That’s what my mother keeps telling everyone at cocktail parties. She seems to think that as guests are sipping their Opus One bordeaux and nibbling on canapés that they also want to hear about how I got intestinal pinworms not once, but twice as a child. Their eyes say stop talking, but my mother persists because she really wants everyone to know how lucky I am that I had worms.
In Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases, the author Moises Velasquez-Manoff explains, among other things, that a childhood infection with pinworms can protect you from developing allergies and autoimmune diseases.
SO I SCORED THE BIG ONE!
If you have a kid in school right now, you know that peanuts are no longer allowed on the property, that fun-zones have been replaced by nut-free-zones, and that probably a quarter of the kids in your child’s classroom has some kind of allergy to nuts, apples, dairy, wheat, shellfish or all of the above. And you might also remember that in your day, these allergies were extremely rare. And that in your mom’s day, they were completely unheard of. And so you’re probably wondering, like I was, what gives?
A lot of people have jumped on the foods themselves: maybe peanuts are different than they used to be, more prone to aflotoxins and full of concentrated pesticides or genetically modified to some shady degree or other. These factors could all be true, but they don’t explain why some children react to modern peanuts and some children don’t. In Epidemic of Absence, Vlasquez-Manoff attempts to get to the bottom of this discrepancy.
There are probably three ways a person can become allergic to peanuts, for example. The first is if they are introduced to the peanut protein through the skin, in a baby cream let’s say, before the protein is introduced orally. There is a reason babies put everything in their mouths – they are introducing proteins and foreign bodies in the correct order, so that their digestive system can file it away as what it is. When the order of introduction is backwards, the filing goes awry and when a peanut is ingested it will trigger an autoimmune response or allergy. This is why some doctors are now suggesting peanuts should be introduced earlier, not later, to babies and toddlers – revising the introduction time from 2 years to 7 months.
The second way a person can become allergic to peanuts, or anything really, is if their gut lining is compromised and allows proteins to “leak” through the lining into the bloodstream where they act as toxins to both the body and brain. A gut lining becomes compromised when good bacteria is minimized or eradicated by antibiotics or a diet high in carbohydrates or excessive fiber.
The common denominator in allergies and autoimmune diseases is the gut. Not just the health of the gut, the bacterial balance in the gut or the nutritional inputs into the gut – but also the residents of the gut like parasites, helminths and worms. We have co-evolved with these little guys for hundreds of thousands, say millions, of years. And it has only been extremely recently that we decided to get aggressive about expelling them from our guts for good. And yet in every case where well-meaning philanthropic foundations went into poor countries and eradicated their parasites and worms, it only took about five years for autoimmune diseases and allergies to appear for the first time.
I’m not just talking about some gentle sneezing and watery eyes. I mean suddenly children were coming down with multiple sclerosis, type-1 diabetes, lupus, Crohn’s disease and autism in populations that had never seen these diseases before. It’s worth reading Velasquez-Manoff’s book just for the incredible research into these parallels.
His thesis is that when we get a parasite or worm, it wakes up our immune system and forces it to develop. If your immune system doesn’t wake up and strengthen, the parasite will make you very sick and probably kill you (weeding those weak genes from the pool). But for all of those that are up to developing their immune systems and learning to keep their parasites at bay, and to live with a very low level of symptoms, those immune systems are better for it. These parasitically-infested people will live to become adults, reproduce and pass their genes along to the next generation. In a land of parasites and worms, you definitely want those fighter genes, and you want to epigenetically turn them on with your own parasite infestation.
But in a land without parasites and worms, having those fighter genes with nothing to fight leaves them untrained, fidgety and aggressive. Those fighter genes cause your immune system to attack innocent inputs like peanuts, or pollen, or even immunization shots, which will then present as a host of symptoms of autoimmune diseases.
Our autoimmune diseases and allergies are essentially adaptations to parasites that have gone awry in the absence of parasites.
So our third most probable way of developing a simple peanut allergy is by inheriting an immune system that is really well adapted to parasites, but has not been exposed to them. The immune system is hot on the trigger to attack a parasite, but in the absence of parasites, attacks a simple peanut protein.
Now if you are lucky enough to be on “rabbit cage cleaning duty” and the hand sink is really really far away, chances are you might come in contact with some pinworm eggs on the rabbit fur, unknowingly lodge them under your fingernails, chew on them later that night, and finally welcome them into your body. The pinworm eggs travel through the digestive system until they reach the duodenum at the entrance to the small intestine. After about 2 – 8 weeks, the eggs hatch into larvae, which grow rapidly, moult twice and migrate to the colon. The adults mate over the next few weeks. The males die and the females attach themselves to the intestinal wall to feed. When full, the females make their way to the rectum because their growing eggs need oxygen to fully mature. So they start wiggling their way out of your body, and then when you scratch at them, they release their eggs all over you. The eggs can live in virtually any environment for up to 3 weeks. Now you know all about my childhood, and if you catch my mom at cocktails she’ll tell you the rest.
USE IT OR LOSE IT
The thing about the immune system is that it is like a muscle or a brain neuron – if you don’t use it, you lose it. The body is a merciless pruner so that it can provide you with the exact body and mind you essentially order up through environmental inputs. If you are a Polynesian pearl diver from a young age, your eyes will develop the ability to see clearly underwater simply because your repeated actions of diving deep underwater and straining to see have told your body what you need. Our body is miraculous in what it will respond to. But as far as the immune system goes, if you encounter parasites your body will jump to the challenge to develop a stronger support system against the parasite, and eventually to live peacefully with the parasite. We have co-evolved for so long and are so co-dependent with parasites, that not having them is like missing an organ.
Does that mean we all have parasites, even here in the big city in my modern house? Probably we are all living with a very, very low level of pretty benign parasites. Go for a colonic at The Fenomen Clinic in Toronto and Tamara will probably show you a few parasites in your feces. Good times. The traditional perspective of colonic hydrotherapy is that it’s preferable to get rid of your parasites. Now we know better, so let’s bring them on.
REALLY, BRING ON THE PARASITES?
No, not really. I mean, if you are already weak and sick (with something other than autoimmune disease, like cancer or heart disease) or have some other problems, parasites might not be for you. However the author of Epidemic of Absence travels down to Mexico to infect himself with black-market hookworms, in hopes of healing his autoimmune alopecia and allergies. It’s a remarkable story, worth reading for yourself.
My takeaway is that there are definitely some risks involved with purposely exposing an adult immune system to parasites and worms. But that if you don’t mind taking that risk, and potentially feeling like you have the flu for 6 months to a year while worms course through your organs reproducing and feeding – you could be cured to some degree, if not totally. There are a ton of people trying this right now, with mixed results. But you will have to read their individual stories on the internet and decide for yourself. It will be years and years (or never) before any kind of clinical trial comes out on this. It’s not a medicine, after all – this cure is just a naturally occurring parasite which you can basically acquire by walking barefoot in Africa (which is how the black-market hookworms were originally smuggled back to Mexico).
But my more general takeaway is that we all need to look at bacteria differently. It is who we are. Using anti-bacterial sprays and soaps is like using anti-human sprays and soaps. If they were labelled that way, would you still use them?
We need to be very careful with our use of antibiotics. That means not just avoiding prescriptions whenever possible, but also avoiding factory meat which is loaded with them even if it says it’s not. By law, commercial meat can state that it is “antibiotic-free” if antibiotics haven’t been administered for the two weeks prior to slaughter. That’s not enough, and there are tons of studies showing those antibiotics are still present in our food supply. Not to mention our water supply – full of antibiotics because of the huge doses given to factory animals. Basically you can do us all a favor by rejecting factory farming.
For your children and yourselves, the act of waiting out a fever, cough or cold is actually the work that the body and the immune system need to do to develop. By constantly curing our maladies and nipping them in the bud, we don’t let our immune system learn to do its job. And if we don’t use it, we lose it.
If you have to take antibiotics, at least get your fill of probiotics to replenish your gut. Go for kefir, unsweetened whole fat yoghurts, Bio-K, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and those acidophilus pills. Build yourself back up every way you can.
But let your kids be sick, let them play in dirt and barnyards, let them attend crowded sickly nursery schools, let them be slobbered all over by pets, and let them get pinworms and whatever. I mean, don’t let it get so bad that they end up in the hospital or worse. But lay off on all the worrying and the wiping and the cleaning. Humans evolved rolling around in dirt for the first year of their lives and ingesting crazy amounts of bacteria. Indoor plumbing is still a super new adaptation for us. I’m not saying I want to return to using a chamber pot and dumping it out my window every day, and then walking barefoot in it a few minutes later – but it’s worth recognizing that when we had those low levels of sanitation, autoimmune diseases and allergies were virtually non-existent.
The most important time to be exposed to bacteria, saprophytes, and parasites is probably while you are pregnant, for the sake of your fetus. The next most important time is passing through the birth canal, then the next six months to a few years or so of nursing, and then finally all through early childhood. If you weren’t able to be exposed to a birthing canal, breastfeeding, a farm, raw milk, forests or other stables of endotoxins and bacteria at those crucial stages in utero and in early childhood – then chances are extremely high that you suffer from allergies or autoimmune disease. Sorry about that. Let me know how your helminth therapy works out.
There is so much information in this book that just thinking about it makes me want to go back and re-read the whole thing again. I have barely summarized it, and I really hope you read this book over the summer. It’s not too late to change our behavior about microbes, bacteria and our gut – and epigenetics has left us a window to modify our genetic destiny. Even if you are riddled with autoimmune diseases and allergies, and your children are going the same way – there are still modifications you can make to ease their symptoms and more importantly to revise the genes they pass on.
WHAT HAPPENED TO MY WORMS?
I’m so glad you asked. Both times I acquired the pinworms, I was able to get to a doctor within a week of their exit strategy and started taking de-worming medicine. I feel for anyone who can’t get de-worming medicine, because they would most certainly reinfect themselves over and over again. If my worms weren’t completely gone, I would know about it. It was an itchy hell. But even though they are gone, my immune system benefited immensely by our time together. Whether the full life cycle was four weeks or ten weeks, their pinwormy presence in my gut alerted my immune system to wake up and start fighting. I don’t know if that brief romance was enough to keep autoimmune disease and allergies at bay for good, so I will also do my best to absorb bacteria from the environment wherever I can. This summer I’m considering drinking water straight from the lake all season for a handy dose of free saprophytes.
My daughter is going to be so excited about all the fun plans I have.