Yeast infections are extremely common and are the second most common cause of vaginal inflammation (behind bacterial infections). It is estimated that 75% of all women will get at least one vaginal yeast infection at some point in their lives, and half of those will have at least one recurrence.
These infections are most common in women of childbearing age. If women get yeast infections after menopause, it may be due to taking medication such as estrogen replacement therapy.
While many believe that we need to eradicate all yeast in our bodies, it's important to realize that yeast is a common and vital part of our natural microbiome. Only when it becomes disproportionate does its overgrowth cause dysfunction. What treatment therapy works for one may not work for all. Using a root cause approach that encompasses functional lab testing ensures more effective and targeted care to better inform which natural remedies for yeast infections would be best for treatment and prevention.
What Causes Yeast Infections?
According to most reports, a type of fungus, candida, specifically Candida Albicans, is responsible for the largest number of vulvovaginal candidiasis (VVC), contributing to 85-90% of symptomatic episodes of vaginal candidiasis. Candida is typically found in small amounts in the vagina, oral cavity, digestive tract, and skin and is kept in balance by "good" bacteria. Candida overgrowth occurs when the ratio of beneficial bacteria that keeps yeast in harmony in the body is disrupted. This can happen for many reasons, including:
Antibiotic treatments kill the friendly bacteria that usually keep the yeast in balance; candida can quickly multiply once your gut microbiome is disrupted.
Oral Contraceptives: Hormonal birth control doesn't cause an infection but can increase your risk of developing a recurrent yeast infection. This is because the hormones in birth control disturb your body's natural hormonal balance. Many experts believe that the estrogen in oral contraceptives alters the vaginal flora, causing the vagina to produce more glycogen (sugar). This sugar, in turn, feeds the yeast already present in your vagina and triggers it to overgrow.
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT): In one study, vulvovaginal candidiasis was observed in 26% of postmenopausal women using estrogen in hormone replacement therapy compared to disease in 4% of women who were not using estrogen.
Pregnancy: Prevalence studies indicate that Candida species colonize the vagina in at least 20% of all women, rising to 30 % in pregnancy. Most episodes occur during the second and third trimesters. This increased risk is likely due to immunologic alterations, increased estrogen levels, and increased vaginal glycogen production.
Infections due to Candida albicans occur easily in situations in which ample glucose is available. A diet high in refined sugars can disrupt the gut microbiome's barrier and integrity and lower systemic immune response.
Alcohol: Chronic alcohol consumption is associated with intestinal bacterial dysbiosis, and alcohol-dependent patients displayed reduced intestinal fungal diversity and Candida overgrowth.
During stress, an altered gut microbial population affects the regulation of neurotransmitters mediated by the microbiome and gut barrier function.
Yeast Infections Signs & Symptoms
Acute itching and vaginal discharge are two of the most obvious symptoms of yeast infections. The discharge may vary but is typically described as cottage cheese-like. Additional symptoms may include vaginal soreness, burning, inflammation or swelling, redness, pain with intercourse, and urinary discomfort.
Are Yeast Infections Contagious?
It is strongly believed that yeast infections are not sexually transmitted infections because yeast infections occur in people who are not sexually active. Most of the time, candida is harmless as it exists naturally on your skin. While not common, yeast infections can be spread to another person during sex or kissing if someone is prone to developing the infection or doesn't have a healthy amount of bacteria to balance the Candida fungus.
Diagnosing Yeast Infections
One should never assume they have a yeast infection. It's important to see your doctor to rule out bacterial or sexually transmitted infections as the symptoms can look very similar.
A yeast infection can be diagnosed after taking a swab of the affected area.
Functional Medicine Labs for Root Cause of Yeast Infections
If you experience recurrent yeast infections, it's crucial to find the root cause. A functional medicine practitioner can run some specialty labs to help you understand how your body responds to its environment. Below are some standard labs practitioners use to find the root cause of Candida overgrowth.
Comprehensive Stool Testing
A healthy gut microbiome helps keep candida in check. A GI health stool test can help rule out possible reasons for candida overgrowth, such as dysbiosis or inflammatory markers that may be leading to other health-related illnesses caused by the candida.
The GI-Effects comprehensive stool test is a unique option. It offers a microbial antibiotic susceptibility to determine which prescriptive and natural antibiotics are most effective on each patient's microbiome.
A candida profile blood test is another way to rule out candida overgrowth. These tests check for IgG, IgA, and IgM Candida antibodies. High levels of these antibodies indicate that Candida overgrowth is present and that your immune system is reacting to it.
Organic Acid Testing
An organic acid test (OAT) may also be a useful diagnostic tool for gut flora function and yeast and fungal dysbiosis markers in the urine. D-arabinitol, one of the organic acids measured, is a Candida waste product.
Complete Blood Count: A low white blood cell count (WBC) can be a sign of stress to the immune system and has been associated with Candidiasis.
Retesting these labs a few months into care allows for any modification that may be needed.
Natural Remedies for Yeast Infections
There are several effective options of natural remedies for yeast infections, including several home remedies. These include:
Improve Gut Health
Diet strongly influences the gut microbiome and impacts gut microbial composition, function, barrier, and immunity. A functional medicine approach relies primarily on lifestyle, diet, and supplements rather than pharmaceuticals. Diet is often the first step in a functional approach as diets high in sugars and low in greens contribute to dysbiosis of the gut microbiota, leading to a variety of chronic diseases related to inflammation. Specifically, candida thrives when blood sugar and glycogen levels are high. As the yeast feeds off and thrives on sugar, limiting sugar may prevent infections.
Additionally, incorporating probiotic-rich foods can help repair the gastrointestinal lining by increasing beneficial bacteria. Probiotic foods include miso, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
Probiotics for Yeast Infections
The use of probiotic bacteria against microbial infections has emerged as an alternative therapeutic technique for Candida infections. Saccharomyces boulardii is a probiotic yeast that decreases inflammation and intestinal colonization by Candida albicans. The antimicrobial effect of probiotic bacteria is strain-specific; hence, the selection of probiotics for therapeutic purposes should be targeted. A comprehensive stool test can help identify which probiotics your gut microbiome is deficient in.
Herbs for Yeast Infections
Several herbal anti-fungals have been shown to be effective in treating candida.
Tea tree, Melaleuca alternifolia, is a very safe and effective method of eradicating candidiasis and many other vaginal infections, and there appear to be no adverse side effects. Tea tree is commonly put on tampons and used intravaginally. This method has become so popular that many over-the-counter options are now available.
Garlic contains a powerful antifungal agent, ajoene, formed from another compound called allicin and an enzyme, alliinase. When chopped or crushed, garlic, allicin, and alliinase combine to form ajoene. Various studies have found ajoene to have the most potent activity of all garlic compounds in inhibiting the growth of Candida albicans. Garlic can be administered orally or topically. Oral tablets typically come in the form of allicin, but garlic can also be consumed raw or within your food to promote good bacteria.
Berberine, taken in an oral supplement form, is often used by functional medicine practitioners to treat a variety of gut infections. Additionally, berberine may also work to heal the gut lining and improve the microbiome.
Oregano oil has been demonstrated to have a more substantial antifungal effect against candida than fluconazole. Major components of oregano have potent antifungal activity and have been shown to be efficacious on biofilms of Candida albicans that are resistant to many antifungal drugs.
Caprylic acid, one of the fatty acids naturally found in coconuts and coconut oil, is an effective intervention for treating C. Albicans yeast infections. Caprylic acid taken orally or externally applied rapidly reduces symptoms superior to Diflucan.
Intra-vaginal Boric Acid
A review of 14 studies suggests that internal intravaginal boric acid is a safe, alternative, economical option for women with recurrent and chronic symptoms of vaginitis.
How to Prevent Yeast Infections
- Avoid the use of antibiotics unless necessary.
- Yeast thrives in warm, dark, moist environments. Wear loose-fitting cotton clothing and change immediately after sweating or swimming.
- Avoid vaginal sprays or douching. Frequent performance of vaginal douching increases the likelihood of having yeast infections and resistance to the common antifungal agents.
- Clinical studies indicate that probiotics may reduce candida colonization on human mucosal surfaces implying that probiotics have the potential to sustain a healthy mucosal microbiota by acting both as a preventative as well as a treatment therapy. Probiotics should also be taken after a course of antibiotics to restore some of the healthy bacteria in the intestines that may have been killed.
When to Contact a Doctor
If this is your first time experiencing symptoms listed for a yeast infection, contact your health care provider to verify that you have a yeast infection.
Call a doctor if your symptoms worsen or if new symptoms appear at any time during treatment. Also, call a doctor if you have persistent irritation that's separate from yeast infection symptoms.
Yeast is common and plays an essential role in our body's ecosystem. However, it is opportunistic, and if our microbiome is out of balance, overgrowth causing dysfunction can occur. Using a root cause approach that encompasses functional lab testing ensures more effective and targeted care to determine treatment better.