Old Friends We’ve Left Behind

As I mentioned last week, Dr. Kurt Harris unleashed some information that kinda rocked the Paleo world. I’m going to discuss it today, but before I get to that…

A few disclaimers.

  1. I am not good at the sciencey-science. I do not fully understand the ins-and-outs of this crap. Do not rely on me for understanding of this topic on that level. If you do, you will be sorely disappointed and embarrassed when someone calls you out on it. Please consider this an invitation to a discussion of the issues and ramifications of Harris’s contribution.
  2. As Harris frequently mentions, self-treating with anything of this nature is dangerous and potentially life-threatening. Any actions you undertake are expressly your own and you do so at your own peril.

With that loveliness out of the way…shall we?

Definitions and Basics

Before I send you off to read this thread (if you haven’t already, and be sure to read all the comments both for informative and entertainment purposes), let’s parse some of those ten-cent words being thrown around.

Don't you wish.

Helminths – A parasitic worm; a fluke, tapeworm, or nematode.

Commensal – An organism participating in a symbiotic relationship in which one species derives some benefit while the other is unaffected.

Pseudocommensal – Okay, someone correct me if I’m wrong, because this is a new term. But from what I gather, a pseudocommensal is an organism that does not necessarily stick around in a human, but was constantly present in our intestines historically due to its ubiquity in soil and tainted water. For more on that, check this out.

Specific types of these organisms are on the list of so-called Old Friends, organisms once common in humans and now missing in modern urbanized people due to hygiene and sanitation measures (see here for more on the Hygiene Hypothesis). Graham Rook is a leading researcher in this area, and here’s a good start to getting acquainted.

The Gist

Most of us already know that diet isn’t the only part of modern life conspiring against our ancient genes. We’re told to get sunshine, move around more, get some sleep, and reduce stress—all good stuff. But nowhere will you see the advice to play with farm animals, eat dirt, walk around barefoot, and drink unfiltered water from streams.

There are a few reasons for this. One is that it could kill you. And another is that it might be too late for us.

In the past, most of us would’ve been colonized long ago as babies and toddlers. First of all, we would’ve been born with a vaginal delivery and breastfed exclusively, without exception. Those that weren’t, I’m sad to say, probably died. (I feel the need to point out here that this is not commentary or judgment of anyone out there who was born/raised differently or who has had a C-section or who had to feed their children with formula for whatever reasons. Just stating the facts, ma’am.) Secondly, toddlers put everything into their mouths for good reason. Okay, sometimes there’s no good reason and sometimes it’s a terrible idea depending on the object, but in the past, this probably conferred some sort of benefit. And I think we’re circling around what exactly was that benefit.

In addition, our meat wasn’t irradiated and we probably gained all sorts of fun wormies and squigglies from our animal foods. Our water didn’t come from some treatment plant. We didn’t have refrigeration or sterilization processes. We didn’t quarantine people with illnesses. We didn’t scour everything, including ourselves, with antibacterial soap. There’s no doubt that some of these modernizations have saved lives and others from serious illness, but the time has come to understand that nothing comes without consequences, especially when we start messing around in evolution’s territory.

You may already know that our human cells are outnumbered by bacteria in/on our body, by this account at a 10:1 ratio. As that article states, we don’t yet know what bearing this has on human health. The research in this area will be fascinating in the years to come. For example, check out this study about toxoplasmosis infection and how it affects human behavior, differently for both men and women. Amazing. When we consider this simple example, as far as I’m concerned, all bets are off about what we think we know about anything. And then, the possibility that our very own mitochondria— the organelles responsible for energy production, signaling, and cell death—could have once been free-living bacteria that were subsumed into the cells that gave rise to mammals…I mean…my mind is just blown. This is not a topic to be taken lightly.

Yeah, that’s great. So what.

Chances are you came to Paleo to fix something. Whether it was a weight issue, autoimmune condition, digestive trouble, acne, allergies, or other health concern, you’ve probably found some significant relief eating real food. But be honest—are you cured? For me, my weight has stabilized, but I continue to have minor eczema, IBS, and acne flare-ups. I feel fortunate that these are indeed minor and not something more serious that would cause me to go crazy seeking relief.

Check any Paleo message board, be it Mark’s Daily Apple or Paleo Hacks, and you’ll soon see the myriad questions and concerns that Paleo folks continue to have. As Harris pointed out in the comments of the Band-Aid thread, there are people eating a perfect Paleo diet and still experiencing trouble. That alone points to something larger happening behind the scenes.

So what. Eating Paleo is a good band-aid.

True, it helps, no doubt. Even if everyone were perfectly healthy we shouldn’t be eating the garbage Nabisco shills as food. No one is advocating a return to that.

Can't say I wouldn't.

But here’s a question for you: If you could happily and without worry eat a slice (or four) of pizza hot off the wood-fired oven’s bricks in Naples, wouldn’t you want that? Or a real, honest-to-goodness birthday cake that wouldn’t make you wish you’d died instead of aching all week?

Because here’s where Paleo has it (potentially) all wrong. Gluten isn’t necessarily evil. Lectins aren’t necessarily evil. There’s no evil anywhere. It’s merely our bodies’ crazy reaction to something in its environment, and gluten just happens to be one of those things. There is a long list of inflammatory ailments that could be eased with treatments aimed at restoring these critters to their rightful place in our systems.

This was big for me because when I first began to see the world through a Paleo lens, suddenly it explained a lot. I felt like I had stopped looking through a microscope at the world. This immune system piece made me zoom out even more, beyond Paleo, to an even more holistic view of humans on earth living in interesting times.



Shit, Dude.


What can I do?

Unfortunately, not much.

As I mentioned above, first of all, undertaking any action on your own is a fool’s errand. Secondly, this is still experimental. Thirdly, it involves putting worms on your skin. Ew. Note that even with therapy, “cure” isn’t exactly what happens. Remission is the best case scenario and the therapy may need to be repeated to continue enjoying the benefits.

But this is seriously promising stuff. Check out Wiki’s helminthic therapy page:

Current research and available therapy are targeted at, or available for, the treatment of Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), multiple sclerosis, asthma, eczema, dermatitis, hay fever and food allergies.

I haven’t looked into it thoroughly, but from a cursory search, access to such therapies appears to be limited. I won’t link to what I found, but attempting to obtain said therapy currently involves $4000-$8000 dollars plus a trip to Tijuana. But maybe this will change in the near future.

Take off your shoes and start stomping.

However, I did find this man’s tale of traveling to Cameroon and walking around barefoot in open outdoor latrines. So, you know. Have at it. (Please note I do not endorse the link on this page to a clinic. Again, please refer to disclaimer.)

So sit tight, kiddos. I expect there will be more news on this in the future. If it’s as promising as it sounds, relief for sufferers can’t come soon enough.

What the heck does Buddha have to do with all this?!


14 Responses to “Old Friends We’ve Left Behind”

  1. Great post, Karen, on so many levels. Keep up the great work!

  2. I think you’re right, and I think Harris has a point. That’s an underwhelming comment, I know.
    My road came through WAPF and – like Chris Kresser – I never gave up on bone broths or ferments. I have written about the mysogyny of paleo’s focus on bloody red meat, and how the CrossFit studs are cherry-picking the evolutionary milieu to support that. I did a lot of reading on autoimmune triggers because they’re relevant to a family member, and became even more convinced that “the germ is nothing; the terrain is everything”, and more specifically the early-life terrain.
    Then I started gearing up to get pregnant again. Paleo’s got nuthin’ for that; it’s all Price. And there are some incompatibilities. With morning sickness’s requirement for bland, cold food I found bread and cheese back on my plate and you know what? I’m not dead. I’m not even in pain. So maybe Melissa’s experience isn’t impossible. Maybe GAPS’ promises could come true. Despite her current … direction, maybe Cheeseslave’s (earlier) protocol has merit. No one’s saying that a band-aid on a burst blister is a bad idea.
    What no one seems to be able to convincingly answer for me now is what I can do to set my progeny up right. My guts will likely never be totally fixed (I am dependant on BioKult) but Chelo’s suggestion of doing GAPS intro right before birth makes sense. EBF+coconut water kefir is on the list. But dirt? How pathetic is it that I can honestly say I’d have trouble finding real (unsprayed, unsanitised, living) dirt? I’ll never forget the Malian kid in Babies finding a dirt and dog poop-covered bone and chewing on it. Despite all the immunisations and adrenal stress, perhaps my travels have counteracted a childhood detrimental to gut flora. But do I really have to dig a latrine to save my kids from IBS?

    • Awesome comment, thanks so much for taking the time!

      I agree with you, where do we go from here? Just from the little bit of poking around I did, there seems to be building momentum for access to these therapies. I mean, it’s hard to deny lots of suffering people a treatment that has low risk, few side effects, and a complete remission free from harmful drugs. I’m guessing drug companies are already figuring out a way to profit from it.

      Allowing our kids to get dirty is one obvious thing to do. But it sounds like there are specific organisms that confer specific benefits that can’t be found in dirt around these parts. I mean, if a guy has to travel to Africa at danger to himself and his health and stomp around in human feces, we’re in trouble.

      If I had to wager a guess, these therapies will become available and we will all inoculate ourselves every five years or so. And then we’ll discover the unintended consequences of that too. :)

      • Hey, koala mothers feed their joeys their poop, and we deworm our dogs every 6 months; why do so few people think this stuff applies to humans? I’m ardently hoping that a seasonal garden and the odd farm/pond visit will prevent my littles from needing the poo-stomping therapy!

      • (ps: “I’ma be blunt”? LOL! -> “NAD? I dona think it means wha you think it means”)

  3. As usual, you do an excellent job of making the science interesting!

    My friend from high school uses hookworms to treat her severe food allergies. She has a blog: worms.michellerowley.com

  4. When in Naples, eat the pizza!
    I never felt better than when I was eating (real) Italian food. They are doing something right over there.
    Good post, though. I grew up playing in water, mud, and bayous. I still jump in and get dirty as often as I can.

  5. Living in Africa, I was regularly “dewormed.” And it wasn’t pretty. Some ridiculous pharmaceutical all the folks in eastern africa are taking after swimming, etc.

    • Wow, you know, I’m guessing there may very well be damned good reasons. But when our guts may take 2 years to recover from such a pharmaceutical, are we trading one problem for another? I don’t think we know yet. :/ The implications for this stuff are huge and far-reaching. The research really does promise to be fascinating.


  1. Old Friends We’ve Left Behind | Paleo Digest - 04/11/2012

    […] sites on the web!Old Friends We’ve Left Behind The Paleo Periodical / Posted on: April 11, 2012The Paleo Periodical – As I mentioned last week, Dr. Kurt Harris unleashed some information that kinda rocked the […]

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