Parasites and parasitic infections make most of us think of exotic diseases like malaria or Montezuma’s revenge, but could it actually be that parasites are affecting our health right here in modern-day America and other “developed” countries?
The answer may very well be a resounding yes. According to parasite expert Omar Amin, Ph.D., who runs a lab specializing in parasite diagnostics in Tempe, Arizona, a full 30% of people tested at his lab are positive for at least one parasite. This doesn’t quite equate to 30% of Americans having parasites, because the lab tests mostly symptomatic individuals who are more likely to be infected, but it’s nevertheless an impressive number. Find several articles by Dr. Amin and read about his lab at www.parasitetesting.com.
Much of what is known today about parasites comes from research carried out in the field of tropical medicine a century or longer ago. At that time and in those locations large numbers of people were dying from parasitic infections. When a parasite could not be linked to an immediate or severe illness, it was often labeled harmless (non-pathogenic). In some cases there has been subsequent research raising questions about the harmless nature of certain parasites, but these studies often went unnoticed by the majority of the medical profession and many of the old labels remain unchallenged to this very day.
Basically, there is very little acknowledgment in modern medicine that parasites have anything to do with health in our country except in cases where, for example, parasites are known to cause diarrhea in children or AIDS patients. This is further compounded by the fact that major medical labs have a very poor record of finding parasites because they have never implemented procedures needed to do so consistently. Most medical labs continue to test single stool samples when research has shown conclusively that testing multiple samples for each patient is an essential requirement because parasite shedding is inconsistent. There’s just no interest in doing it right!
Among the reasons for this general lack of interest are the persistent – though probably unfounded – belief that parasites are insignificant in our country as well as medicine’s growing fascination with high-tech procedures and designer drugs to the exclusion of everything else. When faced with intestinal complaints, doctors are far more likely to order fancy diagnostic tests and pull out a prescription pad than to consider parasites, and even when these are found they’re very often deemed insignificant.
Yet, according to Dr. Amin, parasites are increasingly a factor in our country, in part because of growing foreign travel and heavy labor migration from tropical areas to restaurant jobs where the risk of spread is high. On his website, Dr. Amin has posted pictures of all the parasites commonly found in the US together with a list of symptoms each one can cause. While you would expect to read about diarrhea or stomach cramps, you might be surprised to find symptoms like fatigue, allergies, immune suppression and even anxiety or depression.
Based on Dr. Amin’s research, the most common parasite in the US today is called Blastocystis hominis. Dientamoeba fragilis is another commonly found parasite.
A few weeks ago, as I was searching online for information relating to these two parasites, I came across a website entirely dedicated to them. The site is www.badbugs.org and, although it can be frustrating at first because it is so packed with data that it is difficult to navigate, in this case a little patience pays off.
In particular, I was intrigued by a page entitled My Story and decided to take a look at it. It turned out to be a touching story and one that I am sure many of my readers can relate to. It’s a first-person account of Jackie’s incapacitating illness that went on, as it turned out, unnecessarily for years while none of the many doctors she consulted could help her. Even though Jackie is from Australia, I have seen these very same events unfold right here in Houston dozens of times. In medical terms I guess Australia is just around the corner!
The list of symptoms Jackie experienced in 1994 can be found right at the top of her page, and it is a long list! It includes digestive symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, nausea and so on, but also other seemingly unrelated ones like chronic fatigue, depression, insomnia, weight loss, dizziness, and even intense carbohydrate cravings. Could all this result from parasites?
Jackie started shuttling from one doctor’s office to the next in a seemingly endless and draining search for help that is common to so many people today. After undergoing all sorts of diagnostic tests that were labeled either normal or insignificant she was told she had a “touch of irritable bowel” and – I am sure – a hefty deficiency of Prozac! Basically, medicine was telling her it was all in her head.
What stuck in her mind was that in the midst of all these normal test results, at different times some of the labs found that she had the two parasites named above. Even though these findings were inconsistent and she had been told repeatedly that, even if she did have the parasites, they had no effect on her health, she set out to do her own research in the hope of finding an unlikely answer.
As Jackie tells us, these parasites were first discovered more than a hundred years ago and yet their nature and health effects have never been fully established. The reason why most doctors, including GI specialists, disregard them is that medical texts list them as benign except occasionally when they cause diarrhea, which is generally transient. Treatment is most often denied but even when it is recommended it is merely palliative and aimed at stopping the diarrhea rather than eradicating the parasites. If we only look at short-term effects this medical view is entirely accurate, but could there be longer-term and far more detrimental effects?
As Jackie undertook her research she uncovered a number of studies published in major medical journals, which revealed that these parasites do have long-term effects leading to intestinal damage, inflammation, immune suppression and multiple nutrient deficiencies. In fact, she found published studies to account for most if not all of the symptoms she had been experiencing.
The studies Jackie found are now all listed in her website under each symptom category, but it does make you wonder why they are so consistently ignored. The only answer I can think of is that studies on parasites must belong to the same category as studies on vitamins, which – if favorable – always elicit the comment from medical experts that more research is needed; and then the studies are quickly forgotten.
You’d think that once Jackie found a link between parasites and her condition she could finally get help, but this didn’t happen. Her doctors either continued to deny a need for treatment or, if they agreed to treat, they had no idea of how to eradicate the parasites and prescribed medications that proved ineffective. When she eventually found treatments that worked she listed them on her website.
The truth is that these parasites are difficult to treat and almost all, if not all, of the natural anti-parasite supplements sold over the internet or in health stores are ineffective. Each parasite responds to a different treatment so it is essential to have a positive test result to identify the bugs rather than guessing or blindly taking herbal supplements.
For example, it is a common occurrence in my practice to get positive test results for these and other parasites in people who just completed a parasite cleanse or even a long-term parasite treatment with herbal supplements. These supplements definitely work in some cases, but do not eradicate the most highly entrenched and detrimental parasites. Unfortunately the only treatments I have found to work predictably require prescription medications and therefore one needs to have a relationship with a MD or DO who is willing to think outside the box.
In addition, testing itself can be a challenge even for the most sophisticated labs because parasites are known to be cyclical and do not shed continuously. There is a great deal of information on the internet about parasites shedding more in periods of full moon although this could be more fiction than fact. However, taking a natural laxative such as magnesium oxide before testing definitely increases parasite excretion.
When results are negative, periodic retesting should be considered especially if symptoms are suggestive of parasites and do not abate with dietary or other interventions. In addition, tests should always be repeated after treatment to confirm successful eradication. In susceptible people I recommend retesting on a yearly basis to make sure there is no relapse.
In case you’re wondering, Jackie did eventually get rid of her parasites, but then discovered that years of damage to her gut could not be easily reversed. Over time, targeted supplements combined with a low-carb diet helped get her on the road to recovery and she writes that she has now almost fully recovered.