According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, Clostridium difficile also commonly known as C Diff is currently one of the leading drug-resistant threats to to the our population. A 2015 CDC study reveals that C. difficile was behind nearly 500,000 infections among patients in the United States in just one year. Can C diff lead to death? Unfortunately, yes. Of those half a million, around 15,000 people died as a direct result of their C. difficile infections. Of those deaths, over 80 percent were among Americans 65 years old or over. What’s the biggest risk factor when it comes to C Diff? The CDC clearly states, “Patients who take antibiotics are most at risk for developing C. difficile infections.” (1)
C Diff was used to be considered a major health problem mainly experienced by older members of the population put on antibiotics while in a hospital or nursing home. However, recent research has shown that there is a rising incidence of C diff infection among younger and healthier individuals. In recent years, C diff is proving itself to be a more common and more difficult to treat colon infection. (2)
A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine also found that reoccurring cases of C diff are becoming even more of a problem than first time cases of C diff and in addition to antibiotic usage, C diff is being linked the use of proton-pump inhibitors (commonly taken for acid reflux) and corticosteroids. (3)
So exactly what is C diff, what are the most common C diff symptoms, is C diff contagious and what is the best natural C diff treatment? We’re about to discuss all this and more!
What is C Diff?
C diff (sometimes mistakenly shortened to “c dif” or “cdif”) is the proper shortened version of Clostridium difficile [klo–strid–ee–um dif–uh–seel] (C. difficile), which is a type of bacteria that causes inflammation and infection of the colon, known as colitis. C diff is also a shortened way of referring to the infection itself. Clostridium difficile colitis is the full name for the colon infection caused by C diff bacterium. This strain of bacteria can cause symptoms in the body ranging from diarrhea to life-threatening cases of C diff colitis or C diff infection.
C diff can be found in some people’s intestines as well as in soil, water and animal feces. For humans, the large intestine normally contains many good bacteria that keep it healthy. For people with C diff in their intestines, they may not have any issue if the good bacteria keeps the C diff in check. However, a C diff infection can occur when the balance of bacteria in the body gets thrown off; most commonly by taking antibiotics. When you take antibiotics, it not only kills off the bad bacteria causing your sickness, it also kills off the vital good bacteria that is key to gut health as well as overall health! Some experts also believe that antibiotic can trigger the C diff bacteria to release the toxins that can be so damaging to the colon. (4)
How can you find out if you have an intestinal infection like C. diff? A stool sample test is typically the best way to start figuring out if you have an overgrowth of C diff. Additional tests including an X-ray or a CT scan of your colon may be required as well. The interesting thing is that you can be a carrier of C diff, but not actually have an infection of C diff. So this mean you can test positive for C diff and have zero C diff symptoms, but if you test positive and you have C diff symptoms then you have an active case of C diff. (5)
Common Signs and Symptoms of C Diff
Many people have C diff living in their intestines and the bacteria doesn’t cause any problems for them. When kept in check by other good bacteria, C diff can cause no symptoms. However, when something (most often antibiotic usage) throws off the balance of bacteria in the body then this is when a problem can occur and C diff can start growing rapidly.
C. difficile bacteria can release toxins that attack the lining of the colon by not only destroying cells, but also creating patches of inflammatory cells that cause watery diarrhea.
Symptoms of overgrowth C diff can include: (6)
- Watery diarrhea (at least three bowel movements per day for two days or longer)
- Appetite loss
- Abdominal pain and/or tenderness
With a C. diff infection, the colon becomes inflamed, which is medically referred to as colitis. Sometimes the colon become even more damaged by the release of toxins from the the overgrowth of the C diff bacteria. If this happens, the colon can develop patches of raw tissue that may bleed or pus, which is called pseudomembranous colitis. There are also a greater number of symptoms and more severe symptoms if a C diff infection escalates to this level. Most of the time, pseudomembranous colitis is caused by C diff.
Symptoms of severe C diff infection can include: (7)
- Watery diarrhea 10 to 15 times a day
- Abdominal cramping and pain, which may be severe
- Swollen abdomen
- Loss of appetite
- Pus or blood in the stool
- Rapid heart rate
- Weight loss
- Increased white blood cell count
- Kidney failure
With severe cases, it’s common for people to become so dehydrated (from all that diarrhea) that they need to go to the hospital.
Causes and Risk Factors
A C diff infection is caused by C diff bacteria. C. difficile bacteria can be found in several common places including human and animal feces as well as soil, air and water. The bacteria can also be found in some foods such as processed meat. The human intestines have somewhere around 100 trillion bacterial cells and up to 2,000 different kinds of bacteria. Much of this bacteria is good because it keeps possibly problematic bacteria in check and guards the body against infection. According to Mayo Clinic, “A small number of healthy people naturally carry the bacteria in their large intestine and don’t have ill effects from the infection.” (8)
So when does C. diff bacteria become problematic and also symptomatic? It’s when C. diff is not kept under control and begins to overgrow. Antibiotics are the most common reason that this can occur since antibiotics not only kill the bacteria they are aiming to kill, but also all the good bacteria as well. Antibiotics that most commonly lead to C diff infections include fluoroquinolones, penicillins, cephalosporins, and clindamycin.
C diff is definitely contagious. Spores from C diff bacteria are passed in the feces and then can spread to food, objects and surfaces when infected individuals do not thoroughly wash their hands after going to the bathroom. If you touch something that has been contaminated with the C diff spores then you may end up unintentionally and unknowingly swallowing the C diff bacteria. Hospitals and long-term care facilities are especially problematic because healthcare workers can unintentionally spread C diff between patients if they do not properly wash their hands after caring for each patient. The other tricky fact about C diff spores is that they can live on objects and surfaces outside of the body for weeks or even months. (9)
C. diff infection risk factors include: (10)
- Antibiotic use (absolutely the #1 risk factor) especially a broad-spectrum antibiotic or any antibiotic used for an extended period of time
- Living in a nursing home or extended-care facility
- Gastrointestinal tract surgery
- Abdominal surgery that requires moving the intestines aside
- Living in a nursing home or extended-care facility
- Colon health issues such as inflammatory bowel syndrome or colorectal cancer
- Having a weakened immune system
- Previous C. diff. infection
- Being 65 years of age or older
Some studies have also shown that stomach acid-reducing drugs, especially proton pump inhibitors or PPIs, may likely play a role in the recurrence of C diff infections. (11)
According to the CDC: “Whenever possible, other antibiotics should be discontinued; in a small number of patients, diarrhea may go away when other antibiotics are stopped. Treatment of primary infection caused by C. difficile is an antibiotic such as metronidazole, vancomycin, or fidaxomicin. While metronidazole is not approved for treating C. difficile infections by the FDA, it has been commonly recommended and used for mild C. difficile infections; however, it should not be used for severe C. difficile infections. Whenever possible, treatment should be given by mouth and continued for a minimum of 10 days.” (12)
Another important fact that the CDC points out is that when antibiotics are used to treat a primary C diff infection, the infection ends up coming back in around 20 percent or a fifth of patients. Even worse, for some C diff patients, the infection doesn’t just come back once, but again and again. You can imagine how difficult that must be on a person’s body. When the infection comes back the first time, the same antibiotic is typically used, but if the infection comes back more than once then stronger antibiotics are employed.
8 Natural Treatments of C Diff
A piece of good news regarding C diff is that even conventional medical sources say that people with mild C diff symptoms may not even require treatment. (13) Personally, if I had mild C diff symptoms then I would recognize that clearly my system is off and could use a boost. The following are some of the natural approaches can really help a C. difficile infection.
1. Stop Antibiotics Whenever Possible
As I just talked about in the conventional treatment section, even the CDC recommends that one of the first things you want to do when you find out you have a C diff infection is to stop taking any antibiotics you are currently on “whenever possible”. These antibiotics are killing off the good bacteria in your body and this is exactly what C diff bacteria wants – they want the good bacteria decreased so that they can overgrow and take over. Stopping other antibiotics can provide noticeable improvement in C diff symptoms, especially diarrhea, quite quickly. (14)
2. Load Up On Good Bacteria
While trying to fight off (as well as avoid) a C diff infection, one of the most important things you can do is to make sure you’re putting probiotic or “good bacteria” into your system on a daily basis since too much bad bacteria is what got you in trouble in the first place. (15) Taking a high-quality probiotic supplement regularly is an excellent idea, especially if you’re currently or recently have been on antibiotics.
You can also get lots of probiotic-rich foods from your diet that will help to balance your intestinal flora and fight C diff. Some top probiotic foods to consume regularly: cultured dairy products (such as kefir, goat milk yogurt or cultured probiotic yogurt made from raw cow’s milk), raw apple cider vinegar, fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, kimchi, kvass) and probiotic beverages (kombucha and coconut kefir). To get the most out of apple cider vinegar, make sure you buy a raw variety with the “mother” intact, which means it still contains all its beneficial compounds including probiotics.
3. Avoid or Reduce Certain Foods
According to the C Diff Foundation, the following are some of the foods most people find helpful to avoid during a C Diff infection: (16)
- Dairy products have been known to cause additional gastrointestinal upset and lactose intolerance has also been known to occur during a C diff infection.
- Greasy, fatty foods and processed foods that are not easy on the digestive system and may lead to more diarrhea.
- Some foods that are definitely healthy but may cause extra bloating, gas and discomfort such as cruciferous veggies (like broccoli and cabbage), onions, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
- Raw fruits and veggies so cook them to reduce the likelihood of bloating effects
- Processed fat-free foods like Olestra, which have been known to cause more bloating and increased bouts of diarrhea.
- Spicy foods which are known to increase symptoms.
- Large quantities of caffeine since caffeine has diuretic effects, can bother the GI tract and lengthen recovery from infection.
The C Diff Foundation states, “No two bodies are created nor respond alike making diets a very individualized program”, which is so important to remember and why it’s wise to pay attention to your body and how it reacts to what you eat when you an infection (and in general).
4. Thorough Hand Washing
If you have a C diff infection, you’ll want to do what you can to prevent the spread of the infection to others and also to avoid your own reinfection with C diff. Thorough hand washing with soap and warm water for 30 to 40 seconds is one of the most important precautions to take if you if you have an infection or you want to avoid an infection. When washing your hands, make sure to get in between the fingers, the tops of hands and thumbs. Once you’re done washing, dry hands thoroughly with a hand dryer a clean, dry towel. It’s also ideal to turn off the sink faucets with a clean towel. Proper hand washing has been shown to be more effective than alcohol-based hand cleansers. (17)
When I recommend hand washing, I am never suggesting using antibacterial soaps, not even when it comes to C diff. Even the FDA will tell you that you should pass on the antibacterial soap (which only increases antibiotic-resistant bacteria) and just use good old soap and water.
5. Shut the Lid
Another smart habit to get into if you want to prevent reinfection or the spread of C diff is to close the lid of the toilet before you flush. I know you may not be able to do this in public restrooms, but at home, make sure to always close the lid before you flush. This can greatly decrease C diff bacteria from finding their way to all kinds of surfaces and objects in the bathroom. In general, it’s just a really helpful practice to get into for sanitary and health purposes.
6. Consume Natural Antibiotics
If you’re looking for ways to get more natural antibiotics in your diet to fight off C diff then you’ve come to the right place. Here are some of the top natural bacteria killers you may want to consider when trying fight off invaders like C diff naturally: (18)
Raw garlic: Garlic inherently has antimicrobial, antiviral and antifungal properties. For general health promotion for adults, the WHO actually recommends incorporating garlic into your life on a daily basis in one of the following forms: two to five grams (about one clove) of fresh garlic; 0.4 to 1.2 grams of dried garlic powder; two to five milligrams of garlic oil; 300 to 1,000 milligrams of garlic extract; or other formulations that are equal to two to five milligrams of allicin. (20) Onions are also great too.
Oil of Oregano: Research has shown that the oregano essential oil “may be an effective treatment against dangerous, and sometimes drug-resistant bacteria.” (21) Oregano Oil is extremely strong so it is best used under the guidance of a natural health expert. Personally, I take it internally for a maximum of two weeks because it’s so strong. When taken internally, oregano oil always needs to be diluted with water or mixed with coconut oil. You can also incorporate dried and fresh oregano herb into your diet.
7. Fecal Transplant (Surgical)
The CDC website states, ” Transplanting stool from a healthy person to the colon of a patient with repeat C. difficile infections has been shown to successfully treat C. difficile. These “fecal transplants” appear to be the most effective method for helping patients with repeat C. difficile infections. This procedure may not be widely available and its long term safety has not been established.” (22)
I know this may sound really out there, but this process which is called a fecal transplant is actually both a conventional and holistic approach to reoccurring C diff infections. What exactly is a fecal transplant? It’s basically a procedure that takes the fecal matter (stool) from a healthy donor, mixes it with a liquid solution, strains it, and then puts it into the colon of another patient using an enema, colonoscopy or endoscopy. A recurrent C diff infection (typically at least 3 or more) is actually one of the top health concerns that warrants such a transplant. On average, fecal transplantation is said to result in a 91 to 93 percent cure rate while some studies have even shown a 100 percent cure rate when fresh fecal microbiota is used. (23, 24)
8. Fecal Transplant (Oral)
If you’re suffering from reoccurring C. difficile infections there is a less invasive fecal transplant option. Recently, successful fecal transplants have been performed by encapsulating healthy freeze-dried fecal matter and having patients ingest the capsules. A 2017 study published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology found that just one administration of the capsules to 49 patients with reoccurring C diff resulted in 88 percent of the patients achieving “clinical success”, which was said to be no recurrence of C diff infection over a two month time period. (25)
Precautions and Possible Complications
It’s a good idea to get tested for C diff if you exhibit symptoms of C diff, especially if symptoms occur during or after taking antibiotics or after being around someone that you know has a C diff infection.
What complications can C. diff. cause? If the infection worsens, you may become seriously dehydrated, be unable to pass stool and/or experience weight loss. Rarely, C. diff. infection can lead to sepsis or a hole in the intestines. In severe cases, surgery may be required to remove the infected part of the colon. (26)
Consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet or using any natural supplements if you are pregnant, nursing or being treated for any ongoing health concerns.
- People who take antibiotics are most at risk for developing C. difficile infections, especially people who take antibiotics for long periods of time or take broad spectrum antibiotics.
- Conventional and holistic medical experts agree on one of the top ways to treat C diff: stop taking antibiotics whenever possible and don’t take antibiotics if you don’t need to.
- One of the best ways to prevent initial and re-infection with C. difficile bacteria is to wash your hands thoroughly.
- There are some healthy foods that you may want to temporarily avoid while you have C diff symptoms while there are some foods (like highly processed ones) that are just a good idea to avoid as much as possible in general.
- There are natural antibiotics found in nature that you can incorporate into your diet that are proven to be highly potent and effective against bacteria like C. difficile.
- Conventional and holistic wisdom also agrees that fecal matter transplants (surgically or orally) are highly effective for patients with reoccurring infections.