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Gut parasites - what is a parasite?

Understanding your condition

Affecting over 3.5 billion people worldwide each year, parasites are a leading cause of infections. With symptoms ranging from none, or mild to serious illness and death, parasites can be notoriously difficult to diagnose and are becoming increasingly resistant to conventional treatment.

Parasitic infections can come in many forms, from lice of the hair and skin or common intestinal worms like threadworm through to the waterborne giardia or blastocystis hominis.

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melbourne functional medicine health coach holding floramyces probiotics for parasites

Providing a natural treatment for intestinal parasites

Thankfully, some of the most harmful parasites are rare in Australia, though parasites are still responsible for causing wide-ranging illnesses in Australia, with higher rates of parasitic infections occurring in indigenous communities. It is often the case that those travelling overseas pick up parasites from climates and locations where parasites flourish, often returning home feeling unwell.

Natural treatments of parasitic infections can be gentle and effective, and our functional medicine parasites specialists also address the health issues that parasites can cause, while helping to improve resilience to future infection.

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Common symptoms of parasites and parasitic infections

Intestinal parasites live in the gastrointestinal tract and feed off nutrients in the body before they can be metabolised. Symptoms result due to malabsorption of nutrients, and the inflammation caused by the parasite’s presence. Symptoms vary depending on the type of parasite, but the most frequently reported symptoms of intestinal parasites include:

  • Itchy rectum or vagina
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Iron-deficiency anaemia
  • Fatigue and malaise, general weakness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea, reflux and/or vomiting
  • Diarrhoea/greasy stool
  • Constipation
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Headache and mood-related issues
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Skin irritation or unexplained rash
  • Weight loss/altered appetite
  • Fever

How do you know if you have a parasite?

Common parasites in Australia

If you think you have a parasite, you’ll likely be experiencing symptoms that might be wide ranging in their presentation, such as the ones listed above. Different parasites tend to cause different symptoms, with some causing more obvious symptoms than others.

Parasites are living organisms that feed off the body of their host, anywhere from the skin and hair to the gut. The most common intestinal parasites in Australia are generally in one of two groups: Helminths (worms) or protozoan parasites.

Intestinal helminths (worms)

Helminths tend to not cause overt digestive symptoms, hence why they can live in the digestive tract for long periods of time. Because of their ability to consume nutrients, they typically contribute to severe chronic health issues which don’t seem related to having a parasite. It is often only through an astute practitioner who decides to test for parasites that the cause of health issues is revealed.

Most people would be familiar with treating this type of parasitic worm with an over the counter ‘worming medication’. Parasitic worms and their eggs can vary in size from microscopic to more than three feet long and include:

  • Threadworms are most commonly spread by accidental swallowing of the eggs, from the faecal matter of people with an infestation, and easily with inadequate hand washing. This type of worm infection is common in young children.
  • Hookworm can enter directly through the skin, typically occurring by contact with soil contaminated by the faeces of an infected host.
  • Whipworm is another direct parasite infection that spreads through contaminated soil in warm climates.
  • Tapeworms are the largest and are contracted by consuming food or water contaminated with worms or their eggs. They are extremely resilient and capable of living in the intestines for more than 30 years, and can grow to almost 25-metres long. Tapeworm eggs can travel to other parts of the body including the brain, and left untreated, may form cysts.

Protozoan parasites

In contrast, protozoan parasites tend to cause acute gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting, bloating, cramps, abdominal pain, and diarrhoea, and are therefore more obvious to detect. They include:

  • Giardia lamblia: Giardiasis is the illness resulting from infection with the giardia lamblia parasite, a flagellate protozoan most commonly spread through surfaces, soil, food or water - including drinking water or swimming areas that are contaminated with cysts from the faeces of infected humans or animals.
  • Blastocystis hominis: A microscopic parasite that inhabits the gastrointestinal tract, and is the most common parasite reported in humans. It is commonly transferred via contaminated food or water, or direct contact with infected human or animal faeces. Blastocystis parasite natural treatment is something we commonly perform in our clinic.
  • Cryptosporidium: This parasite can be found in Australia, as well as the Americas and Africa. The most common way to be exposed is through contaminated food and water. Symptoms include diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain, and can be life threatening for those who are immunocompromised
  • Dientamoeba fragilis: A common gastrointestinal tract inhabitant, dientamoeba is a protozoan described as a ‘harmless commensal’ when first discovered just over 100 years ago. More recently, it has been recognised as a pathogen with symptoms of abdominal pain and diarrhoea.

Nematodes (roundworms)

Roundworms are often found in warmer climates, as well as where sanitation and hygiene are poor. Infection often occurs when a person comes into contact with soil or food that’s contaminated, or from faecal matter of people infected with nematodes. Nematodes include a range of organisms such as Strongyloides stercoralis, Trichuris trichiura, Capillaria philippinensis (found on fish), and Ascaris lumbricoides. Symptoms can vary, although typically include diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and fatigue.

What causes eczema?

There isn’t one single cause of eczema but a range of potential contributing factors that are unique to each person. These include:

Genetics

Research has found people with the ‘atopic triad’ have a defective barrier of the skin and upper and lower respiratory tracts.

These genetic alterations cause a loss of function of filaggrin (filament aggregating protein), which is a protein in the skin that normally breaks down to create natural moisturisation and protect the skin from penetration by pathogens and allergens.

Filaggrin mutations are found in approximately 30 percent of people with atopic dermatitis, and also predispose people to asthma, allergic rhinitis (hayfever), keratosis pilaris (dry rough patches and bumps on the skin), and ichthyosis vulgaris (a chronic condition which causes thick, dry, scaly skin.)If one parent carries this genetic alteration, there is a 50 percent chance their child will develop atopic symptoms. And that risk increases to 80 percent if both parents are affected. 

Food allergy and sensitivity

Food hypersensitivity has been found to cause or exacerbate atopic dermatitis in 10-30% of cases, and 90% of these are caused by eggs, milk, peanuts, soy and wheat.

Compromised gut health

The connection between the gut microbiome and skin health is complex, however, research has found the microbiota contributes to the development, persistence, and severity of atopic dermatitis through immunologic, metabolic and neuroendocrine pathways.

Nutritional deficiencies

Deficiency of Omega-6 essential fatty acids (EFA) has been linked with the increased incidence of atopic dermatitis, along with the inability for the body to efficiently metabolise EFA’s to gamma linoleic acids (GLA) and arachidonic acids (AA).

Weather and environment

Changing weather conditions can certainly aggravate eczema symptoms, but the triggers are subject to change among individuals.

Hormones

Hormones also play a role in the course of atopic dermatitis, including the stress hormone cortisol which triggers an inflammatory immune response affecting all organs of the body, including the skin.

Mould exposure

Mould exposure and susceptibility to mould can cause Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS), of which dermatitis is a manifestation.

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What causes parasites?

Generally, infections occur via direct or indirect contact with infected faecal matter, the ingestion of eggs, or sometimes the parasites themselves via trace amounts of faecal matter on surfaces, through consumption of contaminated foods and drinks, and swimming in infected waters.

Some of the risk factors that can increase exposure to intestinal parasites include:

  • Poor sanitation: Inadequate plumbing and excrement disposal, and no access to clean running water and soap
  • Personal hygiene: Inadequate hand washing techniques, nail-biting and thumb-sucking behaviours and walking barefoot
  • Undercooked food: Foods such as raw fish and undercooked meat
  • Direct contact: Contact with infected people via exposure to faecal matter, including caring for small children, providing intimate care, and sexual activity
  • Food: Undercooked infected meats or food prepared by an infected person with poor personal hygiene, and foods washed with contaminated water
  • Contaminated water: Giardia infections are commonly contracted by drinking or swimming in contaminated water
  • Animals: Some parasites can be transferred from animals to humans, including cats and dogs, fleas, ticks, bed bugs and mosquitoes
  • Weakened immune health: Immunocompromised individuals, especially those of early and old age, are particularly at risk of contracting more severe parasitic infections
  • Poor microbiome health: Dysbiosis, low diversity or imbalances of microbiome species can allow parasites to multiply, and flourish

Parasite treatment - the conventional approach

Parasites can live in human hosts without symptoms, or detection, for months or even years. When symptoms do arise, people will often turn to a pharmacist or GP for conventional medicines. The most common treatments for intestinal parasites include:

  • Anthelmintics: Common over-the-counter anti worming medications such as Mebendazole are becoming increasingly ineffective due to emerging drug resistance, and recurrent episodes of parasitic infestation are common.
  • Antibiotics & Antiprotozoals: Metronidazole is a commonly prescribed antibiotic and antiprotozoal medication in Australia for the treatment of giardiasis blastocystis and trichomoniasis. While effective, antibiotic resistance is presenting an increasing challenge, and side effects of antibiotic treatment can be undesirable, including nausea, vomiting, cramping, bowel changes and headaches.

As well as failing to eradicate parasites and cysts, these medications can contribute to further dysbiosis of the intestinal microbiome, making the host even more susceptible to reinfection and inflammation.

This is why more people are seeking natural remedies and a functional medicine approach to eradicating intestinal worms and parasites.

How to get rid of parasites - the functional medicine approach to treating parasitic infections

Our functional medicine parasites specialists in Melbourne help patients test for and treat the parasitic infection, using natural treatment for intestinal parasites while improving the resilience of each person to help prevent further reinfection.

This journey begins with a parasite specialist identifying the parasite present through testing, while assessing your overall health and addressing any underlying imbalances that might be contributing to poor health. Your personalised plan may include:

  • Functional testing: Some parasites are notoriously difficult to identify. For example, stool testing for giardia commonly results in false negatives, as their presence in stool is unusual. Often two or three samples are required before a diagnosis is made. Alternative tests such as enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and direct fluorescent antibody methods to detect antigens in the stool are proving more sensitive than direct microscopy.
  • Wholefood diet: A diet rich in whole foods is the best way to support a healthy gut and resilient immune system to help fend off future pathogens. This involves eating nutrient rich foods while avoiding processed and canned foods, high sugar foods and high-risk foods for parasites such as undercooked pork and sushi.
  • Garlic and ginger: Many medicinal plants and spices are known to contain effective organic compounds for parasitic eradication, which function through inhibition of parasitic enzymes, nucleic acids and protein synthesis.
  • Herbs: There are many herbs that can be included in a natural parasite cleanse. The herb wormwood has been shown to be effective at killing some parasites in the development stages. Herbs such as black walnut, oregano oil, grape seed extract, clove and goldenseal have been found to be beneficial for targeting different parasites. Hence the herbal formula our parasite specialists use depends on the parasite, and will be formulated for the best possible results.
  • Papaya seeds: Air-dried papaya seeds have proven efficacy against intestinal parasitosis, without significant adverse side effects.
  • Dietary fibre and water: Drinking 2 litres of water per day for adults aids the body’s natural waste removal and flushing mechanisms to support parasitic eradication.
  • Zinc: Research shows that low zinc levels increases the susceptibility of parasitic infestations - and active parasite infections can trigger low zinc levels through malabsorptive complications. Zinc supplementation may be recommended along with dietary sources such as pumpkin seeds and oysters.
  • Vitamin A: Vitamin A supplementation paired with Zinc supplementation has proven effective in the fight against giardia.
  • Probiotics: Nurturing gut flora restoration with specific probiotics like  Saccharomyces boulardii and Lactobacillus acidophilus as well as fermented foods can support the reduction of inflammation following a parasitic infestation, and make the host less susceptible to reinfection.

Our goal is to get you in the best shape possible, so treatment will include optimising your immune health and gut microbiome so that you can become more resilient to future infections, and feel happy and healthy in your body. You also get the ongoing support of a health coach, who will guide you through the steps to take, so you don’t have to do it alone.

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FAQs

How do you know if you have a parasite?

You may have just returned from a holiday, where you had gastrointestinal symptoms and suspect you’ve brought something home with you.  Intestinal worms can often make their presence known by causing anal itching at night time, and sometimes during the day. Parasite symptoms can include:

  • Itchy rectum or vagina
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Iron-deficiency anaemia
  • Fatigue and malaise, general weakness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea, reflux and/or vomiting
  • Diarrhoea/greasy stool
  • Constipation
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Headache and mood-related issues
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Skin irritation or unexplained rash
  • Weight loss/altered appetite
  • Fever
  • Foul-smelling gas and bowel movements

Testing can identify if a parasite is present and identify what type of parasite that is. It is important to rule out other causes of these symptoms, to avoid more serious health concerns. Our functional medicine parasites specialists can help.

Can the immune system kill parasites?

Parasites have evolved alongside us for as long as we’ve been on the earth, so they’ve learned to evade our immune system to some degree. Some may be detected by the immune system and some not, and a robust immune system may be effective at eliminating a parasite or may just keep it in check.

A healthy, diverse microbiome is part of a healthy immune system, and eating a diet rich in whole, unprocessed plant foods and reducing foods that parasites love such as sugar, processed foods, and alcohol can all help.

Taking Vitamin C and zinc can help to support the immune system to improve resilience to infection.

Can a colon cleanse get rid of parasites?

An effective colon cleanse might include specific herbal treatments, designed to treat a specific parasite.

Taking the wrong herb or product may result in creating dysbiosis of the microbiome, which can allow parasites to multiply, and may cause other digestive issues.

Our functional medicine parasites specialists can help identify the parasite and provide a treatment program to eradicate the parasite, and also treat any health issues it may have caused.

Can parasites cause acid reflux?

Some parasites such as H.pylori are associated with reflux, gastritis and gastric ulcers.

Functional testing by our functional medicine naturopath parasites specialists can help identify parasites and provide effective treatment solutions.

Identifying the parasite responsible is essential to proper treatment, and naturopathic parasite treatments would also include natural treatment for reflux. See our acid reflux page for more information.

Where can I find a parasite cleanse in Australia? How to know if a parasite cleanse is working.

Firstly, it is important to identify the parasite. Some are harder to identify and eradicate than others, and the right strategy is important to avoid disruptions to the digestive system, in particular the microbiome.

Therefore, functional testing will identify what parasite/s are causing the infection, and the right treatment can target them effectively and efficiently, without causing collateral damage to your microbiome. A disrupted microbiome will only allow parasites to multiply more effectively, worsening symptoms and health.

Other than the resolution of any symptoms, testing again at the end of treatment and possibly again much later, can confirm the success of the treatment and ensure the infection is completely resolved.

How to get rid of parasites naturally

It depends on which parasite you are treating, and treatments must be targeted specifically for each parasite.

Some herbal treatments that are broad and reasonably gentle are garlic and ginger, dried papaya seeds, zinc, vitamin A and some probiotics.

The most effective and natural treatment can be determined by a functional medicine naturopath parasite specialist, like Melbourne Functional Medicine’s naturopathic parasite treatment. This treatment may include specific testing, and a natural parasite cleanse with targeted herbal treatments, diet and lifestyle changes and treatment of other associated conditions such as digestive conditions.

Can’t find what you’re looking for? Reach out to the team directly – we’ll be happy to assist.

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