Smoking Marijuana Linked to Fewer Parasitic Infections in Hunter-Gatherers

By Victoria Kim 06/03/15

Researches believe the Aka pygmies incidentally warded off intestinal worms by smoking recreational weed.

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A study of cannabis smokers in one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes in the world, known as the Aka, has shown that the cannabis smokers were less prone to parasitic infection than non-users, Newser reports.

Ed Hagen, a Washington State University Vancouver anthropologist, studied the Aka, a nomadic pygmy people of the Central African Republic, to learn about behavior toward cannabis use untouched by Western culture.

After surveying the adult Aka, Hagen found that roughly 70% of the men and 6% of the women used cannabis. About 95% of the men were infected with helminths, or parasitic intestinal worms, but the cannabis smokers among them had a significantly lower rate of infection. Hagen observed the same effect in a previous study among Aka who smoked tobacco. The heaviest tobacco smokers had the lowest “worm burden.”

Hagen said this suggests the Aka are unconsciously using the plant to ward off helminths, as they consider tobacco and marijuana as recreational, not medicinal drugs. “Interestingly, all major human recreational plant drugs—coffee, tea, tobacco, cannabis, and betel nut—are toxic to helminths,” said the Washington State University researchers in the study, published in the American Journal of Human Biology.

This raises the possibility that human recreational substance use may be an unconscious form of self-medication against helminths, they added.

“In the same way we have a taste for salt, we might have a taste for psychoactive plant toxins, because these things kill parasites,” Hagen said. “If you look at non-human animals, they do the same thing, and what a lot of biologists think is they’re doing it to kill parasites."

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