Helminths and Heart Health

I spent my weekend working on an article on helminths for the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).  In going back through my binders full of 17+ years of research on helminths, I stumbled across an article I had completely forgotten about:  “Can worms defend our hearts?  Chronic helminthic infections may attenuate cardiovascular diseases.”[i]

The authors propose the hypothesis, based upon what we know about the immune and infections mechanisms of atherosclerosis, that chronic exposure to helminths may have “…a significant bearing on the epidemiology of cardiovascular diseases.”  They propose 5 potential mechanisms of action:

  1. Helminths evoke an immune response that leads to an increase in regulatory cytokine levels, thereby reducing inflammation.
  2. Helminths stimulate a chronic Th2 activation, and the subsequent modification of certain cytokines can affect various viruses associated with cardiovascular involvement, including cytomegalovirus.
  3. This stimulation may also modulate the movement of immune cells to inflammatory sites, including arterial plaques.
  4. The immune modulation (the upregulation of regulatory cytokines and the downregulation of pro-inflammatory ones) afforded by helminths my attenuate initial atherosclerosis development.
  5. Helminths may reduce plasma LDL.

As this article dates back to 2005, I was curious to see if their theory that helminth exposure reduces LDL had been subsequently confirmed.  I found several recent articles, including one[ii] from 2014, which state that indeed, lower levels of triglycerides and LDL are associated with helminth infections.

One[iii] of the references cited in the Wiria, et. al. article caught my eye.  These researchers studied 319 cadavers of people who had been infected with a particular helminth, Opisthorchis felineus (which is a liver fluke  native to cats).  The scientists assessed worm burden in the livers, and discovered that the greater the infection, the less likely aortic atherosclerosis.  They conclude, “Opisthorchis felineus chronic helminthic infections was found to be associated with lower serum total cholesterol levels and a significant attenuation of atherosclerosis.”

So, my thinking is that with Valentine’s Day only 2 weeks away, what better present can you give your loved one than intestinal worms?  Talk about a gift that comes from (and for) the heart!

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[i] Magen, E, Borkow, G, Bentwich, Z, Mishal, J, Scharf, S. Can worms defend our hearts? Chronic helminthic infections may attenuate the development of cardiovascular diseases. Medical Hypothesis. 2005;64(5):904-9.

[ii] Wiria AE, Sartono E, Supali T, Yazdanbakhsh M (2014) Helminth Infections, Type-2 Immune Response, and Metabolic Syndrome. PLoS Pathog 10(7): e1004140. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1004140

[iii] Magen E, Bychkov V, Ginovker A, Kashuba E (2013) Chronic Opisthorchis felineus infection attenuates atherosclerosis – An autopsy study. Int J Parasitol 43: 819–824 doi:10.1016/j.ijpara.2013.04.008.


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