Do You Really Need to Do a Parasite Cleanse?
It’s highly unlikely that you have intestinal parasites, but even if you do, a home remedy won’t do much
You don’t need to spend much time hobnobbing among wellness circles—on social media or in real life—before parasite cleanses come up. Long before they started trending on TikTok, I succumbed to doing a parasite cleanse because a doctor suggested it in her book about autoimmune disorders. According to the book, you could have intestinal parasites if you experience three or more of these:
- Constipation, diarrhea, or gas
- International travel
- “Traveler’s diarrhea” while outside the country
- What you believed was food poisoning and your digestion has not been the same since
- Trouble falling asleep and waking up multiple times during the night
- Skin issues, such as eczema, psoriasis, hives, rosacea, or an unexplained rash
- Teeth grinding during sleep
- Muscle or joint pain or aching
- Feeling exhausted, depressed, or apathetic almost all the time
- Never feeling satisfied after meals
- Iron-deficiency anemia
- Diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease
Imagine my dismay as I checked off each one of these ailments. The cleanse involved taking herbal supplements that consisted of cloves, black walnut, and wormwood—the dosage of which was literally fistfuls of gelatin capsules each day. And since I struggle to swallow even the tiniest pills, I quickly gave up and opted for a stool test at my doctor’s office. Some parasites can be visible under a microscope, and DNA tests can identify those that might not be so visible.
Turns out, I didn’t have any intestinal parasites, which are scientifically called “helminths” (the worm variety) or protozoa. Very anti-climactic, I know. So was there any truth to the advice I just bought into? Or a bit of New York Times best seller BS?
Is Parasite Cleansing a Waste of Money?
Yes, parasite cleanses are worthless. You’re almost literally flushing your money down the toilet.
“For a long time, there have been people selling products with various health claims designed to separate people from their money,” says Thomas Moore, MD, an infectious disease expert and clinical professor at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita. “Parasite cleanses are the latest incarnation of a pseudoscientific health trend that sells the idea that there are toxins in your body that need to be purged. In fact, what they’re really doing is preying upon the gullible."
Are Parasite Cleanses Safe?
Aside from the fact that home remedies haven’t been shown to work against parasites, could taking these supplements hurt?
“These supplements are really modern snake oil,” Moore says.
It might not be harmful to take these supplements if they were pure, consumed in small doses, and safely made, says Omobosola Akinsete, MD, an infectious disease clinician at HealthPartners Medical Group in Minnesota. But they, like all supplements, aren’t regulated by the FDA the same way pharmaceuticals are, so their contents vary from place to place and there might be harmful ingredients in them.
At best, herbal supplements could have some benefits, but they can also be ineffective, or worse, contaminated with microbes or heavy metals, or intentionally spiked with illegal or prescription drugs. They can also cause harmful side effects and interact with prescription medications.
“These supplements and cleanses are also laxatives,” Akinsete says. “They cause diarrhea and, if taken in sufficient-enough quantities, can actually change the microbiome of the gastrointestinal tract, which is what we are trying to prevent in the first place.”
Do You Even Need to Worry About Parasites?
Parasitic infections are widespread at the global level, but not in the U.S. and other developed countries. But Moore says they can be a problem in populations that don’t have access to good sanitation—the same population that doesn’t have the disposable income to spend on pricey herbal supplements, which can cost up to $90 per bottle.
“Americans generally don’t need to be concerned about parasites as they are very rare in this country due to good sanitation, treated water supplies, and close monitoring of food products by the government or other agencies who make sure it’s safe for human consumption,” Akinsete says.
However, Akinsete says people should get tested by a doctor if they have traveled to a developing country and have symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, rashes, and bloating. (Although Moore says that most cases of diarrheal disease are due to E. coli, not parasites.) The same goes if you experience these symptoms after eating raw food, such as sushi, or drinking untreated water while camping.
Regardless of exposure, Akinsete says that you don’t need to check for parasites if you don’t have any symptoms.
Can Some Parasites Actually Be Beneficial?
Some researchers claim that expelling harmless helminths from your body works against you—that these worms work to balance out our gut biomes and prevent allergies and autoimmune disorders.
But Moore disagrees. “The word parasite derives from the Greek term for ‘uninvited dinner guest,’” he says. “These things tend to feed off of you, and they’re, by definition, not a good thing to have. But the best ones will cause no symptoms at all.”
How to Have a Happy, Healthy Gut
Rather than purge your bowels of a nonexistent parasite, Moore says the most important thing to do to maintain a healthy gut flora is to eat a varied diet that’s rich in vegetables, specifically leafy green vegetables. If you want to do something extra, consider taking a probiotic that contains lots of different bacteria and other anaerobes, which may be helpful for gut health.