In this first post of a two part series I discuss factors that result in pathogenic yeast overgrowth and how this causes leaky gut. In a companion post, I detail how the Paleo diet and lifestyle can keep pathogenic yeast in check.
What is Candidiasis?
Candidiasis is a fungal infection by the Candida albicans (C. albicans) yeast. C. albicans can be found on skin and is part of the normal flora of mucus membranes. Under certain conditions C. albicans can change its shape and become virulently pathogenic where it multiplies, colonizes and can invade tissues anywhere on or in your body. Yeast infections cause discomfort (75% of women know what I mean!) and in certain cases, life threatening illness (more on that in a bit.) Other strains of yeast are not so dangerous. Saccharomyces cerevisiae (S. cerevisiae) yeast in bakers, brewers and nutritional yeast products differs from C. albicans in that it does not have the ability to become pathogenic and has a neutral effect on the body. Other yeasts are beneficial such as Saccharomyces boulardii, (S. boulardii) which acts as a probiotic and can be taken in supplement form to help treat yeast infections.
Localized, superficial candidiasis thrives in warm, moist areas on the skin and mucosal surfaces such as the mouth (thrush), esophagus (esophagitis), eyes (conjunctivitis), armpits, areas of skin fold, nails, toes (athletes foot), male genitalia (jock itch) and the vagina (vaginal candidiasis). Candidiasis can be difficult to overcome due to its tenacious nature and high rate of recurrence. For instance, among women treated for vaginal yeast infections, more than 30% will have a recurrence of symptoms at 3 months and more than 50% will have recurrence at 12 months. Up to 8% of women will have 4 or more episodes per year.
Candidiasis and Your GI Tract
Localized infections can be treated with anti-fungal medication of one type or another however they may indicate the presence of a GI tract infection. C. albicans is a normal resident of human intestinal flora and in healthy hosts, minds its own business and doesn’t cause trouble. With the help of a properly working immune system, C. albicans hangs around on muscus membranes in a neutral state surrounded by healthy yeasts and bacteria that keep it in check and maintain a balance of power favorable to the host. However, C. albicans is always ready for action. It will morph, multiply and entrench itself in cell membranes in just hours if given the environmental opportunity. Symptoms of GI candida infection include those common to IBS (indeed, candida overgrowth can be the cause of IBS!) such as bloating, painful abdominal distention, flatulence, constipation and diarrhea. As you can see from the list below, both the excesses and deficiencies of modern living create conditions favorable to candida infection.
Conditions That Tip Microbial Balance In Favor of Candidiasis
- Broad-spectrum antibiotic use
- Weakened or undeveloped immune system
- High carb diets
- Nutrient poor diets
- Warm moist environments from tight clothing, sweat soaked workout clothes, or skinfolds resulting from obesity
- Food intolerances
- Heavy metal poisoning
- Oral contraceptives
- Natural hormonal changes: pregnancy, puberty, menopause
Candidiasis and Leaky Gut
When candida morphs from its neutral rounded form to a more virulent elongated form it grows long, tentacle-like branches called hyphae. In the gastrointestinal tract, hyphae poke holes in the thin layer of epithelial cells lining the gut, which creates inflammation and small openings, or leaks, in the tight junctions between the cells. These leaks allow all types of particles including candida to escape into the bloodstream where it has the potential to activate the immune system and have systemic effects.
Although immune system activation by candida is not controversial (its a known antigen for atopic dermatitis) the vast body of anecdotal accounts of yeast hypersensitivity syndrome have not been validated by research. Characterized by seemingly unrelated symptoms such as allergies, non-specific body pains, joint pains, poor memory, brain fog, anxiety, depression, and persistent widespread symptoms affecting mucus membranes, yeast hypersensitivity syndrome is not recognized as a valid diagnosis outside of alternative medicine. In conventional medicine, systemic candidiasis is diagnosed in AIDS patients and others whose immune systems are severely depressed as a product of disease or treatment. In these cases, systemic candidiasis becomes critical when it creates sepsis (whole body inflammation) or when it invades the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys or any other organ(s).
Whether yeast is the cause of a hypersensitivity syndrome or not, the Paleo diet and lifestyle can help you get your health back if you suffer from candida overgrowth with accompanying leaky gut, symptoms of IBS, repeated infections, and non-specific, diffuse symptoms. Find out how Paleo can keep candida in check, in part 2 of this series.