Candida albicans(C. albicans) is an interesting component of the human microbiome. Most of us have it, it normally lives in harmony with us, but it becomes problematic in some people.
C. albicans is the most common cause of human fungal infection. It’s dimorphic, meaning it exists as both a yeast and a fungus depending on the environmental conditions it’s in.
It’s an opportunistic pathogen residing in 40-60% of humans. So when our immune system takes a snooze, it takes that cue and causes trouble.
C. albicans normally causes infection in the mouth or vagina, specifically in the mucus membranes. Thrush is the name for Candida infection in the mouth or throat. A yeast infection is when Candida infects the vagina.
Candida can also cause problems in the gut. Systemic Candidiasis is when the infection enters the blood, causing potentially life threatening complications. In all instances, infection occurs as the yeast transforms in to the fungal form.
The thought process with a C. albicans problem is that it may originate in the gut and disperse throughout the body. This gives rise to the idea that the best course of treatment is to eradicate it from the gut.
Common approaches to treat it include special diets to starve it, antifungals to kill it, or a combination of both. A new paper indicates that these approaches may cause bigger problems down the road.
Candida albicans in the gut: Natural vaccination?
A new research paper in mice reveals the complex interaction between the gut and our fungal friend. Though C. albicans normally lives in harmony in the gut, the immune system doesn’t quite trust it. So when colonized with C. albicans, immune cells in the gut raise an alarm.
B cells in the gut identify C. albicans as a potential problem and send out marching orders to the spleen. Importantly, the spleen is a major hub in our immune system. The spleen creates antibodies and removes pathogens tagged for removal.
Thus, the spleen creates anti-fungal antibodies to C. albicans. These antifungal antibodies prevent C. albicans from slipping into the blood and causing problems elsewhere. Importantly, these antibodies are also effective against other fungi.
Therefore, having C. albicans in our the essentially vaccinates against it and related fungi. So eradicating it may not be the greatest idea.
Treating Candida albicans: Bolster the immune system
The most interesting take away from this is that C. albicans in the gut caused healthy mice to create these antibodies. There was no sign of infection, implying that these antibodies are playing back up. If C. albicans does slip in through the gut or mouth, immune cells escort it to the spleen for removal.
So what happens if this system of natural vaccination fails? They found that treating mice with immune-suppressing drugs interfered with this process and predisposed them to fungal infection. Treating them with antibodies from healthy mice made them resistant to infection.
This all makes sense, as fungal infections tend to happen in immuno-compromised people. Another interesting finding is that people susceptible to systemic candidiasis, a deadly form of Candida infection, have a genetic mutation in a gene called CARD9.
This gene is an important player in this whole process. But, it’s important to point out that having this mutation is extremely rare. So, for most, focus should be on building up the immune system, rather than eradicating C. albicans from the gut.
Candida albicans is a common member of the microbiome, but an opportunistic pathogen. Under normal conditions, it appears to play an important role in promoting anti-fungal immunity.
When C. albicans causes local issues in the throat, skin or vagina, people often approach the problem by looking to eradicate it. Based on the above data, this is a terrible mistake and may have negative effects on anti-fungal immunity.
Rather than approaching fungal issues with antifungals or Candida diets, efforts should be made to bolster the immune system. This includes building resilience through better sleep, exercise, high quality nutrition, improving circadian rhythms, and managing stress.