I talk a LOT about clearing infections and overgrowths – Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), yeast overgrowth (candida), and of course, killing parasites.
So I was shocked when I first heard about a new treatment idea for treating disease and healing damaged gut: worm therapy. Not clearing worms. Giving them to the patient, to help heal disease.
No, I’m not joking. It’s called helminth therapy – named for the type of organism used Hymenolepsis Diminuta Cysticeroids (HDCs). HDCs are the larval form of a very specific type of worm that help to restore immune tolerance and diversity to the microbiome when it’s been damaged.
I was really skeptical when I first heard about this. But then I heard a presentation given by one of my medical heros, Dr. Sidney Baker (former faculty member of Yale Medical School, founder of Defeat Autism Now! and Autism360.org, Linus Pauling Award recipient) and Dr. Yehuda Shoenfeld at the Institute for Functional Medicine conference in May 2018.
They shared the latest research and their experience using helminth therapy – and I went from skeptical to excited. I slowly introduced helminth therapy in my own practice and saw amazing results.
Here’s what I want you to do: suspend all your judgement for the next 10 minutes and read the rest of this post. I promise you’ll be surprised by what you learn – and I bet you’ll want to learn more about helminth therapy.
HDCs Aren’t Just Any Worms
HDCs are the larval form (aka an intermediate life stage between egg and worm) of a small helminth. Helminth grows naturally in grain beetles, which were a common part of our food supply up until about 100 years ago.
HDCs are not a parasite. By definition, a parasite causes harm to an organism – HDCs cause no harm. HDCs stay in the gut – they cannot breach the gut wall.
Really important: HDCs cannot colonize in humans. That means they’ll never go from larvae to worm in a human. For that same reason, HDCs can’t be passed from human to human either. They’re NOT contagious from person to person.
Using helminth therapy is completely different from something like taking a tapeworm from Mexico. It’s produced in sterile lab conditions (just like probiotics are) and carefully controlled.
How Are HDCs Produced – And How Do You Take Them?
Therapeutic HDCs are grown in sterile conditions in a lab – much the same way probiotics or yeast for brewing beer or culturing yogurt are.
First, the eggs are grown in rodents in the lab. If that makes you squeamish, keep in mind that these animals are kept in MUCH more humane & clean conditions than most farm animals! Then the eggs are taken and are bred into larvae in grain beetles which eat only oatmeal. The HDCs are harvested from the grain beetles and suspended in salt water.
HDCs are given orally (again, just like probiotics!) through the salt water solution. You’ll take a tiny vial (about the size of the tip of your pinky finger!) that holds the microscopic organisms. If you hold the vial up to the light, you can just barely see the HDCs as tiny white flecks.
Unlike probiotics – which can contain billions of CFUs per capsule – HDC are given in very precise, small amounts: most people start with 10 HDC per vial and work up to 30 HDC. Strong, therapeutic doses of up to 100 HDC every 2 weeks can be used, too.
If you do ingest HDCs, they can only stay in your body for about 2 weeks.
How Does Helminth Therapy Work?
This is the part that’s really exciting:
Helminth therapy works by promoting microbiome diversity and restoring immune tolerance.
Remember – our body isn’t sterile. Our microbiome is teeming with important bacteria and other organisms that help it function: both flora (like probiotics) and fauna (beneficial things like HDCs). When the gut microbiome doesn’t have enough diversity of both flora and fauna it can’t perform its functions properly.
Our gut microbiome teaches our immune cells how and when to function and it establishes our intestinal barrier (which keeps pathogens out of our bloodstream). Our immune cells are our body’s defense team. Immune tolerance is what our immune cells won’t react to. It’s our body’s bouncer waving something through.
Immune tolerance is a good thing! It means your body won’t wage war on the strawberries you ate, or cause you to sneeze and cough when you’re outside around pollen.
If you have decreased immune tolerance, you’re more likely to experience these conditions:
- Allergies (both seasonal and to foods)
- ALL autoimmune conditions (things like endometriosis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, vitiligo, Hashimoto’s, alopecia, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s and more)
Today, 50 million Americans have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. That’s up from 9 million in 1997. (Still a huge leap even when you factor in increased testing/awareness.)
Experts like Dr. Baker and Dr. Shoenfeld agree: the best way to treat ANY chronic illness is to restore immune tolerance.
What Makes Our Microbiome Diversity & Immune Tolerance Decrease?
Up until the very recent past (like the past 100 years) our microbiome diversity was supported naturally by our environment. People interacted more frequently and directly with nature: farming, foraging, etc. They also had less hygiene practice: no antibacterial soap or hand sanitizer.
Worms – both beneficial ones like HDCs and pathogenic ones – were also something more people had when we lived hunter-gatherer lifestyles. (These persist in hunter-gatherer groups like the Hadza tribe today – and they have the most robust and diverse microbiomes of anyone known on the planet… and virtually no IBS, UC, Crohn’s, diabetes or other autoimmune disease!)
Other things in the modern world that damage our microbiome diversity:
- Antibiotic use (kill beneficial bacteria in the gut)
- PPIs (impair digestion and promote bacterial and fungal overgrowth)
- Birth control pills (kill beneficial bacteria in the gut and promote yeast)
- C-section births (prevent transfer of microbiome from mother to infant in the vaginal canal)
- Vitamin D deficiency (too much time indoors)
- Chronic stress (go-go-go cultural attitude)
- Contaminated/nutrient poor food (Standard American Diet!)
- Excessive hygiene practices (overuse of antibacterial cleaning agents)
How To Restore Microbiome Diversity & Immune Tolerance
Diet has the biggest influence of all factors on the health of our microbiota. Less diversity in your diet = less diverse gut bugs.
Step 1 has to be eating a nutrient-dense diverse diet with plenty of gut-nourishing foods: fiber, healthy fats, and protein.
Making changes to your lifestyle & hygiene practices is important too:
- Put down the antibacterial soap!
- Get out in nature and interact with the earth
- Get adequate sunlight or supplement with Vitamin D
- Eat fermented foods or supplement with a high quality probiotic
But if you already have all these steps dialed in and are still dealing with symptoms of decreased immune tolerance or chronic illness, helminth therapy that can increase diversity and immune tolerance may be the next step for you.
What The Research Shows About Helminth Therapy (And Results in MY Practice!)
- In the largest randomized control trial in history (!), 1 million children in India were dewormed by researchers who hypothesized it would lead to an improvement in general health. Instead, they found no significant effect on weight, death rate, or health. This drew into question the premise that all worm are always harmful…
- In a 2005 study, 29 patients with Crohn’s disease (most of whom were non-responsive to pharmaceutical treatments) were treated with helminth therapy every 3 weeks for 24 weeks. At 24 weeks, 79.3% of the participants had responded favorably and 72.4% had completely reversed their Crohn’s disease!
- In this 2014 study, people with IBD (either ulcerative colitis or Celiac Disease) were treated with either helminth therapy or a placebo for 12 weeks. Although this study was too small and too short to be conclusive, 10% of those who received the helminth achieved remission (compared to 4% in the placebo group).
In my own practice, I’ve seen these results using helminth therapy:
- Normalization of thyroid labs
- Remission of Crohn’s and Ulcerative colitis (when symptoms have already been improved and other co-infections addressed)
- Improvement of GI symptoms (diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, etc.)
- Reduction of arthritis symptoms
- Improvement of inflammatory symptoms like skin rashes, insomnia, and mood/brain issues
- Reduction of histamine intolerance symptoms
Other practitioners have reported improvement in children with autism and people with multiple sclerosis.
Who Helminth Therapy Is (And Isn’t For)
There’s no magic potion in medicine that will cure all your problems (i’m sorry!).
If you’re not eating right, moving, finding joy, and managing your stress, helminth therapy won’t work for you.
But if you’ve already got those “core” practices in place and are still struggling (or just want to see how good you can feel!), helminth therapy could be beneficial for you.
Typically people take 6 doses of HDCS 2 weeks apart to initially evaluate if they are or are not going to have a beneficial response. Then, if no benefit is seen, they can increase the dose for. Risk is almost non-existent, and the potential benefits are huge.
(But, anyone on immunosuppressive drugs – like those used in some types of inflammatory bowel disease or other autoimmune diseases – shouldn’t take HDCs. The helminth therapy is not beneficial if your immune system is suppressed by medication.)
What Do You Think?
I am so glad you stayed with me.
I know that “worm therapy” sounds really weird at first- but the idea of taking probiotics was once weird, too! I’m a supporter of anything we can do to improve our gut health – because our gut health radiates out into every aspect of our being.
Want to learn more about helminth therapy (and potentially give it a try?) – book a free 15 minute consult with my team where we can create an action plan for you.
Want to get healthier but NOT ready to try HDCs? That’s OK too – I’d love to teach you about how else you can support your gut. Book a free 15 minute consult with my team here.