A friend alerted me to this article last week. Before we look at the actual research study, I need to say this is terrible reporting. The headline proclaims: Gluten allergies may be reduced using hookworms. No. Well, maybe. But probably not, and that’s certainly not what the study was looking at. No wonder people are confused about gluten. The study looked at the effect of hookworms on gluten tolerance in individuals with celiac disease. Which, we know, is not an allergy. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which consumption of gluten results in the destruction of microvilli in the small intestine in sufferers. Gluten allergy is a hypersensitivity of the immune system to the gluten (or one of its component proteins) protein. So… if you are allergic to gluten, don’t go infect yourself with hookworms and eat a sandwich. I wouldn’t recommend doing this if you have celiac disease either.
Looking at the actual study… It was very small (12 people, two of whom withdrew from the study before completion). When a study is so small, it’s impossible to say if the results would extend to the majority of those with celiac disease. Setting aside the fact that I’m doubtful that the majority of celiac disease sufferers would willingly ingest hookworms in order to be able to consume gluten again. That being said, it’s quite interesting that the study participants were able to gradually increase their gluten intake to 3 g of spaghetti a day without experiencing any overt, nor covert (i.e. intestinal damage) symptoms of celiac disease. Of course, that’s not a lot of gluten (about one cup of pasta a day) and the study took place over 12 weeks, with the largest quantity of pasta being consumed over the final two weeks. It would be interesting to see if intestinal damage was visible after an extended period of time or if greater quantities of gluten could be consumed.
Something else that I wondered about when reading the article was any potential complications from the use of hookworms. According to the Centre for Disease Control, most people with hookworms experience no symptoms. However, some many experience gastrointestinal distress and the most serious complication is blood loss leading to anemia, and protein loss.
Essentially, celiac disease leads to nutritional deficiencies when gluten is consumed. Introducing hookworms may allow celiac disease sufferers to consume gluten but may also lead to nutrient deficiencies. Alternatively, celiac disease sufferers can follow a nutritious gluten-free diet.