The gut mycobiome and misinformation about Candida

By Prof. Eamonn Quigley, MD, The Methodist Hospital and Weill Cornell School of Medicine, Houston

As a gastroenterologist, I frequently meet with patients who are adamant that a Candida infection is the cause of their ailments. Patients experiencing a range of symptoms, including digestive problems, sometimes believe they have an overgrowth of Candida in their gastrointestinal (GI) tract and want to know what to do about it. Their insistence is perhaps not surprising, given how many many websites and social media ‘gurus’ share lists of symptoms supposedly tied to Candida infections. Even cookbooks exist with recipes specifically tailored to “cure” someone of Candida infection through dietary changes. Some articles aim to counter the hype – for example, an article titled “Is gut Candida overgrowth actually real, and do Candida diets work?” Yet patients are too often confused about the evidence on Candida and other fungi in the GI tract. In a 2021 ISAPP presentation on the gut mycobiome, I provided a clinical perspective on fungal infections and the related evidence base.

Fungal infections do occur

Much of the misinformation I encounter on Candida infections focuses on selling a story that encourages people to blame Candida overgrowth as the cause of their symptoms and undertake expensive or complicated dietary and supplement regimens to “cure” the infection. This is not to say that fungal infections do not take place in the body. Fungal infections, from Candida or other fungi, frequently occur on the nails or skin. Patients taking oral or inhaled steroids may develop Candida infections in the oropharynx and esophagus. Immunocompromised patients also face a greater risk of Candidiasis and Candidemia—these include HIV patients; patients undergoing chemotherapy; transplant patients; and patients suffering from malnutrition.

Fungal infections are rare in the GI tract

Regardless, instances of documented Candida infection in the GI tract remain few in number. One study published in the 90s reported 10 patients hospitalized with severe diarrhea1. These patients suffered from chronic illness, underwent intense antimicrobial treatment or chemotherapy, and faced severe outcomes such as dehydration—and clinicians consistently identified the growth of Candida albicans in the patient fecal samples. Other studies on the matter lack the clinical evidence to conclude that fungal infections drive GI disease. A study examining small intestinal fungal overgrowth identified instances of fungal overgrowth among 150 patients with unexplained symptoms2. However, the lack of documentation of response to an antifungal treatment protocol makes it difficult to attribute the observed symptoms to the presence of fungal organisms.

 The gut mycobiome in IBS

The gut microbiome has taken centre stage in common discourse about gut health. In line with this movement, my colleagues at Cork investigated the fungal members of the gut microbiome – that is, the gut mycobiome – in the guts of patients diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)3 to ascertain whether there was any correlation with symptoms. This effort revealed DNA sequences belonging to many fungal species. However, no significant differences in the number of fungal species were observed between IBS patients and volunteers. A smaller study done on a Dutch cohort, on the other hand, detected significantly reduced total fungal diversity among IBS patients4. So, it’s not yet clear whether mycobiome differences exist across populations with IBS.

Studying the gut mycobiome for further insights

The few studies that have examined the human gut mycobiome expose the need to answer basic questions about the fungal components of the gut microbiome. For instance, what is the gut mycobiome composition among people not suffering from GI-related symptoms? Efforts to answer these questions would require longitudinal sample collection to account for the high turnover of microbes in the GI tract. We would also need to perform stool measures not typically performed in the clinic to better correlate fungal overgrowth with GI-related symptoms. Overall, any gut mycobiome study requires careful and detailed experimental design.

We also have to consider where the gut mycobiome originates. A recent study in mSphere showed that the increased amount of DNA belonging to S. cerevisiae in stool samples coincided with the number of times subjects consumed bread and other fungi-rich foods5. S. cerevisiae also failed to grow in lab conditions mimicking the gut environment after 7 days of incubation. These findings suggest that the fungi identified in gut mycobiome profiles are not persistent gut colonizers, but transient members of the gut microbiome that come from the food we digest or our saliva.

A survey of the literature on the gut mycobiome and fungal infections in the GI tract highlights the need to conduct more studies on the role fungi play in gut and overall health. My clinical approach when I encounter someone claiming to have GI symptoms caused by Candida infection is a skeptical, yet empathetic response. Through proper communication of the evidence, we can investigate the origin of symptoms together and identify the best treatment methods for any GI-related disease, whether caused by fungal infections or not.

ISAPP held a mini-symposium featuring six short lectures that explore different aspects of the human mycobiome, including research, clinical and industry perspectives. See here for the replay, with Dr. Quigley’s talk at 1:12:30.


(1)        Gupta, T. P.; Ehrinpreis, M. N. Candida-Associated Diarrhea in Hospitalized Patients. Gastroenterology 1990, 98 (3), 780–785.

(2)        Jacobs, C.; Coss Adame, E.; Attaluri, A.; Valestin, J.; Rao, S. S. C. Dysmotility and Proton Pump Inhibitor Use Are Independent Risk Factors for Small Intestinal Bacterial and/or Fungal Overgrowth. Aliment Pharmacol Ther 2013, 37 (11), 1103–1111.

(3)        Das, A.; O’Herlihy, E.; Shanahan, F.; O’Toole, P. W.; Jeffery, I. B. The Fecal Mycobiome in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Sci Rep 2021, 11 (1), 124.

(4)        Botschuijver, S.; Roeselers, G.; Levin, E.; Jonkers, D. M.; Welting, O.; Heinsbroek, S. E. M.; de Weerd, H. H.; Boekhout, T.; Fornai, M.; Masclee, A. A.; Schuren, F. H. J.; de Jonge, W. J.; Seppen, J.; van den Wijngaard, R. M. Intestinal Fungal Dysbiosis Is Associated With Visceral Hypersensitivity in Patients With Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Rats. Gastroenterology 2017, 153 (4), 1026–1039.

(5)        Auchtung, T. A.; Fofanova, T. Y.; Stewart, C. J.; Nash, A. K.; Wong, M. C.; Gesell, J. R.; Auchtung, J. M.; Ajami, N. J.; Petrosino, J. F. Investigating Colonization of the Healthy Adult Gastrointestinal Tract by Fungi. mSphere 2018, 3 (2), e00092-18.



The Human Mycobiome: An ISAPP mini-symposium

ISAPP announces an open registration mini-symposium on the human mycobiome.

Although the contribution of the intestinal microbiome in human physiology is well-studied, the specific role of intestinal fungi, the gut mycobiome, is not well understood. Yet they may play an important role in shaping host development and health. For example, the evidence that fungi are involved in development of chronic inflammatory diseases is building. Further, a healthy gut microbiome is likely a major line of defense against the detrimental spread of fungi from the intestinal environment to other parts of the body, or unwanted establishment of fungi in the gut itself. This mini-symposium features six short lectures that will explore different aspects of the human mycobiome, including research, clinical and industry perspectives.

Mini-symposium schedule, July 1, 2021

10:00-10:05 AM EDT Welcome. Eamonn Quigley/Mary Ellen Sanders ISAPP
10:05-10:25 Overview of the human mycobiome. Pauline Scanlan University College Cork, Ireland


Characterizing gut mycobiota from healthy adults: conventional vs vegetarian diets. Heather Hallen-Adams University of Nebraska – Lincoln
10:45-11:05 Gut mycobiota in immunity and IBD. Iliyan D Iliev Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
11:05-11:25 Mycobiome of infants in a type-1 diabetes prospective cohort.  Joseph Petrosino Baylor College of Medicine

Houston, TX

11:25-11:35 A clinician’s perspective on gut fungi. Eamonn Quigley Houston Methodist,

Weill Cornell Medical College, TX

11:35-11:40 Importance of the mycobiome: industry perspective. Frank Schuren TNO, Microbiology & Systems Biology, The Netherlands
11:40-noon Q&A

The webinar was held on July 1, 2021 — see the recording here:

Creating a scientific definition of ‘fermented foods’

By Prof. Maria Marco, Department of Food Science and Technology, University of California Davis, USA

A panel of scientific experts was recently convened by ISAPP to discuss the state of knowledge on fermented foods. While there was much agreement on the underlying microbiological processes and health-related properties of those foods and beverages, our conversation on definitions led to sustained debate. So what exactly is a fermented food?

The word “ferment” originates from fervere, which in Latin means to boil. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the verb ferment is defined as “to undergo fermentation or to be in a state of agitation or intense activity”. Fermentation is defined as both a chemical change with effervescence and as an enzymatically controlled anaerobic breakdown of energy-rich compounds (such as a carbohydrate to carbon dioxide and alcohol or to an organic acid). In biochemistry, fermentation is understood as an ATP-generating process in which organic compounds act as both electron donors and acceptors. In industry, fermentation means the intentional use of bacteria and eukaryotic cells to make useful products such as drugs or antibiotics. As you can see, there are clearly many meanings implied in “ferment” and “fermentation”. We add onto this by defining how those words apply to foods.

As our ISAPP panel began to deliberate the definition of fermented foods, it quickly became clear how difficult reaching consensus can be! Even though many panel members shared similar academic backgrounds and scientific expertise, finding agreement on the definition required several rounds of debate and some consuming of fermented foods and beverages along the way. Finally, we defined fermented foods and beverages as being “foods made through desired microbial growth and enzymatic conversions of food components” (see the published consensus paper here).

Find ISAPP’s infographic on fermented foods here.

This definition is very specific by requiring microbial growth and enzymatic processes for the making of those foods. Activity of the endogenous enzymes from the food components or enzymes added to the food is not enough for a food to be regarded as fermented. Similarly, foods made by only adding vinegar or “pickling” should not be called fermented. The definition acknowledges the essential roles of microorganisms for making fermented foods but does not require their presence or viability at the time of consumption.

On the other hand, our definition does not restrict fermented foods to only those foods and beverages made using microorganisms using metabolic pathways implicit in the strict biochemical definition. Yogurt and kimchi made using lactic acid bacteria relying on fermentative energy metabolism are included as much as koji and vinegar, foods made using fermentation processes that employ fungi and bacteria that perform aerobic respiratory metabolism.

Each word in a definition needs to be carefully calibrated. The best example of this in our definition of fermented foods is the word “desired”. Unlike a food that is spoiled as a result of microbial growth and enzymatic activity, food fermentations generate wanted attributes. Other words such as “intentional”, “desirable”, or “controlled” may also be used to describe this meaning. However, those words also have caveats that not all fermented foods are made “intentionally”, at least in the way that they were first prepared thousands of years ago. Qualities of fermented foods may be “desirable’ in some cultures but not others. While some fermentations are “controlled”, others are spontaneous, requiring little human input.

The process of discussing the definition with a group of scientific experts was enlightening because it required us to deconstruct our individual assumptions of the term in order to reach agreement on descriptions and meaning. With a definition in hand, we can use a shared language to study fermented foods and to communicate on the significance of these foods and beverages in our diets. There will also certainly be more “fermenting” of these concepts to improve our knowledge on the production and health impacting properties of fermented foods for years to come.

Find the ISAPP press release on this paper here.

Read about another ISAPP-led publication on fermented foods here.

Learn more in a webinar on the science of fermented foods here.