A Functional Understanding of Microflora and Candida
Posted by Andrea Nakayama
I’m a firm believer that you are not what you eat, but what your body can do with what you eat. In other words, you are what your body can break down and absorb.
In many ways you are also the sum of your parts. Sure there’s the usual digestive parts – your mouth and esophagus, your stomach and intestines – but your digestive system is also host to a vast number of microorganisms (bacteria, protozoa, and fungi).
The Importance of Microflora
There’s really nothing to be grossed out about when thinking of sharing your body with these tiny organisms. It’s natural, normal and, in many instances, desirable!
This part of your body, called your microflora, is home to hundreds of different kinds of microorganisms, many of which are designed to live in a symbiotic, non-harmful relationship with you.
In fact, microorganisms do quite a lot to keep you alive and enable you to thrive.
- They train your immune system
- They prevent the growth of harmful bacteria that can make you sick
- They create a barrier from exposure to all sorts of agents that you come into contact with
- They produce antibiotic-like substances that are antifungal and antiviral
- They regulate the growth and development of the gastrointestinal tract
- They produce vitamins for you, and even manufacture certain hormones
Thank you little organisms!
Your Unique Microflora
While in some ways it’s true that we’re all the same on the inside, just as our parents told us, there are a good number of ways in which we’re vastly different. Approximately 100 trillion microorganisms (or more!) live within our intestines. Most of the microflora and their concomitant organisms take residence in the colon. The largest populations of organisms that dwell there tend to be bacterial (as opposed to the protozoa or fungi, which may also inhabit the terrain).
While the amount of microorganisms that we house is dependent upon a number of individual factors – such as age, geographical locations and other physiological variables – it’s your unique gut and other mucous membranes, like your respiratory and your urogenital tracts, that determine the culture and populace of microorganisms.
For instance, an overburdened bacterial population in your microbiome may have allowed for a yeast overgrowth, whereas I may have a proliferation of a certain type of bacterium, throwing my flora out of balance and allowing for autoimmune activity to occur. There will also be a variance between each and every one of our bacterial compositions at the most basic level, between the good and the bad – the commensal and the opportunistic.
Factors Affecting Microflora
There are a significant number of factors throughout your life that will affect the make-up of your flora, starting before birth. One of a baby’s first opportunities for colonization is by the flora of their birthing parent in the passage through the birth canal.
In utero, the fetus is primarily (but not completely) sterile, with some possible initial exposure now thought to come from cultures in the amniotic fluid. But when the birthing parent’s water breaks and the birth process begins, so does the primary settlement of the body’s mucosal surfaces, inside and out, in a period of about 48 hours.
That’s just the beginning. Your microflora grows and morphs from there, throughout your life.
Other factors that will influence your microflora population include:
- use of antibiotics and pharmaceuticals such as birth control, steroids and hormone
- type of delivery
- breast or bottle feeding
- chemotherapy and radiation exposure
- drug and alcohol use
- part of the body
- overall health and immune status
It’s even been shown that within the same individual that factors such as hormonal fluctuations, dietary changes, abrupt shifts in stress levels and sexual activity can elicit alterations in the population of the microflora.
I draw this all out for you to provide you with some context.
When It Comes To Candida, Context Is Everything
It’s sometimes hard to understand why your roommate or your husband or your best friend can eat a hot fudge sundae without experiencing immediate fatigue, brain fog and bloating. Or why your sister doesn’t suffer chronic health challenges like persistent skin irritations and anal itching, respiratory infections, anxiety and fibroids even though she stops for a jumbo chocolate chip cookie on the way back to the office from lunch every single day.
I’m telling you, it really is all about context. It’s the context in which the yeast within you has to grow.
In many ways our health boils down to that microscopic internal environment and the ways in which yours is unique to you in this very moment.
Your flora is like the sum of your experiences.
You’ve collected a little of this, a lot of that. You’ve distributed some of your organisms and unknowingly exterminated others. It’s an environment that was influenced by your birthing parent and their microscopic environment, for which you became the landlord soon after birth.
Candida Isn’t The Problem, The Environment Is
We have always had some Candida (or yeast) present in our bodies. In a person with a healthy and balanced microflora, no matter their age or gender, Candida is a harmless agent.
Yet fluctuations in the internal bacterial environment that influence immune health can enable the yeast to grow past its tipping point; past the point where its actions are kept in check by the host environment. In these circumstances, the same strains of Candida that grow as harmless commensals can become pathogenic, invading the mucosa and causing significant damage.
Candida has filaments that can burrow their roots through the mucosal barriers and into your tissues to contribute to what’s called a “leaky gut” – a situation where one of the body’s most important boundaries and barricades between the inside and outside world has been breached, becoming more permeable than it is meant to be. Without suitable restraint, any number of elements, including improperly broken down constituents from the food you’ve eaten, can make their way into the bloodstream and wreak further havoc on your health.
This may appear as inflammation, allergies, asthma, eczema, food intolerances, headaches, joint pain and mind challenges such as depression, anxiety, mood swings and problems with memory or focus.
The Role of Sugar and Starch
The environment that will support Candida’s growth is one where there’s a lot of undigested sugar and starch for it to feed on, as well as a climate that has a lower pH, or is more acidic. Unfortunately, refined sugars, starches and simple carbohydrates in the diet can contribute to both of these generative factors, which is why dietary factors can be an important part of an anti-Candida protocol.
When a favorable environment for Candida overgrowth exists in the microflora, your body makes more Candida. As you make more Candida, you put more strain on your immune system, leaving you tired and inflamed.
Manifesting as a sweet tooth, what may feel like a lack of willpower when trying to avoid sweets or carbohydrates, may actually be something much more sovereign to contend with – a growing and hungry pathogen.
The Production of Mycotoxins
As Candida feeds it also metabolizes. The by-products of the yeasts’ feast are perhaps more dangerous to your health than the Candida itself. Metabolized Candida cells are classified as mycotoxins, or little fungal poisons that can be released into your bloodstream.
Alcohol and acetaldehyde are two examples. The release of these into the blood will undoubtedly leave you feeling fuzzy and hungover. Gliotoxin is another mycotoxin left behind by Candida metabolism. This little toxic chemical interferes with your body’s abilities to produce key antioxidants and suppresses the function of your immune system by thwarting the production of white blood cells.
Thinking about Candida through the lens of its offenses can be overwhelming. It sounds like the scary monster in your worst childhood nightmare. And yet it doesn’t have to be.
This is where you get to become an environmentalist.
This is where you get to do what I like to call “backing it up” so that we can alter the habitat within you and make it one that is less hospitable to opportunistic growth and more conducive to balance.
Related Blog Posts & Podcast Episodes
Functional Nutrition Tool: Candida Questionnaire
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