Parasite cleansing is ‘modern day snake oil’. Experts explain why.
- Constipation, diarrhea or gas.
- International travel.
- “Traveler’s Diarrhea” while out of the country.
- What you believed was food poisoning, and your digestion hasn’t been the same since.
- Trouble falling asleep and waking up multiple times during the night.
- Skin problems, such as eczema, psoriasis, hives, rosacea or an unexplained rash.
- Teeth grinding during sleep.
- Pain or soreness in muscles or joints.
- You feel exhausted, depressed or apathetic almost all the time.
- You never feel satisfied after eating.
- Iron deficiency anemia.
- Diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
Imagine my dismay as I checked each of these ailments. The cleanse involved taking herbal supplements consisting of cloves, black walnut and wormwood – the dose of which was literally a handful of gelatin capsules each day. And since I struggle to swallow even the tiniest pills, I quickly gave up and decided to have a stool examination at the doctor’s office. Some parasites may be visible under a microscope, and DNA tests can identify those that may not be as visible.
I had no intestinal parasites, which are scientifically called “helminths” (a variety of worms) or protozoa. Very anticlimactic, I know. So is there any truth to the advice I just took? Or some bestsellers?
Yes, the parasite cleanse is worthless. You are almost literally throwing money down the toilet.
“For a long time there have been people selling products with various health claims designed to separate people from their money,” says Thomas Moore, an infectious disease specialist and clinical professor at the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Wichita. “The parasite cleanse is the latest incarnation of a pseudoscientific health trend that peddles the idea that there are toxins in your body that need to be cleansed. In fact, what they are really doing is preying on the gullible.”
The manufacturers of de-parasite products will tell you that most people have intestinal parasites and don’t even know it. They make parasites seem commonplace and responsible for much of what ails us. The supplements they sell, which are often made from some mixture of papaya seeds, walnuts, cloves and wormwood, claim to kill the parasites in your gut and flush them out into your faeces, where you can sometimes find their corpses if you dare to peek in the toilet.
“These homeopathic or naturopathic treatments are based on pseudoscience,” says Moore. “If you really have a parasite, the most important thing is to get it diagnosed because there are effective treatments. There is little or no scientific evidence to support that these concoctions fight infection.”
A A 2007 study of 60 children in Nigeria suggests that eating dried papaya seeds might help clear stool parasites, but the small study doesn’t actually prove that papaya seeds relieve symptoms because none of the children had them. (Most people with worms have no symptoms of infection.)
And on the photographic evidence people post online (do yourself a favor and don’t ask), what might look like a worm might just be undigested bits of kale. “That long spindly thing in your stool can certainly look like a tapeworm if you don’t know what you’re looking for,” says Moore. “Actually, it’s just a series of vegetable matter.”
These home remedies haven’t been shown to work against parasites, but can supplements hurt?
“These supplements are really modern snake oil,” says Moore.
It may not be harmful to take these supplements if they are pure, consumed in small doses and made safely, says Omobosola Akinsete, an infectious disease clinician at HealthPartners Medical Group in Minnesota. But they, like all supplements, they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration in the same way as pharmaceutical productsso their contents differ from place to place and may contain harmful ingredients.
At best, herbal supplements can have some benefits, but they can also be ineffective, or worse, contaminated with microbes or heavy metalsor intentionally intoxicated with illegal or prescription drugs. They can also cause harmful side effects and interact with prescription drugs.
“These supplements and cleansers are also laxatives,” says Akinsete. “They cause diarrhea and, if taken in sufficient amounts, can actually change the microbiome of the gastrointestinal tract, which is what we’re trying to prevent in the first place.”
Should you worry about parasites?
Parasitic infections are widespread globally, but not in the United States and other developed countries. But Moore says they can be a problem in a population that doesn’t have access to good sanitation — the same population that doesn’t have the disposable income to spend on expensive herbal supplements, which can cost up to $90 a bottle.
“Americans generally do not have to worry about parasites because they are very rare in this country because of good sanitation, a supply of purified water, and careful monitoring of food products by the government or other agencies to ensure they are safe for human consumption.” Akinsete says.
Akinsete says, however, that people should get tested by a doctor if they have traveled to a developing country and have symptoms such as diarrhea, stomach pain, rashes and bloating. (Although Moore says most cases of diarrhea are caused by E. coli, not parasites.) The same is true if you experience these symptoms after eating raw food, such as sushi, or drinking raw water while camping.
Regardless of exposure, Akinsete says you don’t need to get checked for parasites if you don’t have any symptoms.
Can some parasites be beneficial?
Some researchers they claim that expelling harmless helminths from your body works against you—that these worms work to balance our gut biomes and prevent allergies and autoimmune disorders.
But Moore disagrees. “The word parasite comes from the Greek word for ‘uninvited dinner guest,'” he says. “These things usually feed on you, and by definition they’re not good to have. But the best ones won’t cause any symptoms.”
How to have a happy, healthy gut
Instead of clearing your gut of a non-existent parasite, Moore says the most important thing to maintain a healthy gut flora is to eat a varied diet rich in vegetables, especially leafy green vegetables. If you want to do something extra, consider taking a probiotic which contains many different bacteria and other anaerobes, which can be beneficial for gut health.
Copyright 2022, Consumer Reports Inc.
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