Warning: This post may be an overshare, and it’s not about vegetables. In fact, I hesitated to even write it. However, as I mentioned in my last post, I’m hoping the information it contains might help you. Maybe you can help me too, by sharing your knowledge and experience in the comments!
- Part 1, this post, describes my very itchy story, from Cipro to gremlins.
- Part 2 dives into the science behind Candida diets—and how dinner can contribute to itchy situations.
- Part 3 talks about what to eat as a vegan with yeast infections or other signs of Candida overgrowth.
Gentlemen, given your plumbing, you might want to skip on over to part 2…
Itching for relief: my story
Have you ever been incredibly itchy in a very personal place? (Like, really personal?)
Thanks to Candida albicans, a yeast prone to overgrowing in said personal place, I certainly have. And if you’ve ever experienced a yeast infection, you know the crazy-making itch I’m talking about. I’ve also wrestled with other fun symptoms like burning, irritation, and having to tinkle all the time but not having a UTI. (I believe tinkle is the technical term.)
In fact, from merely annoying discomfort to crawl-the-walls itching, I’ve been suffering from on-and-off yeast infections since taking Cipro 4 years ago. (Cipro is a “broad-spectrum” antibiotic that’s notorious for wiping out good microbes, allowing baddies to flourish.)
And flourish they did! My first yeast infection after Cipro was awful, and woefully under-treated with a single dose of Diflucan, an antifungal medication.
Unsurprisingly, the yeast came roaring back within the week. So I got a little more Diflucan. The symptoms improved, but came back the next month. More Diflucan. And then again. More Diflucan. (You get the picture.) Occasionally I’d get a break, sometimes a long one. Once I even got a reprieve for almost a year after a (pricey!) specialist prescribed a 3-month round of antifungals, during and after which I took meticulous care of my health and removed all processed food from my diet. I decided I was cured and didn’t go back for a follow-up visit, since he cost so much money.
Because eventually, the symptoms came back. For some 2 years I got Diflucan from my gynecologist as needed, which was every month or two. It helped, but never cured, my problem. At times I nixed added sugar, but often the symptoms hit when I was stressed—and least able to say no to comfort food (go figure).
Then this winter, I had two rounds of strep throat. For the first time since Cipro, I had to take antibiotics—and for 4+ weeks! Despite a taking probiotic at the same time, within a month, I was not in my happy place. Again. And Diflucan was helping, but not as much as it once had.
Where’s the yeast?
Surprisingly, over those 2 years, my samples always came back negative for candida when cultured. I itched like I had a yeast infection, I was red and irritated like with yeast, but the yeast never showed up at the lab. What was going on? A few weeks ago, when my symptoms came back with a vengeance, something inside me snapped.
I wanted off the roller coaster of itch. Now, or sooner. I had to get to the bottom of things.
So I made appointments with two gynecological specialists, both breathtakingly expensive. I was desperate.
Specialist #1: Yeast? No way.
The first explained to me that I didn’t have a UTI, and I in no way had yeast. After all, I’d tested negative for yeast at my gynecologist’s office a month or so prior. No, she said, I had vulvodynia and interstitial cystitis (IC), but not yeast. Despite the fact that Diflucan helped, I was open to the idea that I could have something else going on.
Okay, I replied, but what was causing the vulvodynia? And the IC? For instance, vulvodynia is just vulvar pain, and pain wasn’t my main issue—I itched. And IC was well and good as a diagnosis, but what causes it?
Translation: How do I fix these problems? For good?
Despite my questioning, she never gave a clear answer on possible causes. Instead, she recommended some pills, including Claritin and hydroxyzine, both of which are used to treat allergies. But what did she think I was allergic to? Again, there was no direct answer; she just said she wanted to “stabilize my mast cells,” which are the guys who make histamine. She also referred me for pelvic floor physical therapy (it’s a thing, who knew?). Apparently, I was holding a lot of tension in my pelvic muscles.
(Can’t imagine why.)
I didn’t take some of her many pills, but I did take the Claritin and hydroxyzine (along with a bladder supplement). To her credit, my itching decreased by about 50% within hours of my first dose, and I didn’t have to use the loo quite so much. Less itch and less desire to use the restroom every 10 minutes was was good, but I wanted better. I wanted those symptoms G-O-N-E.
Kaput. Finished, forever.
Specialist #2: Funny, I see your yeast right here…
So last week, I was off to specialist #2, the same one who had previously prescribed me long-term antifungals. He mucked around down there too, which you know is about as fun as having a cavity drilled. Then we had a consult. He also prescribed pelvic floor physical therapy, and handed me scripts, including two antifungals: Diflucan and nystatin.
But my yeast culture came back negative, I said. (I’d given his office my records.)
Well, we saw yeast here, he said.
Saw it here?
Apparently he’d done something so ridiculously simple that I’m a little peeved no one else had done it. He took a sample, made a slide, and looked at it under a microscope.
Lo and behold, he saw Candida albicans yeast.
Gizmos vs. Gremlins
What’s more, the doctor didn’t just see candida in its friendly form, which lives harmlessly in most women’s intestines and genitals. He saw the form associated with infections.
You see, like gremlins, candida yeast normally hang out as harmless single-celled microbes. (Not as cute as Gizmo, but work with me here.)
However, like a gremlin fed after midnight, under the wrong conditions—for instance, when antibiotics wipe out friendly flora—Candida albicans goes rogue.
They exude harmful chemicals, like alcohol and acetaldehyde. They can multiply and form tubular “roots” (hyphae) that drill into tissue, leaving destruction in their wake.
They can also burrow without forming roots. Candida can then live comfortably in your tissue (inside your own cells!), where they can hang out for long periods—for instance, while you’re on antifungals for an active infection. Then as soon as the conditions are right again—boom! They multiply.1,2
What’s more, if latent yeast are burrowed down in your tissue “hibernating,” they may not show up in culture.¹ (Or the right area’s not being swabbed.) Yet they can still cause redness and discomfort, because they’re secreting enough yeast antigens (warning flags for the immune system) to trigger an immune response.¹
Thus both active and maybe even latent infection could provoke allergies, likely for me since I’d tested positive for a mold allergy as a kid—and Claritin helped my current symptoms.
Okay, now I knew that:
- I had Candida albicans (interestingly, the only human-dwelling yeast species that forms “roots”). Thank you, microscope.
- I could well be allergic to it (since Claritin helped).
- I was going to address the infection with medication and muscle issues with physical therapy.
So far, so good. When I know what I’m up against, I can tackle it. Yet the scariest part—to me, a plant-based foodie!—was coming next…
Anti-Candida diet, vegan style: Can it be done?
The good doctor then told me to cut out refined carbs, sugar, and fruit, as they’re the preferred fuel for yeast. Refined carbs, check. Added sugar, can do. But fruit? I eat a plant-based diet! Fruit is an entire food group for me. I protested weakly, but he was unmoved. Eventually I nodded and thanked him, then stumbled out the door like I’d been punched in the gut. No fruit?? What’s worse, I knew from previous reading that generally, a low-carb diet is suggested for yeast infections.
Which can be a little challenging when all you eat is plants.
Low-fat plants, to keep breast pain in check.³
And not too much protein, since excess protein (especially animal protein) is linked to cancer risk,4-6 at least for those under 65.7
Oh, and did I mention that I think I’m developing a sensitivity to legumes—my go-to source of plant protein? (Fittingly, food sensitivities are common with intestinal yeast overgrowth—see Part 2).
Given that the only way to decrease carbs is to increase protein and fat, I started to feel panicky. Not only did I have to give up my favorite foods (chocolate cauliflower silk pie! strawberry smoothies!), but what was I going to eat eat? Air? I was going to starve! The very thought sent me on a vegan ice cream bender. Which didn’t exactly help the cause. 😉
After a day or two of freaking out (also the technical term), being the science-minded gal that I am, I decided to do some research. I tried to answer the following questions:
What’s the ideal diet for putting candida back in its rightful place, for good? Is this diet style compatible with a vegan—or nearly vegan—diet lower in fat and/or protein? Would I have to follow the diet perfectly? (I’m not very good at perfect.) Would I have to follow the diet permanently? (I’m especially not good at perfect permanently!)
What I found is that there’s a LOT of misinformation out there. And not just from sources like 1WeirdTipToKillCandida.com (OK, I made that one up), but from people with enough degrees to know better. So I sought out peer-reviewed studies on what sort of diet discourages yeast growth and perused respected candida diet books that were vegan or vegan-friendly.
So, is it possible to eat a low-fat, whole-food, plant-based diet and kick candida to the curb? Or does getting rid of candida mean subsisting on air and sunshine?References
- Crandall M. Candida Information Packet. 2002, updated 2012.
- Mayer FL, Wilson D, Hube B. Candida albicans pathogenicity mechanisms. Virulence. 2013 Feb 15;4(2):119-28. doi: 10.4161/viru.22913. Epub 2013 Jan 9. Review.
- Barnard N. Foods that Fight Pain. 1998.
- Fontana L, Klein S, Holloszy JO. Long-term, low-protein, low-calorie diet and endurance exercise modulate metabolic factors associated with cancer. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Dec;84(6):1456-62.
- Fontana L , et al. Dietary protein restriction inhibits tumor growth in human xenograft models. Oncotarget. 2013 Dec;4(12):2451-61.
- Campbell TC, Campbell TM. The China Study. 2006.
- Levine ME, et al. Low protein intake is associated with a major reduction in IGF-1, cancer, and overall mortality in the 65 and younger but not older population. Cell Metab. 2014 Mar 4;19(3):407-17. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2014.02.006. See a helpful summary in Scientific American here.