Eating worms used to be a childhood taunt.
But early research shows that parasitic worms could have an unexpected benefit.
They could be a promising treatment for autoimmune diseases.
Autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis or Crohn’s, are on the rise in developed countries.
At least 23 million Americans have these diseases, where the body attacks its own tissues.
“Worm therapy” does not yet have government approval, but some people aren’t waiting. They’re beginning to self-administer cures using these worms.
So far, some experts say, they’re reporting some promising results.
Why worms may work
Some researchers are already sold on the idea.
Take William Parker, PhD, an associate professor of surgery at Duke University School of Medicine.
He’s spent years studying parasitic worm therapies. He sees the worms more like vitamins that the immune system needs to be healthy.
“Many immune diseases are episodic,” Parker told Healthline. “And worms work well on them. If I had to bet the farm on this treatment, I would.”
Although it may sound creepy, using parasitic worms like hookworms or pig whipworm to treat autoimmune diseases does have some basis in science, too.
Parker said the worms, also known as helminths, can travel to the gut and ease inflammation — perhaps by changing the mix of bacteria there.
With autoimmune diseases, the body cranks out too much of one type of white blood cell that creates this inflammation.
So far, some studies are encouraging.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin reported positive results when volunteers were asked to ingest pig whipworm eggs as a way to help heal multiple sclerosis.
And Dr. Joel Weinstock, now a professor at Tufts Medical School, concluded that pig whipworm seemed to help inflammatory bowel disease.
Body needs more biodiversity
Parker believes that the idea behind this odd treatment is sound.
Called hygiene hypothesis, a term coined in the late 1980s, the theory is that when children aren’t exposed to infectious agents or parasites, the development of the immune system is affected.
Humans have lost a lot of biodiversity in their bodies with the rise of clean water and food processing, according to Parker.
“It’s very conclusive that our systems are missing this stuff,” he said. “They need biodiversity to function well so the body can start healing itself.”
He added that the alteration of our bodies’ ecosystems is similar to what’s happening to the earth’s ecosystems, too.
But people treating themselves with parasitic worms can stop the progression of multiple sclerosis, he said.
“Like with exercising, the body gets better,” he stated. “Science says it works. Social networks say it works.”
Meanwhile, the list of what can be treated with these parasitic worms is pretty long, according to John Hawdon, PhD. Hawdon is the vice president of the American Society of Parasitologists and a researcher at George Washington University.
There’s evidence that it may work for celiac disease, Hawdon told Healthline, and it may work to treat other chronic illnesses, too.
“I’m optimistic that some diseases may get some relief using parasitic worms,” said Hawdon, who calls worm therapy an intriguing possibility. “They can calm inflammation.”
Problems with worm therapy
As with any new therapy, there are issues.
The worms haven’t been approved for medical use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
That means they aren’t available in the United States.
They must be imported from the United Kingdom or Thailand, said Parker.
And without government regulations, quality can vary.
“The most inexpensive worms, especially hookworms, have the most side effects,” Parker warned. “Taking too many can trigger adverse reactions.”
Also, worm treatment is only temporary.
People who treat their diseases must ingest the worms every two weeks.
“So people will end up taking them for the rest of their lives,” Hawdon said.
Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, sees worm therapy as outright dangerous.
“The only things speaking on its behalf are very small studies,” he told Healthline. “Giving people worms belongs in the trash bin.”
He would rather cherry-pick the worm molecules that create the anti-inflammatory effect and turn them into medication.
“You could develop new therapies with them,” he said, “and create new approaches.”
“At one time, people also thought bacteria was bad,” countered Parker. “Now we know there’s a complex ecosystem. It’s about coming back into balance.”