If there’s a topic that gets more views on TikTok than cheating drama and makeovers, it’s gut health. Case and point? The #guthealth hashtag has nearly five billion views. The specific hot topic within this space changes more frequently than the weather forecast, with everything from aloe vera juice to bone broth going viral for their gut health perks. The most recent topic to hit #guttok? Parasite cleanses.
But are parasite cleanses good for your gut? And perhaps more importantly, are they actually necessary? Ahead, these answers and more.
What Are Parasites?
Before you can understand what a parasite cleanse is, and why it might be useful, you need to understand what parasites are and how they can affect your health.
Parasite is the broad term for any organism that lives in or on a host and takes food from them at their expense, explains gut health-focused functional dietitian Paulina Lee, M.S.H.S., R.D., L.D., founder of Savvy Stummy. In other words, parasites are nutrient mooches. Some parasites can live inside humans without wreaking havoc. Others, however, are more opportunistic.
Parasite Infections, Explained
Put simply, parasitic infections are infections that result from parasitic overpopulation. “If they are given the chance, some parasites overgrow, causing imbalances in a healthy gut microbiome and leading to digestive symptoms,” Lee explains.
As a refresher: The gut microbiome is made up of a collection of over 100 trillion microbes—bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms—whose primary job is to work together to keep your digestive system running smoothly, says Lee. The gut microbiome also plays an important role in overall health, by aiding in mood regulation, immune system resiliency, and brain function.
When a gut microbiome gets thrown out of whack as a result of a parasitic infection, your gut and overall health can take a hit. “These infections can result in symptoms like stomach pain, cramps, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, flu-like symptoms, recurring SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), candida, histamine issues, sudden onset allergies, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and more,” Lee explains.
Are Parasitic Infections Common?
Don’t worry just yet; despite what a trip down the #guttok rabbit hole may have you believe, parasitic infections don’t happen left and right. “It is not common for people in the United States to have parasitic infections,” says board-certified gastroenterologist Dr. Natasha Chhabra, M.D. So long as you wash your hands, consume cooked food, and drink clean water, you are highly unlikely to have to worry about parasitic infection.
That doesn’t mean that people in the U.S. never have to deal with parasitic infections, though. Data suggests that about 65 million people in the U.S. are infected by one of the following five infections each year: chagas disease, cysticercosis, toxocariasis, toxoplasmosis, and trichomoniasis, which have been identified by the CDC as the five neglected parasitic infections (NPIs).
The culprit behind these? Consumption of contaminated food or water, says Chhabra. Most commonly this occurs after traveling abroad. (This is why recent immigrants to the United States also face increased risk, according to recent research published in Parasitology Research). The reason for this is that, per the World Health Organization, one-third of the world does not have access to safe drinking water, meaning you’re more likely to consume contaminated water if you’ve left the country, Chhabra explains.
Enter Parasite Cleanses
Put simply, a parasite cleanse is a home remedy for parasitic infections. The goal of these cleanses is to eliminate parasites from the body without prescription medication, thus helping return your gut microbiome to its most optimal state.
Typically, parasite cleanses recommend altering your diet so that you don’t consume foods parasites most like to feast on, says Lee. The big one here? Sugar. Parasites primarily feed on glucose, which is a sugar molecule, according to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. This means that any sweets like cookies and cakes support the lifespan of parasites, as well as foods (specifically, carbohydrates) that can be broken down into sugar quickly, such as crackers, pasta, and bread. Fruits, juices, and dairy products should also be avoided, they suggest. In place of these sugar-rich foods, many experts recommend consuming lots of raw garlic, pumpkin seeds, beets, and carrots, as well as other foods with anti-parasitic properties like ginger, apple cider vinegar, and onion.
Most parasite cleanses also incorporate supplements that help remove parasites from your system, Lee says. “Some herbs that have been helpful include oregano, wormwood, neem, mimosa pudica, and black walnut,” notes Lee. Other herbs commonly used in parasite cleansing include Oregon grape, anise, curled mint, and goldenseal.
To be clear: A parasite cleanse is not the same as a medical treatment for parasites. Some health professionals may recommend certain diet edits and supplements. However, most doctor-led parasite cleanse treatments typically include prescription medications like albendazole and mebendazole.
Do You Need A Parasite Cleanse?
Ultimately, whether it makes sense for you to embark on a parasite cleanse protocol depends on your body, your current parasite status, and your symptoms.
If you suspect that you have a parasite issue at play, solely attempting to self-treat it is not recommended, says Chhabra. One of the biggest reasons for this is the fact that the symptoms of parasitic infection mirror those of other gastrointestinal issues. Assuming you have a parasitic infection when there is actually another underlying cause can delay diagnosis and treatment, which can ultimately worsen your health outcomes, she explains.
Furthermore, parasite cleanses are not without their own set of risks. In some cases, these at-home remedies simply don’t work, says Chhabra. “Typically, parasite cleanses recommend consuming ingredients based on symptoms, rather than based on the particular parasite you have,” she explains. “As a result, many of [these cleanses] do not adequately treat the parasitic infection.”
In other instances, the cleanse protocols can cause a slew of additional, unwanted symptoms that can range from mild to severe, according to Lee. “There could be changes in your bowel movements (like diarrhea), increased fatigue, inflammation, and much more, depending on the individual,” she says.
How To Properly Treat and Diagnosis Parasitic Infections
If you are experiencing a new set of gastrointestinal symptoms or otherwise suspect that you have been infected with a parasite, Chhabra recommends meeting with a gastroenterologist, who can administer a blood or fecal test to help properly diagnose you. From there, they’ll break down the targeted treatment necessary for your particular type of infection, she says.
According to Lee, most treatment plans will feature drug therapy. However, it is possible that your parasite infection treatment plan will also include altering your diet and adding in a specific set of supplements, she says. In other words, your doctor may recommend a parasite cleanse. The reason it’s worth collaborating with your provider here, though, is that the specific parasite cleanse they recommend for you will depend on the parasite you’ve tested positive for, Lee explains. In some instances, a provider might recommend immune-supporting supplements, like vitamin A or zinc, while in others they might recommend those that work against parasites, like wormwood or garlic, she says.
In summary, parasite cleanses may play a role in supporting the GI health of infected individuals, but don’t go trying to treat any suspected parasite issues without the guidance of a healthcare professional.