Study: Marijuana Combats Intestinal Parasites In Hunter Gatherers

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by Aaron Kase

on June 1, 2015

Every year we learn more about the medicinal properties of marijuana. It can help fight off cancer, reduce seizures and relieve symptoms of PTSD. Now, it turns out that some populations are using marijuana as medicine — without even realizing it. A new study out of Washington State University found that hunter gatherers who smoke marijuana are less likely to have intestinal parasites. How’s that for an unintended benefit?

The scientists behind the study speculate that we might be unconsciously drawn to cannabis and other substances that are used recreationally because of their health benefits, even if we don’t realize it.

“In the same way we have a taste for salt, we might have a taste for psychoactive plant toxins, because these things kill parasites,” researcher Ed Hagen said in a press release.

“Why would so many people around the world be using plant toxins in this very ‘recreational’ way?’” Hagen wondered. “If you look at non-human animals, they do the same thing, and a lot of biologists think they’re doing it to kill parasites.”

The study, published in the American Journal of Human Biology, looked at the Aka people, a Pygmy tribe that lives in Africa’s Congo basin and is one of the last groups of hunter gatherers left on the planet. Hagen worked with a population of 400 adult members of the tribe that live by the Lobaye River in the Central African Republic.

About 70 percent of the men surveyed during the study had recently smoked marijuana. Researchers then checked their stool samples and found that those who had smoked had fewer parasites than those who didn’t. Next, the tribe members were given a pharmaceutical product to wipe out the parasites in their gut. When they were tested again a year later, the marijuana users again had far fewer worms in their stool than their non-smoking counterparts.

The study was limited to men because only six percent of women surveyed had smoked recently, too small a population to draw any conclusions from.

The Aka reported that they use cannabis recreationally, not with any medicinal intention — yet they benefit from it nevertheless. A similar effect has been noticed among hunter gatherers who smoke tobacco. However, the science is not yet totally concrete. Researchers have shown that nicotine can kill worms in livestock, and cannabis can kill them in a laboratory setting, but neither has been conclusively demonstrated in humans. The WSU study also only showed a correlation between marijuana use and healthy stool, not a causal relationship.

The findings are compelling enough to warrant more research, though, and potentially add one more medicinal benefit to marijuana’s growing list.