Mind and body: Worms to help depression? Could happen...
Scientists are studying whether organisms such as tapeworms, magnified above, might help treat disease
August 10th, 2011
04:23 PM ET

Mind and body: Worms to help depression? Could happen...

When was the last time you, your children or anyone you know was treated for worms? If you’re under the age of 40, your likely answer is “Never!”

This is no accident. As a society we have become cleaner and cleaner, more and more antiseptic, more and more hygienic over the last half century.

As we’ve done so, a huge array of microorganisms - worms among them - have silently, and with no fanfare, vanished from our daily environments. Some worms have even gone extinct inside our pets.

Industrialized countries such as the United States began making serious efforts to sanitize their environments in the 19th century. These public health efforts have done more to reduce disease and enhance longevity than any medical intervention before or since.

But scientific evidence increasingly suggests that the victories achieved by cleanliness have come at a significant health cost that is only now beginning to be fully appreciated.

Earlier than 100 years ago, almost everyone died from infection, most often in childhood. That doesn’t happen anymore in the developed world. Conversely, more than 100 years ago (more or less) many autoimmune and inflammatory conditions that are very common today (rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, hay fever, asthma) were so rare as to be essentially non-existent. It turns out that these two facts are intimately related.

By cleaning up the environments in which we live, we have eradicated an incredible array of dangerous pathogens that used to cause disease by passing from person to person with relative impunity. But without even realizing we were doing it, we’ve also removed an even larger host of benign bugs (mostly bacteria) and relatively benign nasties (mostly worms) with which we were once in near constant contact from birth to death.

It is increasingly clear that these ubiquitous microorganisms co-evolved with humans for so long that our immune systems came to depend on them to learn what should be properly attacked and what could be ignored.

Most of us seem to do OK  without the presence of these microbial teachers, but people with various genetic risk factors appear to be far more likely to develop autoimmune, allergic or asthmatic in the absence of our “old friends,” as these protective microbes have been called.

Evidence for this idea has been piling up for decades, and is far too vast for me to do more than touch upon here. First came studies showing that children raised around livestock on farms almost never get allergies or asthma, followed by other studies showing that rates of autoimmune and allergic disorders skyrocket when countries transition from third world to first world living conditions.

Finally, recent work has shown that various types of “old friend” microorganisms are able to suppress the types of inflammatory activity that promote so many modern immune-based maladies.

Back to the worms. If loss of contact with “old friend” microorganisms increases the risk for developing autoimmune diseases and asthma/allergy, is it possible that reintroducing these organisms might help treat these diseases? Increasingly the answer appears to be yes.

Recent studies suggest that treating people with worms may improve multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease. And another “old friend” species—this time a harmless bacterium related to the tuberculosis bug—has been shown to enhance survival when combined with chemotherapy for the treatment of a type of cancer known as adenocarcinoma of the lung.

Remarkably, this bacterium, known as M. vaccae, has also been shown to reduce depression and anxiety in patients with cancer, suggesting that the “old friends” might hold promise for the treatment of psychiatric conditions.

This isn’t as outlandish an idea as it sounds. Like allergic and autoimmune disorders, major depression appears to have dramatically increased in prevalence in the modern world. Moreover, all the other immune-based diseases that become common in societies that modernize are also strongly associated with depression.

For example, asthma in childhood strongly predicts the development of depression in adulthood. Finally, as a group, people with depression, even when they are otherwise medically healthy, show many of the same types of inflammatory abnormalities that characterize allergic and autoimmune diseases.

Treating depression with worms or bacteria is not ready for prime time, but a clear implication of recent scientific findings is that we do our children no favors when we insist they live in a hyper-sterilized world. Playing in the dirt, and a few kisses from dogs now and then, may literally be good for both their physical and mental health.

For a more detailed discussion of ideas in this blog, see my article "Inflammation, Sanitation and Consternation: Loss of Contact with Co-Evolved, Tolerogenic Micro-Organisms and the Pathophysiology and Treatment of Major Depression" in the December 2010 edition of Archives of General Psychiatry.

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soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. Fifi

    I bristle when I read generalizations like "earlier than 100 years ago...many autoimmune and inflammatory conditions that are very common today ...were so rare as to be virtually nonexistent." Aren't you ignoring an important factor: diagnosis? Many conditions that would have been passed off as a normal part of growing old ( painful joints) or of being young (the classic snotty-nosed kid who occasionally had breathing problems) are now diagnosed as treatable diseases. Even when I was young and suffering from recurrent bouts of asthma, my parents and my doctor passed it off as nothing more than a benign reaction to playing in the evening air, being around furry pets, or getting over one of the "colds" I had so often. Even depression was called something else a century or more ago. "Women's problems" were treated with opiates, regardless of the details of that diagnosis. I feel the same way when I read that autism is more prevalent in children now. The definition of autism (autism spectrum) has widened so much in the last decade that I don't believe a meaningful comparison can be made with rates 50 or 100 years ago. Yesterday's retardation is today's low-functioning autistim. Yesterday's catarrh is today's asthma.

    August 10, 2011 at 19:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Margaret

      My husband just completed a series of treatments for bladder cancer. They used what they called BCG, which is the tuberculosis bacterium. He finds it unusual that his mother died from tuberculosis, and it has saved his life.

      August 10, 2011 at 19:38 | Report abuse |
    • Julie

      Your point about the increasing sophistication of dx is well taken, but you go too far in your denial of the effects that our comparatively sterile personal environments have on out health. Yesterdays old-age aches and pains are NOT the serious autoimmune RA type of disease that we have now – it was osteo arthritis, the "wear and tear" disease. Yesterdays pat dander sniffles were NOT the life-threatening asthmatic conditions of today. It's been known that exposure to pathogens can create immunity for hindreds of years, going back to the days of smallpx plagues when people would deliberately expose themselves to cowpox, a bovine disease, in oeder to gain some protection against the human version of it. Dx wasn't sophisticated 100 years ago – but neither were people complete fools. If you study medical history, you'll see that what the author says about certain illnesses being virtually unheard of years ago is not opinion – it's Fact.

      The human drive to control our environments has shown us again and again that it isn't so easy. One set of problems may be solved, only to create a whole new set. This is a lesson for the ages on the nature of wisdom, control and acceptance of our limitations. If we learn those lessons, we may be able to make better decisions. Skepticism is essential to critical thinking – denial is it's killer.

      Having said that, I know I would die of a heart attack if anyone tried to treat me with any kind of worm that is visible or feel...able. And that includes medical leeches – I would have to knocked out cold and kept that way until it were all over and the things cleared away.

      August 10, 2011 at 21:35 | Report abuse |
    • Snowflakes

      I think you've raised some very valid points. Hope someone is reading....doctors still pass off many illnesses as nothing important, hopefully this will change for future generations.

      August 11, 2011 at 11:03 | Report abuse |
    • CalgarySandy

      Well said Julie. You provided a nice synthesis that can point to further study for those who are looking for the facts rather than those who believe that unfounded opinions are just as valid. My son is 29 and it was known when he was a baby that kids who went to day care rather than being packed in cotton batting and kept in a bubble at home had stronger immune systems.

      August 11, 2011 at 15:55 | Report abuse |
    • CalgarySandy

      I bristle when I see non-historians thinking their unsupported opinion is fact compared to other people's unsupported opinions.

      Diagnosis was not completely bad a hundred years ago. My Grandmother was diagnosed with Rheumatic Fever in the late 1800's and successfully treated. Her sister and brother died of TB very young but they had no cure yet.. If diagnosis had not been viable then immunization for Small Pox, Diphtheria, Polio, Pertussis, measles, and tests for TB... would not have been discovered. The problem was as much not having anything to help as being ignorant of what was wrong.

      August 11, 2011 at 16:58 | Report abuse |
    • Dr. Frankenstein

      I bristle at people who use the word bristle...

      August 11, 2011 at 18:26 | Report abuse |
  2. adult day care

    Thank you very much for the helpful information. I am researching for my Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation class in school and sometimes it's hard to find good information.

    August 11, 2011 at 02:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Laura

    Fascinating! Goes hand-in-hand with J. Diamond's text Guns, Germs, and Steel.

    August 11, 2011 at 06:19 | Report abuse | Reply
    • CalgarySandy

      Interesting book by a popular historian. He did not do the research himself. He cobbled his books together for non historians from the work done by other people. He is, thus, a good starting point to further research but not the whole story. Actually, every thing needs to be checked out when reading pop-historians and genuine historians due to the difficulty of subtracting the bias in the writer and the reader. In University we called people like him "nuts and bolts" historians because they did not do their own primary research. Nothing wrong with it as long as you are careful.

      August 11, 2011 at 16:03 | Report abuse |
    • Debbie338

      Yes, I agree. A fascinating book! This all fits in nicely with the old "Hygiene Hypothesis," in which I'm a big believer. Eat dirt as kid, be healthier as an adult. "-)

      August 11, 2011 at 16:48 | Report abuse |
  4. Laura

    What's with the angry tone, sister?

    August 11, 2011 at 06:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. dinabq

    Naomi, I find your ignorance about depression alarming. To simply say people who are depress don't appreciate what the have or are evil sinners is just plain wrong, and it keeps people from seeking real help. You don't like Americans, I get it. I just hope you don't work for a suicide hotline. You would probably give the person a gun and tell them to shoot themselves and stop bothering you with their problems.

    I do find the idea of worm therapy a little creepy and to say the parasite do no harm it's accurate either.

    August 11, 2011 at 06:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • dinabq

      should be isn't accurate, internal parasites can cause health problems too.

      August 11, 2011 at 06:48 | Report abuse |
    • Naomi

      Dina, I love Americans. I never encourage anyone suicide but completely the opposite. I think America's obsession with self's wellness is the primary cause of the depression. You guys will be like Dalits in India at this rate. America needs to live for something greater than itself – the glory of God and the liberation of the world – again.

      August 11, 2011 at 10:00 | Report abuse |
    • CalgarySandy

      The Glory of God does not belong in a discussion about science.

      August 11, 2011 at 16:06 | Report abuse |
    • CalgarySandy

      Naomi. People who put god before family and country are bottom feeders. My mom and her morally disgusting Baptist Church helped my increasing mental illness as a child with abuse and threats. Our family doctor said I needed a Councillor. My mother believed it was a demon and became even more physically and emotionally violent. The whole church backed her up in this. Well, my life has been a living heII with no family support to help me get well and so damaged that in over 45 years of trying I have not found a medication that works or a source of genuine spiritual support. Your kind cause mental illness. I would not bring this up and spit at you with it if you had not drug the glory of god into this.

      August 11, 2011 at 17:04 | Report abuse |
    • Naomi

      Sandy, Canada has too many troubles because of laziness. I think the long-term "peace" really has gotten your brains bad. In my case, my family could have been dead from literal starvation but a Christian church rescued them before it was too late. Don't blame others and stop relying on medication. Read how people survived the Holocaust.

      August 12, 2011 at 00:09 | Report abuse |
  6. Dr Bill Toth

    I wonder how this line of thinking might apply to vaccinations?

    August 11, 2011 at 07:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tom T.

      Yep - it does. Example: in the pre-polio vacination days, kids who grew up swiming in poluted lakes and rivers never got polio. They became imune to less virilent versions/offshoots of the polio virus. Kids in cleaner environment were usually more likely to develop the full-blown infection.

      August 11, 2011 at 10:23 | Report abuse |
    • CalgarySandy

      Polio did not start to drop out of the population, crippling or less virulent, until immunizations happened. You may want to dismiss polio as not so bad before immunization but I had the less virulent form and it was awful even though I did not end up in an iron lung or dead. There is no way to explain to people who do not remember those times what fear pervaded everyone over so many childhood and adult diseases. Your unfounded opinions, if take up by the majority, could lead to another era of terror and nasty deaths. How does your opinion deal with the millions who die in places like Africa where they are still living in muck and should have cast iron immune systems.

      August 11, 2011 at 16:16 | Report abuse |
  7. Sharp

    Didn't medicine use Bacilis subtilis as a form of therapy up into the 1930's or so? A relatively harmless germ it was used to 'Challenge' the immune system & boost immunity. Was available over the counter. Think I read this on Wikipedia. Searched for B. subtilis on the net but not to be found for sale. Also a VERY common germ in the environment. Good candidate for pro-biotics?

    August 11, 2011 at 08:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. bill

    Eat boogers.

    August 11, 2011 at 08:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Oldfortman

    I could bug up if it would keep some of my pain away.

    August 11, 2011 at 09:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Paulo

    Good radiolab podcast talking about how hookworm is a growing treatment for some autoimmune diseases. One fella intentionally infected himself and his multiple allergies and asthma symptoms disapeared. He now sell hookworms for treatment. For these type diseases, why not try some old friends? less expensive, and if they do not work they can be treated. Seems like a possible long term, low cost possiblility.

    August 11, 2011 at 09:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. BB

    I keep seeing info about the "sterile" environments we have created – has anyone considered we have created our own problems with so many big-gun antibiotics??

    August 11, 2011 at 10:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. svann

    Even assuming the article is true, Id rather what we have now than a society where average lifespan was 35 years and infant mortality was >50%.

    August 11, 2011 at 10:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • KSW

      I think the point here is to keep the bad, life-killing bacteria out/away but rediscover and reintroduce the good bacteria to our bodies.

      August 11, 2011 at 13:03 | Report abuse |
  13. ChuckG

    I don't disagree with the author about how when our immune systems are not ever being challenged, they will turn on some of us. There is another major difference between people in the late 20th century and the 19th/very early 20th century – the diet. In the 19th century the idea of "grass fed beef" would be absurd. That's all there was. Same with dairy, hogs, chickens and eggs. Somewhere in the early middle 20th century, the rise of corn and soybeans being fed to cattle, chickens, etc took hold, with big changes in the fat profile in those foods. 100% grass fed beef has much better Omega 3 levels and omega 3/omega 6 ratios. At the same time, the fat mixture that humans have eaten have also changed in the negative direction. Much more consumption of processed high Omega 6 fats and trans fats from corn oil, cottonseed oil, soy oil. It used to be that people used the fat from their pastured hog bacon, beef and chicken. The health industry pushed us in this direction, to reduce that evil cholesterol. The corporate mega farms and agra-businesses pushed in the same direction, and also testified and lobbied against anyone who would question this strategy. I think that there is a low level conspiracy of maintaining ignorance between Agra-business, the health insurance and drug/medical establishment, and the FDA/USDA to contradict any science or research that would point these contentions out. Naturally grass fed beef contains much better Omega 3 ratios, plus good levels of another healthy fat, Conjugated linoleic acids (CLA) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conjugated_linoleic_acid). Omega 3 fatty acids, especially when the ratio of omega 3/omega 6 are close to 1:1, help reduce inflammation, and thus all the diseases that come with it(the converse is that with O3/O6 ratio way out of whack, these diseases will be increased). A 1:1 O3/O6 ratio is what the Native Americans, and other hunter gathers ate in the wild meats and fish, as did all of the human population for nearly all of human history. Even the American pioneers had almost as good a diet, in terms of fat ratios. What needs to happen is much more of cattle, pigs, chickens that we eat need to be raised more naturally, and the mega-oil seed businesses need to stop shoving that nasty stuff down our throats. We should stop feeding cattle, etc. food that people could eat, and get them back out, converting grass and twigs/shrubs into good healthy human food.

    August 11, 2011 at 10:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • STJAustin

      Thank you for the well articulated response to the article. I agree with your comments and conclusions.

      August 11, 2011 at 13:43 | Report abuse |
  14. KSW

    This is why I am completely happy with my classical homeopathic remedies to help treat my allergies, depression & Fibromyalgia that have consisted of (separately) Cancer, Pine Tree, Gonorrhea, TB, Ignatius, Dog's Milk, etc. I know it sounds INSANE but they really do help and I believe they are counteracting the damage that was done by my mother's impeccably clean house when I was young.

    I would LOVE to know what bug I could "get friendly with" to get rid of my Fibro pain!!

    August 11, 2011 at 13:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. WellnessDrive

    Worms!?! Worms may be natural, but that's not the all-natural that I'd want to use. 😉 I'd rather stick with fruits and vegi's.

    Go to WellnessDrive.com to help optimize your health and take preventive measures. A good friend pointed me here years ago and I am very thankful. My family health is better than ever.

    August 11, 2011 at 13:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Sarah

    I was not raised under sanitized conditions. Was barefoot, swam in ponds and creeks and got dirty. Yet, I am allergic to everything as are my brothers and sisters. It's genetic! Thanks Dad. I also have severe depression, as did my mother and a grandmother. Genetic predisposition. And Naomi, it is a chemical problem in the brain. Would you deny insulin to a diabetic?
    We are exposed to a lot more chemicals. They are in our food, our water, our soil and our air. We use them to clean everything. Chemicals are in our copiers, computers and now it is said that cell phones aren't safe!

    August 11, 2011 at 14:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. CureAll

    Combine these natural worm fighting bacteria with the natural healing powers of Cannabis, and many things can be cured!!!!!
    Thats why they were put here, we just got to find a way to use them, be careful, Big Pharma might try to get the worms to an illegal status if it threatens their big dollars!!! Ron Paul for President!!!!

    August 11, 2011 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. doc

    OR-– You could simply smoke a joint instead.

    August 11, 2011 at 16:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • CalgarySandy

      That does not work with Pertussis. It just sets off long term and brutally hard coughing like the coughing I had anyway. I had to quit for 6 weeks and I use weed for mental health symptoms not helped by legal drugs. Codeine cough syrup did nothing at all. I am ashamed of myself that I did not keep my inoculations up to date especially as I know that the Autism lobby is willfully encouraging these diseases to come back.

      August 11, 2011 at 16:37 | Report abuse |
  19. bronxgal

    ok so I'll let the dog lick my son's face...son likes it...dog likes it...everyone's happy & healthy 🙂

    August 11, 2011 at 16:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Don

    I'm 6 months into treatment with N. americanus for severe allergies/chronic sinusitis. The effect on my disease has been remarkable. In addition, I notice a general sharpening of the mind and brighten of the spirit that was completely unexpected. I wasn't depressed before treatment, but I'm 'less depressed' now. Sort of odd, actually. I'm not sure if it is because the helminths improve mood or if I feel better because of tremendous improvement in the chronic disease.

    August 12, 2011 at 17:45 | Report abuse | Reply
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