How Parasites Affect Your Health
So, if you follow my blog pretty closely chances are that you have seen me briefly mention my recent experience with parasites a few times.
For the past few months I had been battling some vague digestive ailments, I would have random bouts of abdominal bloating, changes in my stool that would come and go and indigestion even after eating AIP friendly foods that I don’t usually have a problem with. Basically, my health felt kind of tedious, and I felt like my healing progress had plateaued. None of these symptoms fully lined up with an ulcerative colitis flare but they were concerning me, none the less. Thankfully, during this time period, I had finally gotten established with a wonderful integrative health doctor who I trusted to help me get back on track. She recommended that we do some comprehensive stool testing. She ordered one comprehensive test through Doctor’s Data, which is a great lab, and another separate parasite test through a local lab.
I did them, feeling confident that the majority of my information would come from the comprehensive test and that the parasite test would come back clean. I hadn’t had any severe diarrhea, no weight loss (much to my annoyance, actually), and no severe abdominal pain. That’s what happens when you have a parasite right?
Well, about a week passed and low and behold I get an email from my doctor telling me that my parasite test had come back positive for fairly severe giardia, a parasitic infection, as well as a tapeworm called dipylidium. She recommended that I start medication immediately to resolve it and I agreed.
I was truly shocked at this diagnosis. I still have no idea where or when or how I picked up either of these infections, but given the severity of it, my doctor feels that both infections have been present for a long time. So, obviously me next question was what effect have these infections had on my health and my symptoms? This led me to do some research on the effects of parasitic and helminth (tapeworm) infections and the information I found was quite interesting. Research into the long term effects of parasitic and helminth infections is still in its infancy but I was able to find a couple of reputable, peer reviewed studies that helped shed some initial light on the topic.
Giardia is an incredibly common parasitic infection that can be spread through contaminated water, food or even person to person through microscopic amounts of infected fecal matter. Because it is very common, the body of research surrounding it was much larger than the research relating to tapeworms so I will start there.
A review on the topic published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology in 2013 (1) showed that giardia can lead to:
- intestinal barrier dysfunction (i.e. Leaky gut) through damage to the epithelial cells of the intestinal lining and a halt of the enterocyte cell cycle progression
- nutrient malabsorption
- changes in microbiotia composition- an increased potential for pathenogenic bacteria in the gut
- an increased likelihood of food allergies- especially to dairy
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
In fact, this review stated that these effects can even be felt for 2-3 years following infection and treatment.
In regards to helminth infections, my limited review of the research showed that one common characteristic of helminth infections is a TH2 dominated immune response. This is interesting because many autoimmune diseases result from a Th2 dominant immune response, ulcerative colitis included, (for more info see this article) Interestingly enough, I also found a small study looking at how helminth infections alter the barrier function of the epithelial lining of the colon and it found that the th2 dominant response caused by the particular infection they were studying seems to compromise the mucosal barrier function in colon and lead to increased intestinal permeability (i.e. leaky gut) . (2)
So what does all of this mean?
It means that parasitic and helminth infections have the potential to contribute to leaky gut and an elevated immune response both of which can be precursors to autoimmune disease or make it extremely difficult to heal from or regulate an autoimmune disease. So, if you haven’t been tested for parasites recently and you are working to heal from an autoimmune disease it may be in your best interest to get tested. That being said, many standard test for parasitic infections only look for active parasites in the stool. This is a problem, because parasites have a life cycle that keeps them dormant for days at a time so standard tests have a high rate of false negative results. So, to get a more comprehensive look I recommend using a lab that looks for traces of parasite DNA (a PRC test) or that tests you stool over a period of 3 days rather than looking at a single sample. You can request this through your doctor or order your own tests online through a lab like Doctor’s Data.
- I will note that there is a growing body of research addressing the idea that doe parasitic or helminth infections can actually be beneficial to overall and immune health. However, that is dependent on the type of infection and is not always the case.
- Halliez, M. C., & Buret, A. G. (2013). Extra-intestinal and long term consequences of Giardia duodenalis infections. World Journal of Gastroenterology : WJG, 19(47), 8974–8985. doi:10.3748/wjg.v19.i47.8974
- Su, C.W., Cao, Y., Kaplan, J. Zhang, M., Li, W. , Conroy, M., Walker, A. W., & Shi, H. N. (2011). Duodenal Helminth Infection Alters Barrier Functions of the Colonic Epitheium via Adaptive Immune Activation. Infection and Immunity: 79(6), 2285-2294