How does helminthic therapy work?
Essentially, the worms decrease inflammation in the body. How? Researchers suspect that helminthic infections have the ability to decrease inflammation by suppressing Th1 and Th17 cells and increase in T-regulatory cells (3), which are the cells that help your immune system tell the difference between the body’s own tissues and outside invaders. Human and animal studies have both provided evidence (4) of decreased inflammatory responses from Th1 and Th17 cells and increased T regulatory cells.
Basically, chronic inflammation in the host is not conducive to the helminths’ survival, and they have coevolved with us to keep chronic inflammation in check. So, when you expose the body to helminths on purpose — proper helminthic therapy is administered in a sterile saline solution and swallowed from a cup or vial — a potential result is less inflammation, a more balanced immune system, and fewer autoimmune symptoms. These studies have been done primarily in people with conditions (5) like inflammatory bowel disorders, multiple sclerosis, type I diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and immune issues like asthma. More research needs to be done before we can draw conclusions and apply them to other autoimmune-inflammation problems, but so far, there are no major risks for helminthic therapy known in the scientific literature at this point.
Should you try helminthic therapy?
I want to be clear on one thing: Helminthic therapy is a first-line treatment to consider. I would recommend exhausting all other options before trying something experimental like this. That said, as a functional medicine practitioner, part of my job is to educate people on the latest research on emerging natural therapies—like helminthic therapy—so that they have all the options presented to them.
Most of my patients are somewhere on the autoimmune inflammation spectrum and have already tried everything conventional medicine has to offer. They’ve often seen little-to-no benefit from diet changes, herbal and nutrient-based protocols, and other lifestyle changes or experienced unwanted side effects from their treatment. We start with other therapies first to see what headway we can make and then we consider all options.
Helminthic therapy is not FDA-approved in the United States, so doctors cannot administer it outside of a research setting. Although some people self-administer helminthic therapy, as with anything, you should always talk to your doctor.
If you do try this therapy, the worms used in helminth therapy don’t survive to adulthood in humans, so they do not cause infestations and will die in a few weeks. This also means that regular doses are given around every three weeks to maintain results. The ultimate goal is to get the patient to a place where the patient’s immune system is regulated well enough that it is not flaring up and overreacting. Then, the patient can discontinue the therapy.
At first glance, helminthic therapy might seem really “out there.” But after reading this article, it probably doesn’t seem as crazy as you thought. In fact, it appears that there are significantly fewer side effects associated with helminthic therapy than with immune-suppressing pharmaceuticals and steroids, which are often given to people with autoimmune conditions.
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