Parasite infections are an insidious and underestimated health problem, affecting millions of people worldwide. In fact, estimates report that at least half the world’s population has some type of worm infection. (1)
And while many of the world’s most deadly parasites exist in tropical and subtropical climates and under-developed countries, the West is not immune.
For example, around 50 million Americans are harboring parasites in their systems right now — and many experts believe this number is much higher.
These unsavory little critters come in many forms, from microscopic water-borne amoebas to tiny pinworms to feet-long tapeworms. And, if left unchecked, they can all wreak havoc on the body in a variety of ways.
What’s more, parasitic infections don’t always come from traveling abroad or eating unclean or undercooked foods.
They can come from the water we drink, bathe or swim in; through our skin via the ground; from direct contact with our pets; from blood transfusions; and fleas, ticks, and other insects.
In other words, worms are everywhere! Even in our rich, clean, developed countries.
The good news is, there are simple measures you can take to protect yourself and prevent parasites... no matter where you live or how much you travel.
Keys to prevention include developing an understanding of:
- The different types of parasites and where they come from.
- What causes parasitic infections.
- Why some people are more vulnerable than others.
- The common and lesser-known symptoms.
- Which foods to avoid.
- Which specific foods, herbs, and dietary aids can help prevent parasites from taking hold.
- How to travel safely to avoid exposure.
Let’s get started with...
Knowing Your Enemy: The Different Types of Parasites and Where They Come From
The first step to preventing parasites is to know the enemy—or in other words, to get educated.
Here’s a quick run-down of the three main types of parasites and where they come from: (2)
1. Protozoa — Protozoa are single-cell microscopic organisms that can either live within a host or survive as free-living organisms.
Once they find a human host, these parasites can multiply, which can lead to more severe infections.
Protozoa are shared human-to-human through fecal matter, but can also be transmitted through blood or insect bites.
Malaria, for example, is caused by the protozoan parasite Plasmodium. (3) According to the World Health Organization, over half the world’s population is at risk for malaria, including non-immune travelers to affected nations. (4)
2. Helminths — Helminths are larger, multi-celled organisms that, unlike protozoa, may be visible to the naked eye in their adult form. They can be parasitic or free-living, but their adult form cannot multiply in humans.
Some examples of helminths include:
- Thorny-headed worms
3. Ectoparasites — Ectoparasites is a term commonly used to describe “blood-sucking arthropods,” such as mosquitos. But this term also refers to other insects or organisms that can bite, sting, or burrow into human skin and transmit parasites, including fleas, ticks, lice, and mites.
This is why parasitic infections are common in those suffering from Lyme disease.
What Causes Parasite Infections?
In underdeveloped, tropical, and subtropical countries, parasitic infections most commonly come from consuming unclean water—either by drinking it, bathing in it, or consuming raw foods which have been washed in it.
In the west, however, parasitic infections come from more unexpected sources including:
Raw or undercooked foods — since some parasites are blood-born or live in feces, they can be transmitted by food service workers using unsanitary food handling practices, such as working with a cut finger or not washing their hands after using the bathroom.
Pork — pork is notorious for containing a variety of parasites, including protozoa, Toxoplasma gondii and Sarcocystis spp., and the helminths Trichinella spp. and Taenia spp. Thus, pork should either be avoided or only consumed fully cooked. (5)
Certain types of fish — saltwater and freshwater fish such as cod, swordfish, trout, pike, and salmon can contain parasites such as roundworm or tapeworm larvae. Therefore, fish should always be consumed fully cooked. (6)
Unclean water — water swallowed from swimming in lakes, ponds, rivers, etc.
Pets — pets transmit parasites to humans via direct contact or by spreading fleas, ticks, and lice which can bite and transmit parasites.
Insects — as mentioned above, fleas, ticks, lice, and mites can transmit parasites to humans through biting, burrowing, or bloodsucking.
Blood transfusions — per the Centers for Disease Control, donated blood is not screened for all types of parasites (believe it or not!). Thus, parasitic infections can be transmitted via transfusions. (7)
Soil — protozoa and (more commonly) helminths like pinworms, can be transmitted via contact with the soil.
Sexual contact — Trichomoniasis, for instance, is a prevalent STD caused by the protozoan parasite: Trichomonas vaginalis. According to the CDC, approximately 3.7 million Americans are infected with “Trich,” and many do not even realize it. (8)
Contact with fecal matter — daycare or healthcare workers, for example, can pick up fecal-borne parasites if they’re not taking the proper precautions.
Why Are Some People More Vulnerable to Parasitic Infection Than Others?
This is such an important point to address. Because, just like with bacteria and other pathogens not everyone who is exposed to a parasite or even consumes a parasite will develop an infection.
How is this possible?
It comes down to two things:
#1: The immune strength of the host
#2: The host’s daily diet
You see, our bodies are brilliantly equipped with a guardian-at-the-gate, known as the immune system.
In a healthy person, the immune system can handle almost anything the world throws at it: bacteria, emotional trauma, injury, and (yes) even parasites.
However, a staggering number of people in developed and underdeveloped countries are living with compromised immune systems. This may take the form of digestive health issues, autoimmune disease, malnutrition, and other chronic conditions.
And when the immune system is compromised, the body is left more vulnerable to pathogens.
This is why nurturing your immune system is key to preventing all types of infections, including parasites.
And the foods we eat play a critical role in either building up or tearing down our immunity.
For example, pathogens LOVE to feed on processed foods and sugars as their preferred source of fuel.
We’ll have some more helpful tips on which foods to avoid and to consume to prevent parasites coming up.
The Common and Lesser-Known Symptoms of Parasite Infection
Parasite infections often go undiagnosed for three main reasons:
#1: Limited diagnostic techniques.
Many microscopic parasites can be tricky to detect and diagnose through conventional methods.
#2: No noticeable or overtly bothersome symptoms.
As noted above, many people can have parasite infection like Trichomoniasis, and never experience any significant symptoms for months or even years. Lyme disease sufferers are also often unaware of accompanying parasitic infections.
#3: A misdiagnosis or misunderstanding of symptoms.
This is very common, as parasites can cause such a wide range of seemingly unrelated symptoms. For example, skin rashes, teeth grinding, and even insomnia are three little-known symptoms of what could be a parasite infection.
The following are some common, yet often overlooked, symptoms associated with parasite infections:
- Adrenal fatigue
- Chronic Lyme disease
- Compromised immunity/frequent illness
- Digestive disorders, including Leaky Gut Syndrome and Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Eyespots, “floaters” or other vision problems
- Food cravings
- Genital discharge
- Insatiable hunger
- Insomnia, consistent fatigue, and poor sleeping habits
- Joint and muscle pain
- Low blood sugar
- Memory problems
- Mental issues such as brain fog, anxiety, or depression
- New onset of allergies
- Skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis, rashes or itching
- Stomach aches/abdominal pain
- Swollen lymph nodes or flu-like symptoms
- Teeth grinding
As you can see, the symptom list is extensive which is why it’s helpful to work with a knowledgeable practitioner if you suspect a parasite problem.
Protect Yourself From Common Parasites by Avoiding the Following Foods
Many people presume they can only catch parasites from eating contaminated foods or undercooked foods, direct contact with fecal matter, or drinking tainted water — especially when traveling abroad.
And while these are all hotbeds for parasites, worms can be hiding in many other places... especially in your everyday foods.
The following is a list of foods that commonly contain parasites: (9)
Salads — even if that salad kit says it’s “triple washed,” we recommend thoroughly cleaning your raw veggies.
Salad bars — even if the lettuces and raw veggies were correctly prepared, salad bars can be a petri dish of bacteria and parasites. This is due to all the outside-handling from different people.
Saltwater fish like cod, herring, and swordfish — avoid or cook thoroughly.
Freshwater fish such as trout, pike, and salmon — avoid or cook thoroughly.
Pork — avoid or cook thoroughly.
Beef, game, and organ meats — cook thoroughly and source from trusted organic or sustainable farms.
Fresh produce — this does not mean you should stop eating plenty of fruit and vegetables! The keys are:
- To wash them thoroughly when preparing at home—especially if using in fresh fruit and vegetable juices or consuming raw.
- And to avoid eating raw produce at restaurants, salad bars, etc. as much as possible (unless you’re very confident in the chef or food preparer’s health and hygiene).
As mentioned in the previous section, it is wise to avoid specific foods that can weaken your immune system and provide fuel for those unwanted bugs.
Foods that may fuel parasite infection and growth include:
- Dairy (for some people, check with your practitioner)
- Processed foods
Which Foods, Dietary Aids, and Herbs Help Prevent Parasites?
Now that you know what foods to avoid let’s look at which foods, dietary aids, and herbs can help prevent parasitic infections.
We’ll start with foods (always your best medicine).
The following foods have a proven track record of helping prevent and, in some cases expel certain parasites:
Pumpkin Seeds — pumpkin seeds have long been used in traditional cultures to treat intestinal infections—including parasites. Modern science is beginning to catch up with this ancient wisdom, and a recent study proved the efficacy of pumpkin seeds in treating tapeworm in human, with an 89% success rate when combined with the areca nut extract. Plus, they’re loaded with immune-boosting nutrients like zinc, essential fatty acids, and magnesium. Pumpkin seeds are often included in parasite cleanses. (10)
Papaya Seeds — like pumpkin seeds, papaya seeds have been used in folk medicine to treat parasites for centuries and were prized in tropical climates. Recent research backs up these claims, proving papaya seeds’ anti-helminthic and anti-amoebic activities. One study found that dried papaya seeds mixed with honey had a 71.4% to 100% success rate in intestinal expulsion of intestinal parasites in Nigerian children. Many parasite cleansing aids contain papaya seeds. (11)
Berries — berries have also been used as a traditional remedy to fight parasites. Their effectiveness is likely due to their immune-boosting antioxidant polyphenols and their natural laxative effect on the gut. Since berries are a source of sugar, be sure to enjoy in moderation and wash them thoroughly before consuming.
Apple Cider Vinegar — inexpensive and widely available, apple cider vinegar is highly effective in maintaining gut health, which discourages the embedding and growth of parasites. It’s also high in B-vitamins which strengthens the immune system.
Olive Oil — high-quality olive oil (preferably extra-virgin) helps control fungal infections which can feed parasites. Side note: not so long ago, olive oil was commonly used as a topical home treatment for killing head lice.
For optimal prevention of parasites, aim to include some of these foods as part of your regular diet.
In addition to supporting your body with anti-parasitic foods, the following herbs and dietary support can also be safely used for prevention and as part of a parasite cleanse:
Cinnamon—this common spice has been shown effective in preventing and expelling parasites. (12)
Vitamin C—boosts immunity and helps keep the intestines moving. Plus, research has shown vitamins are essential in parasite prevention and expulsion. (13)
How to Avoid Parasites While Traveling
When traveling abroad, especially to underdeveloped, tropical or subtropical countries, you’ll want to take extra precautions to avoid parasitic infection.
- Avoid eating raw produce.
- Avoid raw or undercooked meats.
- Drink clean, bottled water (not tap).
- Do not drink beverages containing ice.
- Wash your hands regularly or use hand sanitizer.
- Do not swim in freshwater rivers, streams or lakes.
- Avoid contact with animal feces.
- Practice safe sex.
- Take along your antiparasitic remedies.
Your Action Steps to Preventing Parasites and Maintaining Vibrant Health
- Stay savvy on where parasites are commonly found, and avoid those situations whenever possible.
- Avoid common foods that contain parasites.
- Keep your immune system healthy by avoiding foods that act as fuel for parasites.
- Consume immune-boosting, naturally-anti-parasitic foods daily.
- Consider taking gut and anti-parasitic support proactively.
- Take extra precautions when traveling abroad.
Yes, parasites are nearly everywhere, and infection is a common problem in the East and the West.
But you are far from powerless when it comes to prevention.
By putting into action what you’ve learned today, especially avoiding common parasite hotspots and nurturing your immunity, you have the tools you need to protect yourself from parasites and optimize your health.
Remember this: You are in control, and we are here to help.