Parasite infections are more common than you might think, especially when you live (or visit) warmer climates. Bali belly is a classic example of this idea. Many parasites can take up residence in your gut and cause some classic poor gut health symptoms. This article will cover natural treatments for parasite infections.
Today we will explore natural treatments for protozoan parasite infections such as Blastocystis hominis, Dientamoeba fragilis, Giardia and others. Blastocystis hominis is a gut parasite that is common in warmer climates of the world. If you should happen to find yourself in a warm, humid climate (think tropics and subtropics) then Blastocystis is probably there too. Here in Byron Bay and surrounding Northern Rivers Blastocystis hominis is incredibly common and seems to cause quite a bit of gut health issues for the people that have it. Often accompanying Blastocystis is it’s co-infection Dientamoeba fragilis.
Today we will be talking about natural treatments for parasite infections focusing on herbal medicine, prebiotics and probiotics.
What parasite infections are we talking about here?
As a herbalist with a major focus on gut health I spend hours each week digging into the scientific literature surrounding gut parasites. To keep things simple I have divided them into protozoan bugs and helminths, more commonly known as worms.
Today we will be focusing on the protozoan parasites. Later on we can swing back and cover the wormier side of gut parasites. Protozoans are very basic, microscopic organisms that can hide in standing water (think tank water, ponds and lakes and dams on your property) and can colonise the digestive system when they are consumed. The best way they have been described in straight talk would be advanced forms of bacteria. It’s not 100% accurate and definitely wouldn’t sit well with anyone that knows the ins and outs of these bugs but it’s a good starting place.
Blastocystis hominis from a herbalists perspective
Blastocystis hominis is a classic example of a protozoan parasite. It hides out in tank water and other forms of standing water. The bug hitchhikes a ride inside different animals, wild and domesticated, and ends up finding its way to water sources when these animals poop.
Blastocystis ends up infecting humans when we consume the water containing the parasite. As most of rural Australians live on tank water, caught from their roofs, it can be a simple A + B = C kind of equation. Often times people think that the rainwater they have caught and stored in their tank is clean and fresh. Many times it is. It isn’t until you start to move into warmer climates that Blastocystis hominis starts to appear in greater numbers.
Personal story: Blastocystis hominis is a personal interest of mine for a number of reasons. For about 3 years I was chronically unwell due to this, and a number of other, gut bugs. It was a tough three years but in the end I managed to work out what natural treatments worked on Blastocystis. Now it is a mission of mine to help people that are in the same position that I was in for so long.
Is Blastocystis really all that bad
This is the million dollar question. Some researchers and doctors think that Blastocystis hominis isn’t a problem, others think that it should be treated if you have symptoms. As you dive into the scientific literature it gets even murkier and unclear.
As someone who lives in an area that has a high rate of this bug, and who is keenly interested in the successful natural treatment of it, I have come to the conclusion that Blastocystis hominis can be a problem in some people and it can be fine in others.
It may some down to the type of Blastocystis. Certain strains may be worse than others or it may come down to the person. Naturopathic thinking takes into account the person and the issues presented.
There are a number of questions that would need to be answered before we can blame Blastocystis hominis alone on your gut symptoms.
- First off what was your health like before your encounter with blasto?
- What is your history of antibiotic use?
- Were you born via C-section or naturally?
- Were you breastfed. If so for how long?
- Growing up did you spend much time outside in a natural environment being exposed to all the wonderful microbes that reside in the dirt or did you spend most of your time in front of the TV?
- Have you tried eliminating gluten dairy and other possible food allergens for a period and seeing if your gut symptoms improve?
- Have you explored other possible explanations for your symptoms?
All these questions and more help the herbalist paint a picture on your health and vitality, the state of you gut microbes (healthy and otherwise) and whether your immune system has been tuned during childhood.
This can help to outline whether Blastocystis hominis is to blame or whether there is something else going on that could be to blame. It can be helpful to keep in mind that Blastocystis may (that’s an emphasis on the may there) not be responsible, at least fully, for your gut health problems.
Thoughts on Giardia and other protozoan parasites
Giardia is another example of a protozoan parasite. Have you ever heard of beaver fever? This is Giardia rearing its ugly head.
Not the prettiest picture but there you have it.
Many times Giardia infections can be cleared by the body without natural treatments options being explored. But, and it’s a bit but, you can speed up that clearance time and reduce the period that you feel terrible. There are also people that can’t manage to clear the Giardia bug and end up with ongoing poor gut health due to the parasite.
Cryptosporidium is another protozoan parasite as is Dientamoeba fragilis. These are similar enough to both Blastocystis and Giardia. The approach varies slightly from bug to bug but remains generally the same.
Now is all this worth knowing? Probably not. I’m guessing you’ve been to see a doctor or naturopath and have found out that you have one or a few of these bugs and are wondering what to do about it.
Symptoms of parasite infections.
If the above is correct you don’t need me telling you what your symptoms are. Just to cover all the bases I will anyway, but I’ll keep it brief.
Common symptoms of parasite infections include
- Stomach pain
- Brain fog
- Skin rashes
That is just the tip of the iceberg. When you start to talk to people that have chronic gut health issues stemming from parasite infections it can go on almost indefinitely. For me the symptoms included the above along with poor tolerance of carbohydrates, headaches, an inability to process alcohol (seriously I had to give it up for years!). I even ended up with leaky gut, which took some serious herbal medicine and supplements to heal.
Your symptoms may be different. Most of the time there is a gut piece to the picture.
Natural treatments for parasite infections.
Now onto the good stuff. What natural treatments for parasite infections are helpful in reducing symptoms and dealing with persistent parasites such as blasto (Blastocystis that is).
Before we dive into the details let’s take a few broad strokes.
I no longer insist on complete eradication when looking at treating different protozoan parasites, especially when dealing with Blastocystis hominis. For me it is all about symptoms (do you feel better? Great!) and secondly, how is the body is working when we look under the hood (here we may need to do a bit of investigations into blood tests).
Dwindling Returns Of Constant Antimicrobials
I have seen many people here in the Byron Bay area focus solely on complete eradication. They take antibiotic after antibiotic, antimicrobial herb after antimicrobial herb. For three months they will take oregano oil, retest to find they still have gut parasites and move onto grapefruit seed extract. After a while their gut health is so compromised that they have issues with digestion, bloating, stomach pain (any of these symptoms sound familiar) due to an imbalance in their gut flora. Definitely something we want to avoid.
Another important point here is the difference in antimicrobial herbs. I think it is essential to be working with a skilled gut health herbalist when you are tackling the and other gut health issues. They can help walk you through what may seem like a simple enough approach. You might be thinking ‘I could have worked this out’. The important thing here is how you are responding to the herbal medicine (do you feel better or worse? If worse in that way?).
Sometimes it is temporary and we need to push through, other times we need to support the body’s detoxification systems, clean up any lingering toxins or even heal and seal the gut first. Many times it is how you respond to the first herbal medicine formula that tell the herbalist more information than any question they could have asked.
Prebiotics for Parasite infections
Prebiotics are interesting things. Some people love them others can’t tolerate them at all. Sometimes it is the type of prebiotic, while other times it is the dose. There are many varieties of prebiotics that can help when we are looking for natural treatments for parasite infections.
First off what’s a prebiotic?
Gut researchers Glenn Gibson and Marcel Roberfroid help to answer this question.
A prebiotic is a non-digestible food ingredient that beneficially affects the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one of a limited number of bacteria in the colon, and thus improves host health’.
They are a major focus of my research. I think prebiotics are largely misunderstood and have been pigeonholed with fiber. More on that later so stay tuned.
Top tips on taking prebiotics
- Don’t go in whole hog and take a therapeutic dose in one go. Start low, low, low and go slow, slow, slow. If you notice issues such as bloating or abdominal pain scale back to the lowest dose or stop for a few days.
- An increase in farting is normal. The gut flora is shifting and things are being sorted out. Don’t let this alone put you off prebiotics.
- Not everyone tolerates prebiotics (and big doses of fiber). Who knows why. People smarter than me are working on this very question as you read this. The gut microbiome (microbes that make up our gut flora) is complex and complicated beyond what we can understand. There is more going on there than we can even imagine. Slowly we are piecing together the puzzle. Piece by piece it’s starting to make sense, but we are still a long way off having a complete map of the gut terrain.
- Often there is more going on than simply a parasite infection. There is some evidence showing prebiotics are helpful in cases of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and some to show it can cause more symptoms. In grassroots herbalism we can use your bodies reaction to the treatment as a guide. How do you feel, worse or better when taking prebiotics. If better keep it up. If worse maybe they aren’t for you at this time.
Prebiotics useful in protozoan parasite infections
- Lactulose. A disaccharide that boosts beneficial bugs like Bifidobacteria and Faecalibacterium prausnitzii
- Partially hydrolysed guar gum. Not guar gum proper, but partially hydrolysed guar gum. This is a tasteless powder that dissolves completely in water. It can also help if you have constipation or if you are experiencing diarrhoea too.
- Acacia gum.
- Galactooligosaccharides (or GOS)
What is happening? How do prebiotics help with a parasite infection? How can a type of carbohydrate be a natural treatment for Blastocystis and other bugs?
All good questions.
When you feed your beneficial gut microbes they produce by-products that help to shift the community of bugs in a beneficial or healthy way. This makes the gut environment harder for the less friendly bugs to live. Parasites like Blastocystis have a hard time growing when beneficial bacteria like Bifidobacterium, Lactobacilli and other less well known, but equally as beneficial gut flora are thriving.
Probiotics for parasite infections.
There are a handful of probiotics that have shown major benefit for people that have parasite infections including Blastocystis. For the longest time we looked at probiotics as a way to refill the beneficial bacterial tank as it where. Take antibiotics then top up your good bugs with probiotics.
As we have explored the effects of probiotics we are noticing that they don’t exactly work in that way. You can’t simply top up your good gut flora with probiotics. What they can help with is gut infections (Blastocystis, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, etc), they can tune the immune system and help to heal and seal the gut.
Jumping straight in we can see that the main probiotic that is helpful as a natural treatment for parasite infections is actually a type of yeast called Saccharomyces boulardii. There is even a study (found in the references and resources section below) where this particular probiotic helped to clear Blastocystis infections in children.
Other beneficial probiotics include Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium lactis. Strain
All in all probiotics can be very helpful in improving your gut health and reducing your symptoms. Do I think they are a stand alone natural treatment for parasite infections like Blastocystis hominis? Will it clear the bug every time? Probably not. But used alongside herbal medicine and prebiotics they can play a large role in making you feel better and that’s what it’s all about.
Herbal Medicine For Parasite infections
Diving into the herbal medicine side of things we can see a number of natural treatments for Blastocystis hominis. Most herbalists will have access to many of these herbs, while others like goldthread may be harder to track down.
Some of these herbs mix well together and others need to be kept separate. This is a great reason to work with a skilled herbalist that knows their way around gut health issues.
Onto the herbs
Some of the herbs I have written about before include cloves, pomegranate peel and garlic they are both very effective at knocking back overgrowths of bacteria but they can also work as natural treatment for parasite infections as well.
Other herbs include
- Coptis chinensis. Also known as goldthread this herbal medicine is full of antimicrobial plant compounds that can help with parasite infections.
- Goldenseal. This has similar properties to goldthread and is a popular antimicrobial herbal medicine.
- Oregano leaf. Many people are familiar with oregano oil for gut health issues. Oregano leaf has the same properties of oregano oil (the oil is found in the leaf) but it isn’t quite as concentrated as oregano oil. You might be thinking that we want concentrated and potent herbs to treat Blastocystis right? The answer is yes and no. If we go treat with extremely potent herbal antimicrobials we might end up negatively impacting our beneficial gut flora. It’s a fine line to walk. We want to target the parasites with natural agents while protecting and nurturing the beneficial flora at the same time. I have found high doses of oregano oil to be too potent for many people. Lower doses may be fine but going in too strong can lead to issues down the road.
- Propolis. Produced by honey bees propolis is potently antimicrobial. Definitely something worth exploring for gut infections.
A full assessment is necessary to work out what other herbal medicines may be helpful for your gut health. Herbs that can help improve your immune system might be helpful along with anti inflammatory herbs. If you are experiencing bloating or stomach pain we might choose carminative herbs like angelica or peppermint to help ease the symptoms while we target the parasite infection.
As I have outlined there are a range of natural treatments for Blastocystis hominis that all have their place in a herbal medicine treatment plan. A similar approach can be used for other parasite infections including Dientamoeba fragilis, Giardia and Cryptosporidium. These bugs are more common than you might think and may be contributing to your poor gut health.
Now over to you. Do you have any experience with poor gut health? Share your thoughts in the comments below. What has helped, what didn’t?
References, Resources and Science Stuff
- Dietary modulation of the human colonic microbiota: introducing the concept of prebiotics.
- manual of waterborne pathogens
- Prebiotics, probiotics and human gut microbiology
- New Insights on Classification, Identification, and Clinical Relevance of Blastocystis spp.
- A Review of the Clinical Presentation of Dientamoebiasis
- Modulating the Gut Micro-Environment in the Treatment of Intestinal Parasites
- Medical Herbalism – David Hoffman