If you’ve ever had a vaginal yeast infection, you’re all too familiar with the telltale symptoms that make it so miserable: itching, burning, swelling, painful urination, and an unpleasant white discharge. The majority of yeast infections result from an overgrowth of Candida albicans, a fungal organism that naturally inhabits the vagina, gastrointestinal tract, and skin folds.
Candida usually lives in harmonious balance with the body’s beneficial bacteria, but when this balance is thrown off—by changes in vaginal pH (ideally an acidic 3.8 to 4.5), diabetes, pregnancy, chronic stress, or medications such as birth control pills, steroids, or antibiotics—Candida can multiply out of control, causing a yeast infection.
While conventional treatments will cure most yeast infections, over-the-counter creams like Monistat may become less effective over time—especially in women who have recurrent infections. And prescription antifungals like fluconazole can not only cause nausea, headache, and dizziness, but when used for long periods of time, they may even give rise to harmful bacteria.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that nearly 75 percent of women will experience at least one yeast infection in their lifetime. The condition can be prevented, though—especially if you limit your intake of substances that feed Candida, such as sugar and refined carbohydrates—and treated at home with natural remedies.
A yeast infection clearly indicates that the beneficial microorganisms that usually keep Candida in check need a boost to recreate a healthy balance. A probiotic supplement that includes the strains Bifidobacterium bifidum and Lactobacillus acidophilus will help not only clear up a yeast infection, but also prevent a recurrence, explains Susan Lark, MD, women’s health expert. Take a supplement with at least 30 billion CFUs (colony-forming units) each day until symptoms subside. For prevention, a dose of 1 billion to 16 billion CFUs should help. You can also get probiotics from food—yogurt, kefir, tempeh, and cultured vegetables like raw sauerkraut.
Derived from the inner bark of the taheebo (Tabebuia impetiginosa) tree in Central and South America, Pau d’arco has long been used to treat yeast infections. Studies point to lapachol and beta-lapachone, two antiviral and antifungal compounds in the bark, that help fight Candida overgrowth. Take 500 mg each day of the dried herb in capsule form.
Studies show the sulfur compound allicin found in garlic has natural antifungal properties that suppress Candida. To treat an infection, Lark suggests consuming four raw, chopped cloves—exposure to air activates the allicin—every day for two to three weeks, then scaling down to one clove per day until your symptoms have subsided. If you can’t stomach the idea of eating that much garlic, take 300 mg a day of a garlic supplement until your symptoms subside.
This fatty acid’s antifungal properties help treat yeast infections. Lark recommends taking 1,000 to 2,000 mg three times a day with meals until symptoms pass. But, she warns, at these high doses you may experience fatigue and achiness as your body eliminates large amounts of Candida at once. So start with 500 mg once or twice a day for the first day or two before ramping up to the full dose.
Studies show that berberine—an alkaloid extract of the herb Oregon grape root—is a powerful inhibitor of Candida. Take 200 mg two to four times per day of a supplement (in capsule form) that is standardized to 80 percent berberine.