Got Hookworms? Gut Bacteria and Your Health
In January of 2013, I was diagnosed with advanced Graves' disease, a complicated autoimmune disorder that affects thyroid hormone (TSH) in the bloodstream. As a result, I had an irregular heart rate, lost nearly ten percent of my body weight and was at risk for my optic nerve detaching, which could cause blindness. Thankfully, after a year of treatment, I'm in remission. But no remission is permanent, and I'd love to find a cure for my disease. This is just what I was thinking about when I casually listened to an episode of NPR's RadioLab about six months ago. What I heard changed the way I thought about autoimmune disorders and their potential to be cured.
You Want to Give Me Hookworms?
While I only heard about helminthic therapy - or treatment via hookworm infection - a few months ago, it has apparently been circling the scientific community for years. Helminths are parasitic worms, like hookworms or whipworms, that are injected into a patient because they are believed to help regulate the body’s autoimmune response.
In the NPR broadcast, I learned about a man with extreme allergies and asthma who walked through unsanitized areas of Third World countries, barefoot, to try and pick up hookworms. He did this because helminthic therapy is not exactly regulated or even legal in the United States. As time went on and I continued to read articles and listen to new about this treatment, I was in awe of its results. People with severe Crohn's disease, asthma, celiac disease, and rheumatoid arthritis were finding relief with helminths.
So, I asked my brother-in-law, a medical doctor with an infectious disease specialty, to read up on the issue and see if he could get his hands on some hookworms for me. While he vetoed my hookworm request, he did say the research he found on the therapy was promising. Here's what scientists think they've discovered:
- The extreme rise in autoimmune disease has occurred in too short a time to be correlated to evolution.
- Autoimmune disorders present primarily in First World countries.
- A possible explanation of the malfunction of immune systems in First World countries is a focus on hygiene, which has depleted the valuable bacteria in the human gut, including hookworms.
By replacing some bacteria in the digestive system of people suffering from immune disorders, researchers have noted two beneficial effects. First, the immune system can focus more on the invader and less on the body it was previously attacking. Second, the hookworms cause the body to emit a type of hormone that is beneficial in healing, called interleukin-22, or IL-22. "This is a molecule that promotes epithelial growth and healing and perhaps does other things to the immune system that would be potentially beneficial," said Joel Weinstock, a scientist from Tufts Medical Center in Boston quoted in an NPR article on this topic from 2010.1
Ultimately, the theory behind this treatment is simple. Human beings evolved alongside parasites in our long history, but the term parasite may be misleading. By definition, a parasitic relationship benefits only one party while harming the others. It's possible our gut bacteria and organisms like hookworms are actually symbiotic to our health rather than parasitic.
So how can we restore this relationship? Unfortunately for those of us who are desperately searching for an immediate solution to our autoimmune disorders, it doesn't look like hookworms will be available at the local pharmacy anytime soon. In extremely desperate cases, you can order them from Thailand or Mexico, or try to expose yourself to hookworms in another way. (My brother-in-law would strongly recommend against this.) In the meantime, though, we can restore as much of the natural bacteria in our bodies as possible, specifically in our guts.
Here are some suggestions from nutritionists and doctors to create biodiversity within your own intestines:
- Don't eat foods to which you're allergic. It can be hard to know which foods cause a reaction, so if you’re not sure, try going on a cleanse. Removing all potential allergens such as grains, nuts, dairy, and nightshades restores you to a clean slate. From there, reintroduce one food at a time. Take note of the reactions you have and you may find there is an obvious food you're allergic to.
- Eat or take probiotics. Keeping your gut healthy means having a diverse number of microorganisms in the intestines, and probiotic foods and supplements can help. Probiotic foods include fermented foods, kombucha, and yogurts, among others.
- Avoid foods that strip or dehydrate your intestines. Specifically, caffeine has an immediate cleansing effect - most of us know what this feels like. Forgo the coffee for a lower caffeine beverage. Even making your coffee at home can cut the caffeine by two-thirds compared to popular coffeehouse brands.2
- Consider your alcohol intake. Alcohol may have an adverse effect on gut biodiversity.
- Consider your options if you're pregnant. Breastfeeding and vaginal delivery are critical in developing healthy gut bacteria in children.3 This is obviously not always possible, but healthy guts add to the long list of reasons for expecting moms to aim for this outcome. Studies in Europe have shown introducing healthy bacteria, including probiotics, may also prevent and relieve colic.
1. "Eat Your Worms: The Upside of Parasites," NPR.org., December 02, 2010.
2. "Caffeine Content," Center for Science in the Public Interest.
3. "Infant gut microbiota influenced by caesarean section and breastfeeding practices," Canadian Medical Association Journal.
4. "His parasite theory stirs a revolution," Boston.com, December 31, 2007.
5. "For the Good of the Gut: Can Parasitic Worms Treat Autoimmune Diseases?" Scientific American, Dec 1, 2010.
Photo 1 by Joelmills at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo 2 courtesy of Shutterstock.