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Can Worms Help with IBD?

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Believe it or not, this is a question being studied by scientists in the gut health world.

Yep, we are talking about introducing worms to help the healing process.

But not just any worms.

After all, earthworms have long been boiled and eaten in places as far reaching as Venezuela, New Zealand, and China as a delicacy. Smoked worms are even sold at three times the price of other smoked meats. Plus, they’re high in protein!

Today, we are talking about the idea of using mutualistic worms, also known as helminths.

So if you felt the yuck factor from the earthworms, hang on tight!

It all started in the 1980s with the Hygiene Hypothesis.

A researcher, Neil Lynch, in Venezuela pointed out that 90% of the Venezuallans who lived in the rainforest had some sort of worm infection and virtually none of these people had allergies.

However, when you compared this to their more affluent population who lived in a more urban setting only 10% had worm infections yet 43% had allergies. [1]

So the idea developed that if we are too clean…

We are not exposed to the bacteria and microorganisms that we need to be to develop our immune system at a young age.

Yes, hand washing is necessary, but the over use of sanitizers and bleach is likely playing a role in the increased rates of autoimmunity that we are seeing.

Perhaps even more importantly is the lack of contact with animals and dirt in our modern society.

Let’s dig into this for a second.

Helminths that are acquired through the soil are the most common infection worldwide. [2]

We don’t think about this as much since we tend to wear shoes, and we have toilets that reduce the fecal oral transmission of infections.

But in countries where walking barefoot is common and toilets are more scarce, infections with different helminths are common.

Some of these helminths are problematic and need to be treated, but the lack of helminths and microbial diversity may actually be the abnormal state for humans.

And it’s looking like some of these worms might actually help to add diversity to our gut health.

Autoimmune conditions, like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), are when our immune system gets confused and starts to attack our own cells.

Introducing safe helminths to someone's system may act by distracting the immune system so it stops attacking itself.

The helminths that might actually help in some diseases are called conditionally mutualistic helminths.

This is because at the right dose they offer both the host (aka the human in this case) and the helminth itself a benefit.

The host may be relieved from disease symptoms, and the helminth gets a place to live and food while it is inoculating the host.

It's kinda cute right?

Moving from hypothesis to research…

One study in 2003 treated seven patients that had ulcerative colitis or Crohn's Disease that was non-responsive to traditional therapy. [3]

They were then infected with pig whipworm, and the results of these phase I trials were pretty exciting!

Even though these individuals did not respond to traditional treatment of IBD…

More than 70% of initial patients reported improvement after they were inoculated with the whipworm.

Another successful study was done in 2005 with 29 patients who had Crohn's Disease. [4]

And more studies continue, but larger sample sizes, longer follow-ups, and standardized doses are still being considered. [5]

While helminthic therapy is approved in some countries, it’s not currently approved in the US by the FDA for treatment..

However, here at modrn med, we continue to look into this promising avenue and are still sifting through the studies as they come out.

Meanwhile, if you are ready to be supported by expert practitioners who can help you navigate all the recent research with an empathetic ear, click the link below:

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