I really doubt if the women in our grandmother’s time, or before, experienced the same trouble with yeast infections that we do. Truly, we’ve set the stage for yeast to flourish in our vaginas in ways unknown to earlier generations. We overuse broad-spectrum antibiotics, each of us eats 120 pounds of sugar every year (!), we’re on birth control pills, and we all face too many day-in and day-out stresses. The end result? By the time we’re in menopause, 75% of us will have had one or more yeast infections. These are typically episodes in which a yeast known as candida albicans–normally a harmless fellow-traveler in our vaginas–takes over. And the tell-tale symptoms of itching, burning, and a cottage cheese-like discharge make life really unpleasant for a few days.
Take a look at our WholeHealth Chicago suggestions. Not only can they help treat, they may also prevent, your next episode of yeast overgrowth.
What is Yeast Infection (Vaginal)?
Almost every woman experiences the burning and itching of a vaginal yeast infection at some time in her life. The cause of these infections is an organism called candida albicans, which normally coexists quietly with a variety of organisms in the vagina and in other moist, warm locations of the body. It’s only when certain conditions prevail that this fungus, commonly called a “yeast,” reproduces wildly and brings on some uncomfortable symptoms. Several species of Candida can cause yeast infections, but the yeast of “yeast infections” has nothing to do with the yeast that is used to leaven bread. Men can also develop yeast infections, particularly if they are uncircumcised. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all; when there are, the most usual one is inflammation of the tip of the penis. A man should always treat a yeast infection. Otherwise, he may pass the infection to his partner again and again.
- Itching and burning in the genital area
- Visible inflammation and redness
- A thick, white discharge that may either smell “yeasty” (like bread) or have no odor
What Causes Yeast Infection (Vaginal)?
Yeast overgrowth can happen for two primary reasons: something has upset either the normal yeast/bacteria balance or acid/base (pH) level. Tight jeans, wet bathing suits, or nylon underwear can be enough to trigger a change in the vaginal environment. Birth control pills, spermicides, or diabetes can also increase the risk.
The vagina is especially vulnerable to yeast infection when the immune system is weak because of illness, stress, lack of sleep, HIV infection, or chemotherapy. And some antibiotics, among them ampicillin or tetracycline, can create a yeast-friendly vaginal environment by killing “good” bacteria that normally compete with yeast and keep the population in check.
Treatment and Prevention
Most conventional treatment these days is basically a short trip to the drugstore for one of the commercial anti-yeast vaginal creams. Slightly stronger forms of these creams are available with a doctor?s prescription. More stubborn cases are treated with three days of the antifungal medication Diflucan, which also requires a prescription.
Self-treatment of a yeast infection implies “self-diagnosis” as well. And identifying a yeast infection is not as simple as it seems. In one study, nine out of ten women who were given a description of the symptoms were still unable to correctly diagnose their own infection, and 65% of women who had had a previous infection were likewise incorrect. Many other women mistook other conditions, such as pelvic inflammatory disease and urinary tract infections, for yeast infections and were prepared to treat them with yeast creams, which would not have been effective.
So unless you?re pretty certain that you have a yeast infection, it?s probably a good idea to get a medical diagnosis before you begin treatment to treat yourself.
How Supplements Can Help
With the exception of the suppositories, you can use all of the supplements listed here along with over-the-counter or prescription yeast medications. Begin using supplements as soon as you notice yeast infection symptoms and continue until the infection clears.
Vitamin C and echinacea help the body fight an acute yeast infection by strengthening the immune system. Vitamin C appears to inhibit yeast growth, and echinacea may signal white blood cells to attack yeast.
Garlic extract is another immune stimulator and infection fighter. A key compound in this culinary staple is called allicin, and it seems to inhibit the enzymes that allow organisms to invade and damage tissues.
Acidophilus contributes “good” or pro-bacteria that can hold down the yeast population. It’s especially helpful when the yeast infection is the result of antibiotic use. For best results take it orally as capsules or use as a suppository daily while you’re taking the antibiotic and for about a week after you’ve completed it.
FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides) are indigestible carbohydrates that fuel “good bacteria” and encourage them to grow when taken daily.
Tea tree oil and vitamin A come in suppository form to be used every day. They are good alternatives to over-the-counter yeast-fighting creams: Tea tree oil is an antifungal and vitamin A keeps vaginal mucous membranes healthy.
The yeast that cause a yeast infection are not the same as those that leaven bread. Therefore, a “yeast-free” diet will not by itself treat a vaginal yeast infection. The one diet change you can make is to reduce your sugar intake. Candida thrives on sugar and it is for this reason that diabetics are especially prone to yeast infections. Some fruit and some honey is fine; it’s white sugar, and the hundreds of ways we use it, that needs watching.
A number of other self-care remedies will help the situation as well:
- Wear cotton underwear only. If you need hosiery, wear thigh-highs instead of panty hose.
- Avoid deodorized products, such as tampons, commercially prepared douches, or feminine deodorant sprays.
- Wash the vaginal area with a mild, unscented soap.
- Eat yogurt with live cultures. Studies show that a cup a day can reduce the number of yeast infections.
- Douche with 2 teaspoons of powdered acidophilus in a quart of warm water instead of taking capsules or suppositories. You can also use lukewarm pau d’arco or goldenseal tea. Douche with two cups twice daily for no more than a week.
When to Call a Doctor
- The first time you have any yeast infection symptoms
- When a vaginal discharge has a strong, unpleasant smell or contains hints of blood
- If you still have symptoms after five days of treatment
- If you get another yeast infection in two months or less
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: As soon as you notice the symptoms of a yeast infection, start the treatments described below and begin taking the recommended supplements. Keep on using them until the infection is gone. Most acute infections will clear up within a week. If your infection is not gone in ten days, see your doctor. You can take the oral supplements along with standard over-the-counter anti-yeast vaginal creams.
If you’re prone to recurrent yeast infections, try continuing this supplement schedule on a permanent basis. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and diet is also important. But first have your doctor rule out any underlying problems that could be causing frequent infection.
How to Take the Supplements
Make sure you’re already taking a daily high-potency multivitamin, along with an antioxidant combination. A strong immune system is your best friend in fighting off an attack of this fungus.
Vitamin C and echinacea are two stellar immune boosters, and they can help stimulate white blood cells to wipe out yeast infections. Take the echinacea until the infection is gone, then continue to use it for three weeks of every month to help prevent a recurrence.
Garlic is another heavy-duty immune booster and infection fighter. A key compound in garlic called allicin can block the enzymes that allow organisms to invade and damage tissues. If you have recurrent infections, utilize the immune-boosting effects of garlic by taking one capsule each morning.
To build up your body’s supply of “friendly” yeast-fighting bacteria, take acidophilus–especially if you’ve been on antibiotics, which can destroy not just bad but also good bacteria. For chronic, recurrent infections, either take acidophilus capsules by mouth or eat a pint of live culture yogurt every day. To feed those friendly bacteria and encourage their growth, add FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides).
For special consideration
If you’d like to replace drugstore anti-yeast creams with natural substitutes, try suppositories made with tea tree oil (insert every 12 hours for 5 days) or with vitamin A (insert at bedtime for 1 week). Clinical studies have shown that tea tree oil is an effective antifungal substance. Vitamin A is useful for maintaining the health of the mucous membranes lining the vagina. Important:
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD