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People Are Infecting Themselves With Parasitic Worms as a Medical Treatment

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Are intestinal worms the next probiotic? Some scientists think so. A growing body of research suggests that infection with helminths, or parasitic worms, may help balance the immune system and reduce inflammation. Some studies suggest that the use of helminths—including hookworms and whipworms—can ease the symptoms of a growing number of medical conditions.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) disagrees. The agency has classified helminthic therapy as an Investigational New Drug (IND). The only people who can dispense INDs are researchers conducting experiments, and even they need special permission. But treatment with the parasites is legal in Mexico, and would-be hosts are crossing the border to get it.

There's clear desperation at work here: A person who is willing to intentionally infect him- or herself with intestinal worms—which affect 2 billion people worldwide and can cause a range of serious illnesses—likely believes they've already exhausted every other option.

So why would anybody do this? 

Autoimmune and inflammatory diseases are on the rise in the U.S. and other wealthy countries. With conditions like allergies, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and lupus, a person’s body actually attacks itself. And for many of these people, existing treatment options are just not working. 

Scientists believe that the increase in autoimmune diseases is related to the increase in cleanliness and sterile environments. In order to learn to protect us from all the little nasties out there, the bacteria in our bodies have to meet those nasties. But in a world with antimicrobial hand soap in every public restroom, our bacteria aren’t meeting much of anything. In the absence of challenges, our bacterial ecosystems can get a little lopsided, with too much of certain types of organisms. And, researchers say, that imbalance can send our immune systems into a tailspin. In short, we’re too clean for our own good. 

This hygiene hypothesis, as it’s known, is also the idea behind probiotics. If we supplement our “good” bacteria, the theory goes, we may keep things in check. And some researchers believe the same could be true for helminths. Infection with the parasites activates the immune system in a way that might provide sick people with some relief.

There are a number of ways to take in the parasites. Visitors to helminth therapy clinics may be offered a shot of clear, helminth-infested liquid to drink; the worms might also be applied to their skin. When it comes to hookworms, swallowing the worms sends them quickly to the gut, where they dig in to the stomach lining and begin feeding. Worms that enter the body through the skin first have to enter the bloodstream, wind their way into the heart, and then the lungs. Because the worms irritate lung tissue, some people cough them up at this point, then swallow them again. One way or another, the worms then migrate into the small intestine, where they feed.  

Helminth therapy recipients have reported decreases in allergies, inflammation, and pain, but it's hardly instantaneous. “The use of the intestinal worms is typically not a short term solution,” notes the website of a clinic called Worm Therapy. Some people may begin to feel the effects within a few weeks. For others, it may take months or even years. And for some people, it will never work at all.

Science seems fairly split on this one. There are plenty of studies suggesting that helminth therapy can be safe and effective, but most conclude that we just don’t have enough information yet to be sure. 

Gastroenterologist Joel Weinstock has performed a number of helminth experiments on patients with Crohn’s disease. “Nobody got hurt, nobody’s eyes fell out,” Weinstock told Science Notes in 2014. “But it’s still too early to say, ‘Well golly gee, this is going to be better than apple pie.’”

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Can You Really Lose Weight by Pooping? It Depends on What You Eat
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If you’re obsessed with either your scale or your bowel movements, you’ve probably wondered: How much of my weight is just poop? A teenage cousin of mine once spent an entire restaurant dinner arguing that he could lose up to 3 pounds if you just gave him a few minutes to sit on the toilet. As you might imagine, he was wrong. But not by that much, according to Thrillist, a site that’s been truly dominating the poop science beat lately.

You can indeed see the effects of a truly satisfying bowel movement reflected on your bathroom scale. (Wash your hands first, please.) But how much your feces weigh depends heavily on your diet. The more fiber you eat, the heavier your poop. Unfortunately, even the most impressive fecal achievement won't tip the scales much.

In 1992, researchers studying the effect of fiber intake on colon cancer risk wrote that the daily movements of poopers across the world could vary anywhere from 2.5 ounces to 1 pound. In their sample of 220 Brits, the median daily poop weighed around 3.7 ounces. A dietary intake of around 18 grams of dietary fiber a day typically resulted in a 5.3-ounce turd, which the researchers say is enough to lower the risk of bowel cancer.

A Western diet probably isn’t going to help you achieve your poop potential, mass-wise. According to one estimate, industrialized populations only eat about 15 grams of fiber per day thanks to processed foods. (Aside from ruining your bragging rights for biggest poop, this also wreaks havoc on your microbiome.) That's why those British poops observed in the study didn't even come close to 1 pound.

Poop isn’t the only thing passing through your digestive tract that has some volume to it. Surprisingly, your fabulous flatulence can be quantified, too, and it doesn’t even take a crazy-sensitive machine to do so. In a 1991 study, volunteers plied with baked beans were hooked up to plastic fart-capturing bags using rectal catheters. The researchers found that the average person farts around 24 ounces of gas a day. The average fart involved around 3 ounces of gas.

This doesn’t mean that either pooping or farting is a solid weight-loss strategy. If you’re hoping to slim down, losing a pound of poop won’t improve the way your jeans fit. Certainly your 24 ounces of gas won't. But to satisfy pure scientific curiosity, sure, break out that scale before and after you do your business. At least you'll be able to see if your fiber intake is up to snuff.

[h/t Thrillist]

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Why You Might Not Want to Order Tea or Coffee On Your Next Flight
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A cup of tea or coffee at 40,000 feet may sound like a great way to give yourself an extra energy boost during a tiring trip, but it might be healthier to nap away your fatigue—or at least wait until hitting ground to indulge in a caffeine fix. Because, in addition to being tepid and watery, plane brew could be teeming with germs and other harmful life forms, according to Business Insider.

Multiple studies and investigations have taken a closer look at airplane tap water, and the results aren’t pretty—or appetizing. In 2002, The Wall Street Journal conducted a study that looked at water samples taken from 14 different flights from 10 different airlines. Reporters discovered “a long list of microscopic life you don’t want to drink, from Salmonella and Staphylococcus to tiny insect eggs," they wrote.

And they added, "Worse, contamination was the rule, not the exception: Almost all of the bacteria levels were tens, sometimes hundreds, of times above U.S. government limits."

A 2004 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that water supplies on 15 percent of 327 national and international commercial aircrafts were contaminated to varying degrees [PDF]. This all led up to the 2011 Aircraft Drinking Water Rule, an EPA initiative to make airlines clean up. But in 2013, an NBC investigation found that at least one out of every 10 commercial U.S. airplanes still had issues with water contamination.

Find out how airplane water gets so gross, and why turning water into coffee or tea isn’t enough to kill residual germs by watching Business Insider’s video below.

[h/t Business Insider]

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