This is a guest post by Erica Rivera, author and freelance writer
I couldn’t tell you when it began. All I knew was that one day the much-joked-about ad for Massengill made sense. I was suffering from that “Not so fresh feeling.”
I had tested positive for yeast at my annual gynecological exam two months prior. The nurse practitioner offered to prescribe me something, but only if I had symptoms. If I didn’t, she said it was nothing to be concerned about.
The trademark yeast infection signs (odor, chunky discharge, redness, itchiness) were all absent; and yet, something down there was noticeably “off.” I felt “swampy.” And bloated. And very uninterested in sex.
I began to do more research, starting with the book The Yeast Connection and Women’s Health by Dr. William Crook (Square One, 2007). Within the pages of the controversial tome, I learned that yeast overgrowth is not only a ubiquitous problem, it can affect multiple aspects of a woman’s health.
Not all yeast is bad, however. Part of the “microflora” of your body, yeast is naturally present in the mouth, intestines, and vagina; it can also be found on the skin, in the ears, and in the nose. One type of yeast, Candida albicans, maintains a delicate balance with other healthy bacteria; when that balance is disturbed, yeast cells multiply and overwhelm the “friendly” bacteria.
Conditions that ripen the possibility of yeast overgrowth include prolonged doses of antibiotics (at any point during your life), excessive sugar consumption, hormonal changes (especially in the week prior to one’s period), use of certain types of oral contraceptives, and nylon undergarments (which do not allow the vagina to “breathe”).
Because yeast overgrowth disrupts the function of the intestinal tract, allergens and toxins are more readily released into the bloodstream and wreak havoc on the already weakened immune system. Thus, Candida albicans can be a contributing factor to everything from migraines to chronic fatigue syndrome to IBS to loss of libido and infertility.
I was shocked to discover that one seemingly minor issue could affect the entire constellation of my biology. That vague “Something’s not right” sensation was practically a flashing, neon sign that Candida albicans had taken up residence in my gut—and invited all its fungi friends to the party.
Knowing this, it’s surprising I didn’t pick up on the yeast connection earlier. As a child with chronic tonsillitis, I was on a steady diet of antibiotics; as a young adult, I used oral contraceptives for several years.
I reviewed my medical history and noticed that I’d tested positive for yeast in many of my annual exams, though I’d only been treated for a yeast infection once. And yet, here was Dr. Crook claiming that not only could my aforementioned symptoms have been caused by yeast overgrowth, my intermittent headaches and depression may have been, too.
Sugar is my only vice. I don’t eat bread or drink soda or consume most of the other substances that are the average American’s downfall. I’ve always justified my bad habit based on the amount I exercise (90 minutes a day, seven days a week). Little did I know that by marinating my body in sweaty workout clothes for extended periods of time, followed by a few too many cookies, I was creating the perfect environment in my body for yeast to multiply.
While the epidemiology of Dr. Crook’s book was fascinating, his treatment plan was impractical. He advocated for complete elimination of sugar from one’s diet—including fruit—plus ongoing treatment with Diflucon, an antifungal medication.
I try to avoid medications as much as possible, but I caved and went the over-the-counter route. After two boxes of Monistat (in as many weeks) failed to make a dent in my symptoms, I felt desperate. I knew that the recurrent nature of my discomfort meant I had to go beyond a band-aid approach, but I wasn’t ready to resign myself to an extreme, deprivation-style diet either.
Thus, I called on three holistic helpers.
“If you’re feeling blah, that may mean the PH balance is off,” Tanya Sowards, a certified yoga teacher, energy worker, Thai body therapist told me.
The Pitta dosha (one of three bodily humors identified in the practice of Ayurveda medicine) is particularly susceptible to yeast issues; because Pittas are fiery, they have a harder time detoxifying. When symptoms flare up, Sowards recommended Veriditas Botanicals Yeast Infection oil, which she sells at her Minneapolis studio Devanadi Yoga. The organic ointment is applied topically two to three times a day for several days.
Because yeast issues are all about excess, Sowards also recommended Reiki and asana practice to encourage the body to let go and energetically detox.
Next, I spoke to Mary Langfield, a board certified holistic health counselor who is part of the Restore Healing community.
“Yeast starts in the gut, and if the digestive system is compromised in any way, you are likely to have a yeast issue which moves into a yeast infection,” Langfield said.
Due to the general lack of fresh, affordable, healthy food in our society, “We all have compromised diets,” Langfield said. Therefore, cleaning up what we eat is the most important change to eliminate yeast overgrowth and prevent it from reoccurring.
One so-called gut-friendly food that should be consumed with a proverbial grain of salt? Yogurt.
“You have to make sure the yogurt is plentiful with pro-biotics. If you pick up a carton of Dannon, it may say it has live acidophilus, but it also has so much sugar in it that it will actually make the yeast breed,” Langfield said.
Because yeast issues are a form of inflammation, Langfield recommended a Mediterranean diet. Non-starchy vegetables, sauerkraut, kombucha, and pro-biotic coconut drinks are also beneficial.
“There are all these little fires in your system and you have to put the fires out before you can heal,” Langfield explained.
Women with severe yeast issues are advised to follow a dairy-free, gluten-free, and sugar-free eating plan (Langfield said fruit sugars are okay) and must be vigilant about reducing stress.
“Some people have to constantly keep this in check,” Langfield said.
Langfield’s other treatment suggestions included supplements tailored to those with yeast issues, teas (Chamomile, Echinacea, and Pau d’Arco are her top picks), application of Aloe Vera to the affected area, and the insertion of garlic cloves.
“I’ve never tried it myself,” she added, “but I’ve had clients tell me that they tie strings around garlic cloves and insert them like a tampon.”
If, like me, you’re not ready to get intimate with garlic yet, you’ll be glad to hear that Ayurvedic health counselor, educator and yoga instructor Tricia Sletten of Pure Land Ayurveda, also part of the Restore Community, had a few more strategies.
“In regards to yeast infections there is unanimous agreement that no matter an individual’s makeup the primary aggravating factor contributing to a yeast infection is a weak digestive system,” Sletten explained. “An Ayurvedic approach first recommends strengthening the body’s digestive capabilities. After this is accomplished it is important to then build the individual’s ojas, or inherent immunity.”
Sletten re-emphasized the importance of avoiding sugar and yeast products (such as bread and beer). She also recommended eating while sitting down in a quiet, peaceful environment and stopping before feeling full. Leaving four to six hours between meals is also advised. If you need something between lunch and dinner, “Have a Lassi,” Sletten said. A Lassi contains 1:2 or 1:3 ratios of yogurt to water. It can be plain, sweet, or savory, as long as fruit is not included. In fact, Sletten said fruit should be consumed separately from other foods. Cold food and iced drinks should be eliminated, and no heavy foods (yogurt, cheese, or anything fried) should be eaten in the evening.
After gathering all this information, I must admit I felt overwhelmed. The antifungal medication sure sounded like a much less labor-intensive route than the alternatives…
But I’m trying the natural treatment. I’ve cut back on sugar (I don’t know if I’ll ever eliminate it), I’ve started pro-biotic supplementation, and I’ve increased my tea intake. So far, so good. My energy has improved, my stomach feels less like a bog, and I’m drier “down there.” I plan to really listen to my gut, give it what it needs, and look at implementing these strategies as lifestyle changes that will benefit not only my digestion, but my whole being.
Erica Rivera is the author of “Insatiable: A Young Mother’s Struggle with Anorexia” (Penguin, 2009). Her writing has appeared in New York Magazine, USA Today, The Daily Meal, The Star Tribune, Vita.mn, and City Pages, as well as multiple anthologies.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Tanya Sowards, Devanadi Yoga, (612) 816-9642
Mary Langfield, Diet & Lifestyle Consultant, (612) 801-8900
Tricia Sletten, Pure Land Ayurveda, (612) 293-0736