Imagine a creature so sinister that it can live inside your body for years, eating your blood, tissue, and food. It grows and reproduces, generation after generation.
Those creatures are parasites, and they range greatly in size and threat. Some are large and easy to spot, such as ticks. But others are far more insidious and can go unnoticed for years, feasting on you unchecked.
Worms and flukes may be squirming around in you right now, but without an understanding of signs, symptoms, or a positive stool test, you may never know.
Despite that parasites are often hard to see, people of the ancient world were very familiar with the problem. Old medical texts contain numerous prescriptions and protocols aimed at ridding the body of various types of internal worm infections.
How Parasites Enter Your Body
Parasites can enter the human body through various means—ingestion of contaminated food or water, insect bites, inhalation of contaminated particles, or contact with animals. The mode of transmission depends on the specific parasite and its life cycle.
Today, however, we’re much less likely to attribute our symptoms to worms. Part of our blind spot is our modern expectations. We usually think of parasites as exclusively a problem for animals and people living in remote tropical regions. For most of us in developed temperate climates of the 21st century, parasites seem like a rare or nonexistent health concern.
Yet we regularly treat our pets and livestock for parasites as a standard practice. So why aren’t parasites more of a concern among humans?
We may not think much about the possibility, but Ann Louise Gittleman, who holds a doctorate in holistic nutrition and has been a nutritionist for more than 30 years, said she believes we need to pay more attention to parasites.
“They’re far more prevalent in the United States than you would ever imagine,” Ms. Gittleman said. “In fact, studies have shown that 1 in 3 of us may be infected.”
Approximately 68 million people in the country are chronically infected with neglected parasitic infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although parasites predominantly affect tropical developing regions, where as much as two-thirds of the population can be infected, intestinal parasites affect 3.5 billion people globally, according to a study in a 2021 edition of the journal BioMed Research International. However, only 450 million cases have symptoms.
Though parasites have faded from public awareness, Ms. Gittleman warned of an “unseen epidemic” decades ago. Her 1991 book, “Guess What Came to Dinner,” linked parasites to common health issues.
The Diverse Health Implications of Parasitic Infections
In 1974, Ms. Gittleman’s professor displayed patient samples, showing parasites from microscopic amoebas to foot-long tapeworms. “It made me not eat out in restaurants for at least two years,” she said.
This experience shaped Ms. Gittleman’s belief that parasites underlie diseases beyond just gastrointestinal issues. In her practice, she said she has seen conditions such as fatigue, pain, and depression resolve with antiparasitic cleanses. Parasites are often overlooked by health care practitioners when investigating the cause of symptoms.
“Parasites tend to be the last place they look,” Ms. Gittleman added. “It should be the first place.”
Different parasites cause different symptoms. Some can lead to skin infections; others can lead to organ damage. Certain blood-borne parasites, such as Plasmodium and hookworms, for example, can lead to anemia due to the loss or destruction of red blood cells. A brain-eating amoeba parasite, known as Naegleria fowleri, can cause serious neurological symptoms, including headaches, confusion, seizures, and even death.
Because parasites often reside in the gut, this is also where symptoms are usually found. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and bloating. Parasites also compete with the host for nutrients, impair the body’s ability to properly use proteins, and hinder fat absorption, all of which can all lead to malnutrition.
The relationship between parasites and disease remains unclear. They may causes symptoms directly or affect the body in ways that make it vulnerable to other infections or conditions.
For instance, many doctors have recently tried treating COVID-19 patients with the anti-parasitic drugs hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, usually used for conditions such as malaria and heartworm, with anecdotal success. However, these drugs remain controversial for COVID-19.
Researchers have found that parasites may influence the course of COVID-19. A review published in the June 2021 edition of the Journal of Clinical Medicine highlights the similarity between the symptoms of parasitic disease and those of COVID-19, and how the former may result in a misdiagnosis of the latter.
The study supports Ms. Gittleman’s suggestion that different symptoms may be linked to parasites without health care providers realizing it. It may be that the body can resolve various conditions once the effect of parasites has been removed.
An example of that comes from the case of Joe Tippen, diagnosed in 2017 with late-stage metastatic cancer. Given just three months, a veterinarian suggested the dog dewormer fenbendazole, which had shown promise against aggressive cancers. By early 2018, Tippen was deemed cancer-free.
Running the Right Test
If parasites really are such a widespread issue and underlying cause to many diseases, why aren’t modern diagnostic tests revealing them? One might expect parasitic infections to show up on routine stool analyses.
These tests don’t dig deep enough, Ms. Gittleman said. Parasites can evade normal stool exams because they tend to reside deep in the colon. It may take several consecutive bowel movements to finally reveal their presence.
“They’re not seeing them because they’re not purging the stool,” she added.
The concept of cleansing the bowel before testing is not new, just forgotten. One of the physicians Ms. Gittleman studied with in learning to recognize parasites was a parasitologist from Mesa, Arizona, Dr. LuCrece Dowell, who gained her expertise working with soldiers overseas during World War II. In some cases, she had to purge patients’ bowels as many as 10 times to finally reveal the parasites lurking within.
“That’s what’s missing,” Ms. Gittleman said. “We’re using random stool samples, and you’re not finding them because they’re not going high enough into the bowel.”
How to Protect Yourself
Thorough stool tests can reveal the specific parasite, any viral component, mucus membrane health, and potential food allergies or sensitivities. But when it comes to parasites, testing isn’t nearly as important as prevention.
Though good lifestyle habits reduce exposure, they don’t completely prevent infections. Anti-parasitic drugs used weekly may help in malaria-prone areas. Herbal remedies also treat parasites.
Ms. Gittleman advocates herbal cleanses to eliminate parasites twice a year. She cites significant results, including clients who recovered from skin conditions, anxiety, insomnia, arthritis, and autoimmune issues.
She often prescribes wormwood, used for centuries in Europe and Asia to treat parasites. Modern research confirms wormwood’s efficacy against worms. The related herb mugwort also battles parasites effectively but doesn’t taste as good, Ms. Gittleman noted.
Other anti-parasitic herbs include clove and foods such as pumpkin seeds, onions, and garlic. These do taste good, but therapeutic doses may exceed culinary amounts.
It may be what we avoid eating that can have a larger effect on whether we harbor a parasitic infestation. To minimize risk, Ms. Gittleman urges people to wash their produce and cook their meat.
“I can’t tell you how many of my clients become well totally when they get off sushi because they’re ingesting worms, worm eggs, worm trophozoite cysts, and all kinds of things when they’re eating fish that’s uncooked,” she said. “Fish is much more wormy than meat.”
Not everyone has equal susceptibility to parasites though. People with strong stomach acid, digestion, and immunity resist parasites better, according to Ms. Gittleman. The strength of a person’s stomach acid can be determined with a diagnostic test called the Heidelberg test. It’s typically used to evaluate for conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, to which decreased stomach acid may be a contributing factor.
“HCl hydrochloric acid is your first barrier to parasites, better digestive enzymes, and better overall immunity,” she added.
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