09/16/2013 12:47 EDT | Updated 11/16/2013 05:12 EST

Yeast Is a Problem -- And Not Just For Women

For many, the mere mention of a yeast infection can bring chills down the spine. While this is most commonly associated with women's health there are a number of other potential health problems linked to these germs. There are a number of yeasts that cause infection but most attention has gone to a specific type, Candida. Over the years, this particular microbe has been involved skin and eye infections, oral health problems, urinary tract infections, and most importantly, bloodstream infections, which can be deadly.

What makes this infection even more frustrating is that normally, this yeast is harmless and makes up a part of the human microbiome. This apparent Jekyll and Hyde-like nature, not unlike the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae, makes Candida a formidable opponent in health and at times, difficult to control, especially when infections appear out of nowhere. Making the situation worse is the fact that many strains are becoming resistant to treatment leaving many infected with fewer options to resolve the problem.

Because Candida is heading down the same path as other multi-drug resistant organisms, such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Clostridium difficile, researchers have been working hard to find out just how Candida causes infection and whether there may be ways to prevent problems before they begin. What has been uncovered has revealed a rather complex interaction involving the yeast's double life, the immune system and an all too familiar chronic health problem: inflammation.

Candida, like many types of yeast, can take on two different types of lifestyles. The most commonly known is the yeast stage. It lives as a single round cell and happens to travel around like a car, bumping from place to place without causing any problems. However, if the yeast decides that it is time to settle down, it changes its shape, forming long, thin structures akin to train tracks, known as hyphae.

When these tracks start to spread, they interfere with the human cells nearby and destroy them leaving room for more track laying. This process isn't normally successful as the immune system, when healthy, is able to identify these train tracks early and stop them before they can cause harm.

Yet, if the immune system is compromised, such as HIV infection or organ transplantation, Candida can sense the lack of a proper patrol and start the invasion process undeterred.

When this happens, the body tries its best to combat and control. But without the ability to fight back with all its weapons, there is only one option: acute inflammation. Unfortunately, as researchers have found, all inflammation does is help the efforts of the yeast, which can quell the defense. Without medical treatment, the infection can become chronic and potentially life-threatening.

The inability of inflammation to stop Candida infection led researchers to question whether or not chronic inflammation could also convince the yeast that it's time to set up a colony. Using animal models of antibiotic use and chronic inflammation, the link was shown. The presence of chronic inflammation is enough to convince Candida that the immune system will not cause it any problems and as a result, it can start to spread its hyphae.

With this information gained over the last few years, there has been much effort in finding more natural ways to help the body fight against Candida infection. The use of probiotics including Lactobacillus has been shown to offer some assistance in keeping the hyphae at bay.

In addition, a diet rich in proteins and fatty acids without high levels of carbohydrates has proven effective. Perhaps the most common anti-Candida treatment is capric acid, which can easily be found in natural health food stores. While these options are designed to ensure that Candida is kept out of the gastrointestinal tract, they do not take into the consideration the fact that the yeast can make up part of the natural flora.

This week, another possible aid in the fight was revealed by a team made up of researchers from Kansas State University and the Pasteur Institute. The scientific paper focused on the use of a natural extracts of a potential Candida fighter, the plant Gymnema sylvestre, better known as cowplant. While it did not eliminate the presence of the yeast, it did something better.

Using worms as a model, the team found that Candida could easily lay their train tracks when they were ingested, leading to infection. However, when extracts known as gymnemic acids were eaten by the worms, the Candida could not form hyphae. What was even more captivating was the fact that if hyphae had already been formed, the ingestion of the acids led to their destruction and the return of Candida to its harmless yeast state. In essence, not only had they found a natural prevention for infection; they had also apparently found a possible cure and restoration of harmony.

While the results of the study were promising, they could also not be linked to human infection. Worms and humans are quite simply too far apart to be linked. However, this does offer some hope to those who may already be taking these extracts.

The study also shows that in the context of Candida, there is the potential for co-existence. However, in order to ensure that the balance exists, there has to be a commitment to a healthy lifestyle and immunological balance. In absence of that, there may be hope for natural means of dealing with infection such that we are not faced with the troubling future of a world in which we have yet another pathogen for which there is no medical treatment.