Understanding Toxoplasmosis: Implications for Gut Health and Wellness
Article

Understanding Toxoplasmosis: Implications for Gut Health and Wellness

Published on Tuesday, May 28, 2024
by
Emily Hamm

Wellness

Understanding Toxoplasmosis and its Impact on Digestive Health

Are you worried about gut issues and toxoplasmosis? Unravel the mystery! Explore how this common parasite can affect your digestive health, from subtle symptoms to potential complications. Learn diagnosis, treatment tips, and preventive measures for a healthy gut and peace of mind.

Toxoplasmosis infection occurs from the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. You may be sitting here wondering how I could get this parasite. It’s more common than you think; approximately 2 billion people worldwide are affected.

How Toxoplasma gondii Spreads and Infects Humans

The CDC does a great job of explaining the life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii and how it can infect humans. Essentially, cats are the only host that this parasite can reproduce in, and they first get this parasite by eating intermediate hosts (e.g., rodents). Unsporulated oocysts are then shed in cats' feces and sporulate (become infective). Next, birds and rodents eat soil, water, and plant materials that may be infected, and the vicious cycle continues. 

Humans get introduced to this bug by several routes: 

  1. Handling cat feces (i.e., emptying the litter box), 
  2. Ingesting produce or water that has been contaminated, 
  3. Ingesting undercooked meat from livestock, eating infected soil, or drinking infected water.

Effects on the Gut: Inflammation, Microbiome, and Barrier Integrity

What happens to your gut if you happen to contract this parasite? Once you consume the sporulated oocysts, bradyzoites (this is the phase of parasitic growth that is resistant to low pH and digestive enzymes) pass into your intestine and transform into tachyzoites (which is the rapidly growing, infective stage of the parasite), invade the intestinal mucosa leading to increased inflammation, alterations of the gut microbiome and weakened gut barrier, allowing for widespread infection to all organs, especially the central nervous system.  

Risks and Vulnerabilities: Immunocompromised Individuals and Pregnant Women

People most at risk for toxoplasmosis are immunocompromised individuals (cancer, HIV/AIDs) and pregnant women. However, this parasite can still wreak havoc even in healthy and immunocompetent individuals.

Recognizing Symptoms: From Flu-Like Symptoms to Serious Complications

Most people with a healthy immune system may not show any symptoms if they contract a toxoplasma infection. However, recent studies suggest that individuals exposed to Toxoplasma gondii may experience heightened inflammation and more severe symptoms if they have underlying inflammatory conditions such as irritable bowel disease, celiac disease, sepsis, or autoimmune diseases. This could lead to an increase in gastrointestinal symptoms like abdominal cramping, bloating, severe diarrhea, and nausea. This can be particularly challenging for those with existing gastrointestinal issues.

Generally speaking, the most common symptoms of this parasitic infection include flu-like symptoms like fever, swollen lymph nodes, headache, muscle aches, and skin rash. Some people develop eye disease and have eye pain and vision changes that can eventually lead to blindness. In more serious infections, which are mainly common among immunocompromised people, toxoplasmosis may infect the lungs, leading to breathing difficulty and cough, and in the brain, causing confusion, altered coordination, seizures, and even death.

In pregnant women, toxoplasma can cross over to the baby. This is very serious and can lead to detrimental effects on the baby even into adolescence if they survive childbirth. 

As I mentioned previously, the majority of people infected with toxoplasmosis do not even know they have the parasite because they are asymptomatic or may have just experienced flu-like symptoms. However, one can become more susceptible to increased intestinal inflammation over time. Animal studies even suggest that microbiota changes may lead to dysbiosis and leaky gut. This can cause increased malabsorption, leading to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, malnutrition, and IBS-related symptoms. Systemically, long-term exposure to toxoplasma could affect individuals' cognition and behavior. More research into humans is needed to confirm this.

Prevention Strategies: CDC Recommendations and Hygiene Practices

So, how does one prevent toxoplasmosis? The CDC currently recommends the following:

  • If you have pet cats, feed them commercial pet food only and never raw or undercooked meats; train them to use a litter box and wear gloves when changing the litter out. If pregnant, have someone else change the litter daily.
  • Cover sand-pits and children’s sandboxes after use to prevent stray cats from defecating in these.
  • Wear gloves when gardening.
  • Wash produce thoroughly and look for pre-packaged salad kits or pre-cut produce recalls.
  • Cook animal products and meats thoroughly to doneness to kill the remaining oocysts living in the meat.
  • Practice good hygiene by handwashing after coming in contact with raw foods, soil, cat litter, or pet feces.
  • Avoid drinking untreated or unpurified water.

Diagnosis and Treatment: Testing, Prescription Medications, and Dietary Management

If you happen to suspect that you might have a toxoplasmosis infection, talk with your healthcare provider to obtain testing and start treatment right away. Typical treatment includes prescription treatment with Pyrimethamine, which is an anti-parasitic drug (inhibits the body’s ability to metabolize folic acid), leucovorin calcium (corrects the effects of pyrimethamine and folic acid), and sulfadiazine (an antibiotic used in conjunction with pyrimethamine).

In addition to the above treatment, make sure to adhere to diet recommendations given to you to manage other GI-related chronic diseases like IBS, IBD, celiac, etc. Good control of these chronic gut diseases can help reduce the symptom impact if you happen to contract toxoplasmosis. Consider working with a registered dietitian to help manage your diet to control preexisting GI conditions like IBS and IBD.

If you’ve ever suffered from toxoplasmosis and feel comfortable sharing your insights and experience, it could be beneficial to future readers. Please share in the comments section below! We always value your input here at Foodguides!

 

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, May 11). CDC - Toxoplasmosis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/dpdx/toxoplasmosis/index.html 
  2. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2022, November 3). Toxoplasmosis. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/toxoplasmosis/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20356255 
  3. Rostami-Nejad, M., Hejazi, S. H., Peña, A. S., Asadzadeh-Aghdaei, H., Rostami, K., Volta, U., & Zali, M. R. (2018). Contributions of HLA haplotypes, IL8 level and Toxoplasma gondii infection in defining celiac disease's phenotypes. BMC gastroenterology, 18(1), 66. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12876-018-0796-9 
  4. Saraav, I., Cervantes-Barragán, L., Olias, P., Fu, Y., Wang, Q., Wang, L., Wang, Y., Mack, M., Baldridge, M. T., Stappenbeck, T. S., Colonna, M., & Sibley, L. D. (2021). Chronic Toxoplasma gondii infection enhances susceptibility to colitis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 118(36). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2106730118 
  5. Shapira, Y., Agmon‐Levin, N., Selmi, C., Petríková, J., Barzilai, O., Ram, M., Bizzaro, N., Valentini, G., Matucci-Cerinić, M., Anaya, J. M., Katz, B. S. P., & Shoenfeld, Y. (2012). Prevalence of anti-toxoplasma antibodies in patients with autoimmune diseases. Journal of Autoimmunity, 39(1–2), 112–116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaut.2012.01.001 
  6. Smith, N. C., Goulart, C., Hayward, J. A., Kupz, A., Miller, C. M., & Van Dooren, G. G. (2021). Control of human toxoplasmosis. International Journal for Parasitology, 51(2–3), 95–121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpara.2020.11.001 
  7. Souza, M. C., Da Fonseca, D. M., Kanashiro, A., Benevides, L., Da Silva Medina, T., Dias, M. S., Andrade, W. A., Bonfá, G., Da Silva, M. a. B., Gozzi, A., Borges, M. C., Gazzinelli, R. T., Alves‐Filho, J. C., Cunha, F., & Silva, J. (2017). Chronic Toxoplasma gondii Infection Exacerbates Secondary Polymicrobial Sepsis. Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcimb.2017.00116 

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Emily Hamm

MS, RDN, CSO, LD

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