Natural Medicine Myth #3: Systemic Candida

This is a continuation of my series (in no particular order) on misperceptions in the field of natural medicine.  My previous articles focused on policosanol and cinnamon.

In the 1980s, a medical doctor by the name of William Crook published a book called The Yeast Connection.  The gist of it is that many symptoms of fatigue, joint pain, depression, etc., are the result of by-products of yeast overgrowth in the body.  Eating a diet that starves the yeast (eliminating sugar and refined grains) can therefore resolve these symptoms.  Sometimes anti-yeast medications may be required also.

Is yeast real?  Of course — Candida albicans, the main yeast species that Dr. Crook refers to, is part of the normal flora of our intestinal tract in small amounts.  When there is an overgrowth of candida, it can cause gastrointestinal (GI) bloating, indigestion, and constipation or diarrhea.  Overgrowth in the genital tract cause those annoying vaginal yeast infections; candida from the GI tract can serve as a reservoir for recurring infection.  And indeed, waste products produced by candida in the GI tract can be absorbed and cause more widespread symptoms in the body.

So why am I calling this a myth?  The problem is with misperceptions surrounding candida:

  1. You can diagnose candida overgrowth from a symptom questionnaire.  There are many, many problems in the body that can lead to fatigue, joint pain, etc.  Doing a stool test to check for yeast, or a urinary organic acid test to check for yeast by-products, are the only ways to know for sure that intestinal candida is the culprit.  In that case, specific anti-yeast therapies (pharmaceutical or natural) may be needed.  However, doing a “cleanse” for candida or parasites without evidence is most likely a waste of effort.
  2. “Whole-body candida.”  Some folks get the impression that candida is growing throughout the bloodstream or other parts of the body, besides the GI or genital tracts.  This only occurs in severely immunocompromised conditions, such as AIDS.  The by-products from yeast might be high in the bloodstream, but not the organisms themselves.
  3. You need to avoid all yeast and mushrooms on an anti-candida diet.  Candida is part of the fungus kingdom — a completely separate branch of life from plants, animals, and bacteria.  However, it is only one species.  Baker’s yeast is a completely different species (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), and mushrooms are of many other different species.  Avoidance of everything in the fungus kingdom is akin to saying that because you are allergic to cats, you need to avoid elephants, trout, ladybugs, bald eagles, and everything else in the animal kingdom.  One particular yeast — Saccharomyces boulardii — is even considered a powerful probiotic (beneficial organism) that helps boost our immune response (1,2). 
  4. You need to kill all candida in the body in order to be cured.  This is a well-nigh impossible task.  All of us have some candida in the GI tract, along with hundreds of other species of microorganisms.  Our normal flora is more like a complex rainforest ecosystem, rather than the one or two species present in a probiotic supplement.  The key is in the balance, and making sure that there isn’t overgrowth of candida.
Now you might be thinking, “OK then, Mr. Smartypants, then why do I feel so much better on the anti-candida diet?”  Look at the foundation of it again:  eliminating sugar and refined grains (white flour).  Now compare that to any of a number of other diets (Atkins, South Beach, Paleo, blood type diet, etc.).  What do they all start with?  Eliminate sugar and refined grains.  Each then goes on to an elaborate set of specific rules, and reasoning behind it.  But maybe it all boils down once again to the fact that this approach cuts out most of the junk food in the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.), and replaces it with nutrient-dense whole foods.  Of course you’re going to feel better!  This approach gives your body the bioavailable vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients it needs.  It also eliminates the blood sugar and insulin roller coaster brought about by these refined, high glycemic index foods.  
Before jumping on an extreme diet, take a look at whether or not you’re even getting the recommended five to nine servings of fruits and veggies per day.  It’s always easier to add things into our diet first, than to take things out.

1.  Systematic review and meta-analysis of Saccharomyces boulardii in adult patients.   2010 May 14;16(18):2202-22.
2.  Interaction of Saccharomyces boulardii with intestinal brush border membranes: key to probiotic effects?   2010 Oct;51(4):532-3.

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