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Alien (1979) worms parasites cleansing
Alien (1979)

The parasite cleansing trend: are there really worms living inside you?

On TikTok and podcasts, a growing movement is linking parasites in our bodies to autism, cancer and schizophrenia and recommending extreme detoxes as a cure. But is there any truth to it and where is the line between fact and fiction?

There are parasites inside of you. Controlling your sleep, your hunger, your emotions and even your thoughts… It sounds like the plot of a psychological thriller or skin-crawling sci-fi, right? From The Matrix’s infamous bug removal scene to western media’s weird obsession with leeches, an omnipresent occupation with parasites is interwoven with ideas of bodily autonomy, cleanliness and even alien occupation and pregnancy. I myself have a recurring dream where I see something slug-like moving under my skin and wake up feeling like I want to throw up. And I’m not the only one troubled by the idea that there are creatures living inside my body.

Parasite cleanses have taken over TikTok. The platform is full of dramatic videos of people undertaking DIY “detoxes” – sometimes using a mixture of herbs, sometimes a popular supplement, Paraguard – and their shocked reactions. “I have no words… I’m too grossed out to say… A massive worm,” one user tells the camera about the “parasite” that she passed minutes after dosing on Paraguard. “I’m, like, shaking. This is your sign.” The video racked up over 400,000 likes and 5,000 comments. Proponents of the practice believe that parasites are the number one overlooked cause of illness and conditions, responsible for everything from stomach issues to cancer, schizophrenia and dementia. Alexia Icenhower, a conspiracy theorist and one of the biggest names on the parasites circuit, claims that she has cured herself of stage-three kidney disease, severe allergies and autism by ridding herself of these “bio-weapons”. She advocates cleanses that include ingesting chlorine dioxide (don’t do this).

So, how and why would someone do a parasite purge? Grace McGrade, astrologer and host of the podcast Bitchcraft which has featured Icenhower several times, sets out the basic premise and technique. “I started with a very simple herbal tincture of Wormwood, Black Walnut and Clove. I took it three days before the full moon and immediately started getting die-off symptoms.” Apparently, the 60,000 different types of parasitic creatures that can be hosting off your body are lunar-orientated, and breed in the mucous lining of your stomach in the full moon. “This would explain why hospitals and jails seem to reach full capacity, and could be where we get the phrase: ‘lunar-tic’. This is why, if you are pursuing a cleanse, it’s best to start around a full moon,” says McGrade.

When I initially heard about parasites I was curious and open-minded, but with TikTok and Icenhower’s monumental remedial claims, this soon turned into a growing scepticism and concern. When I spoke to Grace she said she was also sceptical at first. “I had heard it mentioned in passing and sort of shook it off as an alt-right conspiracy theory.” Despite this, she was drawn to do a cleanse following a bad breakup when she felt the real need for inner change. “I felt like I was having thoughts that weren’t mine… I really went into it for the spiritual benefits rather than for my health. Sometimes you need something more substantial.” As I reached out to more and more people, what once sounded like back alley medical advice became more and more appealing to me.

Jemma, a medical herbalist practising on Harley Street using the Institute of Functional Medicine, immediately replied, “I love a parasite cleanse.” She outlines the three most common parasites for me – Blastocystis hominis, Giardia lamblia and Dientamoeba fragilis – and how they are often linked with abdominal pain, diarrhoea and IBS. However, she stresses the need for clinical guidance. “What concerns me most is that the influencers promoting these parasitic cleansing products are not looking at the person as an individual. The process is a multi-layered personal protocol to restore the gut’s integrity and to replenish a healthy microbiome. Jumping straight into a parasite cleanse can do far more harm than good if the individual is not educated on what they’re doing to their body.”

Skin health expert Jasmina Vico also emphasises the need to seek professional advice before embarking on intense cleanses. “I have done a parasite cleanse and yes, it is effective,” she says, explaining how there’s a type of mite called Dermodex which can feed off excess sebum in pores overloaded with sugar, wheat, dairy and yeast. She works alongside a naturopath to combat these imbalances for both the skin and overall health. “It’s never a bad idea to reduce your intake of salt, sugar, alcohol and fried foods and to give your gut and your entire system a rest,” she says. “But a regular parasite cleanse is not something I would personally recommend as part of a wellness routine.”

@kerrymcdd Day one (or should i say 5 minutes in) to my parasite cleanse and wow. #paraguardparasitecleanse ♬ original sound - Kerrymcdd

Parasite cleansing is a more extreme version of the recent cultural obsession with gut healing, where everything from olive oil to bone broth is hailed as a miracle fix to improve digestion. At the core of this phenomenon seems to be a craving for self-optimisation and intimacy, as well as a feminine shyness around bodily function and a prioritising of cleanliness. Cleanliness is judged by sensory indicators like smell but it’s also long been wrapped up in moralism (“cleanliness is next to godliness”), and ideas about purity are persuading people to pursue methods extending to inner cleanliness – from vaginal hygiene to intestinal cleanses that become dangerous.

When I was deep in my eating disorders, I fed myself the mantra that fasting was helping my cells to regenerate and that giving my body no food for long periods of time was essential to “detoxing” – when really, I was just starving myself. Whether we call it parasite cleansing or low FODMAP, what different versions of socially acceptable restrictive eating really comes down to a conditioned drive to hyper-analyse what we are putting into our bodies and what is coming out.

Many arguments for parasite cleansing hinge on the belief that modern medicine wants to keep us sick and that they are a part of indigenous practices that have been lost in the west. An Indigenous Paraguayan woman, who now lives in the US, explained in a TikTok, “In my culture, there is a parasitic cleanse done every three to six months religiously.” However, Dr Dash Pankhania discredits this direct transplanting of a traditional approach, arguing that it is taking these ancient practices out of context. 

“Some of these practices do have some science and evidence to them; but without the rigorous clinical trials and testing they should not be routinely offered or recommended,” she says. While parasites are present in varying degrees worldwide, she explains, they are only really endemic to tropical latitudes. There is also no solid medicinal research to back up the use of DIY methods like wormwood, which can cause seizures and kidney failure, or papaya seeds, which can contain cyanide and impair fertility.

So, what about the promise of worms coming out of your skin, your poo, and feeling rapid change in mental and physical states? Well, bluntly, a lot of it is probably just placebo. “Many parasites are actually microscopic and would not be visible in the toilet bowl,” says Dr Pankhania. “People aren’t typically accustomed to looking in great detail at their stool – but these cleanses encourage this and so undigested foods or mucus may be confused as ‘worms.’” 

The parasite cleanse trend is taking off most in the US, a country where healthcare is inextricably linked to profit and ideologies around status, wealth, race and class. Wellness – especially white, female wellness – has become increasingly about businesses capitalising on the lack of control women have over their bodies and offering cheaper, DIY alternatives when millions don’t have health insurance. As healthcare becomes harder to access, companies and influencers are recognizing an opportunity to use the DIY internet wellness space as an avenue for touting vague benefits for products with no scientific backing. “These cleanses are treating a problem people may not even have,” Dr Pankhania tells me. 

While the idea of buying some supplements off Amazon and ridding myself of everything from my depression to thoughts about my ex honestly sounds very appealing, the risk of damaging my body because of a TikTok wellness trend that will be irrelevant in a few months is not. The overarching conclusion is, to seek help from a licensed medical professional. Even if you want to see a giant worm on your poo.