Having a parasite can be a scary thought, but you’re not alone; parasites are far more common than you think. It’s a myth that parasites only exist in underdeveloped countries. In fact, the majority of the patients I see in my clinic have a parasite. As you will see, parasites can causing a myriad of symptoms, only a few of which are actually digestive in nature.
What is a parasite?
A parasite is any organism that lives and feeds off of another organism. When I refer to intestinal parasites, I’m referring to tiny organisms, usually worms, that feed off of your nutrition.
Some examples of parasites include roundworms, tapeworms, pinworms, whipworms, hookworms, and more. Because parasites come in so many different shapes and sizes, they can cause a very wide range of problems. Some consume your food, leaving you hungry after every meal and unable to gain weight. Others feed off of your red blood cells, causing anemia. Some lay eggs that can cause itching, irritability, and even insomnia. If you have tried countless approaches to heal your gut and relieve your symptoms without any success, a parasite could be the underlying cause for many of your unexplained and unresolved symptoms.
How do you get parasites?
There are a number of ways to contract a parasite. First, parasites can enter your body through contaminated food and water. Undercooked meat is a common place for parasites to hide, as well as contaminated water from underdeveloped countries, lakes, ponds, or creeks. However, meat is the not the only culprit. Unclean or contaminated fruits and vegetables can also harbor parasites. Some parasites can even enter the body by traveling through the bottom of your foot.
Once a person is infected with a parasite, it’s very easy to pass it along. If you have a parasite and don’t wash your hands after using the restroom, you can easily pass microscopic parasite eggs onto anything you touch — the door handle, the salt shaker, your phone, or anyone you touch. It’s also very easy to contract a parasite when handling animals. Hand washing is a major opportunity to prevent parasite contamination and transmission. Traveling overseas is another way that foreign parasites can be introduced to your system. If you consumed any contaminated water during your travels, you may have acquired a parasite of some kind.
10 Signs You May Have a Parasite
- You have an explained constipation, diarrhea, gas, or other symptoms of IBS
- You traveled internationally and remember getting traveler’s diarrhea while abroad
- You have a history of food poisoning and your digestion has not been the same since.
- You have trouble falling asleep, or you wake up multiple times during the night.
- You get skin irritations or unexplained rashes, hives, rosacea or eczema.
- You grind your teeth in your sleep.
- You have pain or aching in your muscles or joints.
- You experience fatigue, exhaustion, depression, or frequent feelings of apathy.
- You never feel satisfied or full after your meals.
- You’ve been diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia.
The signs of a parasite can often appear unrelated and unexplained. As I mentioned previously, there are MANY different types of parasites that we are exposed to in our environments. I typically see parasites causing more constipation in patients than diarrhea, but some parasites are capable of changing the fluid balance in your gut and causing diarrhea. Trouble sleeping, skin irritations, mood changes, and muscle pain can all be caused by the toxins that parasites release into the bloodstream. These toxins often cause anxiety, which can manifest itself in different ways. For instance, waking up in the middle of the night or grinding your teeth in your sleep are signs that your body is experiencing anxiety while you rest. When these toxins interact with your neurotransmitters or blood cells, they can cause mood swings or skin irritation.
How to Test for Parasites
The best way to test for a parasite is to get a stool test. Most doctors will run a conventional stool test if they suspect a parasite, however these are not as accurate as the comprehensive stool tests that we use in functional medicine.
Conventional Ova and Parasite Stool Test
Conventional stool tests can identify parasites or parasite eggs in your stool, yet this test comes with many limitations. The problem with this test is that it is only conditionally successful. This test requires three separate stool samples that must be sent to the lab for a pathologist to view under a microscope. Parasites have a very unique life cycle that allows them to rotate between dormant and alive. In order to identify them in this conventional test, the stool sample must contain a live parasite, the parasite must remain alive as the sample ships to the lab, and the pathologist must be able to see the live parasite swimming across the slide. While these can certainly be useful tests for some people, they are unable to identify dormant parasites, and therefore I often see a high number of false negatives with this type of stool test.
Functional Medicine Comprehensive Stool Test
In my practice, I use a comprehensive stool test on all of my patients. The comprehensive test is much more sensitive than the conventional stool test because it uses Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technology to amplify the DNA of the parasite if there is one. This means that the parasite can actually be dead or in its dormant phase and it will be detected on this test. Because this test utilizes PCR technology, it isn’t reliant on a pathologist seeing a live parasite swimming on the slide. I frequently diagnose parasites in my patients that were missed on conventional stool tests.
How to Treat Parasites
The comprehensive stool test is able to identify 17 different parasites, so when I know which parasite my patient has, I use prescription medications that target specific species of parasites. If, however, the parasite cannot be identified, I usually use a blend of herbs, including magnesium caprylate, berberine, and extracts from tribulus, sweet wormwood, grapefruit , barberry, bearberry, and black walnut. You can typically find an herbal combination at a compounding pharmacy or though my website. In general, these herbal formulas provide a broad spectrum of activity against the most common pathogens present in the human GI tract, while sparing the beneficial gut bacteria. Before starting an anti-parasite herbal supplement, I recommend you consult your physician and have your liver enzymes checked if you have a history of liver disease, heavy alcohol use or previous history of elevated liver enzymes.
If you think you might have a parasite, I encourage you find a functional medicine physician in your area so that they can order a comprehensive stool test for you. My motto is, It all starts in your gut and your gut is the gateway to health. A healthy gut makes a healthy person.
Here are the signs and symptoms of four common parasitic infections:
Trichinella: Infection with the microscopic parasite Trichinella leads to trichinellosis, also known as trichinosis. People contract the parasite by eating raw or undercooked meat from infected animals. Initial signs and symptoms include diarrhea and abdominal cramping. As the infection progresses over the course of about a week, symptoms may become more severe and include high fever, muscle pain and tenderness, swelling of the eyelids or face, weakness, headache, light sensitivity and pink eye (conjunctivitis).
Hookworm: Hookworm infects an estimated 576 to 740 million people worldwide and was once a common infection in the U.S., particularly in the southeast. Fortunately, the number of infections has dropped thanks to improved living conditions. Hookworms are a type of helminth, or parasitic worm, that you can get by walking barefoot on contaminated soil. Most people with a hookworm infection have no symptoms, but because the worm’s larvae can penetrate skin, an early sign of infection could be an itchy rash at the site of exposure. Digestive complaints may follow, with nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain that is worse after eating and increased flatulence. If infection persists, anemia and nutrient deficiencies may result.
Dientamoeba Fragilis: This parasite is one of the smaller parasites that can live in the large intestine. How it spreads is unclear, but is likely related to oral contact with infected fecal material (yet another reason to wash your hands before eating). In the acute infection, diarrhea and abdominal pain are the most common symptoms, with diarrhea being more predominant, lasting for one to two weeks. Stools tend to be greenish brown and watery or sticky. In chronic infection, abdominal pain is usually the dominant symptom, but people may also have loss of appetite, weight, nausea, vomiting, bloating or flatulence.
Pinworm: Pinworms are small, thin, white worms that most commonly infect children but are also contagious and may affect adults. The worm’s eggs may be carried to surfaces including hands, toys, bedding, clothing and toilet seats and must be ingested to cause infection. After an incubation period of at least one to two months, the main symptom is itching around the anus, which may be particularly bad at night. Disturbed sleep or abdominal pain may also result.
Natural Parasite Remedies
There are some natural remedies that may help you kick out the invaders as well. Keep reading to see if they could be right for you.
Garlic: Garlic has been shown to have antiparasitic and antihelminthic activity against a variety of different infections. In studies, garlic oil and garlic extract promoted immune defenses against parasites, and also helped to inhibit parasite function. Some experts suggest that two cloves of fresh garlic a day may help you fight off parasites, especially if you are traveling to countries where parasites are common. Anyone with a garlic allergy should not take garlic.
Wormwood tea: Studies suggest wormwood tea may also be effective against certain parasites, possibly by paralyzing or killing them. Some experts suggest that drinking wormwood tea three times a day for no more than 10 days may help with a parasitic infection. However, because wormwood is related to absinthe, make sure it is labeled “thujone-free” and be careful not to overuse it. It should also be used with caution in people with certain medical conditions. People with an allergy to wormwood, or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take wormwood. Always consult your doctor before beginning use.
Black walnut: Black walnut extract may contain pigments that are toxic to parasites, and it may also soothe diarrhea and constipation. Some experts suggest that 1000 mg of black walnut extract taken three times a day with water for no longer than six weeks may help people suffering from parasites. However, those who are allergic and pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take it. People with certain medical conditions, including kidney or liver disease, should use it cautiously, and long term use may be unsafe. Always talk to your doctor before beginning use of a new supplement or alternative treatment.