A functional medicine approach to Cryptosporidium (Crypto)
In this article we are going to overview the parasitic infection known as cryptosporidium (aka crypto) and take a look at how functional medicine can be used to address it.
Cryptosporidium is classically a diarrhea-causing bug. Unfortunately Crypto is very hard to find under conventional stool testing, in fact the word cryptosporidium means “hidden spore”.
Symptoms can be both very mild and in some cases severe. Many symptoms are purely digestive related however as with all digestive imbalances and infections there can often be a wider impact on our health and symptoms that seem unrelated often are. Those wider reaching symptoms can then often respond favourably to addressing the underlying digestive infection and the imbalance/damage in the gut that has been caused by such an infection.
What are the symptoms of Crypto?
Gut related symptoms
- Abdominal pain
- Upper right side pain
- Excessive gas
- Sudden urge to go to the toilet
- Watery diarrhea
Non-gut related symptoms
- Skin Problems
- Sleep Issues
- Menopausal Problems
- Nutritional Deficiencies
- Food allergies and sensitivities
- Rapid weight
How Is Crypto Transmitted?
Since the mid 1970’s when researchers found cryptosporidium to be harmful to humans and a cause of diarrhea, various outbreaks have been linked with contaminated water supplies in large cities, in fact between 1991 and 1994 there was 64 reported outbreaks affecting over 400,000 people! It has been shown that crypto spores are resistant to chlorine and are able to even survive exposure to bleach.
Here is a list of the main causes of transmission:
- Water – drinking water, lakes, swimming pools etc.
- Animals – the most common transmissions from animals are cats, dogs, rodents and farms animals.
- Food – Ingested food that has been contaminated.
- Person to person – Care centers and caregivers can be a source of transmission.
When we ingest crypto cysts our digestive juices essentially remove the outer casing that surrounds the organism. This then allows crypto to proliferate in the small intestine. Crypto then attaches to the cells that line our intestine and invade them, destroying cells and then moving on to the next cell to reap even more havoc.
This process of moving into and destroying then moving on to the next cell happens on a 7-day cycle. They essentially act as a burglar raiding each house on the street every 7 days, eventually reaping havoc in the neighbourhood.
The crypto organism is then able to encyst and develop a casing that allows it to be passed out of the individual when the host passes a stool. It has been shown that significant numbers can be passed in just one bowel movement, and the spores are then able to survive in the environment for a long time, ultimately resulting in transmission to another host and the cycle repeats.
Who is most at risk?
The most common cases of crypto occur in young children, older people, travellers and those who are immune compromised, such as people with cancer and AIDS, but potentially those who are immune compromised because of chronic or significant acute stress. In practice it is not uncommon for me to see onset of symptoms correlate with significant life events of stages in ones life where they had been under significant ongoing stress. This is why a health and life event timeline is so important when first reviewing an individual’s health.
What Damage Can Crypto Cause?
As we mentioned before crypto will invade and damage the cells of the gut wall similar to the effects of gluten sensitivity/allergy. The toxin it produces is seen to be the most destructive element as it is what will irritate the gut lining, contributing potentially to intestinal hyperpermiability/leaky gut.
This intestinal damage and inflammation is the main reason it can then lead to other symptoms such as nutritional deficiencies, PMS, loss of libido, depression, increase food reactivity (allergies and sensitivities) and fatigue. Therefore sometimes eating a really healthy diet may not always avoid nutritional deficiencies, hence why it is so important to address root causes of dysfunction.
Testing For Crypto
Dr Cynthia Sears a leading authority on infectious disease once stated, “Cryptosporidiosis should always be included in the differential diagnosis of persistent or chronic diarrhea”.
Unfortunately most people are just labeled with IBS and further investigation rarely takes place, especially as standard testing often misses bugs like crypto, hence why we have opted to utilise DNA PCR technology in most cases when analyzing stools in chronic health and digestive imbalance cases.
If you have been labeled with IBS, particularly if stools are regularly on the looser side of things you may want to consider looking into appropriate testing and practitioner support to be able to do this. Our team is able to offer support utilising nutrition and functional medicine to be able to achieve this. Feel free to make contact using the form below this article.
Everyone has their own individual journey when it comes to addressing infections. In acute cases you are better off working with your GP and gastrointestinal specialist, in many cases those with a strong immune system will clear the infection without intervention in 2-3 weeks. In cases where symptoms have become chronic and the natural process or the more acute model has not been able to support you, this is where I believe a more nutrition; lifestyle and functional medicine approach can help.
For a typical functional medicine approach to issues relating to the digestive system, please read How to improve your digestive health – the 5R approach.