If you haven’t heard of helminthic therapy, you’re not alone. It’s not something that gets wide circulation, in part because it sounds, well…pretty gross.
So what is it?? Helminthic therapy, in a nutshell, is the use of intestinal worms to treat and/or prevent disease.
Now, before I start explaining this, please understand that I neither condone nor condemn the information I am presenting.
I am simply delivering the information so readers can be aware of it. I have not tried helminthic therapy and I do not have a position on the topic.
Why present the information in the first place? Because there is research indicating it may be helpful to people with autoimmune diseases.
So, now that you know we’re talking about parasites and that the topic may be controversial, let’s dive in!
WHAT IS HELMINTHIC THERAPY?
Helminthic therapy consists of deliberately placing a controlled number of therapeutic helminths (intestinal worms) in your digestive system.
What kind of worms are we talking about here? We’re talking about a very specific type of human hookworm, human whipworm, pig whipworm, and rat tapeworm.
They don’t sound very therapeutic do they? Believe it or not, there are very specific criteria these parasites have to meet to be considered helpful instead of harmful.
WHAT MAKES A PARASITE THERAPEUTIC?
This is one of the first questions that came to my mind, as I’m sure it is for most people. Below are agreed upon standards.
- Should not cause disease at therapeutic doses
- Should not enable other parasites, viruses, or bacteria
- Should not cause long-term symptoms at therapeutic doses
- Should not alter its behaviour in patients with depressed immunity
- Should not be easily transmissible from the host to other people
- Should not be able to reproduce in a host (controlled dosing is a must)
- Should be easily killed off, if necessary
- Should be compatible with common medications
- Should be easy to administer
- Should be able to be produced in large numbers
- Should withstand storage and transportation
You may have noticed a lot of “shoulds” in the list. This is because certain conditions (such as being HIV positive or having cancer, for example) could create a health environment where the result is different.
WHY HELMINTHIC THERAPY?
For decades allergies, autoimmunity, and chronic inflammation have increased exponentially in developed countries, while remaining relatively uncommon in countries that are less developed (where people still have worms).
Evidence indicating the importance of helminths in the human ecosystem started to come to light in the 1970s. And in 1976, the first US research showed re-introducing helminths might be an effective approach for treating allergies.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Therapeutic helminths have been shown to regulate immune response. The parasites used in treatment have co-existed with humans for a long time and they have learned to evade our immune system very well.
Basically, they secrete chemicals that do 2 things: 1) protect them from being killed or ejected by our immune system and 2) keep their host (us lowly humans) alive and well for as long as possible.
These chemicals control inflammation—think of it as a quieting or balancing of the immune system as opposed to suppressing the immune system.
“People who host helminths can still mount an inflammatory attack on pathogens, but they don’t set off self-destructive immune bombs against harmless substances or their own cells. Helminths don’t make our immune system lazy or less effective—they make it smarter.” (William Parker, Duke University)
“The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ was proposed in 1989 by Strachan to explain the dramatic increase in the prevalence of autoimmune and allergic diseases over the past two to three decades. According to this hypothesis, reduced exposure to microorganisms and parasites in childhood is the main cause for the increased incidence of both Th1-mediated autoimmune diseases and Th2-mediated allergic diseases. Currently, the hypothesis is becoming more accepted with accumulating epidemiological and clinical evidences to support. Although the exact scientific underpinnings for the hygiene hypothesis and the underlying mechanisms by which infections affect the immune system to prevent diseases have remained a puzzle over the years for both scientists and clinicians, there is increasing recognition that exposure to infectious agents evokes fundamental effects on the development and behavior of the immune system. The core of this hypothesis consists in the notion that the microbial environment interfaces with the innate immune system and modulates its ability to impart instructions to adaptive immune responses…” (Journal of Immunology Research, 2016)
HELMINTHIC THERAPY CONSIDERATIONS
Helminthic therapy is not approved as a medical treatment anywhere in the world. So if you decide to give this a try, your doctor may not be willing to get involved and/or may be very hostile toward the idea.
The FDA considers helminths (that will be used as immunomodulators) to be biological products. In simple terms, this means if you order parasites from a company, customs can confiscate them.
However, they are not illegal—sale, purchase, growth, possession, and self-treatment is all legal.
It is typical to have an flare-up of symptoms when you introduce helminths to your system. This should calm down after a while, but it’s important to take into consideration as it could interfere with your ability to work and/or function.
This can be mitigated by taking a very small initial dose, followed by small increases in subsequent doses.
Results take time. Unlike pharmaceuticals, helminthic therapy results usually take weeks, often months, and sometimes years to achieve.
Dosing may be something you need to continue indefinitely. Since the parasites are controlled, meaning they can’t reproduce and run amok in your system (which is good!), they’ll eventually die.
You many need to replace them at regular intervals to maintain the immune regulation benefits.
Every treatment has risks—medicines can be toxic in the wrong dose and exercise can result in injury. This treatment is no different. And approximately 1/4 of those who try helminthic therapy claim to have no response to the treatment.
If you’re interested in more information, helminthic therapy wiki is a very comprehensive resource on the subject that has very thorough references for all of the information they present.
If you enjoyed this article, check out Does a Gluten Free Diet Heal Celiac Disease?
Disclaimer: This is not medical advice, nor is it intended to replace the advice or attention of heath-care professionals. This information is for educational purposes only. This is not intended diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, and nothing here should be taken as a claim of specific benefits for any person.