MIH Project Manager Nynke Brett tells her story .....
Imagine being told that you have to give up all your favourite foods, drinks and guilty pleasures, including caffeine and alcohol, for an unknown period of time.
Unimaginable right? Yet this was the brutal situation I was faced with after a visit to my nutritional therapist earlier this year.
But why? Because a blood test had revealed an overgrowth of candida in my body, along with other imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, a stressed liver and parasites. I was told that to restore ‘optimum health’ meant taking drastic action to kill the candida, which was currently thriving on all my favourite foods.
What is Candida? It’s a yeast that occurs naturally in all of us. But in many people, like me, it occurs as an overgrowth of an intestinal organism called Candida Albicans which can grow anywhere in the body. In my case it’s happily living in my gut and has caused many years of acute digestive issues in the form of stomach pain and bloating, (IBS) a condition also known as ‘leaky gut’. The inflammation is caused by tiny holes in the gut lining that allow undigested food particles to enter the blood stream. This causes the body to think it’s under attack which triggers an autoimmune response in the form of pain!
How do you know if you have it? Besides stomach pain other common symptoms include food allergies, skin rashes, headaches, brain fog, thrush, flu-like symptoms and chronic fatigue.
What causes it? It is thought to be caused by over-use of antibiotics and/or other pharmaceutical drugs, eating a high sugar diet, alcohol or stress that leads to an imbalance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in the gut known as dysbiosis. People with cancer almost certainly have candida overgrowth due to the effects of chemotherapy. In my case I already knew I’d been harbouring candida since a teenager, after suffering a serious bout of salmonella food poisoning (shigella) and being prescribed so many antibiotics over the years, but had secretly hoped it had discreetly disappeared.
‘Are you fully committed to heal yourself?’ asked Asa Simonsson my nutritional therapist and naturopath. ‘Are you ready to make that commitment?’
I’ve never been a big fan of doctors or pharmacies and had opted for a more holistic approach, so I told Asa that I was indeed ready to take the next step without realising the enormity of what that meant. I was reeling at the thought I was carrying a whole ecosystem of nasties inside my body. Many people choose to ignore their candida overgrowth because the implications of taking action are too overwhelming. This had certainly been the case for me. But this year was different, I'd decided to tackle it head on, perhaps naively at the time.
Among the many things I love that I was told to give up immediately were sugar (including most fruits and natural sweeteners like maple syrup), dairy, wheat, gluten, mushrooms, starchy vegetables (like potatoes), caffeine, alcohol and processed foods. Organic meat and wild salmon are allowed but I chose to exclude these too as I wanted to follow a 100% plant based diet. This was going to be hardcore.
I walked home that day with an overwhelming sense of apprehension and dread, a feeling that if I was going to take my health seriously my life would never quite be the same again. I did not see much light at the end of the tunnel, only deprivation. But I wanted to test my will power and give it my best shot.
When I got home I opened up my kitchen cupboards and fridge and emptied out 80% of the contents (mainly wheat and gluten based items, and anything containing sugar and dairy). I read all the labels on the packaging and was disappointed to see even many of the so called ‘health food’ brands produce products which contain sugar. I gave them all away to delighted friends and neighbours and made a shopping list of ‘safe’ foods to buy the next day.
But why would I suddenly put myself through such a restrictive diet? It started with a resolution to myself at the start of the year to take better care of my health and wellbeing. I’d been putting on weight and was doing virtually no exercise - ironic as that sounds as I work for Made in Hackney that encourages people to lead healthier lifestyles and yet I used the excuse of being ‘too busy’ to apply that advice to myself. Sound familiar?
In the days that followed I was given an action plan to help me with the first steps of my radical new lifestyle and eating plan.
The four R’s of healing were explained to me i) Remove the damaging foods, parasites and stress 2) Replace with good foods, digestive enzymes and HCL - to heal the gut and improve digestion 3) Restore and re-enoculate with good bacteria – probiotics, prebiotics and fermented foods and 4) Repair, which takes the longest time, and requires direct nutritional support with supplements and herbs etc.
But which candida diet to follow?
There are many different versions of the candida diet, depending on the severity of the symptoms, so it’s a mine field as to what guidelines to follow. I based my approach on trial and error to see what suited me. Some candida protocols even recommend not eating grains or legumes, but one thing they all agree on is eating plenty of organic leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach and broccoli, thank goodness for that!
The next step was to improve my digestion. Why? Well without good digestion you can eat and drink all the healthy foods you like but your body will not be absorbing the nutrients from them.
Some of the golden rules of good digestion are: chew your food well, eat lots of organic vegetables (50% of every meal), eat fruit - preferably on its own (but in moderation if you have candida), eat lots of fermented foods and ‘brown’ wholefoods, avoid wheat and excess sugar and caffeine, drink lots of water, and try to eat in peace and quiet, never in a hurry. I know this is easier said than done!
I started taking probiotics on a daily basis along with a high dose multivitamin and supplements to boost my immune system. I started eating more raw, sprouted and fermented foods and making my own kefir and sauerkraut which are full of beneficial probiotics. I discovered a taste for tempeh, a form of fermented soya but make sure I only buy organic non-GMO brands. I went on a detox, making green juices for breakfast, a raw salad for lunch and another plant based meal for dinner. I’ve always loved salads, especially with avocado and apple cider vinegar dressing so it just meant a good excuse for eating more of the stuff. Sea vegetables are also ridiculously nutritious (think nori and wakame) so I started experimenting with making miso soup. Some days I also fasted, and the whole time I took supplements of magnesium, glutamine and digestive enzymes. So far so good.
What I didn’t enjoy was having to consume a concoction of bentonite clay and psyllium husk (foul!) which caused no end of amusement from my brother who couldn’t resist teasing me about this outlandish ritual. He wasn’t the only one who raised his eyebrows. Look it up. It apparently has electromagnetic properties which binds to toxins in your body and then flushes them out. Far out! During this detox phase I went away on a retreat run by the lovely Jenny and Robin of Resource Me, which consisted of nothing but fresh juices for 5 days! I returned enlightened and felt by this point I could overcome any hurdle that still lay before me, so I decided to have a session of colonic hydrotherapy and then later a coffee enema just for good measure. (They're actually not as scary as you might think.) Finally in the third month of the protocol I started taking strong anti-fungal supplements to blitz the candida itself which contain caprylic acid as one of the main ingredients.
During all this the one fundamental thing I had to remember was to drink plenty of water, at least 2 litres of filtered water a day. I’ve struggled with this in the past but now I manage to drink 500ml of warm water with lemon every morning before I have breakfast. Another glass before lunch and one before dinner. This also avoids over-eating. Herbal teas can be included in the 2 litres and P’au Darco is a great anti-microbial tea to help control candida.
To help me adjust to this new lifestyle I started reading around the subject. Author of The Gut Makeover Jeannette Hyde writes that our gut is our "second brain”. She explains that we have a kilo and a half of bacteria living in our gut which is known as our ‘microbiome’. A healthy microbiome keeps weight and digestive symptoms down, and mood and energy up. She points out that a healthy digestive system is linked with great skin, and improved response to stress. Well I can vouch for that because my overall mood has definitely improved and friends who haven’t seen me in a while notice the difference by saying ‘What’s happened to you, you're glowing!?
What I’ve really enjoyed about this significant lifestyle change is all the new foods and recipes I’m learning to prepare. Despite what people think I’m eating really well. I try to include a wide variety of fresh organic vegetables, herbs and spices each day and garlic is great for boosting immunity. I get my vegetables from Growing Communities organic veg box scheme, (I’d also recommend Abel and Cole who deliver to anywhere in the UK). I use coconut oil for cooking, and extra virgin olive oil in salads which is high in polyphenols, a type of antioxidant. For baking I use xylitol or stevia whenever a recipes calls for sugar, both of which are plant-based sweeteners with very low GI so they keep the blood sugar level balanced and have virtually zero calories. (Green) apples are also a great natural sweetener that do not contain such high fructose levels as say, banana (which I avoid.)
Ricki Heller has a useful candida blog and You Tube channel. She’s also published several recipe books including one devoted to sugar-free baking and desserts. Another useful website is I Quit Sugar. And as for Instagram, this has been a life saver in connecting me with health food enthusiasts around the world so I'm never stuck with ideas for what to cook, I just wish I had more days in the week :-)
I often get asked how I find the patience to remain on such a restrictive diet. So I’m going to address some of the biggest challenges I face, and how each can be overcome:
Will Power - you need lots of this. Especially during the first few weeks when you experience headaches and nausea from withdrawal of caffeine and sugar. After that it gets easier as your confidence grows on knowing what you can and cannot eat. The good news is that after a while, once you start feeling the improvements, you can reintroduce some of your favourite foods again.
Cravings - these pass after the first month. Believe me I used to be a chocaholic and cake fiend but now my tastebuds have completely changed since giving up sugar. I now love sour tasting foods and binge on hummus instead of crisps.
Time Consuming - yes I do find I have to cook most of my meals from scratch now which requires more planning and preparation, but it means you are completely in control of what you eat and where your food comes from. I’ve learnt to save time by cooking meals in batches at the weekend, freezing and then eating during the week.
Eating Out - I tend to choose restaurants that I know will have a safe option for me. Indian restaurants are usually good, my favourite being Rasa in Stoke Newington which have a lot of chickpea based dishes (gluten-free :-) There’s also the fabulous Fed by Water and Black Cat in Hackney, in fact most restaurants always have something on the menu I can eat.
I used to love my coffees in the morning but now when I go to a cafe I’m more likely to order a decaf almond latte. I’ve become one of those awkward people that I used to find pretentious, except my excuse is I’m not trying to be a hipster I’m just trying to improve my health :-) As for giving up wine, I thought that would be hard too but it’s been surprisingly easy. Very ocasionally I'll treat myself on a special occasion but for the most part it's been a blessing to have waived goodbye to hangovers and nights of restless sleep after drinking. It’s a no brainer.
Events - even attending food conferences or festivals where you’d expect a higher than average level of health awareness there are still barriers for anyone on a candida diet. I attended VegFest in November and all the food samples contained sugar. When I asked the girl at the vegan cake stall what sweeteners were being used she just rolled her eyes and said, ‘Of course they all have sugar!’ No big surprise there but I couldn’t help thinking they were missing a trick. I did however find the Koko stand and got a free sample of their amazing coconut sugar-free, dairy-free yoghurt.
Cost - eating an organic plant based diet doesn’t need to cost a lot more than your usual weekly food shop. I see it as being about substitutions. For example a couple of nights out drinking a week can easily add up to £40 plus, which is what I now spend in my favourite health food shop Food For All. Some extra cash will be needed to buy the supplements, especially in the beginning stages of the candida detox. To take it seriously you need to follow a week by week supplement protocol, which I did for 6 months, and record what you eat and drink every day.
Family and friends - dealing with questions about my new lifestyle has now become the norm and people have come to understand that I’m living well, in fact thriving on it. Getting support from like minded folk around you is really helpful to keep motivated, even if some of these people are in the virtual world of Instagram. When I’m invited out for dinner I just tell friends what I can eat and give suggestions. If you live with a partner and/or have children then you either have to agree they’ll eat what you’re eating or cook separately for yourself, which will require more planning.
Travel and Holidays - when I know I have to be out for the whole day I’ll carry a handful of nuts with me, (walnuts, hazelnuts), hummus, sometimes an avocado and always a bottle of filtered water. High street chains like Pret A Manger now do green smoothies (with no added sugar) and other fast food companies like Itsu are offering an increasing choice of healthy options. The first time I travelled abroad since being on this regime I thought I’d need to carry all my own food but no fear, as to my delight I discovered a Leon Fast Food at Stansted airport that served an incredible sweet potato falafel salad and other equally delicious vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free options.
Visiting my brother and his family in Rome, now that was always going to be a challenge, how to avoid the temptation of pasta, cheese and wine!? I managed it by offering to do most of the cooking in their household which they were delighted with. We also discovered an organic supermarket nearby and even a gluten free restaurant, which is fast becoming a trend all over Italy. So prepare to be pleasantly surprised!
The Benefits. Looking back over the past 7 months, to that first day of believing my life would become one of abstinence, I could never have imagined all the benefits that followed. Weight has dropped off me, 8 kg to be exact, my energy levels have soared, and I find it easier to concentrate. The bloating and stomach pain has disappeared, not to mention the embarrassing gurgling sounds, and my dentist is my new biggest fan :-) To top it off some say my skin now makes me look younger and I’ve even found motivation to start running which I’ve never done before in my life. I now run 6km 2-3 times a week along the beautiful river Lea.
I still get reactions of utter disbelief (and pity) when I talk about what I no longer eat, but it doesn’t have to be about hardship or deprivation. This blog is an attempt to reassure people that it is indeed possible to live well, eat well and feel amazing without all the guilty pleasures. I want to prove that not only can you thrive but also push yourself further and reach new physical limits not thought possible before.
My friends still ask me, ‘How much longer are you going to remain on this strict diet for?’ 'Don't you miss dairy?' 'Is it 'safe?' My response is.... 'well look at me, do I look sick to you?' I don't feel like I'm on any diet, (a word that has such negative associations,) quite the opposite, I’m enjoying all the rewards of a healthy new plant based lifestyle. For how long? Probably for the foreseeable future, because after all, why would I want to go back to my old habits. No thanks. I won’t pretend I don’t have moments of weakness when I have a glass of red wine, but I’m not going to suddenly abandon all this effort. Kicking Candida and is a commitment and I’m going to stick with it as long as I can.
Nynke is a Project Manager at Made in Hackney. You can follow her progress on Instagram naturally_nynke
You can also ready more tips on thriving on an anti candida diet HERE
Update September 2017 - I am now living 80% of the anti candida diet and I'm enjoying no return of any symptoms. So that means I've been able to re-introduce some healthy treats like natural sweeteners (eg. maple syrup), dairy free ice cream (eg. Booja-Booja) mushrooms and bread (I try only to eat sourdough bread as it's easier to digest due to the fermentation process). All of these in moderation! And yes that also means I've regained a few kilograms in weight but only very few :)
Some of my favourite anti-candida recipes are included here:
Miso soup (without the mushrooms)