Back to the Drawing Board

My candida has come back. Mother fucker. Like an unwelcome house guest it’s snuck back in to take up residence in my body, unexpected and uninvited. That said, I have had a sneaking suspicion for the last month or so that something’s not quite right with my health. First I got thrush for no apparent reason, despite not having had it for years. I’ve also been finding that whenever I eat sugar I get terribly bloated and gassy. In the last week or so I’ve had achy muscles and joints, but I put that down to recovering from walking 100 kilometres with a heavy pack. I should have bounced back quicker than I have though, and I feel like there’s a missing link between the quality of the food that I put in and the quality of the energy that I get back.

So I did the spit test and it was an epic fail: my saliva quickly gravitated towards the bottom of the glass of water, forming a putrid powdery layer. The last time I did the spit test was about four months ago and the result was pretty good; a little bit sank but most of it was still floating on the top after a good half hour or so – an ideal result would have all of it floating on the top after half an hour (this is done first thing in the morning before eating or drinking anything).

First came indignation, frustration and disappointment, then came resignation. At least this time I’m better equipped and I know exactly what I have to do. Last time, the thought of life with no sugar was almost incomprehensible. In some morbid kind of way I’m almost pleased: sugar has been creeping sneakily into my life, and I, thinking that I can handle it, have allowed it. This always happens with me – I make a rule and initially I’m very strict with it and I get the result that I want. Over time, I relax the rule a bit and it seems to be okay, so I relax it some more. Then, all of a sudden, the rule has become so relaxed that it barely exists, and I find myself where I am now – unwell and, as a result, needing to rewrite my own rules so that I can get well again.

I’m actually quite optimistic about this, up until recently I have been feeling really good, so I think with a concerted effort I can knock this candida palaver on the head without too much of a drama. This is the candida elimination diet that I follow:

BASIC RULES

  • Avoid ALL junk food and anything containing white sugar, white flour, yeast and soft drinks.
  • Include as much nutritious food as you like from a wide variety of sources.
  • Avoid ALL sugars, chocolate, honey, molasses and maple syrup.
  • Avoid ALL fruits and fruit juices.
  • Try not to eat the same foods every day.
  • Feature low-carbohydrate vegetables, seafood, lean meats and eggs in your diet. You can include one serving of high-carbohydrate vegetables OR a single portion of whole grain at each meal.

 FOODS YOU CAN EAT FREELY:

  • Vegetables: Most of these vegetables contain lots of fibre and are relatively low in carbohydrates. They can be fresh or frozen and you can eat them raw or cooked: asparagus, string beans, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, capsicums, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, eggplant, garlic, lettuce, onions, parsley, radishes, spinach, tomatoes.
  • Meat & Eggs: Chicken, turkey, beef, lean cuts, veal, lamb, wild game, shrimp, crab, lobster, tuna, other seafood, salmon, mackerel, cod, sardines, eggs, other fresh or frozen fish that is not breaded.
  • Beverages: Water and non-sweetened herb teas.

 FOODS YOU CAN EAT CAUTIOUSLY:

  •  High Carbohydrate Vegetables: Sweet corn, peas, pumpkin, beans, potatoes (baked only – not any other way!), kumara.
  • Whole Grains: Barley, corn, millet, oats, rice, wheat.
  • Breads, Biscuits & Muffins: All breads, biscuits and muffins should be made with baking powder or baking soda, NOT yeast.
  • Dairy: Acidophilus yoghurt (plain, unsweetened), butter.

 FOODS YOU MUST AVOID:

  • Sugar & Sugar Containing Foods: Sugar, and other simple carbohydrates including sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, fructose, maltose, lactose, glucose, mannitol, sorbitol, galactose. Also avoid honey, treacle, molasses, maple syrup, agave syrup, etc.
  • Packaged & Processed Foods: Canned, bottled, boxed and other processed, packaged foods usually contain refined sugar and other hidden ingredients.
  • Breads, Pastries & Other Raised Bakery Goods
  • Milk & Cheeses, especially mouldy cheeses.
  • Alcoholic Beverages: Wine, beer, whiskey, brandy, gin, rum, vodka and other fermented liquors and beverages such as cider and ginger beer.
  • Condiments, Sauces & Vinegar-Containing Foods: Mustard, marmite, tomato sauce (and all variants), Worcestershire sauce, MSG, chili, shrimp and soy sauces, pickles, and anything else pickled, tamari, vinegar (except apple cider vinegar), and anything containing vinegar for example mayonnaise, salad dressings (especially fat-free ones, as they are high in carbohydrates). Freshly squeezed lemon juice mixed with spirulina powder and flax oil can be substituted.
  • Malt Products
  • Processed & Smoked Meats
  • Mushrooms & Other Edible Fungi
  • Melons, especially watermelon, rockmelon & honeydew
  • Coffee & Tea, Fruit Juice & Soft Drinks
  • Dried & Candied Fruits
  • Leftover food (has the potential to grow mould)

 As you can see, there’s a bit more to getting candida under control than simply not eating sugar. Luckily for me, my diet largely fits into the ‘eat freely’ and ‘eat cautiously’ sections anyway. Interestingly, nuts and seeds are not mentioned anywhere in the elimination diet, but I’d hedge a bet that they are all fine, except for peanuts, which grow below the ground so they may contain mould or fungus, and should therefore be avoided.

I do pretty much all my cooking from scratch so I know exactly what’s in it and what isn’t. The only things I’m unwilling to forgo entirely are coffee and fruit. I generally only have one coffee a day, first thing in the morning, and I don’t feel the need to cut this out at this point in time, I’ve battled with the idea of giving up coffee – the last time I tried I lasted for 17 days but I was miserable without it. At least now I’m only having one a day rather than the four or five I was often having back then.

I’m of two minds about fruit: on the one hand it contains fructose, which is sugar, and therefore will feed candida. On the other hand, it also contains fibre, vitamins, mineral, antioxidants and phytonutrients, all of which promote health. In terms of the concentrations of sugar, eating whole, fresh, raw fruit is nowhere near the same as eating candy bars or drinking soft drinks.

It depends on the fruit too; apples and pears have the most sugar, and I almost never eat these anyway. At the moment, the only fruits I’m intending to eat are strawberries and papayas, and I think this will be okay. Oh and lemons and grapefruit – technically these are citrus fruits but they contain barely any sugar and have loads of benefits, such as being highly alkalising, aiding digestion, and being high in Vitamin C and prebiotic bacteria (this is what probiotic bacteria eats). I actually eat lemons like they’re oranges: I cut one into segments and eat the flesh and the pith – it’s delicious!

As well as eating all the right things and none of the wrong things, I’ll also be barricading my system with these goodies:

  • Apple cider vinegar: This is some kind of cure-all wonder tonic, and I could easily dedicate an entire blog post to it. But for now, it’s great for alkalising, aiding digestion, cleansing the blood, and protecting against arthritis. Yes, apple cider vinegar is made from apples, which contain sugar, but the fermentation process converts the sugar into beneficial enzymes and amino acids. Anyone who’s tried it knows it is not sweet! I use Bragg‘s because its organic, contains the ‘mother’ and tastes good.
  • Probiotics: My ratio of good to bad gut bacteria is obviously skewed the wrong way at the moment; otherwise my candida would be back where it belongs, on the periphery, not ruling the show. Loading up with good bacteria will help set things straight; I like to use Reuteri, as I experience a tangible improvement when I use it.
  • Horopito: Mum just put me onto this one. Horopito is a native New Zealand shrub that’s been used in traditional Māori medicine for ages. It has natural anti-fungal properties, and yeasts are merely single-celled funguses. The product is called Kolorex.
  •  Sauerkraut: For whatever reason, cabbage appears to be superior in terms of its concentrations of prebiotic and probiotic bacteria. Fermenting it increases the concentrations even more. You should be able to find sauerkraut on your supermarket shelf (ideally you’d choose an organic one that’s been made without wine), or you can make it yourself.
  •  Chlorophyll: Chlorophyll is the pigment from plants that makes them green. It soothes the lining of the intestines and helps with nutrient uptake. I use this one.

 With this arsenal of awesomeness my spit will be floating in no time!

 

 

Life after a boozy weekend

As you know, I easily made it through the month of August without touching a drop of alcohol. However, since breaking my alcohol fast I’ve had a couple of boozy weekends, the last of which has wreaked havoc on my delicate constitution. I may as well have drunk petrol, that’s how raw my insides feel. Starting the week on the back foot reminds me of too many weekends spent drinking away my 20s; I’m 33 now – far too old for this shit!

It got me thinking though, about what’s actually happening in my body. What are the mechanisms behind these shit feelings? Firstly, alcohol is acidifying, and us humans like to be slightly alkaline. Secondly, alcohol is corrosive on the digestive system, I can definitely verify that, and it’s probably what caused the pain. If you’re trying to hold on to your good gut bacteria, as I am, alcohol is not your friend. But it’s not just your gut flora at stake here; did you know that 95 % of serotonin (the neurotransmitter that regulates your mood) resides in your gut? So, if your gut is acidic and being corroded by alcohol, is that likely to affect your mood as well? I think so. Sarah Wilson wrote a great article about it here.

Alcohol is also pretty high in calories – seven per gram, but has very little nutritional value. As a comparison, carbohydrates and protein both contain four calories per gram, and fat contains nine. As alcohol is usually additional to the food we eat, these calories provide an excess to what we need, which gets stored as fat which or may not be used later. I know I’ve stored some over the last couple of weeks, but it won’t be sticking around for long.

I’ve also noticed that my hand has gotten sore again. I sprained it months ago attempting to arm wrestle someone who has 20 kg more muscle than me. I didn’t win. I can’t think of anything physical I’ve done that would aggravate it. Could I be producing more or eliminating less uric acid as a result of drinking alcohol? Probably. Could the uric acid be flaring up an old injury? Maybe.

So what am I doing about it? I managed to get out for a run today which improved my mood exponentially. Often, the times I feel like exercising the least are the times I need it the most. I had no energy or inclination for running, but I knew I’d feel better if I could pull it off, and I did (pull it off and feel better).

I’m also on a mission to eat as many probiotic foods as possible. Jason Shon Bennett talks about eating raw, soaked, sprouted, and fermented foods every day. I’ve got some sprouts soaking on the windowsill, sauerkraut in the fridge, I eat yoghurt and raw greens every day… I’m also drinking slippery elm – it soothes my inflamed innards like nothing else.

Grow your internal garden

This blog post is about the importance of good gut bacteria. I will be writing about actual gardening later, but not today. For me, the learning on this topic happened alongside my learning on the evils of sugar.

It all began with an ear infection almost two years ago. When the blocked ear that I’d been ignoring and hoped would go away became a sharp stabbing pain that felt like a needle in my brain, I went to the doctor and was prescribed a course of antibiotics. All things considered, my health has been mostly good throughout my life, and I can’t remember when I last took antibiotics prior to this; maybe never. I didn’t take any probiotics with the antibiotics; I didn’t know how important this was back then. The antibiotics cleared up the ear infection pretty smartly, but left me feeling absolutely exhausted like never before.

Looking back, I’d guess that years of drinking too much alcohol and eating too much sugar had gradually compromised my ratio of good gut bacteria to the not-so-good. This set the stage for the antibiotics to come in and completely wipe out what little there was left of the good stuff, allowing Candida albicans to take over.

Candida is a yeast and like any other yeast, it feeds on sugar. I need to stress here that candida is in all of us, and is meant to be, it’s only when we have too much of it that it becomes a problem. My friend Josie used the analogy of a garden, where candida is a weed – dock or dandelion maybe – that exists on the periphery and goes about its business but doesn’t take over the cultivated plants, which are the whole reason the garden was created in the first place. The garden is filled with nutritious and delicious morsels just waiting to fill our tummies and to colonise our digestive systems with good gut flora. Everything is in balance. However, over time the garden gets neglected and the dock and dandelion start to infiltrate, sending their tap roots deep into the soil and taking hold.

So too with candida: if allowed to take over, its long branch-like structures can penetrate the gut wall and migrate to other parts of the body, including the brain. Molecules of food can also cross this barrier, which they’re not supposed to do –  ever heard of leaky gut syndrome or irritable bowel syndrome?

Some of the symptoms I had when my candida was really bad included brain fog – I’d find myself staring vacantly into space, concentration and mental clarity were at an all-time low. My muscles and joints ached and my recovery after exercise took longer than normal. I also suffered from vertigo – things would be swirling and undulating around me, things that shouldn’t be moving at all, things like buildings and pavements. Chronic fatigue and sugar cravings were also happening.

It’s a tricky one because the symptoms I’ve just described could also be attributed to other things: a sleep-deprived parent could have brain fog, someone who doesn’t stretch or drink enough water could have aching joints and muscles, and anyone who’s addicted to sugar will crave it. I had an underlying sense that something wasn’t quite right with my health, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. It certainly wasn’t life threatening, but it was affecting the quality of my day-to-day life.

If you’re reading this and thinking that you too might have too much candida floating around your body, here’s a really simple test you can do. Very first thing in the morning, before having anything to eat or drink, or brushing your teeth, work some saliva into your mouth and spit it into a glass full of water. Leave it for at least half an hour then come back and have a look. If it’s still floating on top of the water, you’re in the clear. If there are tendrils of saliva dangling in the water, or if your saliva has sunk to the bottom of the glass, sorry but it’s not good news. The first time I did the spit test I didn’t have to wait half an hour for the verdict – my saliva immediately started drifting down through the water and within a minute or two it had all sunk to the bottom and looked white and powdery. Damn.

The only way to get your candida back in check is to starve it of sugar. Initially, I didn’t think there was all that much sugar in my diet, but when I had a closer look there was actually quite a lot. Lots of fruit, lots of honey, maple syrup, I added sugar to my coffee, I treated myself to dried fruit or lollies about once a week. It was certainly enough to feed the beast. One of the (many) annoying things about candida is that once you start starving it the symptoms actually get worse. The candida starts to die and as it does so it releases toxins, it really sucks. One of the symptoms of die-off is irrational anger, so be warned. Just add it to your arsenal of chronic fatigue, brain fog, and general aches and pains.

Going into this, a life without sugar seemed, to me, like a life that wasn’t worth living. I thought to myself “I’ll just do it until I get better, then I’ll go back to my old way of eating”. So that’s what I did. I was fastidiously healthy all week – no sugar, lots of cruciferous vegetables, sprouts, fermented foods, cider vinegar… Then the weekend would roll around and I wouldn’t be able to sustain it. I’d drink alcohol, which is a big no-no (candida loves it) then in the aftermath of the drinking I’d make poor food choices: chocolate, lollies, ice cream… All my good work was undone. So let me tell you, from personal experience, it won’t work if you only do it sometimes, it has to be 100 %, or you may as well not bother with it at all. Let me also tell you, the rewards are well worth the effort. Do you want to live a life where you feel a bit below average all of the time, or are you willing to deal with some potentially full-on shit in order to get to a really good place?

So, if you’re serious about getting your overgrown garden back in order, yes you have to pull out the weeds, but you also have to put the good stuff back in. Taking a probiotic supplement can definitely help, but take an enteric one so that the bacteria will be released into your intestines, not your stomach where your hydrochloric acid will destroy most of it. The brand I use is called Reuteri. You also want to eat lots of foods that naturally contain probiotics rather than just relying on a pill. Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) are your friends, as are fermented foods – sauerkraut really helped for me.

Eating all these alkalising vegetables will also help bring your pH back to where it should be. Sugar acidifies your body (as does coffee, alcohol, grains, dairy and meat) but your body really loves to be just slightly alkaline, and will draw alkalising minerals out of your bones if it has to, in order to keep things the way they’re meant to be. Your body will also hold onto fat and use it to insulate your cells from your blood, which will become increasingly acidic if you eat too much crap and not enough good stuff. I read about this in Dr Libby Weaver’s book The Real Food Chef.

For me, the journey to health is just that – it’s a journey not a destination (I know that this is a cliché but it’s so true!). I don’t think I’ll ever get to a place where I can say health has been achieved and then rest on my laurels because of all the work I put in way back when. It doesn’t work like that. A functional and bountiful garden requires constant maintenance; you can’t just pull the weeds out once and expect them never to return. Nor can you throw some seedlings in the ground and come back in a month or two expecting to find them flourishing. Is it worth the effort? Absolutely. Right, I’m off to eat some sauerkraut.