The Unexpected Truth About Candida and Gut Health - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC

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The Unexpected Truth About Candida and Gut Health

Is Candida Really a Villain to Be Feared, or Part of a Normal, Healthy Gut Microbiome?

Key Takeaways:

  • Candida albicans is a type of fungus that naturally occurs in the gut for most people. 
  • Candida can grow out of control due to antibiotic use, stress, gut dysbiosis, and hormone imbalances, among other causes.
  • Overgrowth of candida results in symptoms like brain fog, irritability, depression, and gut issues like bloating and gas.
  • It’s tempting to want to target candida aggressively using antimicrobial herbs or antifungal drugs, but recurring infections need a different approach. 
  • You can work with a functional medicine practitioner to find the root cause of candida overgrowth and address it naturally. 
  • Additional ways to reduce candida in the gut include eating an anti-inflammatory diet, taking probiotics, and reducing stress. 
  • We can choose to see candida as a natural, healthy part of the gut microbiome rather than a fearsome villain, reducing our stress and making it easier for the gut to reach homeostasis.

The word “candida” strikes fear into the hearts of many, conjuring visions of terrible yeast infections, intestinal issues, and brain fog. And yet, candida is an inherent part of the human gut microbiome. Most of the time, it’s there, minding its own business and not giving us any trouble. But when candida goes rogue, it’s often a sign that something deeper is amiss, usually with our gut health, hormonal balance, and immune system. Rather than a root cause, candida can be a canary in the coal mine, signaling that something else needs to be addressed to bring the body back into balance. 



Can candida and gut health coexist, and can we actually see this yeast as a beneficial part of our microbiome instead of a villain to be feared and destroyed?

In this article, we’ll discuss what candida is and its role in the gut, symptoms of candida overgrowth, whether you should always try to kill off candida, the root cause of candida overgrowth, and how to set yourself up for peaceful coexistence with candida. 

What is Candida and Why is it in Your Gut?

Candida, the common name for Candida albicans, is a type of fungus and a perfectly natural part of the human gut microbiome [1]. However, most people are familiar with candida as an irritating, itchy yeast infection that shows up in the mouth (oral thrush), skin, or genitals. You’ll often see a yeast infection appear after a round of antibiotics, as beneficial and harmful microorganisms alike are killed off in the gut, allowing candida species to grow and overpopulate the gut unchecked [2]. (This is why it’s important to take probiotics along with a round of antibiotics!)

Candida yeast infections (candidiasis) can also result from hormonal changes, including pregnancy, consuming a lot of sugar and/or alcohol in your diet, and taking certain medications like steroids or oral contraceptives. In general, women seem to be more prone to them than men [1]. 

But if candida can so easily get out of control and wreak havoc on our systems, why do we have candida in our guts in the first place? We’re still learning exactly how and why candida lives in the human gut microbiota (along with other types of fungi), but for now, we can say that it does play a role in our health and well-being and maintaining homeostasis (balance) in the intestinal tract [3, 4]. 

For example, research shows that C. albicans has coevolved with humans, and It’s possible that C. albicans can protect against lethal C. difficile infection (more commonly known as C. diff). This is one potential reason candida exists in our gut microbiome [5]. 

That’s why I want to challenge the perspective that candida is inherently bad. It can certainly cause problems when it grows out of control, but that’s more about what kind of environment your digestive system is in than the candida itself. 

Symptoms of Candida Overgrowth

Typical signs that candida has turned from a harmless or even beneficial microbe to a virulent fungal infection include [1, 6]: 

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Skin rash
  • Itching/burning
  • Vaginal yeast infection
  • Leaky gut
  • Joint pain
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Brain fog

While these are common symptoms of candida, they can also indicate other pathogens in the gastrointestinal tract and autoimmune conditions like ulcerative colitis. Having a discussion with a functional healthcare provider can help you figure out the root cause of your symptoms and where to start with treatment. 

Should You Always Try to Kill Candida in Your Gut?

When faced with a yeast infection or growth of candida in the gut, most people’s first instinct is to kill, kill, kill. In the case of an acute infection, this is totally understandable, and this is where tools like probiotics and antimicrobial herbs can be very helpful. For some people, prescription antifungal drugs may be necessary as well. 

However, many people experience candida infection as a recurring issue brought on by eating patterns, hormonal shifts, or even stress. In these cases, a “kill first, ask questions later” approach isn’t going to resolve the issue permanently. 

We have to ask ourselves why the candida infection keeps returning. Is there another underlying gut infection, such as a parasite or bacterial infection, that could be instigating candida? Are there hormone imbalances, such as estrogen dominance, that could be contributing to yeast overgrowth? Is a high-sugar or high-carbohydrate diet causing blood sugar imbalances that fuel candida to grow out of control?

When we can address these deeper issues and return homeostasis to the body, candida will naturally stay in its own lane. 

Addressing the Root Cause of Candida Overgrowth

Finding the root cause of candida overgrowth can be challenging to do on your own, and having the outside perspective of an experienced clinician can be really helpful. If you’re interested, we’d be happy to help you figure out what’s going on at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Health. But in the meantime, let’s review some popular root causes of candida overgrowth and what you can do about them. 

Probiotics for Candida

One reason candida might get out of control is a lack of beneficial gut bacteria in your digestive tract. Most people are susceptible to this issue just from the consequences of modern life, including pesticide exposure, stress, lower food quality, etc. This is where a multi-species probiotic can be helpful to begin to restore good bacteria to the gut [7, 8, 9, 10]. 

At the Ruscio Institute, we’ve pioneered a probiotic “stack” we call Probiotic Triple Therapy. It combines the three types of probiotics — a Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria blend, a soil-based probiotic, and a beneficial yeast called Saccharomyces boulardii. This combination has proven to be highly effective even for those who haven’t had success with probiotics in the past. 

But if you’re brand new to probiotics, you could start with a lacto-bifido blend probiotic on its own and see if you notice any change in your symptoms. 

Antifungal Supplements for Candida

Probiotics are antifungal themselves, but sometimes additional antimicrobial herbs pack that extra punch to reduce candida and potentially work on any other underlying gut dysbiosis that could be causing candidiasis [11, 12, 13, 14]. 

A few antimicrobial herbs I like to use include: 

  • Oregano
  • Berberine
  • Artemisia (sweet wormwood)
  • Black walnut
  • Uva ursi
  • Barberry root
  • Caprylic acid
  • Olive leaf

These are just a few examples of antimicrobial herbs that can help treat a variety of pesky gut bugs. We created a series of powerful yet gentle antimicrobial blends called Biota Clear that we use in our clinic to great effect. In most cases, I recommend adding antimicrobials after you’ve adapted to an anti-inflammatory diet and added probiotics to heal your gut. Often, these foundational changes will clear up symptoms, but sometimes antimicrobial intervention is necessary.  

Stress

A stressful lifestyle can definitely contribute to an overgrowth of candida in the gut or dysbiosis in general [15, 16, 17]. It’s a root cause that often goes overlooked, but it’s important to address and reduce your stress where you can. This might look like practices like meditation or yoga, or spending more time in nature. 

Exercise, even something as simple as a daily walk, is also a potent stress reliever. Plus, you’re getting all the circulatory and metabolic benefits of exercise to boot. Feeding two birds with one scone, as they say!

Adaptogenic herbs can also help even out your body’s stress response and take some pressure off your adrenals and nervous system [18, 19, 20]. 

Candida Diet

I’m a big proponent of diets that aren’t restrictive as much as tailored to your personal health goals. To reduce the overgrowth of candida, that may mean reducing processed sugar and carbs if those things are currently a big part of your diet, but it doesn’t have to mean eliminating certain foods categorically forever. For example, when you’re healthy and feeling good, I want you to have cake on your birthday! But cake every day is probably not a great idea.

Some people will find that a strategy like the low FODMAP diet will temporarily help with their symptoms, but the goal is always to reintroduce nutrient-rich foods when your gut health is in a better place to accept them. The Paleo diet also makes a lot of sense for anyone trying to improve their gut health and reduce candida. 

Don’t Make Candida Your Enemy if You Don’t Have To 

What if your goal wasn’t just to kill candida, but instead, it was to make your gut a place where candida and the rest of your microbiome can coexist peacefully? I find that this perspective and approach to creating a healthy gut environment makes for a less stressful, more nuanced experience in healing your gut. You might even find healing strategies you wouldn’t have considered before.

If you’re curious to know my full process for healing your gut, you can check out my book Healthy Gut, Healthy You.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

➕ References
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