it may be icky to contemplate, but we are -- all of us -- walking, talking safe havens for feasting freeloaders. Our bodies, one-person ecosystems, may harbour happy populations of one-celled protozoa, lengthy, sinuous worms or hundreds of creatures in between.When it comes to parasite treatments, there seem to be different takes. Medical doctors and some holistic types think the beasties have been around as long as we have and that we're adapted to living with them. They only start to worry when a virulent bug shows up. Others tend to think it best to minimize all infestations. They link your inner critters to allergies, insomnia, digestive disturbances and -- in a controversial and unproven theory -- cancer.
From their concerns a minor industry has been spawned that focuses on the marketing of anti-parasitic herbs. Medical doctors say these remedies aren't backed by research evidence. Holistic types who aren't obsessed with parasites say the potions do work but that they're potentially toxic to humans as well as to the beasties, and that the worst of them is wormwood.
Don't take these herbs just because you read a tract on the evils of parasites. Make sure you have a reliable diagnosis -- three stool samples -- and that you are under supervision. Some labs in the States test to see which drugs or herbs are most effective against your parasites.
To keep your menagerie in check, lather hands after you use the loo, wash up before handling food or if you've been hanging with your dog or cat, and avoid pet kisses on the mouth. When travelling in Third World countries, carry packages of pre-wet washcloths and sprinkle grapefruit extract on everything you munch.
"Just because you have a parasite doesn't mean treatment is necessary. A few types may cause big problems, but usually, as long as the host immune system is good, they don't cause harm. If you go to the doctor and you've got headaches, fever or belly pain and they find a parasite, is the parasite causing those problems? Maybe yes, maybe no. I can tell you if a particular parasite causes those problems. I have no argument that herbal medication helps some people. Does it necessarily get rid of the parasites? I've asked people who sell this stuff to show me scientific information, but all I've gotten is testimonials that "so-and-so' felt better."
JAY KEYSTONE, MD, expert in parasitology, professor of medicine, U of T
"Too many people are on anti-parasitic herbs. Wormwood is very strong and can affect the nervous system. Use only under somebody's care. It's better to use it in a homeopathic dose. A clove of garlic every night for a few weeks is a good anti-parasitic. For giardia I've used fenugreek tea, 3 cups daily gets rid of it. Boil 1 or 2 teaspoons of seeds per cup of water for 20 minutes, then drink the tea and eat the seeds. Don't sweeten it."
SUSAN EAGLES, herbalist
"Wormwood is famous for having poisoned Van Gogh. Thujone is the poisonous principle in wormwood -- 3 to 12 per cent, depending on the strain and the particular dose. Only somebody who is really qualified should be giving it. A lot of people in alternative medicine believe parasites are a problem, but cancer rates do not correspond to high parasitic infection rates. Rates are high in industrialized countries; Third World countries where parasitic infections are more common have the lowest rate."
RALPH W. MOSS, founder, www. cancerdecisions.com, member of Cancer Advisory Panel on Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the U.S. National Institute of Health
"Although there are no scientific studies proving their effectiveness, wormwood, quassia, black walnut and male fern have all been used for centuries to control parasites. We can't afford the millions of dollars for a particular study. We've heard a lot of amazing stories about the products. The important thing about our wormwood combination is that it's a balanced formula. It is effective on parasites while not making the host sick from the herbs themselves. We never recommend anyone taking wormwood by itself, especially in any alcohol-based tincture."
RICHARD CUMMINGS, Kroeger Herb Products
"It's important to diagnose whether a person has a parasite. You take a history and a lab test, and the better ones are in the States. Herbs like wormwood or male fern are toxic and shouldn't be self-prescribed. They shouldn't be used by breast-feeding or pregnant women. You have to follow with a laxative to expel parasites, and some people don't handle this well."
PAUL SAUNDERS, chair of Materia Medica, Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine