The female body is a beautiful, complex system. The natural feminine cycle of hormones is an unmatched phenomenon. Women are also the only ones that can complete the miraculous process of conceiving a baby and giving birth.
They are amazing nurturers, have incredible intuition, and are usually more empathetic than their male counterparts. (1)
To sum it up, women are amazing!
A woman's health, however, relies on a delicate balance. Upsetting this equilibrium can not only lead to feeling tired or catching a cold more easily. It can open the door to some serious health issues.
Candida infection is one factor that can disturb this balance.
Normally, Candida is among the billions of microbes living in different areas throughout the body. As long as it stays relatively small in number, everything is fine. But if the natural mechanisms of the body can't keep them in check, Candida yeast infection can take over. This leads to the question, what upsets the female body’s ability to control Candida?
Candida And The Female Body
Candida yeast is not specific to women. It colonizes in both genders. However, estimates state that around 75% of women will experience Candida overgrowth in their lifetimes. Of that group, about 50% will have a repeat infection. The specific strain, Candida albicans, is responsible for 91% of these infections. Up to 20% of these will become severe.
Candida overgrowth rates in women seem to correspond with their reproductive years. Statistics show that women start to be more prone to infection in their 20s. The rates of infection increase and peak in the 30s and 40s and then start to decrease. (2)
Candida is also common in pregnant women. It can affect up to 55% of women in their third trimesters. What is the common denominator in these groups of women? High levels of the hormone estrogen.
How Does Estrogen Affect Candida Overgrowth?
For Candida to cause issues, it has to be able to adhere to the inner walls of organs. What does it need to do that? Why does Candida overgrowth seem to happen in the female reproductive organs the most?
Estrogen and Candida like to bind to each other.
High levels of estrogen promote Candida infection.
It enables them to mature into stronger organisms. Candida also likes to bind to iron. The uterine lining is a wealth of both these fuels. (3)
Combine that with the perfect temperature for multiplication, and the female reproductive organs can be the easiest place for yeast overgrowth to occur.
But is that the whole story? If the female reproductive system has checks and balances, why is Candida infection on the rise?
One of the ways the female body prevents Candida overgrowth is with good gut flora that produce hydrogen peroxide as a byproduct of their metabolic processes. This helps to keep an area at a specific pH that does not favor Candida. It makes it difficult for them to latch onto the linings of the reproductive tract or organs. (4)
It’s important to remember that estrogen isn’t “bad.” Estrogen is given a bad rap for many health issues that women face. It’s when estrogen is high beyond normal levels that it can become a problem.
Unfortunately, most birth control contains a massive dose of synthetic estrogen that can send good microbe balance through a loop.
Are Yeast Infections A Side Effect Of Birth Control?
Birth control is widely used across the world. Around 65% of reproductive-aged women use hormonal birth control. This percentage changes depending on location. It is approximately 75% in North America. (5)
Although preventing pregnancy is their intended use, sometimes birth control pills are not even used for that purpose. They can also be used to:
- Make periods lighter
- Lessen menstrual cramps
- Clear up acne
- Reduce unwanted hair growth
These sound like amazing benefits. But is there a cost with these conveniences?
Most birth controls work by giving a high dose of hormones similar to what the body releases naturally during pregnancy. Because a woman’s body “thinks” it is pregnant, it will not release an egg, so pregnancy is impossible.
If 55% of pregnant women get a Candida infection, does birth control increase a woman’s chances of getting it as well? After all, it makes a woman’s body believe it is pregnant.
The probability of a woman getting a yeast infection during her first year of birth control use goes up by about 25%. It slightly decreases to 20.6% after the first year of use, but is still rather high. (6)
One type of birth control even doubled the chances for Candida infection during the first five years of use. (7)
The female body has natural antimicrobial mechanisms to help prevent these infections. Hormonal contraceptives seem to reduce these genes' activity, which lessens their ability to fight the Candida pathogen. (8)
Hormonal birth control pills are not the only type of contraception that has been shown to increase the chances of yeast infection.
Any implanted birth control tends to escalate the chances of yeast overgrowth. Intrauterine devices increased the amount of Candida present in the area by four times the amount before insertion in one study. It may be good to consider a Candida support protocol to help control this overgrowth. (9)
Strangely enough, hormonal contraceptives don’t only affect Candida overgrowth in the reproductive organs. Certain combinations of oral contraceptive can lead to oral Candida infection as well. This also resulted in increased plaque on teeth. (10)
Does Birth Control Contribute To Other Infections?
Candida overgrowth risk is not the only issue that birth control can affect. The changes it causes in pH, hormone levels, and the microbiome can lead to other diseases as well.
There is an increased risk of contracting HIV when on birth control. It also raises the risk of passing on HIV if the woman already has the disease. (11)
It can also increase the likelihood of getting other sexually transmitted diseases, especially syphilis. (12)
Candida Creates Biofilm To Protect Itself
Once Candida infection gets a foothold in an area, it will do whatever it can to stay and multiply. This yeast colonizes together and creates a protective shield called biofilm.
Biofilm protects it from our immune system and from being killed by antibiotics.
Birth control can help Candida create this biofilm, especially two forms of birth control:
- Intrauterine devices (a metal implant in the uterus that prevents an egg from attaching to the uterus)
Intrauterine devices seem to increase the formation of biofilm and make the Candida harder to treat. It is still able to stick to the device during treatment. (13, 14)
- Vaginal ring (a ring made of plastic inserted into the vagina that slowly releases the hormonal birth control medication over time)
The vaginal ring type of contraception increases the imbalance of the flora in the reproductive tract. It can get biofilm on it after only three weeks of use. (15)
Can Candida Affect Fertility?
In short, yes.
Unfortunately, changing the balance of vaginal flora in favor of Candida can influence fertility. The normal microbiome balance in this area usually has lactobacilli as its dominant strain. In a study of women with fertility issues, Candida was the dominant strain of flora. (16)
Almost 28% of the women studied didn’t have symptoms of Candida overgrowth. Candida could be affecting fertility without women knowing it.
Candida can also increase the chances of a fertilized egg attaching itself to the inside of a fallopian tube, and not in the uterus where it should be. This can be dangerous to the health of the mother as it can lead to internal bleeding. (17)
The embryo also cannot develop there. It can only develop in the uterus. If a woman has Candida and conceives a viable pregnancy, she can pass on the infection to the baby.
Another aspect that is often overlooked is if Candida affects male fertility. Candida can be passed from a woman to man and vise-versa. Yeast overgrowth doesn’t only affect the reproductive environment for the egg. Candida has a significant effect on male fertility.
Sperm are drawn to the Candida and attach themselves to it. The Candida grow a film around them. This growth releases chemicals into the area that attract the sperm even more.
Candida has a significant effect on the sperm’s ability to move, slowing them down. It also harms the sperm’s mitochondria and causes their DNA to fragment. They also are less capable of fertilizing an egg. (18)
Can Candida Or Birth Control Contribute To Depression?
Candida is an opportunistic fungus. It may start in one area, but it will spread as far as it can, and it produces toxins as it multiplies. These toxins may originate in the reproductive organs, but they can affect the whole body.
The immune system and endocrine organs can be disrupted. So can neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters have a balance, much the way microbiota does. Candida can upset this and increase the likelihood of depression if left untreated. (19)
Support for Candida issues can help prevent yeast overgrowth to lessen the likelihood of Candida-associated depression.
Birth control can also affect neurotransmitters. The specific neurotransmitter it seems to effect is serotonin. Serotonin is known as “the happy transmitter.” It is linked to feelings of well being and good mood. Its functions go beyond helping us feel “happy.” It is also involved with sleep regulation, digestion, and memory.
Serotonin levels have been shown to decrease in those using contraceptives. The most significant decrease was in women that were using an injectable form of birth control. This drop in serotonin can lead to feelings of depression. (20)
Studies have also shown that women on birth control are significantly more depressed than women of the same age who are not. (21)
Depression is the number one reason that women stop taking contraceptives. This risk of depression seems to be the highest among younger women, especially those in the teen years. (22)
Birth control also appears to have an impact on brain tissue.
Recent studies have discovered that some regions of the brain were thinner in women that took birth control. These portions of the brain had to do with reward and evaluating incoming information. (23)
Researchers aren’t sure what impact this has on their health or thinking. They also don’t know if it is permanent or temporary, only lasting as long as the birth control is in use but they were able to identify the change.
Keep a close watch on your moods to know if birth control is affecting you in this way.
Can Candida Contribute To Urinary Tract Infections?
Another issue that is more common in women than men, is urinary tract infections, or UTIs.
Part of this is because women have a shorter urethra, the tube from the bladder to the outside of the body. This tube should actually be sterile with no bacteria or flora in it, unlike other parts of the body. Changes in a woman’s reproductive flora, however, can encourage growth in the wrong places.
Most UTIs are bacterial and not fungal. However, estimates report that around 7% of UTIs are from Candida infection and not bacteria. This is four times higher in women than in men. (24)
The factors that increase the chances of this type of UTI are:
- Having recently been in the hospital
- Having a compromised immune system
- High antibiotic use
- Using a catheter
- Surgeries on the urinary tract
Whether this type of infection is bacterial or fungal is an important distinction to make. Bacteria and Candida require much different treatment to eliminate. It’s vital to find the true cause so that you can take the right course of action.
What To Do Moving Forward
We’ve laid out some common problems women face with Candida, birth control, and fertility. The important things to remember are these:
- Natural estrogen is your friend, not your “enemy”
- Birth control may contribute to Candida and other infections
- Keeping estrogen within healthy levels can help prevent Candida and depression
- Overcoming and preventing Candida overgrowth could help with fertility in both partners
Knowledge = Empowerment
Your female body is stunningly intricate. It can come with some unique challenges. Being educated and intentional about the choices which impact your health can help prevent some common issues.
Knowledge and awareness is the first step in empowering yourself to make decisions that strengthen your health and wellbeing.