I was planning to skip over this oh-so-bloggable topic for the sake of your stomachs and my pride, but I figure some of you may have a genuine interest, the rest of you don’t have to read it, and my pride is about as compromised as my immune system at this point anyway, so…I’m going with it (consider this your second and final warning).
When we first moved to Chiapas 3.5 years ago, I adopted the (utterly ignorant) mentality that we didn’t need to disinfect our produce or be selective about street food. We would simply adjust over time to the different strains of bacteria and whatever else made its way into our (previously privileged) digestive systems. You know, acclimate. Whooo boy, lemme tell ya. Ignorance is not always bliss.
Remember those awful tie-dyed Jo’s Crab Shack t-shirts from the 90s that read, “Peace, Love and Crabs?” Well, if I had need for a t-shirt with which to remember our years in San Cristóbal it would most definitely read, “Love, Maya and Amoebas.”
For those of you who’ve not been graced with a proper introduction, amoebas are basically just hell in a single cell. I wrote a piece about them once to commemorate their having moved into my large intestine yet again called, “Gifts from the Amoebas,” which was basically just a sick attempt (literally) to find the silver lining in our sorry situation — you know, upsides like increased appreciation for toilets, a new love of toilet paper and the fact of our annual return to a land where water that flows from taps doesn’t scare a person shitless. But I can’t find it now, so you win, for the moment.
Anyhow, amoebas are a huge issue there because 1. Chiapas is an agricultural state, 2. the majority of the the farmers growing the food have no way to treat human waste nor much knowledge of the correlation between hygiene and health, 3. outhouses and farmland share the same soil, microbial-y speaking and 4. amoebas are spread by way of fruits and vegetables contaminated by the feces of infected people and then sold directly, farmers to consumers.
Though, all things considered, San Cristóbal de las Casas is still my favorite place I’ve ever been, thankfully, amoebas haven’t been near as big a problem here in Tulum. The water is cleaner, you can hardly farm here to save your life and the tropics have a different set of “gifts” altogether…
About two months ago I started feeling tired, and I mean REALLY tired, as in suspecting-pregnancy-against-the-odds kind of tired. Because digestive dilemmas have been the family norm rather than the exception since we moved south, I wasn’t overly concerned about those I was currently experiencing. But when I took the common local anti-parasite meds and still felt bad, my usually-mild food allergies picked up big time, my cat and mold-induced asthma hit me without exposure to either and I began to feel not only lethargic and foggy but uncharacteristically anxious and depressed, I knew something was up.
(If you’d been wondering why I’ve not been blogging much lately, now you know the half of it.)
Assuming I was either dying or losing my mind, I found a good doctor, got a full physical, had blood work done, even submitted three days worth of stool samples. Nothing. So, knowing better than to rely solely on conventional medicine and its practitioners, and absolutely certain I was not well, I started cleansing: raw garlic, lime juice, tons of water, no sugar, dairy or alcohol and an herbal parasite cleanse I’d used with success in Chiapas.
And what do you know? Within ten days, look who finally decided he’d had enough:
That, my friends, is an eight-inch roundworm. Yes, I passed him just as you might imagine, yes, he and I had been coexisting for as much as a year, and yes, there could be more. (Oh, and as if that weren’t enough, you might be interested to know that once I put it in the jar and closed the lid, it stayed alive for three more days.)
Go ahead, freak out if you need to, just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Roundworms are predominately tropical parasites that affect approximately one sixth of the world’s population and are spread when microscopic eggs are passed through food, water, soil and feces. The really crazy part? Once you ingest them, they make their way to your lungs via your bloodstream causing symptoms of asthma, which then causes you to cough them back up into your throat. When you swallow them again unknowingly, that’s when they grow to their full glory in your intestines (I was lucky, it could have been much, much bigger).
Gross as it all sounds, I’m honestly just glad I’m not dying, which I seriously suspected. As for treatment? I’m taking the recommended drugs specific to roundworms, but I will also continue cleansing for quite some time because apparently (and all you experts out there, by all means, share your two-bits)…
Parasites (as with amoebas and the like) line your intestines with a sort of mucous that they then hide in and which protects them from anti-parasitic drugs. The idea behind a good parasite cleanse is that it contains high amounts of fiber that pushes the mucous through, along with herbs that make the environment undesirable to whatever is living in you.
At the risk of sounding like a Para-Gone pusher, I’ve gotta tell you, two weeks in and I feel like a normal person again. I have TONS of energy, clear thoughts and only my normal quirks, no more wormy ones (hopefully that means he was a loner?).
And so, for what it’s worth…
A few more things I’ve learned about intestinal health since living abroad:
- Parasites are super common, and not just in developing countries. I am of the opinion that an annual cleanse is a good idea no matter where you live.
- The list of potential parasites symptoms is about a mile long. Symptoms are often mistaken for other health problems or thought to be unrelated.
- The effects of parasites on not only physical but also psychological wellbeing can be quite profound. This is because the waste products of many parasites are neurotoxins. Anxiety, depression, lethargy and chronic fatigue are not normal for me, but have been undeniable, even debilitating for the past couple months.
- Digestive dilemmas are also common among people who move to the states from other countries. Our bodies are best adjusted to the microbes from regions we were born into. We’ve heard many stories from Mexican friends who get equally sick when they visit the US.
- Intestinal health is vital to overall wellbeing. In my case, the times I’ve had known parasites were times I also had severe allergies, increased respiratory illness and an obviously weakened immune system. According to this Time article, “Every time you have a meal, you’re eating not just for yourself, but for the hundred trillion bacteria that line your large intestine.” I’ve even heard it said that our intestines are second only to our brains as the body’s control center.
I hesitated to bring all this up, in part, because there is already so much fear-mongering out there when it comes to Mexico and developing countries in general, and clearly, I don’t subscribe to all that, but I do think it’s smart to be informed and educated, whether deciding between a taco cart and a cevicheria or contemplating colon cleanses with your local herbalist.
And so, I’ll leave you with an emphatic don’t let this keep you from adventuring!!!!
Also, a few…
- Disinfect your produce. Once I got over my stubbornness and made this a part of my daily routine, we got sick less and less. I keep a plastic tub beneath my kitchen sink specifically for the purpose, load it up with whatever I buy, add disinfectant (we’ve used both store bought microdyne and homemade solution with diluted vinegar) and let it soak for ten minutes or so.
- Take probiotics. A good daily probiotic will help ensure your digestive system is healthy enough to fight off invaders.
- Drink lime juice and eat raw garlic. Parasites and amoebas don’t like either one a single bit. As a preventative, or whenever you feel a little something coming on, juice a couple of limes, dilute with water and drink throughout the day on an empty stomach. Also, mince a clove or two of fresh garlic and swallow (without chewing!) with water like you would a pill, again once or twice a day on an empty stomach. The garlic will leave you fragrant for a full day or so, but it works wonders.
- Snack on pumpkin seeds. Sold on street corners and in tiendas all over Mexico, these salty treats are great fiber and act as an anti-parasitic.
- Travel with grapefruit seed extract. Believe you me, 5-15 drops in a little water a few times a day of this horrid tasting stuff will help keep anything from wanting to move into your intestines.
- Ask the locals. If you live abroad, ask around about what people do and take as preventatives. Here, most everyone takes an anti-parasite pill every six months. In San Cristobal, an herb called epazote and papaya seeds were frequently recommended.
- Cleanse at least once a year. A good herbal cleanse will help clear out whatever the drugs don’t touch and help restore intestinal health, in general.
- Mind your street food. I’ll be honest, I’m willing to risk it a little to eat at the local dives as, to me, it’s half the charm of the culture. But I am selective about which street carts I choose, and if I were simply on vacation for a week, I’d probably be even more mindful.
- Check your water source. Though most people understand that drinking tap water is not a good idea while traveling abroad, it’s also important to double check the source of some garafones (the 5 gallon water jugs delivered by trucks and exchanged at many tiendas). We happen to know from experience that some of these are simply refilled with backyard hoses and recapped with somewhat convincing seals. Again, ask around and buy directly from reputable water companies.
- Wash your hands frequently and don’t bite your nails. The first one I’ve got down pat, the second one, not so much. And while I’m not really into hand sanitizer, if you’re traveling “village outhouse” style, it couldn’t hurt to toss it in your bag.
So, there you have it. More than you ever wanted to know about my digestive health and then some, though I have a feeling this adventurous crowd of mamas can handle it. Feel free to share your own parasitic remedies, preventatives and horror stories below! Trust me, nothing’s phasing me at this point.