Could Yeast Be Disturbing Your Digestion?

 by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP

  • What is a systemic yeast infection (candidiasis)?
  • How digestive yeast infections affect your gut
  • Healing systemic yeast through a yeast-free diet

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, chemical sensitivities.

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 dandruff.

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 therapy
  • 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 accordingly.

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 overboard.