Why Are These People Eating Worms to Be Healthy? (part I)

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Summary:  The Hygiene Hypothesis persuades people to consume parasitic worms as a way to treat chronic autoimmune disorders. As well, people eat tapeworms as a way to lose weight. Learn more about two closely related scientific beliefs called the “Hygiene Hypothesis” and the “Old Freinds Hypothesis.”  Part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 of Eating Worms to be Healthy is here.  [Cover photo: 3drenderings / Getty Images.]

It’s difficult to believe, but thousands of people eat worms as a way to lose weight or cure diseases.

People don’t just eat worms on TV shows, like the Fear Factor. Some extreme dieters consume tapeworms as a way to lose weight. Another group of people ingests parasitic worms known as helminths to ward-off the debilitating symptoms of autoimmune diseases.

Consuming parasites is known as helminthic therapy, and practitioners find support in a theoretical argument referred to as the Hygiene Hypothesis. There is a compelling logic to Hygiene Hypothesis. It is the belief that a lack of childhood exposure to pathogens suppresses the natural development of the immune system which later increases an individual’s susceptibility to allergic and autoimmune diseases.

Losing Weight with The Tapeworm Diet

Eating tapeworms for weight loss are nothing new and was a fashionable practice among Victorian women. Tapeworms have been marketed as a weight-loss product for over 100 years, as shown by advertisements for from the early 20th century. Despite the health risks, tapeworms continue to be advertised and sold today.

The fact that the practice is illegal in the United States and dangerous everywhere doesn’t stop many people as they are still able to obtain parasites from other countries or via the Internet.  By intentionally ingesting tapeworms, people hope to lose weight. Once they’ve reached the desired weight, they take a medication that will rid their body of the parasites.

Symptoms of parasitic worm infection.
Symptoms of parasitic worm infection. Credit Chombosan / Getty Images.

Unfortunately, many people who undertake such extreme measures for weight loss are not aware of the potential risks involved. Doctors consider ingesting tapeworms to lose weight a dangerous practice which should not be considered under any circumstances.

The most common symptoms of parasitic worm infection include fatigue and general malaise, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, anemia, weight loss, malnutrition and changes in appetite up to and including anorexia.

Helminthic Therapy for Autoimmune Disease

Many patients pursue an experimental treatment called helminthic therapy to treat chronic autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease, asthma, multiple sclerosis, and inflammatory bowel disease. Helminths are parasitic worms such as whipworms, hookworms, and threadworms that live within a host on which they rely for nutrients.

The practice of ingesting live parasitic roundworms for medicinal purposes is a growing phenomenon as nearly 7000 people worldwide practices the treatment.

To learn more, a related article tells the story of a young woman in St Louis who practices worm therapy, including how she obtained the parasites, the price she paid and the results of her treatment. You can read her experience with helminthic therapy in this related article.

Becoming reacquainted with 'Old Freinds.'
Becoming reacquainted with ‘Old Freinds.’ Credit: StockSnap.

Becoming Old Friends with the Hygiene Hypothesis

Helminthic therapy finds some basis in the Hygiene Hypothesis and the closely related ‘Old Freinds’ Hypothesis.  Both hypotheses postulate that a lack of childhood exposure to pathogens suppresses the natural development of the immune system. Later in life, the underdeveloped immune system increases an individual’s susceptibility to allergic and autoimmune diseases.

The Hygiene and Old Friends hypotheses are not without their supporters. Advocates of the twin hypotheses cite epidemiological studies which show that populations with a higher prevalence of parasitic intestinal infections have lower incidences of inflammatory conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. Epidemiological studies such as the meta-analysis by Leonardi-Bee and colleagues establish the link between parasitic infection and a protective role in autoimmune disease development.

There is a certain logic to the Old Friends Hypothesis and its brethren. Industrialized, and therefore hygienic nations have a much higher incidence of autoimmune diseases. Children growing up in the sanitized Western countries are deprived of exposure to certain parasites, bacteria, and viruses.

Furthermore, genetic research shows that helminths have been a major selective force on a subset of human genes. Helminths have shaped the evolution of parts of the human immune system, especially the genes responsible for celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease, The genetic research lends weight to the belief that the absence of parasites contributes to a substantial portion of the increase in the incidence of immune diseases in industrialized countries.

Alternative to Old Friends and Hygiene Hypotheses

On the other hand (a washed and sanitized other hand, naturally) other factors could also explain Leonardi-Bee’s observations which lend weight to the Old Friends and Hygiene hypotheses. Westerners are not just deprived of pathogens; they are also exposed to artificial chemicals from industrial processes, farming, and the food processing industry.

Compared to those living in third world countries, Westerners consume more processed foods, such as wholesome spaghetti sauce made with pesticide-laden genetically-modified tomatoes, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, and disodium inosinate. We consume our meal while breathing air polluted by industrialized processes and automobiles.  Many residents of third world countries can’t afford ten cent antibiotics to treat a life-threatening infection, and as a consequence tend to under-medicate. Westerners tend to overmedicate – our children especially – with pharmaceuticals for bipolar disorders, developmental disabilities, ADHD, and behavior disorders. And for those of us that don’t, there are plenty of trace pharmaceuticals in our groundwater to finish the job.

Bottom Line: Perhaps the high rate of autoimmune diseases in the industrialized world is due to added factors in the environment, rather than those that have been sanitized out.

How To Avoid Eating Worms

Rather than gulping down a mouthful of worm larvae, doctors recommend more effective ways to improve gut health. One of the most efficient ways is to practice healthy lifestyle habits by exercising, having a balanced diet, sufficient sleep, and by avoiding unnecessary antibiotics that may disrupt the gut microbiota.

Story of a Woman Who Eats Worms

This is part one of a two-part series. To learn more about helminthic therapy, and hear the story of a young woman from St Louis who suffers from an autoimmune disease and paid a high price to consume parasites, feel free to read part 2.

Related Article: Part 2 of Eating Worms to be Healthy is at this link.

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References

Sally F Bloomfield, et al.  Time to abandon the hygiene hypothesis: New perspectives on allergic disease, the human microbiome, infectious disease prevention and the role of targeted hygiene. Perspectives in Public Health.  Volume: 136 issue: 4, pages: 213-224. July 1, 2016. http://doi.org/10.1177/1757913916650225. Available online.

Leonardi-Bee, J.; Pritchard, D.; Britton, J. “Asthma and current intestinal parasite infection: systematic review and meta-analysis.”  (2006). American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. 174 (5): 514–523. PubMed PMID 16778161. doi:10.1164/rccm.200603-331OC.

Disclaimer

Diagnosis, Treatment, and Advice:  This article is intended for educational and informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.  Helminthic therapies are experimental treatments and have not been proven to be safe and effective in clinical trials, nor are approved by the US FDA. Furthermore, consuming tapeworms is considered unsafe. Unproven and experimental treatments carry a much higher risk than FDA-approved ones. The information provided in this report should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Consult a licensed physician for the diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call an emergency hotline such as 911, or an equivalent number, for all medical emergencies. Additionally, consult a licensed physician before changing your diet, supplement or exercise programs. Endorsements, Photos & External Links:  This article is not intended to endorse organization, companies, or their products. Links to external websites, mention or depiction of company names or brands, are intended for illustration only and do not constitute endorsements.

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