Christina Hall is Doing a "Parasite Cleanse"—is it Safe and Should You Do It?
Flip or Flop star Christina Hall says she is doing a parasite cleanse due to having "an abnormal amount of gut bacteria." Hall, 39, says she can "definitely feel it working" after a quantum biofeedback machine test indicated she had high levels of mercury and lead poisoning. "I did an expensive, super extensive panel and I got all my results back," she explains. "It tests for like 100 different types of molds, metals and bacterias, and my highest level of toxicity came back as an abnormal amount of gut bacteria, which is like SIBO [small intestine bacteria overgrowth] and also parasites. So those are my biggest conditions. I have a little bit of heavy metals going on too, so I'm on a cleanse and a parasite cleanse. I heard it gets worse before it gets better. It's pretty brutal but I'm hoping at the end I feel good."
A parasite cleanse is any supplement, detox product or diet designed to remove parasites and parasitic infections from the body. They are becoming increasingly popular thanks to social media trends such as viral TikToks, where detox sellers and user testimonials tout the benefits of these cleanses. The idea is parasites can be eliminated by removing their food source: heavy metals. But are they effective—or even safe? Most doctors and other experts are highly skeptical about the efficacy of these cleanses, and warn against giving them to young children.
"Parasitic infections definitely occur in the US, but the people suffering from parasitic infections tend to have symptoms that warrant workup, diagnosis, and in most cases, treatment," says Dr. Rabia De Latour, Assistant Professor of Medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. "Routine empiric parasitic cleanses in someone without symptoms are not based on any evidence. Most parasitic infections are spread from contaminated food or water, and risk can increase with international travel to endemic regions, so if you are concerned about this, you should seek help from a medical professional for potential treatment." While some cleanses may have benefits—for example, helping treat conditions such as heartburn—this is likely due to ingredients such as ginger or turmeric. Otherwise, there is no evidence parasite cleanses work.
"Social media is a very powerful tool, and a lot of people on it are really savvy," says Dr. Selvi Rajagopal, practicing gastroenterologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine. "There's been a lot of desperation, particularly after the pandemic, for people to find the next best cure that's going to fix all of their problems and protect them. Where there's fear and insecurity, there are always people that want attention, want to make money, whatever it is, that come out with these things. They're preying on people's lack of knowledge and understanding. It's frustrating."
The good news is that there are scientifically proven ways to support gut health—and it doesn't have to include highly expensive supplements. Here are five ways to show your microbiome some love. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.
Why Is the Microbiome Important?
The gut microbiome is crucial for many aspects of health and wellness including a robust immune system, nutrition, producing important vitamins, and human development. An out-of-kilter microbiome can lead to health conditions such as autoimmune diseases. "Those of us who study the gut microbiota often refer to it as the 'forgotten organ,'" says medical oncologist Marcel van den Brink, MD, PhD. "It can have a huge impact on a person's health. Some microbes are associated with disease. Others are important for good health. Most microbiome research has focused on the microbiota in the gut, but some scientists are studying the microbiome in other parts of the body as well. It's an exciting time.
"Advances in DNA sequencing technology and computational biology over the past decade have dramatically boosted scientists' ability to analyze and observe changes in the gut microbiota and the overall microbiome. This technology gives us a much better picture of what's happening inside the body. And we are starting to look at how we may be able to build therapies around our understanding of the microbiota."
Diet Is Key
What you eat (and don't eat!) has a significant impact on your gut health. "Here is yet another reason to eat fresh, whole foods," says registered nurse and certified diabetes educator Elisabeth Almekinder. "Barley, oats, quinoa, bulger, and other whole grains have fiber that we need to bulk up our intestines and help things to move through. Whole grains then become a type of feed for the bacteria inhabiting the microbiome. It may sound strange that we have all these minute bacteria floating around in there, but they keep things running smoothly. Eating more whole grains has been shown to increase the types and numbers of bacteria in our gut. The same is true of nuts, so pick up a variety of walnuts, pecans, pistachios or almonds, remembering that a serving is what fits into the palm of your hand. Whole, fresh vegetables, beans and legumes, and a variety of fresh fruits serve as nutrition for the bacteria in our gut. Shop your local farmers market for fresh, whole foods in season and prepare your microbiome for your locale."
What about probiotic supplements? "Many stores sell probiotics that claim to heal or restore your microbiota," says Dr. van den Brink. "But we don't know enough about the microbiota to know all the species that are needed for a healthy balance. Also, the over-the-counter probiotic supplements that are currently sold do not contain the types of strains that are the most important contributors to the gut microbiota, called anaerobic bacteria. For people whose immune systems are suppressed, including those recovering from stem cell and bone marrow transplants (BMTs), these probiotic products may actually be harmful. You should always talk to your doctor before taking a probiotic."
Gut Health and the Immune System
A healthy gut is important for immune health, experts say. "There is a strong connection between the microbiome and the immune system, our natural way of fighting disease," says Dr. van den Brink. "The microbiome plays a fundamental role in training the immune system, and likewise, the immune system keeps the microbiome in balance. Inflammation triggered by the immune system is strongly linked to many common conditions, including heart disease, some neurological conditions, and certain types of cancer. That's why it's important to study the relationships between the microbiota and the immune system. Our findings could also help understand the causes of some autoimmune diseases as well as to learn how people respond to vaccines.
"Some researchers are studying how the microbiota may directly influence the formation of cancer. We already know that certain microbes contribute to cancer. For example, the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes many cancers of the cervix, anus, and head and neck. The bacteria Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) has been implicated in many stomach cancers. It's possible there are other connections we don't yet know about."
Avoid Unnecessary Antibiotics
Antibiotics can majorly disrupt gut bacteria, experts warn. The development of antibiotics was a breakthrough in medicine," says Sophie Fessl, PhD. "But while they can save lives, they have a dark side. Microbes resistant to the drugs were responsible for more than one million deaths in 2019, according to a study published earlier this year  in The Lancet. Furthermore, a growing number of studies are finding that even a short course of antibiotics can alter the makeup of the bacterial species in the gut. These community changes can be profound, with some people's microbiomes taxonomically resembling those of critically ill ICU patients after taking the drugs. And the microbes that survive the treatment tend to carry resistance genes, potentially enabling pathogens to acquire the means to evade our best pharmacological weapons."
Antibiotic resistance genes (called antibiotic scarring) can cause long-term gut health issues. "When you take antibiotics, some bacteria in the network disappear [and] the others overgrow, so the balance is different," says Francisco Guarner, a digestive system researcher at the University Hospital Vall d'Hebron in Barcelona. "In this new balance, what you gain are bacteria that are more resistant to antibiotics."
Prebiotics and Probiotics
Prebiotic and probiotic food make your gut bacteria very happy. "Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain live microorganisms intended to maintain or improve the 'good' bacteria (normal microflora) in the body," says Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. "Prebiotics are foods (typically high-fiber foods) that act as food for human microflora. Prebiotics are used with the intention of improving the balance of these microorganisms. Probiotics are in foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut. Prebiotics are in foods such as whole grains, bananas, greens, onions, garlic, soybeans and artichokes. In addition, probiotics and prebiotics are added to some foods and available as dietary supplements.
"Research is ongoing into the relationship of the gut microflora to disease. The health benefits of currently available probiotics and prebiotics have not been conclusively proved.
However, side effects are rare, and most healthy adults can safely add foods that contain prebiotics and probiotics to their diets. Future research may lead to advanced probiotics with greater potential to improve health. If you're considering taking supplements, check with your doctor to be sure they're right for you."