“Sugar is basically poison,” my friend Rachel said over a couples’ dinner with her husband and my girlfriend, Kelli, at our favorite pizza place.
She was telling us about the monthly “Candida Cleanse” she embarks on to combat her allergies and indigestion.
“Essentially, it clears out all of the yeast in your gut that keeps your immune system from working the way it needs to,” Rachel explained. “My acupuncturist told me about it. You guys should try it.”
She had us at “poisoned gut” and “acupuncturist.” Kelli and I both tend to get seduced by alternative wisdom like horoscopes, yoga mantras, and books about the holographic universe (because we’re artistic, because our Midwestern parents would scoff at it, or just because it’s weird and fun to play along with mystical conspiracy theories). Plus we’re lesbians with two cats and crystals growing on our mantel, so, you know, it’s not a big surprise that we would be into this stuff.
Besides these preferences, Kelli really does suffer from sneezing fits and weird allergic skin reactions, and I get debilitating migraines that relegate me to giving myself a shot of sodium chloride in the leg after days of puking my guts out. So an alternative cure — no matter how suspicious-sounding — seemed worth a try. As we walked home from dinner with Rachel, we pledged to give yeast-free living a go.
“The Candida mold feeds off of the food that you eat, especially sugars and starches. The mold then begins to produce its own waste products. These wastes are toxic to the system and cause most of the sickness and disease which plagues man.”
As it turns out, when searching for information about Candida you’ll come across a lot of sites that look like a LiveJournal entry by someone writing a sci-fi novel about sugar aliens.
According to these sources, Candida forms from too much yeast in your gut, which produces mold (a.k.a. “toxic mold” depending on how alarmist the site you’re reading wants to be). The overgrowth of yeast feeds off sugar. Since there’s sugar in everything we eat, we’re all being lightly poisoned by a Sleeping Beauty’s Castle-esque overgrowth of yeast in our system, potentially causing a range of symptoms — everything from acne to indigestion, asthma, headaches, low libido, night sweats, panic attacks, bad breath, yeast infections, crying spells(?), and itching anus(!). So goes the theory, anyway.*
We decided 10 days would be a reasonable amount to try the cleanse, giving us enough time to get through the “withdrawal” phase and see any positive effects.
“If you’ve tried to stay on it, even the words ‘Candida diet’ make you shudder.”
It’s the day before we are set to start the cleanse. We examine packets of Stevia in the Raw over brunch, trying to detect if there is anything resembling sugar that we can eat on the diet. The answer? Nope, everything that tastes like sugar has sugar in it. Balls. Kelli eats two-week-old cantaloupe in an effort not to waste the yeasty items we already have in the fridge. Every five minutes, I think of a new food to ask Kelli if I can still eat. She shuts me up by sending me a list, which I’ve helpfully shortened to the basics.
Allowed: Avocados, eggs, walnuts and almonds (in moderation), quinoa, brown rice, broccoli, kale, cucumbers, hummus, green peppers, tomatoes, olive oil, lemon juice, herbal tea.
Not allowed: Everything and anything that includes sugar, including all fruit, all bread, and every condiment/sauce. Caffeine and alcohol. (According to The Candida Diet, caffeine suppresses the immune system from fighting back against poisonous effects of Candida.)
It worries me a bit that the list says, “Gum with xylitol is allowed to combat any bad breath you may experience.” I picture dying yeast struggling out of my tongue in a green cloud, trying to make my life even more miserable, like the animated mucus family in those Mucinex commercials.
We purchase yeast-fighting supplements online, including Nature’s Bounty™ Probiotic Acidophilus (its label mysteriously touts the contents as having “100 Million Organisms”) and something Rachel recommended called Undecyn that is manufactured by a company called THORNE RESEARCH. I wonder aloud if the origin of Batman’s next arch-enemy might come from the THORNE RESEARCH labs — a yeast giant created when eccentric millionaire Gregory Thorne falls into a vat of oh, 100 million organisms, perhaps? Kelli says she hopes I’m ready to take this seriously as she scratches at an angry red rash that has spontaneously appeared on her shins. I put my palm on her leg and feel the heat coming from her skin. I tell her Candida is going DOWN.
We go out for our “last meal” at a friends’ apartment. A guest at the dinner party tells us she’s done the Candida Cleanse before, and that she remembers her “pee and sweat smelled differently.” Noted.
“You will be surprised what lingers in the intestine.”
Normally we enjoy a ritual of making coffee, one of us sleepily setting the water to boil and measuring out rich, dark coffee to put in the French press, the other one checking email and playing Beach House on the stereo.
This morning, Kelli is chopping kale and drinking herbal tea. I match her enthusiasm with some cleanse-inspired air karate chops. We take our two THORNE RESEARCH pills; eat a full breakfast of kale sautéed in garlic and eggs, and high five.
At work, I immediately start to feel totally spacey — a little bit like being high but not in a fun way, just a stupid way. I learn not to say anything in meetings for fear of sounding like I’m on drugs or just really, really slow. I chalk it up to the no coffee and persevere. Around 3 p.m. I start to get a tension headache and secretly resent everyone who talks to me. I worry about my xylitol gum-covered breath.
The headache abates with dinner (brown rice, steamed green beans), after which Kelli decides to make hard-boiled eggs, and we sit down to watch Breaking Bad with seltzer and lemon juice on hand. At the part where Walt and Jesse are breaking into the police station with a giant magnet, Kelli realizes she’s boiled the eggs for 40 minutes. We don’t high five. She’s still itching her legs.
I have a slight headache that persists all day, but it’s nothing that can’t be handled by a couple of Advil. I still feel in a fog, but now it’s more like a light mist. I pack rice cakes and almond butter for us to bring to work, and eat mine immediately. When Kelli eats hers she instant messages me: “I’m embarrassed about my snack.” “Why?” I type. “It just seems like a parody of a diet. Who eats rice cakes?” Candida killers, that’s who.
Later, I have a conversation with a co-worker about a similar-sounding sugar cleanse she recently completed. She asks me what day I’m on. When I say day two, she replies, “Ohhhhhhhh. Watch out — on day three I felt like I was coming down with a fever.” Hmm.
I wake up feeling a little falsely filled up, like a human balloon animal. I’ve noticed a bit of a separation from my body, which I suppose means I’m usually a slave to my sugary appetites. So instead of tucking into every meal like it’s my last, I’m now spearing steamed broccoli and observing it as a thing that is going to get digested and power my muscles to move. I take no enjoyment in eating. I explain my feelings to Kelli, who tells me to stop acting like we’re in a reality show confession room and bear down. I notice a rash of red bumps creeping up her collarbone, so I do.
I am still irritable and foggy. I bring more rice cakes smeared with gloopy almond butter in little baggies to work. They look like dog poop sitting on my desk, so I cover them up with papers and eat them later when no one is looking. They taste like an oily cardboard box. Lunch is actually pretty good — some wild salmon (allowed), romaine lettuce, avocado, tomatoes, and almond slices in lemon juice and olive oil. All of the best things I can have on the diet put me in high spirits. I convince myself I’m entering the “energy” portion of the cleanse, until I get a headache later that night and pass out watching So You Think You Can Dance.
“Candida fights back when you attack it. Some people have burning when they urinate. DO NOT BACK-OFF ON THE ATTACK.”
Plain yogurt with unsweetened cinnamon for breakfast tastes like going for a jog in 100-degree heat. You have to coach your mouth into every bite. Despite the lack of enthusiasm during our meals, we’re both feeling pretty good. Over flavorless herbal tea, we get into an argument about how much sugar and cheese we are going to eat after the cleanse is over.
I argue that we can just eat a smaller amount of cheese post-cleanse, while Kelli, clearly high on yeast withdrawal, suggests we never eat cheese again. I gasp a little.
We finally agree that we will eat as little sugar and dairy as possible, but not completely cut anything out. We hug, and Kelli mumbles into my shoulder, “I just want to lead a lightly sugared life.” I tell her she should start a low-sugar recipe blog called Lightly Sugared Life. I go to bed hungry and exhausted. She goes to bed scratching.
Our weekends are typically filled with flea market food tastings, mimosa-soaked brunches, and intimate meals at creative Brooklyn hotspots serving things like fried kale, creamy risotto, plantain arepas, and creatively flavored artisan ice cream. Like any Brooklynite couple, we take full advantage of the diverse culinary splendor of the borough. But until this cleanse, I never realized how big of a part food played in our freewheeling weekend pleasure-seeking.
Physically, I feel pretty good. I’ve lost a couple of pounds, my head feels clear, and I have a decent amount of energy. But mentally, I’m getting pretty depressed. Life without sugar sucks. The most exciting thing we do all day is go to the park, where we proceed to detail out all of the things we are going to go back to eating once the cleanse is over.
This morning my pee was a shocking fluorescent yellow, which I took as a sign of good health. We finally caved and bought some pure Stevia from Whole Foods, which is a plant-based extract that kind of tastes like NutraSweet without the aftertaste, and is the only sugar-like thing allowed on the cleanse. It comes in a small bottle and is administered with an eyedropper, making me feel like a scientist doling out precise drops of pleasure into our herbal tea, oatmeal, and yogurt. After eating a not-that-bad-but-not-that-good-either meal of quinoa-based pasta, almond-basil pesto, and tomatoes for dinner, I start to sow the seeds of discontent, grumbling out loud about how I think the cleanse is kinda bullshit. I suspect the THORNE RESEARCH pills are placebos. Kelli says, “Wow, this cleanse is making you really bitchy.” I tell her it’s my demon yeast talking.
I haven’t had anything alcoholic for eight days, the longest I’ve gone since I graduated from high school. Nothing like a Candida Cleanse to make you examine your dependencies. I’d say my skin and energy are about the same as they were before — certainly not the pristine complexion or laser-focused mental clarity I’d been promised by the LiveJournal sites, but not too shabby, either. On the plus side, Kelli’s allergies have virtually disappeared and I haven’t had any migraines. We’re both noticeably losing weight, but I kind of feel like I’m getting a haunted, starving-myself look rather than the healthy, Nike Training Club app model look I would prefer, should I have my choice of body types. (Which, deep down, is at the heart of why all of us embark on these cleanses, I think; to somehow suddenly be able to shape our flesh like Play-doh.)
I’ve also developed an annoying superiority over other, sugar-dependent human beings, but it isn’t really that satisfying. After all, I like snarfing cookies with other people and gossiping about how Jim from HR looks like he cuts his hair with a Flowbee. I feel good, but life looks bleak.
“Candida is a fast-growing fungus that will take advantage of any opportunity that you give it.”
One day left and rather than feeling a sense of calm and control over my cravings, or a peaceful oneness with the physical world, I'm just getting more irritable and impatient. Food without sugar pretty much ruins food, one of the great pleasures of life. I start to tempt Kelli into quitting early, setting up my arguments with philosophical Ally McBeal lawyer-esque flair.
“If you can’t look forward to food, what can you look forward to? It’s like three tiny prizes every day,” I say, cupping my hands in front of me and knitting my brow in my best John Cage impression. “I’m not living my life like this. We can’t see our friends, we’re miserable, and annoying.”
“No, YOU’RE miserable and annoying,” Kelli says. But I’ve gotten to her. She agrees that we can have coffee the next morning. I’m so excited about going back to sugar I can’t sleep that night because I’m picturing myself contentedly smiling and stirring a perfectly caramel-colored cup of hot coffee.
Sweet release. Coffee is So. Fucking. Good. How could I have left it? I bounce around the room like a toddler given a tub full of Lik-M-Aid and feel euphoric the rest of the day.
VI. Epilogue: Taking Stock and Getting Stuffed
“Sugar weakens the immune system and gives yeast a spectacular feast.”
By the following weekend, I’ve eaten pizza, pancakes, and amazing Udon noodles with poached egg and tempura. It may just be my shape-shifting yeast talking, but I’ve never felt better. We are, however, trying to continue some of the lessons from our time on the cleanse. For example, Mayor Bloomberg will be happy to know we won’t be ordering giant-size sodas anytime soon.
Kelli’s still into the Stevia, and is using the little eyedropper like crazy in her morning coffee and yogurt (me, I went straight back to my vulgar morning lover, Sugar in the Raw). We’ve cut back on our wine consumption, opting for our cleanse-time staple of soda water and lemon juice instead of the “relaxing” three glasses of wine habit we used to have. I haven’t had a migraine yet and Kelli’s allergies really do seem better, although her skin is still mysteriously reacting from time to time, and I’m beginning to expect it might be our laundry detergent and not Candida after all.
I guess I can’t say whether the cleanse “worked” or not because it’s not really a black or white answer. It worked in getting me to recognize how much sugar I eat, and in getting me to appreciate eating amazing food, guilt-free. But it didn’t work as a lifestyle, or produce a big enough change in my health to convince me of any of the alarmist warnings I was secretly hoping would manifest for a dramatic conclusion.
Maybe I’ll hop back on the cleanse train at some point down the road, just to freshen up my gut if I’m feeling a little yeasty. But for now, life’s just too short. And sugar is just too sweet.
*Please note that none of the quotes about Candida in this article are endorsed in any way by the mainstream medical community. It could be all bullshit. OR it could be exactly what THEY don’t want you to know. Or it could be incoherent residue of the holographic universe.
Kendra Eash is a copywriter in NYC specializing in writing Facebook status updates in the voice of inanimate objects. Thanks to Sister Act 2 (Back in the Habit), she knows that if you want to be somebody, if you want to go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention. Her social media alter ego is Jeri Blank.