Digestion & GI health
Could yeast be disturbing your digestion?
Pam first came to see me after experiencing eight long years of miserable digestive
symptoms. From diarrhea, bloating, and gas to fatigue and insomnia, she was more
than eager to find some answers. She’d seen a succession of doctors, including
a gastroenterologist who had diagnosed her with
irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), given her medication, and recommended Metamucil.
Like so many women with similar digestive complaints, Pam had tried this regimen,
to little effect.
As Pam told me her story, tears sprung to her eyes. She felt that no one had taken
her seriously before. The unfortunate truth is that many well-intentioned conventional
practitioners have not been taught how to get to the root of digestive imbalances,
particularly when it comes to yeast overgrowth in the gut. After my comprehensive
work-up, Pam’s stool analysis
confirmed the presence of parasites,
systemic yeast infection, and imbalanced bacterial flora — so I reassured
her that her symptoms all made perfect sense.
The best news is that Pam was able to clear her systemic yeast in a matter of months,
and is now enjoying a wide variety of foods with no symptoms at all. Let’s
take a closer look at how yeast overgrowth can disrupt your digestion, and how to
rebalance your gut terrain to keep yeast in check — and associated symptoms
to a minimum.
Common symptoms associated with systemic yeast
While many of these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than candidiasis,
a woman suffering from a yeast syndrome will often experience body-wide symptoms
in association with this condition. Because of the widespread nature of these symptoms,
candidiasis is often referred to as systemic yeast.
Generalized: Fatigue, lethargy, migraine headaches, weakness,
dizziness, sensory disturbances, hypoglycemia, muscle pain, respiratory problems,
Gastrointestinal: Oral thrush, diarrhea, constipation,
rectal itching, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD),
flatulence, food sensitivities.
Genitourinary: Yeast vaginitis, menstrual irregularities,
PMS, bladder inflammation, chronic urinary tract infections (UTI’s), cystitis.
Dermatological: Eczema, acne, hives. People with yeast
overgrowth can also be prone to fungal nail infections, as well as skin infections
such as athelete’s foot, Tinea rash, ringworm, “jock itch” and
Psychological and emotional: Confusion, irritability,
memory loss, inability to concentrate, depression, insomnia, learning disability,
short attention span.
What is a systemic yeast infection (candidiasis)?
Women often equate yeast infections with
vaginal yeast, rarely connecting yeast with what’s going on in their
gut. Candida albicans is a fungal organism that is present in virtually
everyone’s intestinal tract in small amounts. In a healthy gut, it is kept
under control by normal immune system activity and beneficial microbes such as intestinal
lactobacilli, bifidobacteria, and others, including competitive yeasts. An intestinal
environment that supports optimal balance between these myriad populations can easily
be upset by such factors as:
- A diet high in refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats
- Inadequate dietary fiber
- Impaired immune function (typically due to stress or illness)
- Use of medication such as antibiotics, steroids, birth control or other hormonal
- Environmental or food sensitivities
Like any opportunist, Candida albicans will take advantage when conditions
permit. Once that balance is upset, this organism is more likely to change form
and proliferate, invading and colonizing our body tissues. Although it may first
come to our attention in the form of a vaginal yeast infection or as oral thrush,
Candida albicans can spread and become a serious problem — causing
diverse symptoms not just in the reproductive or
digestive systems but in multiple other systems in the body (see box).
Yeast sensitivity, sugar cravings, and your digestion
When Candida proliferates, it changes form, morphing from a simple, relatively
harmless one into one that is capable of penetrating the intestinal lining. This
elicits low-grade inflammation in the gut and causes breakdown of the boundary between
the intestinal tract and the circulatory system. Known as
leaky gut, increased intestinal permeability allows incompletely digested
food particles and yeast cells to pass through and enter the blood stream. The immune
system soon identifies these large particles as foreign, and ramps itself up to
deal with them.
In part, food sensitivities and allergies are thought to develop as a result of
this process — the invaders that make it across the gut into the blood get
labeled as dangerous, and the immune system remembers them the next time it encounters
them, and reacts accordingly. People with candidiasis may need to avoid foods containing
other yeasts and fungi from their diets because of this cross-sensitivity —
the molecular subcomponents they contain are similar or identical to those found
in Candida, so the immune system cannot distinguish between them and responds
Uncomfortable digestive symptoms like bloating, gas, and bubbling in the gut arise
because an overgrowth of yeast leads to the fermentation of foods instead
of the digestion of foods. Along with these unpleasant symptoms, yeasts ferment
sugars into alcohol, which destabilizes blood sugar and leads to intense
cravings for more sugar. I find it fascinating that these tiny organisms
can get us to do exactly what they want us to do — eat more carbs and sugar!
Many of my patients with yeast issues fear that they will never again be able to
eat sweets, carbohydrates, or anything containing yeast, but such stringent measures
are usually only needed for a time. Most women find that once they remove the conditions
that favor yeast overgrowth, they can once again enjoy these foods without going
Minimize yeast — an at-home approach
It’s empowering to know that yeast is only thriving in your gut because of
the current environment and that when you change the environment, you can make a
yeast infection go away. To change the environment in your gut, I encourage you
to use a combination approach, including dietary changes, supplements, and lifestyle
changes that provide a natural remedy for candidiasis.
When beginning dietary and other changes to reduce yeast, you may notice that your
symptoms suddenly worsen. This toxic feeling, which generally lasts about 7–10 days,
may be caused by the Herxheimer or “die-off” reaction. Symptoms
may also return if you eat something unknowingly that rejuvenates yeast. If you
feel symptoms of bloating, gas, or stomach upset for whatever reason, you can lessen
your discomfort by taking activated charcoal tablets with the onset of symptoms.
Be sure to drink ample amounts of water, and, as your digestive system allows, include
plenty of dietary fiber.
You may want to add a natural soluble fiber supplement to your daily regime, such
as a psyllium husk powder. Simply stir a tablespoon or so into a glass of soy, nut
or cow’s milk, or blend it into a smoothie. (I recommend avoiding Metamucil
as it contains artificial ingredients and is far more costly than natural psyllium
husks.) This amount of fiber can be difficult for some who are just beginning to
heal their digestive distress, but is something to work up to as you feel better.
Here’s what I recommend to minimize systemic yeast:
Should your symptoms of candidiasis persist after changing your diet and adding
a multivitamin, omega-3’s, and probiotics, you may want to consider more intensive
Talk to a qualified naturopath or functional medicine practitioner about trying
the following natural antifungals to help limit yeast overgrowth:
- Oil of oregano
- Citrus seed extract (e.g., ParaMicrocidin)
- Pau d’arco
- Isatis tinctoria (indigowoad root)
- Undecylenic acid
- Caprylic acid
- Follow a healthy yeast-free diet. Maintain a diet high
in whole foods, particularly with plenty of colorful, fiber-rich vegetables, regular
moderate amounts of protein, moderate healthy fats, and virtually no simple sugars.
Ideally the diet needs to be free of artificial coloring, flavoring, or fillers,
as well as sweeteners. Those with Candida need to go on a yeast-free diet until
they complete the initial healing phase. See our guidelines for a yeast-free diet.
- Replenish essential nutrients. Many women who have struggled
with yeast over the long-term also have nutritional deficiencies as a result of
poor nutrient digestion and absorption. To help compensate for this, take a high-quality
multivitamin/mineral complex daily. If you have yeast, you will do best with one
that is formulated to be highly bioavailable and easily digested, like the one we
offer in our Personal Program. Also be sure you’re getting vitamin C, vitamin
B12, vitamin D, and omega-3’s.
- Add a probiotic. Repopulate your gut with friendly microbes
that displace Candida and help to digest your food, rather than ferment it. For
more details, see our article on probiotics, which includes guidelines on
how to choose a good probiotic supplement.
- Explore natural and prescription antifungals. There are
numerous natural antifungals found in the natural
world (see box). When necessary, effective but strong prescription medications can
also be called upon. I sometimes prescribe Diflucan and alternate it with Nystatin
if symptoms persist.
- Consider a stool analysis. Yeast syndrome is still poorly
understood, and it can be misdiagnosed in both conventional and alternative circles.
So please be sure to talk with your practitioner about all your options, and ask
for a Comprehensive Digestive Stool Analysis first, to confirm the presence of yeast.
You are unique — and so is your relationship with yeast
It’s important to remember that we are all unique and our symptoms, reactions,
and healing times are, too. This is particularly true with yeast issues, and for
this reason the layered approach I’ve described works very well. Some women
notice wonderful changes by simply changing their diets, others succeed with natural
antifungal, and still others will require prescription medication. In a recent article
on yeast, functional medicine practitioner Dr. Mark Hyman wrote:
In medical school, we are taught that you either have a disease or you don’t.
It’s black and white. However, our bodies weren’t designed with an “on”
or “off” switch for disease. All diseases occur in shades of gray along
a continuum of imbalance...
This is such an important lesson for all of us. There’s a spectrum to all
wellness and disease. Find the place where you feel best, and remember how you got
there. You don’t have to completely eliminate your body of yeast. You just
have to contain it so that you feel well. With some time and deliberate modifications,
you will be feeling better than ever!
Related to this article:
References & further reading on systemic yeast/candidiasis
Last Modified Date: 05/09/2011
Principal Author: Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP