Whether it was an influencer on social media or a targeted ad you received after paging Dr. Google about strange symptoms, you may have come across the trendy parasite cleanse.
The parasite cleanse is no different from other cleanses out there in that it is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This cleanse, in particular, is based on the theory that 1) you have parasites in your gut that you need to get rid of, and 2) in order to do that, you need to take a concoction of specific herbs to cleanse your body. But, as with everything you read online, you need to be cautious about claims and promises related to these types of products.
That’s why we spoke to nutrition experts to get the facts on parasite cleanses and if you should consider trying one yourself.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a parasite is a living organism that lives on or in a host organism and survives by feeding off the host. There are three classes of parasites that can infect humans:
- Protozoa (single-celled organisms)
- Helminths (multicellular organisms)
- Ectoparasites (arthropods, like mosquitoes and ticks)
While parasitic infections are more widely associated with tropical climates and rural areas of low-income countries, people in the U.S. are not immune to them. The five common parasitic infections seen in the United States include:
- Chagas disease
How to Know If You Have a Parasite Infection
Nutrition experts unanimously agree that the only way to identify a parasite is through a medical diagnosis. That’s especially important because so many other things can cause the most common symptoms of a parasitic infection, including diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, gas and fatigue, says New York-based dietitian Nicole Rodriguez, RDN.
For example, food poisoning and indigestion can also cause similar symptoms, says Sylvia Klinger, M.S., RDN. Given the commonalities in symptoms among parasite infections and other medical conditions, it’s important to seek medical advice rather than diagnosing and treating yourself.
How Parasites Enter the Body
You can become infected with a parasite in a lot of ways. The CDC reports there are five typical causes:
- Animals: Touching pets and animals without washing hands, or inadequately washing produce that’s been contaminated with wastewater from animal farms.
- Food: Improper cooking methods and temperatures, as well as poor hygiene when handling food.
- Blood: Via transfusions, sharing needles and contact with infected blood.
- Insects: For example, getting bitten by an insect carrying a parasite.
- Water: Through contaminated or untreated water.
Popular Methods of Parasite Cleanse
If you do have a parasite infection, the only way to cleanse your body of it would be through a physician-prescribed treatment plan. Sometimes that may be taking prescription medication like an antibiotic.
However, someone may opt to forgo diagnosis if they assume their gut symptoms are from a parasitic infection but don’t want to go through testing. Or they might be searching for a more “natural” treatment option, like a cleanse. Before deciding what’s right for you, know that our experts advise consulting your doctor first.
Natural Methods for Parasite Cleanse
Garlic has been used in Eastern medicine for centuries. In fact, research published in 2018 in Medicines discussed how garlic and onions (both in the allium family) have been used since ancient times to treat parasitic infections. And there may be a kernel of truth to this, since they have antimicrobial properties that may inhibit the function of parasites. But, the jury is still out on how much garlic you’d need to eat to do this. And, it’s unknown if garlic would actually be powerful enough to clear parasites from your gastrointestinal tract completely anyway, says Rodriguez.
Honey may not just be a sore throat and cold helper. When it comes to parasite infections, a 2018 study published in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology explored how preliminary in vitro (test tube) research found that manuka honey did inhibit the growth of parasites. Manuka honey is a more expensive variety of honey, and research is not clear on how much or what specific infections it may assist with, so it’s not known if the sweet stuff would be effective at all.
They’re crunchy and delicious—but do they also treat parasite infections? While animal studies have hinted that pumpkin seed extract may help control the growth of intestinal parasites, according to a study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, we have no idea if this substance helps in humans. While pumpkin seeds have some pretty amazing health benefits (hello, antioxidants), they should not be used as a stand-alone treatment for a parasite infection.
Similar to pumpkin seeds, papaya is a healthy addition to a balanced diet. While eating the flesh is most common, more research is being done on the smaller seeds of the fruit thanks to their potential health benefits and antioxidant properties, notes 2021 research in Biology. Preliminary research explored how supplementing a school lunch program in Africa with porridge fortified with papaya seeds helped decrease parasitic worm infections in schoolchildren who consumed the food, according to a 2018 study published in BioMed Central Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Still, this is not enough evidence to suggest that papaya seeds are a legitimate self-treatment.
Overall, while a well-designed meal plan, including these foods, will provide crucial nutrients to support your body when under medical care for a parasite infection, “utilizing any of the above as the [sole] treatment for parasitic infection is likely unreasonable,” says Rodriguez.
Diet Modifications for Parasite Cleanse
Nutrition and diet go hand-in-hand. When considering a parasite cleanse with the help of your medical team, they may advise you to focus on your nutrition. Klinger recommends a balanced diet, focusing on fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains to help strengthen gut health and support a healthy digestive system. Decrease added sugars, saturated fats and high-sodium foods.
Given the majority of your immune system is housed in your GI tract and many parasites infect the gut, focusing on gut-health strategies is always important. Consider adding more fermented foods, like yogurt, kimchi and kefir, as well as prebiotic foods, like oats, apples and bananas, to feed the good microbes in your gut.
Herbal Supplements for Parasite Cleanse
A quick internet search will lead to a bunch of supplements and droplets to take on your own to clear parasites. However, these supplements have little evidence behind them—and they likely are not needed at all. It’s best to seek out proper medical care with your doctor.
It’s also important to be cautious of any supplements that claim to detoxify or cleanse your body. You have a natural built-in detoxification system (called your kidneys and liver) that will do the job for you.
Effectiveness of a Parasite Cleanse
There’s no clinical evidence to support the use of a parasite cleanse to rid your body of a potential parasite. To rid your body of a parasite, you must first identify that you have a parasite (and if so, which one) through medical testing and diagnosis. Your doctor will then guide you on what treatment is needed. “Parasite cleanses are worthless and not worth spending your hard-earned money on,” Klinger says.
Precautions and Considerations
Be cautious before investing in herbal remedies to conduct your own parasite cleanse at home. “Most people do not have parasites,” says Klinger. Oftentimes many of these supplements are not regulated or third-party tested. “While dietary support may be beneficial, it can’t be overemphasized enough that parasitic infection requires a diagnosis. Prescription medications vary based on the type of parasite and can more reliably clear the body of infection in less time. As with any supplement or cleanse, whatever you’re purchasing isn’t regulated by the FDA, so there’s no legitimate way to tell if you’re “detoxing” your body or just clearing out your wallet,” says Rodriguez.
The Bottom Line
The likelihood you have a parasite infection based on symptoms, such as abdominal pain, nausea, gas and fatigue, is slim unless you have traveled internationally, are immunocompromised or have consumed food or water that was contaminated. Before self-diagnosing, make an appointment with your medical provider. Do not invest in an herbal remedy to cleanse your body of parasites unless you have been instructed to do so and are under the care of a medical doctor. Otherwise you might be literally flushing money down the toilet.