The Shocking Truth About Parasites and Gut Health
Updated: Jan 28, 2022
People are often surprised when I tell them they may have a parasite.
How common are parasites, really?
Dr. Todd Watts said it best: “If you have a pulse, you have a parasite.”
For example, it was estimated in 2019 that more than 12% of Americans carry Toxoplasma gondii (a microscopic parasite you can get from your cat).
Nutritional scientists have suggested that over 60% of the population has some kind of parasite.
In my clinical experience, it’s at least that high (granted I work in a bit of a self-selecting population).
Let’s get this out of the way: just as we all carry bacteria that are “good” (probiotic) and “bad” (pathogenic) in our digestive tracts — we WANT that diversity as it creates a more diverse and therefore more resilient microbiome* — we all carry “parasitic” organisms and microbes. It’s part of being human. The question is whether they’ve gotten out of balance with your internal ecosystem and whether they are causing symptoms.
Let’s define “parasite”:
Parasites are pathogens that live on or inside other organisms and get their food from or at the expense of the host. There are three main classes of parasites that can cause disease in humans: protozoa (microscopic organisms like amoeba), helminths (worms), and ectoparasites (ticks, fleas, lice etc.). When I talk about parasites, I’m mainly referring to the first two categories, as these are the types that most affect the digestive tract (and other body systems), though of course the third category can create health issues.
Roundworms (nematodes), including strongyloides (one suspected cause of food allergies and sensitivities!)
Why do we all carry parasites?
It’s a really interesting and complex question. Is it possible they play a role in us?
We know that parasites have been found to “contain” harmful microbes and environmental toxins like mold, Lyme, and heavy metals - deemed by some as the "Trojan horse" effect:
Is it possible they play a protective role against these other insidious elements? I believe they do, which is why it’s fine, and perhaps advantageous, to allow a certain level of them to reside within us. Exposure to the toxins and infections mentioned above is part of life. The issue, I believe, is when those toxins accumulate to past a certain threshold, just as they can cause issues themselves, the parasites that contain them become increasingly present in us and cause issues of their own. Which is why it’s important to address both the parasites and the toxins they contain — in a strategic order (more on this in future posts).
How do we get parasites?
Contaminated food or water is a common transmission route, as is raw meat and fish. If you’ve ever eaten sushi, you could have a parasite. Food poisoning is a good clue and often a point on the timeline when chronic gut issues take off.
You don’t have to travel abroad to get them. Some routes besides contaminated food and water:
Swimming in lakes
Soil - walking outside barefoot
Pets - for example, Toxoplasma gondii from handling kitty litter
Other people - poor hygiene, living in close proximity with other people
Why the misconception that we can’t get them here?
The US is a highly industrialized, highly developed country. We have advanced practices and regulations to keep our food supply sanitary and safe. And it is simply not part of our health culture to consider parasites as a common factor affecting how our bodies function. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that many of us think we’re too good for parasites…
They’re also notoriously difficult to test for. I speak with clients weekly with the same basic story: they had digestive issues, went to see their gastroenterologist, did a stool test (maybe an endoscopy or other tests as well), and everything came back negative. (Don’t get me started on the all-too-common “You’re just stressed!” line). Yet when I suspect and address parasites based on symptoms, energetic frequency testing (muscle testing) and looking for red flags in their blood work (that I’ve learned through specialized functional training), 9/10 times they feel tremendously better. I’ve also spoken to many people who’ve gone to see functional medicine practitioners whose functional stool tests have come back negative. Please understand this: a negative stool test does NOT mean there aren’t parasites and that they’re not causing symptoms!
(Note - I do believe certain stool tests have other benefits — they can be very helpful in looking at someone’s balance of gut bacteria, whether they have yeast overgrowth, enzyme deficiencies, inflammation in the GI tract and more. They just typically suck at finding parasites.)
Why do I need to address a parasitic infection?
While parasites can cause the things you typically think of when you think of gut infections — nausea, vomiting, diarrhea — they can also cause things that people typically blame on certain foods, or stress, or just don’t know what to pin them on, like chronic bloating, gas and constipation. They can really cause any digestive issue imaginable: acid reflux, abdominal pain, food intolerances (I’ve seen these recede once underlying parasitic infections are cleared).
Beyond the digestive system, parasites can trigger inflammation throughout the body. Different parasites can directly infect different body tissues (liver flukes are a good example — they can clog up the liver, block bile ducts and create issues with toxic buildup and inflammation). And because they inflame and disrupt gut health, they can cause inflammation and toxicity throughout the body, because such a large component of the immune system surrounds the intestinal lining.
Check out this post for a more comprehensive list of symptoms linked with parasitic infections — many of them may surprise you. I suggest also going through the parasite questionnaire at the end of this post to get a sense of whether this is something you may be dealing with.
One of the most common and amazing correlations I see between parasites and health is mood and brain function — I often see things like brain fog, poor memory and focus, poor sleep, and anxiety improve when parasites are cleared out and gut health is restored.
And recall that parasites can actually contain the other microbes and toxins like Lyme, Babesia and other tick-borne infections, heavy metals (mercury, aluminum, etc.), and mold. This is really important because it heralds a new way of thinking about supporting the body to heal from chronic illness — you have to lower the body’s load of parasites that contain these toxins before, or at least at the same time as you address those other things. Otherwise Lyme and the rest may remain and continue to accumulate in the body.
Aside from parasites actually containing Lyme and other toxins itself, they create an immune imbalance that prevents the body from efficiently addressing those infections. Resolving parasite issues supports the body’s natural ability to deal with other infections and toxins.
How can I prevent parasite infections?
Doing what you can within reason to avoid exposure helps. Avoid raw fish, pork, and do your best to eat only produce that’s been thoroughly washed.
Support good stomach acid levels, our first line of defense against food-borne pathogens — if you often feel full early in a meal, or heavy meals (especially meat) tends to “sit” like a rock in your stomach, those are good signs that you may need to boost your stomach acid levels. This is something I frequently work on with clients. Simple things you can do to support stomach acid are making sure you’re in a calm state before eating — always sit down, take three deep slow breaths before eating, eat slowly, chew thoroughly. I also recommend taking bitters 10-20 minutes before a meal (I like Urban Moonshine liquid bitters in sparkling water). Work with a holistic practitioner if you’re still not sure whether you’re producing good stomach acid levels.
That said…you can’t avoid parasites completely. You’d have to live with some ridiculous extremes like never having a pet, never walking barefoot outside — while I do advise everyone to at least really cut back on things like sushi, I believe the best approach is build up your immunity and gut health (including healthy stomach acid levels) so you’re more resilient, and do regular (every 3-6 months) herbal gut cleanses for maintenance, once you’ve addressed any larger, more pressing issues.
Once major parasites issues have been addressed, I’ll typically take my clients through a modified maintenance protocol about that often to prevent future issues.
We can’t live in fear of parasites! It makes so much more sense to me that we build up our defenses and normalize regular parasite cleansing. We do it for our pets, humans in other parts of the world understand it is part of life — it’s time we took it seriously too.
Important Context Around Parasites and Health
While I do tend to see parasites as a key issue in my practice, and one that, when addressed, allows health to improve dramatically on a regular basis, no one thing is the sole cause for health issues. In the last few decades, candida overgrowth, and more recently SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth) became major focus areas for gut issues — yet we now know they are both signs of other imbalances, rather than root causes themselves. Nutrition and wellness thinking comes in waves and trends and we have to be wary of pigeon-holing our focus. That said, parasite cleansing is not new or a fad — it’s practiced around the world and has been for centuries, and the fact is that I’ve seen it work wonders when used within a broader health supportive program.
What to do if you think you might have parasites
While there are a variety of herbal gut cleanses out there, I strongly recommend working with an integrative practitioner who can create and walk you through a personalized protocol. Depending on the situation, parasite cleansing can be intense, and there are steps to be taken before and after to ensure that you’re properly preparing the body and doing the necessary cleanup of toxins that may be released in the cleansing process. Everyone’s tolerance is different and doing a protocol as it’s written online may be fine for one person while it may make another feel awful. The results of this work can be absolutely life changing, just make sure you seek out the proper guidance, especially if you tend to be sensitive to things like herbs and supplements.
That said, a few basic tips:
Parasites tend to love certain foods — see if you feel better if you stop feeding them / creating an environment that promotes their growth:
Sugar (specifically white sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar and agave — fruit’s OK, and I’ve generally found 1-2 tsp / day of honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and date sugar to be fine, but this often comes down to the individual)
Dairy (mainly cheese and milk — grass fed butter and ghee are usually fine; yogurt’s a maybe, I would cut it out just to see)
Processed carbs (bread, pasta, bagels, cookies etc.)
Track your symptoms — do you feel worse at night or around the full moon or new moon?
Make sure you’re pooping 1-3 times daily
Move your body for at least an hour and dry brush daily to help move the lymphatic system
Next steps in my practice
I’ve developed a comprehensive approach to resolve chronic symptoms. This often includes addressing parasites and involves a thorough review of symptoms and blood work in conjunction with energetic frequency testing to home in on exactly what your body is dealing with and create a clinical nutrition program that supports your specific needs. I work 100% virtually with clients around the world.
If you’re not sure where to start, book a discovery call. This free consultation allows us to get to know each other a bit and plan out next steps together to support your health.
*Statements here are intended for educational purposes only and are not to be construed as medical advice.