You might be thinking, No way! There’s definitely not fungus growing in my gut!
However, you might be surprised to learn that yeast overgrowth, typically referred to as candida, is very common. In fact, I find it can be the cause of many common health issues, including digestive problems, fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, depression, joint pain, skin problems, and can even lead to chronic conditions such as autoimmunity.
As a functional medicine doctor, my patients often ask me: So what is candida overgrowth? Candida is a type of yeast or fungus that lives in your mouth and your intestines to help you digest and absorb your food. Your good gut bacteria and your immune system usually keep it in check. But sometimes the balance is disrupted and the yeast begins multiplying rapidly — colonizing your gut, damaging the lining of your digestive tract, and escaping via your bloodstream to wreak havoc all over your body.
Several factors contribute to candida overgrowth, including diet and prescription medications, but stress also plays a huge role — and it's a factor that's often overlooked.
Here's how stress can affect both your immune system and your digestive system, opening the door for your candida population to surge.
How Stress Can Wreck Your Immune System & Digestion
When you experience any kind of stress — whether that's physical, mental, or emotional — your adrenal glands quickly kick into high gear. They release a cascade of stress hormones, chief among them cortisol. Cortisol is highly inflammatory. Its purpose is to activate your immune system so that you can respond to a wound or injury, since this was the type of stress we evolved to face.
But, after this initial immune system boost, cortisol actually works to suppress your immune system. This is because your body knows that a high level of inflammation is not sustainable (it stresses the immune system and can lead to autoimmune disease). To make up for the initial spike in inflammation, cortisol returns your immune system to anywhere from 40 to 70 percent below the baseline, leaving you with a suppressed immune system.
A second effect of stress is that it temporarily shuts down your digestive functions. This is something that also goes back to what stressors we evolved to face. If you’re running from a predator, you want all of your blood flow concentrated in your limbs for fleeing and your brain for quick thinking — not being wasted in your gut.
Now, back to candida. Remember how I said that typically your body can keep candida under control all on its own? That's because your immune system and your healthy gut bacteria are both actively working to keep it from multiplying too quickly. But, when your immune system is suppressed and your digestive system keeps being temporarily shut off, candida has the opportunity to multiply unchecked. It becomes too entrenched for your good bacteria and immune system to get it back under control.
How to Use Stress Management to Beat Candida
Let’s face it: most of us face stress on a daily basis. There will always be more to do, situations beyond our control, and plain old crazy days. The key to preventing stress-related illness is to manage the way you respond to stress.
Your body is much better equipped to deal with short-term stress than chronic stress, so it’s important to leave stressful events behind you rather than carrying that stress around with you.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to relieve stress:
- going on a hike with my husband and my dog
- taking a relaxing bath with homemade bath salts
- gentle exercise, such as yoga or going for a long walk
- closing my eyes and concentrating on breathing deeply until the stress has passed
- meditating in a quiet spot in my home, free of distractions and interruption
While stress management is important for keeping candida under control, effectively treating overgrowth involves killing the yeast, restoring the friendly bacteria that usually keep them in check, and healing your gut so that candida can no longer enter your bloodstream. To learn more, check out my article "10 Signs You Have Candida Overgrowth & What To Do About It," or take this quiz to find out if it might be acting you.