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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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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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If You Want Your Cat to Poop Out More Hairballs, Try Feeding It Beets
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Have you ever wondered if there’s a way to get your cat to poop out its hairballs instead of hacking them up? If so, you’re likely a seasoned cat owner whose tolerance for gross stuff has reached the point of no return. Luckily, there may be an easy way to get your cat to dispose of hairballs in the litter box instead of on your carpet, according to one study.

The paper, published in the Journal of Physiology and Animal Nutrition, followed the diets of 18 mixed-breed short-haired cats over a month. Some cats were fed straight kibble, while others were given helpings of beet pulp along with their regular meals. The researchers suspected that beets, a good source of fiber, would help move any ingested hair through the cats’ digestive systems, thus preventing it from coming back up the way it went in. Following the experiment, they found that the cats with the beet diet did indeed poop more.

The scientists didn’t measure how many hairballs the cats were coughing up during this period, so it's possible that pooping out more of them didn’t stop cats from puking them up at the same rate. But considering hairballs are a matter of digestive health, more regular bowel movements likely reduced the chance that cats would barf them up. The cat body is equipped to process large amounts of hair: According to experts, healthy cats should only be hacking hairballs once or twice a year.

If you find them around your home more frequently than that, it's a good idea to up your cat's fiber intake. Raw beet pulp is just one way to introduce fiber into your pet's diet; certain supplements for cats work just as well and actually contain beet pulp as a fiber source. Stephanie Liff, a veterinarian at Pure Paws Veterinary Care in New York, recommends psyllium powder to her patients. Another option for dealing with hairballs is the vegetable-oil based digestive lubricant Laxatone: According to Dr. Liff, this can "help to move hairballs in the correct direction."

[h/t Discover]

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