This is probably the worst good news I’ve ever heard: Parasitic worms might actually be good for you. In fact, certain parasites could be so good for us that they prevent aging, heart disease, dementia and even inflammatory illnesses like asthma, eczema, irritable bowel syndrome and arthritis. Rates of helminth parasites, a type of intestinal worm, have declined in “developed” countries, though: According to researchers at the UCL Institute of Healthy Ageing in London, this decline could be linked with rising numbers of autoimmune disorders and various other ailments.
Published in eLife this month, the study saw the scientists explore whether hosting helminth worms could help prevent inflammatory-induced aging, or inflammaging, brought about by sterility in the body. By reviewing past research on helminths and aging, the scientists believe they’ve found a link. Previous studies have linked a lack of helminths to inflammatory illness, and further found that unintentionally hosting helminths led to a reduction of disease symptoms in humans. In studies of regions where parasites are more common, 40 percent of the general population tested positive for parasite antigens, while none of the population with rheumatoid arthritis did.
Perhaps that all seems like broad conjecture, but it’s hypothetically possible that parasites do indeed lessen inflammation within the body. One theory is that helminths produce a protein that aids with this. In mice given a helminth-derived protein, this was effective in improving gut barrier integrity and preventing age-related decline.
Hopefully, this latter study points to the possibility that if parasites are indeed good for us, we could skip the actual infection part and instead supplement with their proteins. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that between 500 million and 1 billion people globally are hosting one of three varieties of helminths. These helminths, including hookworms and whipworms, are transmitted through soil. They can be passed when an infected person poops outdoors in the dirt or when infected poop is used as fertilizer, followed by the ingestion of said dirt or of unwashed produce grown from it. Helminth infection typically doesn’t have any symptoms, though “heavy” infections can lead to abdominal pain, diarrhea and rectal prolapse, among other things.
Because of the nature of transmission, helminths aren’t as common in the U.S. as they are in areas without modern waste management. Pinworms, on the other hand, are. Up to 50 percent of children carry them. Pinworms tend to be pretty harmless, too, beyond being absolutely horrifying to think about and making your butthole itch catastrophically. Both helminths and pinworms can be visible to the human eye, which just makes the concept so much worse, but hey, I guess I’d rather be old and helminth-filled than die young and helminth-less.