Parasite Cleanses Are Viral, Again. Doctors Still Say They’re a Very Bad Idea

tiktok-tapeworm.jpg - Credit: Art by Rolling Stone. Images: Kateryna Kon/Science Photo Library/Getty Images
tiktok-tapeworm.jpg - Credit: Art by Rolling Stone. Images: Kateryna Kon/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

According to self-proclaimed health gurus on TikTok, toxic isn’t just a Britney Spears song anymore. It’s also apparently a descriptor for the average person’s gut. Like all viral health trends, this one focuses on an adversary that needs to be conquered, but this time, the enemy isn’t carbs, gluten, or non-paleolithic food groups — it’s a legion of parasites secretly hiding in your stomach.

Welcome to Parasite cleanse TikTok. Over the past year, several different types of detoxes claiming to purge the body of worm invaders have gone viral on the app, offering a bold (and medically unsound) answer to some of life’s most prevalent health issues. The problem? Several licensed physicians tell Rolling Stone there’s not only a lack of evidence to back these remedies up, but the parasite cleanse rise in popularity, and false claims to cure disabilities in children, could make them potentially fatal.

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Are you bloated? Cramping? Gaining weight? Do you have a moderate amount of brain fog? Do you feel discontent with life? Are you a child that has autism or a speech delay? Several popular health creators say these and more can be solved with parasite treatments. While the brands that promote parasite cleanses vary from homemade tinctures to subscription services that mirror multi-level-marketing schemes, the detoxes operate on the same series of beliefs: that every person has dozens, if not hundreds, of parasites inside their stomach, causing them distress. The only way to remove them, the claim, is to target their food source: heavy metals and toxins.

Supporters of the cleanse believe parasites can only be removed with multiple monthly detoxes, and of course, you can purchase them directly from the link in their bios. The hashtag #parasitecleanse has close to 300 million views on TikTok, with top videos receiving hundreds of thousands of likes and, even more concerning, hundreds of comments from moms saying they’ve given them to young children. Even with constant debunking by medical professionals, popular parasite regimes have been framed as a larger battle in the democratization of healthcare. While all of the doctors who spoke to Rolling Stone agreed that not all symptoms need prescriptions to be fixed, they’re adamant that parasite cleanses, especially for children, will do far more harm than good.

Parasites are very real. But according to Dr. Rabia de Latour, Assistant Professor of Medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, parasite cleanses misrepresent how they would present.

“Parasitic infections definitely occur in the US, but the people suffering from parasitic infections tend to have symptoms that warrant workup, diagnosis, and in most cases, treatment,” Dr. De Latour tells Rolling Stone. In fact, the doctor adds that it’s extremely unlikely that every person has dozens or hundreds of parasites in their stomach at any given time.

“Routine empiric parasitic cleanses in someone without symptoms are not based on any evidence,” Dr. De Latour adds. “Most parasitic infections are spread from contaminated food or water, and risk can increase with international travel to endemic regions, so if you are concerned about this, you should seek help from a medical professional for potential treatment. “

Dr. Selvi Rajagopal, a practicing gastroenterologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, is adamant that parents avoid dosing their children with supplements they’ve bought over the internet. She says that even many natural foods or remedies are considered extremely dangerous for children under six months and says parents should avoid treating kids with anything not recommended by their pediatrician. Even further, Dr. Rajagopal says that using parasite cleanses to treat autism spectrum disorder — for which there is no cure — could be extremely dangerous to a young child’s growth.

“Even if people did have a parasitic infection and they had coexisting autism spectrum, there’s no proof or no data that supports the relationship between the two. It pains me that this is even something that people are proliferating as the truth,” Dr. Rajagoapal says. “[A child’s] digestive tract, their immune system, their adrenal system, their kidney filtration system, everything is immature, so you run the risk of really causing GI distress. [A doctor’s] job is to help you understand what the evidence is behind medical treatments. I would definitely not put your child’s life in the hands of some blogger.”

Most of the popular parasite remedies revolve around the basic idea that your stomach must be clean in order for you to feel healthy. But Dr. Li Zhaoping, Director of the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA, says that people’s typical conception of cleaning regimens goes against how our stomach operates at its best.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve learned so much about microbes. Sterile isn’t actually good at all,” Dr. Li tells Rolling Stone. “All of the complex organisms in our stomach are a part of us, and it is essential for good health to have a lot [of] bacteria. The key is to have this little community with trillions, if not hundreds of trillions of living microbes in sync. When they work, they become [an] important part [of] our overall health.”

But what about the people who get better? According to Dr. Li, many of the supplements might have herbs, like ginger, turmeric, or other vitamins, in them that don’t cure parasites but can temporarily relieve smaller symptoms like indigestion or heartburn — which is why people might believe they’ve been healed, at least until they’re pressured to buy another three month supply. Many purges also require people to cut out processed and fast food, which Dr. Li adds is another way to feel better fast. It just doesn’t require the parasite cleanse.

People who regularly use parasite detoxes and cleanses are also most likely wasting their money on ineffective detoxes. Supplements operate in a federal grey area and are not regulated as drugs by the Food and Drug Administration — so it’s up to users to do their own research. But detoxes can also have harmful interactions with prescription medicines that people are unaware of, according to the doctors who spoke with Rolling Stone. And for children, there’s no telling what long-term effects could come from persistent exposure to unregulated and unnecessary tinctures.

The cleanses’ popularity is driven by a review-based system, which works extremely well on platforms like TikTok and Facebook that are less restrictive about dangerous health trends. On TikTok, videos or comments filled with sound medical advice are often overshadowed by testimonials and louder encouragement from detox sellers. These sellers have created a villain narrative out of the health industry, with doctors and Big Pharma allegedly working together to keep the average man sick and dependent on prescription drugs. But all of the doctors who spoke to Rolling Stone say there’s not just a lack of evidence to support parasite detoxes, but sellers are actively preying on people’s fears about chronic illnesses to make more money — with little regard to the damage that could be done in the long run.

“Social media is a very powerful tool, and a lot of people on it are really savvy,” Dr. Rajagoapal says. There’s been a lot of desperation, particularly after the pandemic, for people to find the next best cure that’s going to fix all of their problems and protect them. Where there’s fear and insecurity, there are always people that want attention, want to make money, whatever it is, that come out with these things. They’re preying on people’s lack of knowledge and understanding. It’s frustrating.”

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