A common parasite that changes your brain chemistry may be the missing link in everything from road rage to depression – and even autism and neurodegenerative diseases.
Amelia loved growing her own vegetables, without the use of chemicals and pesticides. Dirt under her fingernails was a sign of a life well-lived in her opinion, and there was nothing better than snacking on snap beans while she worked. But once a stray cat started coming around and using her garden as a litter box, everything changed.
Soon after the cat started coming around, Amelia came down with what she thought was a summer flu. Fatigue, fever, headache, body aches, and swollen glands plagued her for more than a month, then slowly started going away. She wasn’t able to get out in the garden much but didn’t mind because she didn’t have the energy anymore. It wasn’t long before she lost interest in gardening altogether, as well as other activities she loved, and eventually was diagnosed with depression.
Being naturally-minded, Amelia looked for alternatives to medications for her depression. In her research, she discovered toxoplasmosis, a common parasite that is spread through cat feces, eating unwashed fruits and vegetables, or undercooked meat and shellfish, might be the cause of her depression. She asked her doctor for a blood test and it was positive.
Toxoplasmosis: The Hidden Enemy Within
Toxoplasmosis is one of the most common parasite infections in humans, with over 40 million Americans currently infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). After the initial infection – which may act like flu, food poisoning, or be totally asymptomatic – this parasite travels to brain and muscle tissue where it forms into cysts and can stay, undetected, for the rest of your life.
Previously, toxoplasmosis was thought to live in your tissues long-term and cause no harm, but it may actually be the missing link in many mental health disorders. Decades of research has been done into the behavioral connection to even a mild infection with toxoplasmosis, linking this parasite to depression, anxiety, impulsivity, anger, aggression, rage, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, epilepsy, autism, neurodegenerative diseases, and even certain cancers. And mice have only recently shown us how this could be happening.
It’s Not All In Your Head
It’s a common misconception that all mental illness originates in the brain. The truth is, our microbiome – the collection of microorganisms living inside of us – sends and receives messages to and from our digestive and nervous systems, and makes 90 percent of the neurotransmitters that determine our moods and mental health. All it takes is one bad bug – like toxoplasma – to upset the whole balance and change our moods, mental health, and even our personalities.
Toxoplasma is the reason pregnant women are advised not to handle a cat’s litter box – infection with it can cause severe neurological problems in the developing fetus. Cats are the only known host in which this parasite can reproduce, and they shed the eggs into whatever they use as their litter box. Once you or your food touches that cat litter or contaminated soil, these microscopic eggs pass on to you. If you don’t wash yourself or your food well, or contaminated meat and shellfish are undercooked, the parasite eggs live and you become infected, and this infection does travel to the fetus in a pregnant woman.
Biologically, it’s the same with mice, but researchers noticed something interesting – once a mouse is infected with toxoplasmosis, it’s no longer afraid of its most notorious predator, the cat. This greatly benefits the toxoplasma parasite, because the infected mouse is eaten by the cat – the only known host where this parasite can reproduce and continue its life cycle. Researchers from the University of Leeds discovered what’s behind their strange behavior, and it begins to explain why toxoplasmosis affects human behavior so dramatically.
Once you are infected through your digestive system, this parasite quickly goes to work on your nervous by changing the way your brain sends and receives signals, by altering the quantities of over 300 proteins needed for those signals. One of the signals interrupted involves glutamate, and malfunctions in this area of signal processing are associated with depression, schizophrenia, and autism.
The changes to your brain metabolism don’t end there. Not only do these immune reactions increase inflammation and change the messages going to your brain, it also changes the levels of one very important neurotransmitter – dopamine. Researchers found this parasite dramatically increases your dopamine levels, which changes how you control movement and behavior, regulate emotional responses, and increases stimulation to your pleasure-seeking and reward centers, much like addictive substances do. The increase in dopamine explains why the mice were no longer afraid of their cat predators, and may shed light on disorders like schizophrenia, ADHD, autism, and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.
What You Can Do To Support Your Moods and Mental Health
Not everyone finds their answers as quickly as Amelia did; many people are never tested for Toxoplasmosis or even realize they could’ve been exposed. And once it dives into deeper tissues like the brain and muscles, it may not be detected on a blood test, but still may be causing inflammation and wreaking havoc on your nervous system. Fortunately, there are ways to support your brain and your body to reduce inflammation and parasite infection:
- Cleanse Your Microbiome. It only takes one “bad apple” but the truth is there may be more than toxoplasma hiding in your microbiome causing trouble. Once inflammation sets in, it’s more difficult for your immune system to fight off these foreign invaders. This is why I recommend a thorough cleanse to combat these hidden hitchhikers with gentle yet effective herbs, and repopulate with safe probiotics. I use UNI KEY Health’s My Colon Cleansing Kit, which contains herbs that target not only adult parasites but parasite eggs, and contains their Flora-Key probiotic that repopulates with healthy bacteria to help restore healthy neurotransmitter production. I also take their Para-Key with me whenever I travel, to offset any exposure I might have.
- Add Essential Oils to Your Arsenal. Three essential oils have been found to help inhibit toxoplasma infection. Thyme oil was found to be effective against brain cysts in mice, nutmeg oil was comparable to antibiotics in its testing, and black cumin seed essential oil reduced the transmission of toxoplasmosis and slowed its progression in studies that were done.
- Add Anti-Parasitic Foods to Your Diet. Cultures all around the world have added foods to their diets that naturally inhibit and fight parasitic infections. Because the United States is such a melting pot, we’ve lost touch with some of these health protective traditions, but there’s no reason we can’t incorporate worldly wisdom into our modern diets. Daikon radish, garlic, radicchio, papaya, pineapple, pumpkin seeds, pomegranate, turmeric root, coconut, ginger, cayenne pepper, carrots, and lemon are all delicious, powerful anti-parasitic foods to incorporate into your daily diet, not just during cleanses.