Parasites are another common cause of IBS symptoms and should be discussed. These symptoms can include diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, cramps, nausea, poor digestion, fatigue, muscle aches, bleeding, rectal itching, and abdominal pain.
Parasites cannot live without you. You provide them living space and food, but unlike friendly bacteria, parasites do nothing for you in return. They only act against you. They vary in size from the very tiny, which can be seen only under a microscope, to inches long. Some can find their way into just about any area of the body, but most are found only in the digestive tract.
The severity of your symptoms and the amount of damage they cause varies depending on the parasite involved, the number of parasites, and the level of resistance your body has.
Parasites damage the body in a number of ways, by absorbing nutrients that you need and by directly damaging your digestive tract; and, if they are capable of migrating, possibly damaging other areas of your body as well. They often reproduce rapidly and by the thousands, and are easily spread to other people. Unfortunately, a strong population of good bacteria does little to protect you from parasites.
Parasites are more common than generally believed. Although most Americans consider them to be a Third-World problem, they infect millions of Americans – even those who never leave the country or drink from mountain streams (a common source of the parasite Giardia). We live in a global community. Parasites enter this country every day through the importation of contaminated foods and seemingly innocent products such as clay pottery. It is true that many common parasites are native to the tropics, where it is warm and humid. But the fruits and vegetables we import from these warm countries can be a source of parasitic contamination, affecting every area of the United States. However, because of the misperception that parasites are not an American problem, they have often been overlooked as a possible cause of digestive illnesses.
Entamoeba hystolytica, a relatively common parasite, infects up to 50 million people worldwide each year, and results in up to 100,000 deaths. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, approximately 50% of children have signs of exposure to this parasite by age five.
Closer to home, one of the largest recorded outbreaks of a waterborne parasitic infestation occurred in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1993. The city’s water supply became contaminated with the parasite Cryptosporidium, which causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and nausea. Over 400,000 people became ill; 4,000 were hospitalized and over 100 died. Although Milwaukee’s water was treated with chlorine, chlorine doesn’t kill Cryptosporidium.
The possibility of parasites must be considered when assessing the cause of your IBS. A parasite infection can usually be diagnosed by proper stool testing, and is usually readily treatable.
For more information about testing for parasites view our DNA Microbial Profile page.
Dr. Stephen Wangen is the award winning author of two books on solving digestive disorders, and a nationally recognized speaker on IBS. He has been on ABC, NBC, and Fox as well as public radio. He was recently named one of Seattle’s Top Doctors by Seattle Magazine.