Open up and swallow…a tiny vial of worm eggs? Sounds crazy, but a product made of pig whipworm eggs is currently being evaluated for sale as a food ingredient in Germany, which, if approved, would be the first of its kind in Europe, New Scientist reports.
The reasoning, according to creator Detlev Goj, is that some parasitic worms might actually benefit our health. While the effects of some worms, like hookworms, aren’t so pleasant—think diarrhea, anemia, and weight loss—others may bring some benefits, too.
For instance, areas of the world where parasitic worms infections are still common tend to have lower rates of autoimmune conditions like allergies, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and inflammatory bowel disorders. So by eliminating those parasitic worm infections, we might be leaving ourselves vulnerable.
It may have something to do with the “hygiene hypothesis,” say experts at the Cleveland Clinic. That means that effects of such parasitic worm infections might actually protect your gut.
Goj and his team settled on the pig whipworm for their product, since the parasite can’t survive for long in humans—and there was no evidence of them being able to reproduce in our guts. So they’re unlikely to cause any of the downsides associated with other worms.
There’s actually some evidence to back this up. In fact, a small 2004 study in Gut of 29 people with active Crohn’s disease—a type of inflammatory bowel condition—found that ingesting pig whipworm eggs every three weeks for 24 weeks decreased their symptom severity.
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The researchers say it shows that the worms can hamper inflammation in your intestines, and suggest they may be beneficial for other immune conditions as well.
But according to New Scientist, Goj’s larger, placebo-controlled study on whipworms was stopped early, because a monitoring committee failed to see beneficial results within three months.
Still, his products have already been approved for sale in Thailand, and they’re currently pending approval in Germany. Since it’s only awaiting approval as a “food ingredient” and not a medical drug, its creators don’t have to prove that it works for those immune conditions—only that it’s safe for people to take.
Even though they may be approved as a food product, that definitely doesn’t mean you should start self-medicating with worms yourself.
“Self-medication with any type of worm is not recommended and it is important to remember they’re not in any way completely harmless, and may cause quite severe side effects if not monitored very carefully by a doctor,” Helena Helmby, Ph.D., of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine told New Scientist.
More research is needed to test how worm eggs may function as treatment for other immune-related conditions.
Words by Christa Sgobba