A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

How Far Would You Go for Allergy Relief?

by Kristin Misik   

After such a harsh winter, the arrival of spring couldn’t be more welcome. But for seasonal allergy sufferers, the bloom of spring is a double-edged sword. It’s hard to enjoy the warm sunshine on your face, a gentle breeze on your skin, and the sights and sounds of life being reborn, when you are plagued with an onslaught of sneezing, itching, burning eyes and wheezing lungs.

A healthy gut has a wide variety of beneficial microflora.
A 20-year allergy sufferer myself, I’m no stranger to how these symptoms can rob you of the joys of spring. There are plenty of treatment options for spring allergy symptoms, both conventional and alternative: over-the-counter antihistamines, prescription steroids, homeopathic remedies, neti pot cleanses, acupuncture, herbs, bee pollen, colon cleanses, elimination diets—the list goes on. 

As an acupuncturist for the past 15 years, I am inclined to use holistic and natural methods to achieve relief from the ragweed that torments me every spring. I’m willing to go to relatively extreme lengths to avoid prescription or over-the-counter medication, despite my success with antihistamines.

The use of bugs; animal excrement, tissue, and secretions; as well as human tissue (placenta, hair), all have therapeutic benefits in traditional Chinese herbal medicine. I was recommending that women consume their placenta postpartum long before you could find recipes on the internet or local encapsulation services. 

Until a few months ago, drinking my own urine is about the only therapy I wouldn’t consider unless I was completely desperate. That is, until I met Arthur. Back in December, I was on a bus ride into Manhattan when I started chatting with Arthur, a Hudson Valley resident, who, after a lengthy conversation, revealed he had hookworms living in his intestines. He acquired them on purpose, as a therapy. Although this information was somewhat revolting to me, I was simultaneously totally fascinated.

After pressing Arthur for additional details, he told me that he is host to a total of 185 human hookworms (Ascaris lumbricoides). He traveled to England to procure the microscopic hookworm larvae, which are applied transdermally (patch to the skin). This practice is referred to as helminthic therapy—the introduction of parasitic worm larvae into the body to help regulate an overly reactive immune system. 

Prior to helminthic treatment, Arthur suffered severe and extreme allergy symptoms, which were progressively worsening year after year. He finally reached the point of desperation when taking maximum doses of nonsteroidal antihistamine medications was no longer proving effective and he was forced to stay indoors for all of spring and half of fall. 

Arthur made the decision to undergo helminthic therapy after years of research, ultimately concluding that hookworms were better than the alternative: a lifetime of taking serious prescription drugs with diminishing efficacy and unknown longterm effects. As Arthur sees it, we have been living with parasites for hundreds of thousands of years, so the risks and long-term effects are known. The same cannot be said of manufactured drugs.

It is true that we have co-evolved with parasites, bacteria, and viruses since the dawn of humankind. It is only in the developed world that we have eliminated human and animal exposure to certain classes of bacteria and germs. There are various theories as to why immune-mediated response conditions like asthma, allergies, type I diabetes, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and many more, are on the rise worldwide. 

One such explanation is the Hygiene Theory, which hypothesizes that the changes in lifestyle that happen as the result of living in an industrialized or developed country have decreased our exposure to infectious organisms. This reduced exposure has changed our microbiota (the ecological community of symbiotic and disease-causing microorganisms that share our body-space).

Due to these changes in our microbiota, our bodies are losing the ability to discriminate between what is harmful and what is not. Innocuous things like dust, pollen, cat dander, and gluten are triggering unnecessary immune responses. The dysregulation of the immune system moves so far along the spectrum that the body starts attacking itself. 

In undeveloped parts of the world, human hookworms are contracted passively by walking barefoot within four feet of human feces. The hookworm larvae live in the stool, and once they touch the surface of the skin, they wiggle their way into the body. After a long journey through various systems of the body, they eventually set up shop in the intestinal wall where they siphon off blood from the human host. 

There is no question hookworms can be dangerous and are potentially unsafe for certain groups of people: pregnant women, people with iron deficiencies, people with a diet low in protein and iron, children, and the elderly. Millions of people worldwide are infected with hookworms. According to a study done by the World Health Organization in 2002, hookworms kill 3,000 people annually In the tropics they afflict hundreds of thousands with anemia (presumably due to a dangerous parasitic load).

Experimental studies in the U.K. have found that a therapeutic hookworm load is somewhere in the range of 100 to 300 in an otherwise healthy adult. It takes time and a number of blood tests to determine what is the best number of hookworms for each person in order for the body to respond appropriately without causing anemia or protein deficiency. Hookworms lay eggs in the body, but the eggs need to be exposed to air to mature. So as long as a person uses standard facilities (read toilet), the eggs never have a chance to mature and thus the level of hookworms in the body does not increase.

As discoveries have been made about what makes us sick, like germs, and we have established methods of protection from harmful pathogens, it is highly likely that our interventions have triggered a cascade of unforeseeable consequences. The things we consider necessary, hygienic, and even life-saving—sewage treatment facilities, Cesarean-section births, antibacterial soap, and antibiotics—are all changing our microbiota, likely to our detriment.

Using live hookworms is too controversial for therapeutic use in the US. It seems researchers are more interested in isolating the molecules which change the immune system as a result of helminthic therapy, rather than considering the organisms themselves as a practical solution. I don’t expect helminthic therapy will be legal stateside any time in the foreseeable future. But for the bold (and desperate) England is not that far a trip.