A question I get asked all the time, what is candida yeast infection? In this article I will cover everything you need to know about yeast infections.
What is candida?
Fungi (singular: Fungus) is a group of organisms that is widely present in our world. Fungi include molds (for example, bread mold), mushrooms and yeasts (for example, yeast used for baking). Like our own cells, and unlike the bacterial cells, the fungal cells have a nucleus that contains the genetic material – the DNA.
Yeasts are fungi that have only a single, egg-shaped cell which can be seen only through a microscope. They have a rigid cell wall. Yeast cells are larger than bacterial cell. In nature, yeasts are mainly found associated with plants or animals but are also present in soil and water.
Like the yeast that we use for baking (baker’s yeast), candida is also yeast. This fungus thus has an ability to grow in two forms – as single cells or as filaments. Normally existing as single cells, under certain conditions of temperatures or pH, candida can grow as filaments like the bread mold.
Candida is normally present on the skin, mouth, vagina, and gut of healthy people. It is a “commensal” which means that it benefits from living on/in our body without affecting us. It is also an “opportunistic pathogen” which means that when it gets an opportunity it can grow into a disease causing filamentous form, multiply in large numbers and cause disease.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are more than 20 types of candida that can cause infections in humans but most commonly are caused by Candida albicans. However, infections by non-albicans candida are now on an increase according to a review article from 2001 by the Canadian researcher G. Garber.
Candida Yeast Infections
When a yeast overgrows anywhere in the body, it results in a yeast infection. Normally it is both our immune system and our microbial flora (the microbes that live on or inside our body) that prevent yeasts from growing out of control. However, if we have any illness that impairs our immune system, we can become susceptible to candida infections.
People with AIDS can easily get candida infections as their immune system is already compromised due to AIDS. Cancer patients who receive chemotherapy or people on corticosteroid therapy also have chronically weakened immune systems which can make them prone to infection by this yeast.
Anything that causes an imbalance in our microbial flora can also give candida an opportunity to grow uncontrolled. Antibiotics usage is a major reason for causing imbalance in our natural microbial flora. Antibiotics either kill a certain type of bacteria or reduce the number of bacteria. As the microbial checkpoint is compromised by antibiotics, candida can grow and invade our tissues.
In a very interesting 2013 mouse model study, Pande, Chen and Nobel from USA found that in candida there is a very large change in the candida cell when it passes through the gut – genes are triggered that change the way it looks and functions to help it live like harmlessly in our gut. They say that “our results indicate that the ability of a commensal organism to produce disease is not merely a consequence of impaired host immunity”. This could also mean that certain changes in the gut can also make the organism change from commensal to disease causing type.
Although candida infections generally are thought of as women’s infections, nothing could be farther from the truth. Anyone, a woman, a man or a child with a compromised immune system or microbial imbalance can get it. Candida can cause oral (mouth, throat) and genital (vaginal, penis) infections. In cases of severe immune compromise, the infection can become invasive and affect blood, heart, brain, eyes, bones and other parts of the body. In hospitalized patients, candidaemia – a condition where candida gets into the blood stream – is common.
Although not studied in details in humans, candida can also grow in the gut and may cause gut-associated issues. However there is some scientific evidence emerging from studies in mice that is increasing the interest in research on gut-infection by candida in humans. Research on mice by Sonoyama and colleagues from Japan showed in 2005 that gut colonization by candida promotes food-sensitivity partly because of increased permeability of gut mucosa. Another study from 2011 by Sonoyama and group from Japan showed that colonization of gut by candida worsens inflammation in the gut, causes allergic diarrhoea, and also caused inflammation of other tissues in mice.
We will address different issues caused by candida yeast infection in separate posts that will give you more detailed information on each of these including signs and symptoms, risk factors and strategies to control and eradicate them.
Why are candida infections becoming so common?
The incidence of fungal infections is increasing at an alarming rate. There could be several reasons for this:
1) Increased usage of antibiotics which causes
- Imbalance of natural microflora by antibacterial antibiotics which allows candida to grow excessively and become chronic
- Increased resistance of candida to antifungal treatment
2) Antibiotic usage in animal farming which we consume unintentionally through poultry and meat. This also causes imbalance in our natural microflora
3) Unhealthy eating habits: Not eating a varied and balanced diet leads to general deficiency of vitamins and minerals. Such deficiencies do not allow our immune system to function optimally. In a 1997 review article on nutrition and immune system, R.K. Chandra from Canada describes how even mild deficiency of micronutrients like zinc, selenium, iron, copper, vitamins A, C, E and B6 and folic acid compromises our immune system. On the other hand, excess nutrition and obesity also reduce immunity. A reduction in immune function allows disease causing fungi apart from bad bacteria to grow and colonize our bodies. Also as described earlier, it is likely that our unhealthy eating habits by themselves provide the cues to candida to change from commensal into pathogenic form.
4) Deficiency of Vitamin D: A recent 2015 study by Lim and colleagues from Singapore and the Netherlands found that people with candidemia had vitamin D deficiency. In their studies on candida infected mice they found that when these mice were treated with low vitamin D doses, they had lower numbers of candida cells infecting their body. Mice treated in this way also survived better compared to untreated mice. On the other hand, too much vitamin D was also found to be bad for the mice.
More and more people are becoming deficient in vitamin D due to lower exposures to sunlight as more people have their jobs indoors and spend much less time outside in the sun. Lack of knowledge, about how sunscreens also prevent production of vitamin D, leads to people sunbathing for a long time and still end up becoming vitamin D deficient. It is important to know your skin type and give yourself optimum exposure to sun without putting yourself in danger of skin cancer.
Treat The Cause Not The Symptoms
Antifungal and anti-inflammatory agents that are generally prescribed for candida infections are likely to treat only the symptoms of candida. Once these are stopped, candida is likely to return with vengeance. To get rid of candida you need to be aware of what is actually causing candida to take root in your body as a pathogen. You need to listen to your body, pay attention to what causes or does not cause your infection to flare up. Elsewhere on this site you will find articles that will give you more detailed information on the things that you need to be aware of in relation to candida – tips on where to start looking, what steps to take and things to try out. Once you learn to listen to your body, it will guide you to take the right steps in the right direction in your fight against candida. The only other thing that you will need is a strong will to beat candida!