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Worm Therapy to Treat Inflammatory Disorders

helminth therapy

Story at-a-glance -

  • Helminth therapy is the deliberate hosting of a controlled number of intestine-dwelling nematodes (roundworms)
  • Porcine whipworms, human hookworms, human whipworms and rat tapeworms are all suggested helminths for treating a wide array of human autoimmune and inflammatory disorders
  • Rather than using worm therapy, many inflammatory diseases can be averted via wise eating habits: avoiding grains, sugars and genetically engineered foods and getting nutrients critical to health, such as vitamin D

By Dr. Mercola

Scientists are sometimes excited when they break the news that humans are "teeming" with trillions of microbes, also known as biomes, the "critters" that make up the flora of our bodies. It's one of the reasons why it makes sense to some that "fighting fire with fire," so to speak, is the best way to combat certain diseases.

Consequently, it was probably only a matter of time before using helminths — parasitic worms — to combat certain diseases became a "thing" once again in the scientific community. Surprisingly, reports of individuals who have been using helminths on themselves have grown into the thousands.

The clinical description for the therapy is "the deliberate hosting of a controlled number of carefully selected, benign, intestine-dwelling nematodes (worms) known as helminths."1 One theory is that these organisms are an "heirloom" species that humans inherited from their primate ancestors.

Helminth therapy is not a new thing. It's been used for centuries, the premise being that "biome depletion, or loss of biodiversity from the ecosystem of the human body" is the underlying cause of many inflammatory diseases in the Western world.

It incorporates "tiny animals instead of bacteria to reconstitute and enrich a depleted intestinal biome."2 One doctor calls helminth therapy a form of probiotics. It's emerging as a new/old way to treat chronic inflammation and immunological disorders, including allergies, migraines and anxiety disorders.

It may have been re-introduced as a concept when, in 1976, a researcher suffering from seasonal allergies wrote to Lancet that he'd infected himself with hookworms and subsequently went into remission.3

Studies and Reviews Aimed at Making Worm Therapy More Appealing

Clinical studies all over the world, especially in the last few decades, have attempted to make the concept more appealing. One study, conducted in London in 2015, concluded:

"Without doubt there is overwhelming evidence from animal studies that helminth infections exert strong immunomodulatory activity and are able to inhibit, alter and modify other ongoing immune responses …

It may be that for worms to be successful in controlling inflammation we need to be exposed to them before the onset of the inflammatory condition or even that we need to be exposed to them at a young age to allow our immune system to co-develop together with them."4

The Helminthic Therapy Wiki website,5 which describes itself as "a collaborative site documenting the science, management, experience and results of helminth replacement," notes that some researchers are more interested in eradicating not only helminth therapy but the worms themselves because many species cause disease.

What Causes 'Evolutionary Mismatches,' aka Biome Depletion?

A comprehensive 2015 review published in the Journal of Evolutionary Medicine estimated that up to 7,000 people worldwide are currently self-treating with helminthic therapy, with benefits to inflammatory bowel disease, allergies, autoimmunity and more. The review stated:

"This study finds that the therapy is being refined through experience and is now expanding to treat widespread neuropsychiatric problems such as depression, anxiety, migraine headaches, bipolar disorder, and perhaps Parkinson's disease."6

However, the study cites "inflammatory" diets, modern living and work environments, chronic psychological stress, vitamin D deficiency and lack of exercise as playing a role in destabilizing the immune systems of many people in the world.

The study continues, the loss of biodiversity in the human body (which a 1989 study described by the BMJ Review7 called "biome depletion"), results in an "evolutionary mismatch" and is exacerbated by factors associated with:

  • Hygiene, either hyper vigilance or lack thereof
  • Food preservation technology such as refrigerators and plastic containers
  • Water-handling technology such as toilets, water treatment facilities and hot water heaters
  • Other factors, from the inception of wearing shoes to industrialized farming, which separated humans from the soil

Helminth Studies on Inflammation-Related Diseases

Clinical studies have reported positive results of using helminths for numerous diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease in a study conducted at the University of Iowa8 and multiple sclerosis via research at the Institute of Neurological Research in Argentina.9

Additional studies have prompted scientists to predict similar success using helminths to treat neuropsychiatric function,10 as noted by a U.K.-U.S. collaborative study, as well as cancer, following a U.K. study published in Immunology.11 Due to their results, Your Wild Life asserted:

"It is predicted, based on a variety of animal studies as well as epidemiologic and evolutionary considerations, that reintroduction of helminths into the population will have a profound effect on inflammatory-related diseases."12

Not surprisingly, the study authors admit there are several reasons why most of the studies have largely been explored outside the realms of mainstream medicine.

Study results of helminth use by "self-treaters" — people obtaining them to remedy their own inflammatory-based disease symptoms — reported "a rich and varied experience with helminth therapy, but this experience is not readily accessible in a systematically compiled format."13

Helminth providers are those who "can help self-treaters determine their suitability for the therapy and help guide them toward a dosing regimen that will allow progress to be made as quickly and cheaply as possible while avoiding the worst side effects."14

Helminth Types, Origins and Effectiveness in Studies

According to the review involving Duke University Medical Center and the University of Central Arkansas, a variety of disorders including nasal polyps, multiple sclerosis, brain fog, dermatitis, Crohn's disease, eczema, foot odor, high blood pressure and epilepsy may be appropriate for helminth therapy. Four kinds of helminths were made available for "self-treating" individuals:15

1. Porcine whipworms (Trichuris suis ova or TSO), isolated from pig feces, burrow into the intestinal wall and lodge in the upper and lower small intestine. They "must be ingested every 1.5 to two weeks for effective use since it does not survive to maturity in the human body."

These are used to treat, among other things, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, autism, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, with a reported 80 percent effectiveness rate.

2. The human hookworm (Necator americanus or NA), cultured from human feces, burrows through the skin (causing a rash) toward the lungs and GI tract. Notably, it's transmissible between humans (except with toilet accessibility, cold weather and no soil contact) and usually survives one or two years.

About 50 percent of those suffering from allergies, Crohn's, inflammatory bowel disease and psoriasis had relief, except for more advanced cases.

3. Human whipworms (Trichuris trichiura ova or TTO), also cultivated from human feces, can live in humans for four years. Generally requiring 1,000 to 2,000 ova per patient, the "colony" usually stays in the gut, requiring additional exposures every one to two years to maintain it.

It's reportedly effective for Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, but "uncontrolled colonization" has caused bloody diarrhea and anemia.

4. The origin of the rat tapeworm (Hymenolepis diminuta cysticercoids or HDC), in the flatworm class, comes from its name. It's used for a wide variety of allergic and autoimmune conditions, autism, heart arrhythmias, gum disease and hemorrhoids.

It's also said to have a "profound effect" on ADHD, bipolar disorder, migraine headaches, depression and a variety of anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with 90 percent to 95 percent effectiveness.

Not All Parasites Are Beneficial — In Fact, Some Can Kill You

Malaria is caused by a parasitic infection that kills around a million people every year, many of them young children. Others, known as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), like lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis and Guinea worm, kill about 500,000 people annually, primarily in developing countries.

The European Commission notes that 300 million people in 75 tropical and subtropical areas of the world are infected with Schistosoma flatworms, but an initiative sponsored by the European Union suggests a new way to fight parasites is through identifying enzymes in the worms to modify gene expression, thereby halting their progression.16

Although worm therapy may be touted as the best new therapy for inflammation, there are already many proven ways to treat inflammatory bowel disease and some of the other illnesses and disorders very effectively without resorting to deliberately introducing parasites into your system.

Many inflammatory diseases can be either prevented or remedied with good nutrition — that is, eating what's good for you, and staying away from what isn't, such as genetically engineered foods, grains and sugars, and making sure you're getting the vitamins and minerals that are so critical to your health, such as vitamin D and those found in fermented foods.

In fact, if you want to improve your gut health, a healthy diet is the place to start. If you've heard that eating sugar can negatively impact your gut microbiome and risk of chronic disease, you may want to pay attention. Sugar feeds not only the bacteria that are harmful to your entire system; it feeds cancer. Conversely, good fats starve cancer.

In addition, research suggests bacteria and fungi are involved in the development of Crohn's disease, because the bacterium Mycobacterium paratuberculosis proliferates when white blood cells are prevented from killing E. coli bacteria known to be present in increased numbers within Crohn's-disease-infected tissue.17

A Better Way: Essential Nutrients, Good Food and Plain Old Soap

Children who've been taught to avoid dirt and germs, and encouraged to use disinfectant antibacterial soaps, then given antibiotics that kill off both good and bad gut bacteria, may no longer be able to build up adequate natural resistance to disease, so they're vulnerable to illnesses later in life. My advice is to let them play in the dirt, then use plain old soap and water.

Food additives, colorings and other fake ingredients are also culpable — but reading food labels and paying attention to your environment can go a long way toward optimizing your health and the health of your family.

In the case of inflammatory bowel disease, reseeding your gut with beneficial bacteria should be high on your list. Traditionally fermented and cultured foods (provided they've not undergone any kind of pasteurization) are loaded with beneficial, healthy bacteria, and are easy to make from scratch.

In addition, make sure your vitamin D level is in a healthy, therapeutic range of 40 to 60 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). Vitamin D has been shown to be an important part of the treatment puzzle if you have Crohn's disease, for instance. Low vitamin D levels are associated with an increased risk of Crohn's, and correcting your vitamin D deficiency has been shown to improve symptoms of the disease.18

Clinical Conclusions to Worm Therapy

It must be noted that scientists exploring this type of therapy are ethically forced to include caveats such as "many questions remain to be investigated," and "the use of helminth-derived anti-inflammatory molecules is yet to be tested on a clinical scale." Nevertheless, the hope of many of these scientists is that a way will be found to take the bite out of the unattractive aesthetics of worm therapy and the obvious challenges this type of treatment presents.

In fact, their hope is that in the foreseeable future, they "may be offering a less controversial, and perhaps more palatable, promising new avenue of anti-inflammatory drug development."19 However, rather than waiting for new and potentially risky drugs, you can take action now by following these natural strategies to prevent and fight inflammatory disease.