I was dealing with the usual after-school hustle and bustle one afternoon with a health-related show playing on the TV in the background. When they started talking about inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), it piqued my interest, so I stopped to listen. Evidently, a man with Crohn’s disease had purposely infected himself with a parasite, and he felt that it had put his symptoms into remission.
The entire segment made me a little nervous and skeptical because the parasite was purchased on the “black market” and taken without a physician’s supervision. They also made it clear that the man had made changes to his IBD medications as well, which meant it was hard to distinguish which action — introducing unverifiable parasites purchased on the black market into his own body, or the change to his medication — had actually resulted in the perceived improvements. So it prompted me to do a little more research.
In an article published in April 2016 in Science, researchers sought to study the effect of parasites on IBD. By infecting rodents that had the same genetic defect found in many people with Crohn’s disease with parasitic worms, or helminths, they were able to study the changes in the rodents’ microbiome.
What they found was that the mucous-producing cells in the gut were restored to normal, inflammation levels decreased, and the gut microbe bacteroides (pro inflammatory microbes) decreased while the number of clostridiales (beneficial microbes) increased.
To further study the effect that the changes in microbes might have on the microbiome, the researchers looked at two Malaysian population groups — urbanites living in Kuala Lumpur (with very few intestinal parasites) and the Orang Asli, who live in a rural area (with frequent intestinal parasites). They found the same pattern seen in the rodent study. The patients in Kuala Lumpur had greater amounts of bacteroides, and those in Orang Asli had greater numbers of clostridiales.
Unfortunately, while the study shows that there is a link to parasites and positive microbiome changes, it does not extrapolate to treating IBD with parasites. According to a review article also published in Science, several studies that attempted to give IBD patients the parasite in the hopes of producing remission of IBD symptoms had to be stopped early due to lackluster results**.Of additional concern for the average IBD patient is that parasites, like the helminths discussed here, cannot be purchased and taken legally in the U.S.** That means people seeking this treatment are actually buying these worms on the black market. Black market products have no guarantee and no promise that you are actually getting what you think you are buying, because they are not being regulated. It’s essentially playing Russian roulette with your health.
Parasites can also cause painful and sometimes dangerous problems. Symptoms can range from pain, loose stools, increased appetite (due to the parasite feeding off the nutrients your body needs), bloating, gas, and even flu-like symptoms: body aches, fever, and headache. For an IBD patient who is already in pain, this may only serve to increase the pain. It also may exacerbate any nutrient deficiencies.
There may come a time when research finds a way to harness the use of parasites for IBD, but until then, stick with your doctor’s recommendations for your treatment care plan.
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Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in dietetics as well as graduate work in public health and nutrition. She has worked with families dealing with digestive disease, asthma and food allergies for the past 12 years. Jennifer also serves on the Board of Directors for Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association (PAGER).