By now everyone has heard about the gluten-free diet. Many people I run into swear by it, claiming it is why they feel better or have lost weight. Some even go as far as to say they are sensitive to it. But in people without celiac's disease, is going gluten-free the real reason behind their improved health? Are these non-celiac individuals really sensitive to gluten? What if it wasn't gluten, and had more to do with an overgrowth of yeast in your body and the consumption of a high-sugar diet?
Yeasts are classified as part of the Fungi kingdom, and account for approximately 1% of all fungal species. These microorganisms do not require sunlight to grow, mainly using oxygen, sugars, and heat instead.
Most people think of yeast in relation to making certain foods such as baked goods, cheeses, kefir, kumis, and beverages such as sodas, kombucha, wines, and beers. Indeed one of the oldest and largest applications of yeast is the fermentation of sugars into acids, gases, and alcohol. But yeast lives everywhere it can grow naturally- on fruits and berries, in the soil, inside insects, and on your skin. It even lives in your gut-flora.
When There's Too Much Yeast In Your Body
Under normal conditions, yeast lives harmoniously in the inner warm creases and crevices of the digestive tract and the vaginal tract in women. However there are times when yeast overgrows and causes a variety of symptoms in virtually all of the systems in your body. In particular the gastrointestinal, genitourinary, endocrine, nervous, and immune systems are most susceptible.
This is why when there is an overgrowth of yeast in the body, one of the most common complaints is feeling sick all over without there being a detectable known cause. The most common types of yeast that tends to overgrow in your body is called candida albicans. Symptoms include fatigue, allergies, arthritis, headaches, tingling/numbness, immune system malfunction, depression and mood swings, difficulty concentrating and poor memory ("foggy brain"), chemical sensitivities, skin and nail fungal infections, strong sugar cravings, and digestive disturbances such as gas, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, and constipation. These are many of the same symptoms experienced by individuals with non-celiac gluten-sensitivity.
Causes of Yeast Overgrowth
An overgrowth of yeast is caused by a wide variety of factors, including altered intestinal flora, decreased digestive secretions, drugs, impaired immunity, impaired liver function, and prolonged diseased states. Perhaps one of the most common causes is the misuse of broad-spectrum antibiotics for a prolonged period of time for things like acne, recurrent bladder infections, chronic ear infections, chronic sinusitis, chronic bronchitis, and non-bacterial sore throats. But arguably, a more common yet often overlooked cause of yeast overgrowth is related to a faulty diet.
The American Diet
Poor dietary choices are known to contribute to the overgrowth of yeast in your body. The most important dietary factors that promote the growth of yeast are prolonged high intakes of sugar, milk and other dairy products, and foods that are processed with fungi or mold. Surprisingly, the American diet primarily consists of these foods!
The American diet is full of sugar. Not sure about this? Next time you're at the supermarket walk around and read the ingredients of your favorite foods. You'll find sugar, or its aliases (fructose, maltose, dextrose, maltodextrine, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, etc), is added to many unlikely foods such as processed meats, tortillas, pasta sauces, breads, salad dressings, and cereals. And remember Americans love sodas- about 50% drink 2.6 glasses on a daily basis!
The problem with consuming too much sugar is that yeast primarily uses sugar as a main nutrient for its growth. Sugar also damages immune system function, further contributing to the overgrowth of yeast.
And how many Americans drink milk or consume dairy products? According to the US Department of Agriculture, the average American eats about 630 pounds of milk, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream per year. Milk is not only a common food allergen, but it also has a high lactose content that promotes the growth of yeast. It also contains trace levels of antibiotics which can further disrupt gut-flora and cause an overgrowth of yeast.
With Halloween and Thanksgiving behind us, a quick inventory of the typical American diet just during this past month will reveal a host of high-sugar foods that were eaten without giving much thought to the amount of yeast-promoting foods being consumed- breads, stuffing, crackers, pretzels, rolls, buns, bagels, pizza crust, muffins, cookies, cakes, pies, pancakes, cheeses, dried fruits, peanut butter, vinegar and vinegar-containing sauces, pickles, fruit juices, etc.
And do not forget about all the sodas, wines, and beers that washed all these foods down. Not only are these high-sugar beverages consumed in excess by millions of Americans during the holidays, but they are guzzled down like water everyday.
And how about the gallons of coffee and teas consumed by Americans every day? Even without any added sweetener or creamer, these too, especially coffee, contribute to the American high-sugar diet. Not only is coffee moldy, but its high caffeine content tends to increase blood sugar that feeds the yeast in your gut.
The Dangers of a High-Sugar Diet
While it appears Americans can tolerate a few of these foods in their diet in moderate amounts, the overwhelming amount of chronic diseases and untreatable conditions suggests that most cannot sustain their health by eating and drinking this way. This especially seems to be the case as people age, and their digestion slows down and immunity diminishes. The reason is that long-term consumption of a high-sugar diet contributes to a significant concentration of yeast in your gut that will compete with your body for nutrition, interfere with metabolic function, and eventually compromise immunity and significantly disrupt bodily processes.
Why You Should Consider Avoiding High-Sugar Foods
If you do not have celiac-disease and have tried a gluten-free diet, and have felt better doing so, chances are what you are feeling has less to do with restricting gluten and more to do with removing bread and other gluten foods that contain high levels of sugar and yeast. Consider avoiding high-sugar foods and yeast to see what results occur.
On the other hand, if you're experiencing any of the yeast-overgrowth symptoms listed here, it wouldn't hurt to try reducing your intake of sugar and yeast. You should also consider avoiding high amounts of sugar if you have taken any broad-spectrum antibiotics for a long time and your condition has not resolved.
Also, if you are a woman I would highly suggest for you to seriously consider avoiding high sugar foods, at least temporarily. Women are eight times more likely to experience an overgrowth of yeast than men. This is primarily due to the effects of estrogen, birth-control pills, and the generally higher number of antibiotics prescribed to women.
Taking the First Steps to a Yeast-free Diet
Start with reducing your sugar intake by avoiding sodas and large amounts of honey, maple syrup, and fruit juices. You should also avoid carbohydrates (sucrose, fructose, maltose, lactose, glycogen, glucose, mannitol, sorbitol, galactose, monosaccharides, polysaccharides), dairy products (milk, cheeses, yogurts, ice cream), alcohol (wine, beer), vinegar-based foods (mayonnaise, mustard, barbecue sauce, soy sauce), fermented foods (pickles, pickled vegetables, pickled meat, relishes, green olives, sauerkraut, horseradish), and processed and smoked meats (bacon, ham, sausages, hot dogs, corned beef, pastrami). Results will vary but by eliminating these foods from your diet you should start feeling significant improvement within 10-21 days.
And if you are on antibiotics and have been taking them for a few months or years, these probably aren't doing their job anymore and are causing more harm than good. Talk with your doctor about cycling off of these for a while to give your gut-flora a chance to recuperate.
Need Help In Getting Started?
As always, if you need more information and guidance on customizing a plan for your own personal needs, please contact my office for an appointment and I will be more than happy to point you in the right direction.
Dr. Rene M. Rodriguez, PhD, LAc