
However, this isn’t the only cause for concern. Remember how earlier I mentioned Candida can actually become a fungus and grow little tentacles that help it move around the body? Well this is also where Candida can cause issues. These tentacles can penetrate the gut wall and create holes, or a ‘leaky gut’. Not only does this mean that Candida themselves can slip through and start infiltrating other body organs, also food particles, amino acids and other gut flora can leak into the blood stream. This creates an inflammatory state and also increases the risk of developing food allergies and intolerances as well as autoimmune conditions because the immune system is being chronically stimulated. This is why excess Candida is now being researched as a main driver behind many chronic conditions including fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
A Candida over-growth can cause an array of different symptoms, from systemic to local. Localised symptoms just affect the area where the Candida has taken hold. This can include, but is not limited to, the vagina (vaginal thrush), the mouth (oral thrush) and the gut. In vaginal and oral thrush there is usually a severe itch with white blisters, pain and burning. Usually gut Candida causes more of a systemic (whole body) reaction, which I will discuss more in a moment. However, ‘localised’ gut symptoms can include bloating, cramping, gas, diarrhoea and constipation.
When the symptoms spread to a systemic level there is really no end to what excess Candida can cause. The reason behind this is because not only the Candida itself causes unpleasant symptoms but the metabolic by-products mentioned above also do, in particular acetaldehyde.
Acetaldehyde can affect every system in your body. Think how being drunk and hung over affects you? It can interfere with brain function and even kill brain cells. It damages the membranes of our red blood cells, reducing their ability to carry oxygen around the body. It can interfere with our stress response – the way our body responds to and secretes cortisol (our stress hormone). This, in turn, has a direct effect on our whole endocrine (hormone) system including our thyroid function and insulin production. On top of all this there are inflammation and nutrient deficiencies which can then lead to other symptoms and illnesses.
One of the biggest symptoms of Candida, and the most detrimental, is intense sugar cravings. The drive behind this has many factors. One is simply that Candida feed off sugar. This creates a biochemical feedback where the Candida sends out signals for the host to refuel with more sugar. Also, the metabolic breakdown of the Candida by-products affect our endocrine system (as mentioned above) interfering with our cortisol and insulin regulation. If these are not working correctly, sugar cravings set in as insulin is the hormone that is responsible for bringing blood glucose into our cells to use for energy and insulin and cortisol have a tendency to ‘follow’ each other. If cortisol rises, so does insulin, and visa versa. This is also why some people crave sugar when stressed; it comes down to a biochemical level. Lastly, the overall inflammation and oxidative stress that a Candida overgrowth cause can leave people feeling very ill, flat, lethargic and unable to think straight. This, too, can lead to bad diet choices which just fuel the fire and create a vicious cycle.
Below is a list of some of the main symptoms of Candida over-growth:
Muscle & joint aches
Treatment and testing
Candida over-growth can be detected by a stool sample, and testing the blood or urine for Candida antibody levels or other Candida by-products. However, an experienced and qualified health care professional would be able to get a very good picture of your Candida levels by a good health history questionnaire and your symptom picture.
Unfortunately, most doctors still refuse to admit that Candida over-growth can have a huge impact on our health - even though research is now linking excess Candida to chronic health conditions such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Celiac Disease, Fibromyalgia and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The main reason behind the continual refusal is the lack of a definitive diagnostic tool for intestinal yeast over-growth and the lack of research in the area. Hopefully, in time, this will change.
That being said, there are pharmaceutical medications to help get Candida back in control and within their normal limits. However, these medications don’t address the damage that has been caused by the Candida such as a leaky-gut, inflammation and oxidative stress. To really address the whole symptom picture, powerful herbs can be used to get the Candida back in control, and then an intense healing of the gut needs to take place. This can be done with nutritional supplementation and the consumption of fermented foods under the care of a qualified health care professional.
Keeping them under control
The main factor to keeping Candida under control is looking after your gut health. If we have healthy guts we have healthy immune systems, which keep things balanced.
Diet plays such a huge role in keeping Candida at bay. Not only is it important to eat a diet rich in probiotic-rich fermented foods, it’s important to have a diet high in soluble fibre. This acts as food for our LAB bacteria which work hard to keep a healthy gut environment.
If you are on the oral contraceptive pill, require antibiotics or other pharmaceutical medication, or you have an immune-deficiency condition, supplementing with appropriate nutritional supplements and therapeutic grade probiotics can help keep the Candida at bay.
Contrary to popular belief, Candida is only a problem when their levels get out of control. However, once they are given the correct opportunity conditions, you can see how quickly things can get out of hand and how easily they create an environment which helps them thrive and continue to grow. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyle is creating the perfect breeding ground for opportunistic gut bugs which is why it is so important to consume fermented foods every day! After all, no one wants to live with bad housemates!