Think I'll go eat worms

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

November 2013

The title of this column is a line from a childhood ditty: "Nobody likes me. Everybody hates me. Think I'll go eat worms." It sounds gross but humans have been doing that for a couple of million years without knowing it and it appears that some worms might actually be good for us.

Parasite infestation is common in all living creatures and not all those critters are harmful to their host. Just like the beneficial bacteria that live within our intestines and protect us in several ways, parasites as large as worms might have evolved with humans to play a positive role in our immune system. Laboratory technicians who examine stool specimens recognize that most of us harbor benign amebas and they are able to differentiate those from the ones that cause amebic dysentery, a sometimes fatal disease. Perhaps the innocent amebas have a role to play in maintaining our health just as good bacteria do. It's not a great leap to suppose that larger parasites do too.

Physicians have been concerned that asthma and autoimmune diseases such as Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes have increased significantly over the past two generations. These conditions are uncommon or even nonexistent in primitive cultures that lack modern plumbing and sewage disposal. That is consistent with the hygiene hypothesis, based on the idea that our modern ultra-clean lifestyle prevents us from being in contact with germ-rich soil and its benefits. It's possible that just as parasites need us for long-term survival, we need parasites.

Forward-thinking scientists and courageous patients in several medical centers have been studying the effects of a particular parasitic worm on the course of multiple sclerosis and Crohn's disease. Multiple sclerosis attacks the nervous system and causes progressively worse symptoms over years or decades leading to severe disability and eventually death. Crohn's disease is a disorder of the intestines characterized by abdominal pain, chronic diarrhea and weight loss. There is no satisfactory treatment for either disease. Under research conditions, patients swallow a suspension of the eggs of Trichuris suis, the pig whipworm. Some patients with Crohn's disease have had significant improvement but the results in MS have not been as encouraging.

This unique approach to debilitating diseases is promising but not yet approved. In spite of that, vendors of worm therapy are already appearing on the Internet. There can be some serious side effects and worms are not yet ready for prime time.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.