Parasites may prevent or treat autoimmune disease

I just came across some very interesting research and wanted to share it with you. I've been having some ongoing digestive issues (for years) and attributed it to my disease, but my family doctor suggested that we check to see whether I have any intestinal parasites. It's one of the standard tests they run when people have unexplained digestive complaints. The results are in and yes, I do have an intestinal parasite! I haven't seen my doctor to discuss yet so I'm not sure exactly what type it is or how it will be treated or what impact this may have on my stomach symptoms. I also don't know when and where I contracted this parasite because I haven't spent time in the developing world other than a vacation to Cuba 5 years ago. I'm a vegetarian so I wouldn't have contracted it through eating undercooked meat. I suppose it must have been through traces of soil on fruit or vegetables.

But here's the interesting part! I went online to look up some information about parasites and I came across some journal articles on their role in autoimmune disease. This piqued my interest of course. Initially I thought, so if I can eradicate this parasite would it have a positive effect on my overall health? It turns out that the exact opposite may be true.

Intestinal parasites are very common in the developing world and quite uncommon in developed countries. The rates of autoimmune disease are very low in the developing world; diseases like MS and lupus and type 1 diabetes are almost never seen in these areas. Rates of all autoimmune disease are sharply on the rise here in North America and across Europe. It appears that the children of immigrants from the developing world who settle in North America have the same risk of developing autoimmune disease as those whose families have lived here for many generations. But why?

I have heard several different theories. The most common on is that the Western diet is to blame -- poor nutrition causes obesity, deficiencies, and chronic illness. Another popular theory is that low levels of vitamin D play a role because MS is so much more prevalent in the northern hemisphere.

Another theory is that the intestinal parasites may actually offer a protective effect against developing autoimmune disease. For millions of years worm parasites have co-evolved with human immune systems. In order to survive in the human body, these parasites have developed strategies that modulate the immune system. This may not just be beneficial to worms and other parasites -- we may have become dependant on their presence to regulate our immune function.

The Hygiene Hypothesis suggests that reducing the pathogen load in our systems through sanitation, antibiotic use, and access to clean food and water has created other problems. Our immune systems have evolved to be constantly ready to mount attacks against pathogens and when the immune system does not have targets to fight against, it may become confused and turn against the body's own tissues. If you accept this hypothesis, you can see that the presence of parasites in the body might prevent autoimmune activity by "distracting" the immune system. This idea may not only lead to an increased understanding of the causes of autoimmune disease but may also offer possibilities for treatment. Could introducing select parasites into the intestinal tract reduce inflammatory tissue damage from autoimmune attacks?

Here are 2 good articles I came across. The first is mostly about type 1 diabetes, but it contains a very clear explanation of the Hygiene Hypothesis which you might find interesting. The second is specifically about the effect of a worm parasite (helminth) on Collagen-Induced Arthritis. You will also find many others in the "Related Citations" bar on the side of the Pub Med page:

Now I guess I have to figure out whether the parasite I apparently have is actually harmful to my health, or whether eradicating it might be worse than living with it!

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Thanks so much for sharing the good reading.

Sometimes i wish I could go to medical school so I could really understand all this, and participate in the research. Then i realize that i AM participating in the research, and that I understand scleroderma at a level few doctors do. If only we could really connect our patient-level experience with the medical researchers' knowledge, we could figure this thing out. That's another great benefit of having doctors who really listen to their patients.

I love this part, from the end of the first article you cited:
"In some not too distant futurity, there may come a day when we all take ‘helminth supplements’ along with our Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins, and whatever else goes to make up a modern balanced diet."

(And my mother would argue with anyone who said I was too clean as a child. I was always covered with mud from catching frogs and salamanders in the swamp behind our house. Yay, dirt!)

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That's a great summary, Zoe! I head this guy on the NPR Ira Plato show last year:
book: The Wild Life of Our Bodies, Rob Dunn, a community ecologist, working with the ecosystem of the human body.

the web site is full of information on the human flora and fauna, as is the book

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Fascinating! Our 13 year old has many scl. Symptoms and it is taking months to get into a rheumy for a true diagnosis. In the mean time, we are seeing a naturopath. Just today she suggested a colon cleanse to clean of any possible parasites. Diet changes, like removing gluten, are already making an impact on her day to day comfort.

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I'm so sorry that your daughter is having these symptoms at such a young age. As much as I struggle with these symptoms myself, it would be so much worse to watch one of my children experiencing them and not know how to make them feel better.

I think it's great that you are seeing a naturopath. I have a rheumatologist, family doctor, and several other specialists (neuro, GI, endo, vascular, oh my!) so I'm by no means against conventional medical treatment... but what conventional medicine has to offer is diagnostic testing and drug therapy. There are other interventions that can be very helpful that doctors are outside of the scope of practice for a medical doctor. Diet, exercise, stress reduction, acupuncture, massage, and so on can do wonders for some people, and I think it is always worth exploring these options.

Mainstream doctors do test for intestinal parasites though. I got my test at my family doctor's suggestion because I had problems with diarrhea, bloating, and so on. Those symptoms can definitely be caused by scleroderma, but also by MANY other conditions so it makes sense to rule out other more easily treatable possibilities before attributing it to scleroderma damage. Treatment for parasites is very simple -- a single dose of medication (or sometimes 2 doses a week apart) that doesn't usually have any terrible side effects.

Take care,


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Very well written, Zoe.

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