So you’ve got yourself a problem with yeast. Perhaps you were diagnosed with oral thrush or a vaginal yeast infection—conditions that are typically cleared up with anti-fungal medications from the pharmacy. But the drug store isn’t the only place to find potential solutions to yeast-related health issues. Some people have started looking at natural remedies from the grocery store to address this common problem. Enter the candida diet—an eating plan specifically designed to rebalance your digestive bacteria after a candida overgrowth. Candida overgrowth is often believed to be the result of an imbalance in gut flora, so it makes sense that dietary changes could help ease the problem. But does the candida diet actually work? According to Kendra Becker, a naturopathic doctor and author of A Delicious Way to Heal the Gut, the candida diet can be an effective treatment for a yeast overgrowth in the body. She says that cutting out the foods that feed the bacteria can kill off candida overgrowth and alleviate a range of conditions that some people associate with candida, including urinary tract infections, joint pain, and skin infections. As Becker explains, the candida diet is “also sometimes prescribed after chemotherapy,” because chemo can cause susceptibility to fungal infections or even systemic candidiasis. A number of people also credit the candida diet with helping ease an array of other issues, including brain fog and chronic fatigue. But there’s limited research about whether those particular symptoms are actually related to yeast overgrowth, making the candida diet a controversial treatment option for a controversial diagnosis. Eating your way to better gut health sounds great, but it’s important to look at the research before using any diet to heal specific symptoms. To learn more, we asked Becker why she prescribes the candida diet to patients, how the eating plan works, and whether it’s safe to cut out major food groups for the long term.
What’s the deal with candida?
Our bodies have a variety of bacteria and fungi that help keep us healthy. One such fungus is Candida albicans, which is normally found in the digestive tract and other areas of the body, such as on the skin and mucous membranes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While candida yeast doesn’t typically harm us, an overgrowth of the organisms can cause infections in parts of our bodies, most typically in the mouth and vagina. The most severe infection, known as invasive candidiasis, can affect the blood, heart, and other critical body parts. Although it could land you in the hospital, invasive candidiasis is a pretty rare condition. Some medical professionals also attribute candida overgrowth to tiredness, fatigue, mood swings, and other neurological issues. Science has yet to demonstrate whether there is a connection, although one study from 1995 found a possible link between chronic intestinal candidiasis and a weakened immune system, which in turn is a potential reason for fatigue. On the flip side, another study found no relation between chronic fatigue syndrome and yeast overgrowth. One thing is clear: There is considerable debate about whether a diagnosis of candida overgrowth is based on solid science. We’ll need to wait for researchers to conduct more studies on the effects of candida overgrowth before the medical community can come to an agreement on the controversial side of candidiasis.
What causes candida overgrowth?
When your candida levels are in check, your body is probably functioning normally and you’d never even know the yeast was there. So what causes candida levels to go out of whack? “A number of things can cause candida overgrowth. The person might have taken a lot of antibiotics or pharmaceuticals … [or be] eating too much sugar or drinking too much alcohol,” says Becker. Some healthcare practitioners will test for a candida overgrowth by looking at the levels of specific antibodies in your blood, using a comprehensive stool test, or checking for candida waste in your urine. If you suspect that you have a candida infection, make an appointment with your physician, who can help you decide whether a candida diet can treat your condition.
Trying the Candida Diet
So you think you might have a candida overgrowth and want to eat your way out of it. What’s on your plate if you decide to try the candida diet? Fundamentally, the candida diet is rooted in three main eating principles: reduction of sugar (to cut off the food supply to candida), introduction of probiotics (which fill the gut with good bacteria), and consumption of fermented foods (which have anti-fungal properties that can kill candida). The Candida Diet website, which is run by Lisa Richards, co-author of The Ultimate Candida Diet Program, explains that the eating plan can be divided into three phases. The first step is an optional “cleansing phase,” during which followers eat a very strict diet of mostly raw salads, steamed vegetables, and some herbs, oils, and spices, along with lots of water and what the website calls “some detox drinks.” Some people start at phase two, which is less restrictive than the cleanse. You stop eating foods with added sugar, many fruits and starchy veggies, and caffeine, as these can cause the candida to continue to grow. Grains (like buckwheat and quinoa), fresh salmon, healthy oils (like olive and coconut), some artificial sweeteners, and herbal tea are permitted during this phase. You’re encouraged to eat anti-fungal foods, like onion, garlic, cayenne pepper, and seaweed. This stage of the candida diet also recommends eating probiotics like yogurt and kefir. What’s not allowed on the candida diet? There’s a long list of foods you should avoid. You’ll need to stay away from high-sugar fruits (like bananas and mango), glutinous grains (like wheat), “toxic meats and fish” (such as pork and tuna), most condiments, alcohol, and a range of other foods you probably have in your pantry right now. The idea is to switch to a diet that promotes good gut health and creates an environment that kills off bad bacteria. After your candida levels are in check, you’ll move on to stage three, which involves reintroducing previously eliminated foods. You’ll start with low-sugar fruits, like berries, and some beans. If your candida symptoms are still under control, you’ll slowly start eating a wider variety of foods. Generally, you’re encouraged to maintain a relatively low-sugar diet with limited junk foods going forward. [pullquote align=”center”]“If you do the candida diet for a couple of weeks and then go back to eating a bunch of junk, you’ll get a lot of inflammation.” —Kendra Becker, ND[/pullquote] “If you do the candida diet for a couple of weeks and then go back to eating a bunch of junk, you’ll get a lot of inflammation,” says Becker. How long each stage lasts—or whether you move through stages at all—really depends on your specific health profile and your healthcare provider’s recommendations. Keep in mind that the candida diet is a short-term change—not a lifelong eating plan. Becker prescribes it for it anywhere from two weeks to nine months, depending on her patients’ health goals. “If someone’s really sick or resistant to the diet, you can offer it in stages,” explains Becker. “Most people will start feeling much better after following the diet for three to five days, but you generally need to do it longer than that if you want to feel better for the long term.” The diet plan can be a pretty big change from what you’re eating now. As you make the transition, you might feel lousy, kind of like you have the flu. Between the physical effects and the severe restrictions, the candida diet might not be right for everyone. “The candida diet is very limiting. You won’t be able to easily eat in restaurants, so it gets difficult for people who are social around food. If you work a high-stress job or can’t eat in regular intervals, it can also be a challenge. Also, not everybody has the flexibility to feel like crap for a few days. You might not be able to work or care for children, and that can be a hard pill to swallow,” says Becker. If a patient’s lifestyle prevents them from following the traditional candida diet, Becker makes modifications. Even just adding anti-candida foods to whatever you’re eating now can help reduce a candida overgrowth, she says. “You have to meet patients where they’re at,” she says. “It can be a useful diet, but it’s incredibly restrictive.”
Giving Candida the One–Two Punch
The candida diet is just one potential way to address yeast issues. Depending on how a yeast infection is affecting your health, your doctor may also prescribe antifungal ointments, topical antiseptics, and dietary supplements to kill off unwanted candida. In conjunction, your healthcare provider may also recommend trying an anti-itch cream, throat lozenge, or other remedies to relieve candida-related symptoms. [pullquote align=”center”]“I tend to believe that food is medicine, so I’d rather heal patients through diet and give opportunities to add certain foods to their diet than to focus on supplements.” —Kendra Becker, ND[/pullquote] “I tend to believe that food is medicine, so I’d rather heal patients through diet and give opportunities to add certain foods to their diet than to focus on supplements,” says Becker. Before trying any diet or treatment plan, it’s worth working with a qualified health professional to make sure it’s right for you. Start by making an appointment with your doctor to discuss your concerns and your health goals. Whenever you’re cutting out major food groups, you should also consider consulting with a registered dietitian to ensure that you’re still getting all the essential vitamins and nutrients.