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What Is A Parasite Cleanse? Plus, How To Know You Have One

Hannah Frye
Author:
June 17, 2024
Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
By Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor

Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more.

June 17, 2024
We carefully vet all products and services featured on mindbodygreen using our commerce guidelines. Our selections are never influenced by the commissions earned from our links.

If you're on the wellness side of TikTok, you've probably already heard about parasite cleanse products. You know, those tiny brown tincture bottles that wellness influencers claim cleared their intestines of parasites overnight?

If not, that's about all you need to know: A lot of people online are talking about parasites, and plenty of faulty products are out there. 

To help you make sense of the nonsense when it comes to parasite cleanses (and if you even need to consider one), I asked the experts. Below, all of your questions answered. 

What is a parasite cleanse?

A parasite cleanse is any product, diet, or supplement that claims to rid the body of parasites, thus helping to alleviate gut or full-body symptoms. Parasite cleanse products come in many forms, from tinctures to capsules and beyond. 

Many parasite cleanse products call upon medicinal herbs such as: 

  • Wormwood
  • Black walnuts
  • Pumpkinseed oil 
  • Garlic 
  • Papaya seed
  • Oregano oil

People tend to invest in parasite cleanse products after hearing, through word-of-mouth, social media, or a health professional, that they may have a parasitic infection. However, experts say it's almost impossible to officially diagnose a parasitic infection with symptoms alone—more on this in a bit. 

How do you get a parasite?

You can pick up parasites from traveling to areas without potable water (clean, drinkable water), eating raw meat and seafood, handling livestock and infected animals, and contact with infected blood, notes registered dietitian Maya Feller, R.D.

Signs you actually may have a parasite

Unfortunately, parasite infections have extremely similar symptoms to other, more common gut health concerns, making them difficult to diagnose, notes Justin Mazur, M.D., board-certified emergency medicine and functional medicine practitioner. For example, parasite infections can cause symptoms like: 

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Low-grade fever 
  • Gas
  • Appetite changes
  • Bloating

"The duration of symptoms will be a bigger clue, bacterial and viral infections typically resolve in days to weeks whereas parasites can last much longer, courses are milder, more indolent, and may linger for weeks to months," Mazur says about parasite infections. 

You may also notice a new lactose intolerance, he says, which is a common symptom of giardia, or one of the more common parasites in the United States. 

Still, these symptoms could lead to other diagnoses, such as bacterial diarrheal illnesses, SIBO, gluten intolerance, or dysbiosis, all of which Mazur says are more common in the United States than parasite infections. 

"After [these] causes have been ruled out and the patient is still symptomatic, it may be time to consider a parasitic illness," he says. 

Do they work?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn't as cut-and-dried as you might hope. Every parasite cleanse product is different, some with more helpful ingredients than others, but there's not exactly enough research to promise any surefire success. 

"Many if not all of the OTC supplements are lacking randomized control trials (the gold standard) with findings that support their use and efficacy," Feller says—which is why experts tend to recommend other avenues for parasite diagnosis and treatment. 

However, as Mazur explains, some research supports the use of certain ingredients for general gut support. For example, "Black walnuts contain a number of phytochemicals that are likely anti-inflammatory1 and possibly antimicrobial,2 so while they may provide general GI support, they are not specific for parasites," he explains. 

For specific anti-parasite benefits, oregano and thyme3 have been the most studied, he said. "These herbs were found to inhibit various stages of the life cycle of certain parasites at certain stages by inhibiting growth or being directly toxic to parasitic eggs (ovicidal) or larvae." 

The good news is that many of the extracts used in parasite cleanse products also have other health benefits, many specific to the gut. This means that you can have some success in the realm of digestion support with certain parasite cleanse products, but their efficacy doesn't necessarily indicate the presence and elimination of a parasite. 

What about the parasite cleanse diet?

Apart from supplements and tinctures, some people may consider a specific diet effective for killing parasites—some opt for a grain-free diet, others cut out fruit entirely, and some eliminate sugar of any kind—but the experts aren't so sure this is effective. 

"Changing one's pattern of eating can support the integrity and health of the gut," Feller says, but, she adds, "I would not recommend a diet shift as the primary and only mode of treatment for parasitic infections."

Feller lists foods like garlic that have antimicrobial properties4, but simply consuming garlic here and there isn't enough to kill a parasite. "Parasite treatment requires a specific dose to elicit the desired response," she says.

There are too many unanswered questions, Feller says, like how much of each specific food or herb, for how long, and to kill what parasite, to make any specific ingredient a recommended treatment for parasites. 

Editor's note

Let your physician know if you have recently traveled out of your home country, consumed water not deemed drinkable, or handled livestock recently, as your chances of parasite infection are notably higher than in someone who hasn't.  

So…what should you do if you have a parasite infection?

If you have symptoms that lead you to believe you have a parasite (or another gut health concern, for that matter), you should visit your health care physician for a consultation. 

"This work-up would likely include a stool test to diagnose, treat, and support the actual conditions the patient is suffering from. Once an actual diagnosis is established, there are various natural and pharmaceutic options that can be considered," Mazur says. 

It's best to know what you're treating before investing time and money in experimental remedies. This way, you're not shooting in the dark or sitting with uncomfortable symptoms longer than you have to.

Why does everyone think they have parasites?

With the influx of parasite cleanse products, TikTok videos, and online searches, it raises the question: Why do we all think we have parasites? The answer, experts say, is a combination of a few factors. 

To start, "More people than ever are having GI issues, and as people become more aware of the limitations of traditional workups and the downsides of antibiotics, anti-acid drugs, and other traditional GI medications, they are seeking more natural options," Mazur says.

On top of that, "Many of us are looking for ways to optimize our health, and TikTok fuels the idea that we are not doing enough," Feller adds.

So while parasitic infections can and do happen all the time, you'll want to make sure you have a parasite before reaching for treatments—over-the-counter and otherwise. 

Remember that these infections share symptoms with a long list of gut health concerns, each calling for a treatment that will differ from the next. When in doubt, visit your health care practitioner and bring a list of your symptoms, how long they've lasted, and any remedies you've already tried. 

The takeaway

Parasite cleanse products and diets have been spiking in popularity but aren't as research-backed as you might hope. While some of the herbal ingredients found in these tinctures and supplements may have early studies on gut health support and anti-parasite properties, rigorous human clinical trials need to be performed to confirm their efficacy and application.

In the meantime, visit your health care practitioner and take universal steps to support your gut health.

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