The Functional Medicine Guide to Protecting Yourself from Lyme Disease
Spending time outdoors has more benefits for your overall health than you can name, but there may be a hidden danger lurking among the tall grasses just waiting to make you it’s next victim. This tiny pathogen is the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease, transmitted by the bite of an infected tick. With cases having risen sharply in the last decade, integrative medicine doctors are seeing more patients struggle with chronic lyme disease which only gets worse with delayed treatment.
In this article you’ll learn what lyme disease is, what treatments are available, and more importantly–how to protect yourself from contracting lyme disease in the first place.
What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is the illness caused by the infection of a type of bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. Doctors first discovered Lyme disease in the 1970s when several children in the town of Lyme, Connecticut all succumbed to a mysterious flu-like illness and had a bulls-eye shaped rash (1).
Similar to other infections of this type, treatment for Lyme disease usually involves short-course antibiotics (2-4 weeks), but for a significant number of those who contracted Lyme disease, this may not be sufficient.
Today, cases of Lyme disease are increasing at a concerning rate, and what is more troubling is that as much as 20% or more of those who contract Lyme disease have lingering symptoms known as post-treatment Lyme disease (2).
This suggests that short-course antibiotics may not be the most effective way to treat Lyme disease, even though it’s what the CDC currently recommends.
So how can you protect yourself from Lyme disease, and what integrative medicine treatments are available for Lyme disease? You’ll learn this, and much more, in a moment.
How Lyme Disease is Contracted
You can get Lyme disease if you’re bitten by a tick who carries the bacterium which causes it–Borrelia burgdorferi.
The type of tick that carries B. burgdorferi is the blacklegged tick or deer tick. This tick spreads Lyme disease in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and north-central United States–about ⅔ of the country. This puts a significant portion of the population at risk for Lyme disease if they frequent outdoor areas with tall grasses or wooded areas.
Symptoms of Lyme Disease
The hallmark sign of Lyme disease is the notable bulls-eye-shaped rash called erythema migrans, though this can be misleading because not everyone with Lyme disease develops the telltale rash. It’s also not uncommon to see the rash at more than one spot on the body.
Other symptoms of Lyme disease include:
- Body aches and pains
- Joint or neck stiffness
- Swollen lymph nodes
New research into Lyme disease has uncovered dozens of symptoms, some of which are considered usual or abnormal.
For example, B. burgdorferi can have neurological symptoms that create a troubling diagnostic case for integrative medicine doctors. These symptoms occur when the bacteria attach to myelin sheaths that surround your nerve fibers and break them down, a process called demyelination (3).
Is Lyme Disease Contagious?
According to the CDC, there is no evidence that Lyme disease is transmitted from person-to-person. You can’t get Lyme disease from touching or coming into contact with another person’s bodily fluids. However, untreated Lyme disease during pregnancy can lead to infection of the placenta.
Other Tick-Borne Diseases
The problem with ticks and other insects that carry bacteria is that they often harbor multiple infectious organisms. In fact, it’s reported that an estimated 40% of patients with Lyme also have co-infections such as Babesia microti or Babesia duncani (4).
Co-infections can worsen Lyme symptoms, and pose a challenge to integrative medicine doctors to identify and treat.
Diagnosing Lyme – Testing for Lyme Disease
Since B. burgdorferi requires a tick bite to be transmitted, diagnosing Lyme disease begins with you–the patient. If you’re bitten by a tick that carries this bacterium, you can first be on the lookout for the telltale bulls-eye rash. This rash will have the central bite surrounded by clear skin, and encircled in an expanding red area.
The CDC states that a rash occurs in about 70-80% of cases, so be mindful this means there’s about 30% of cases (possibly greater) where no rash is present (5). This presents a challenge to integrative medicine doctors as Lyme disease can mimic many other conditions.
Lyme disease has been mistaken for Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose because the B. burgdorferi quickly moves from the bloodstream and into the lymph nodes. As a result, blood tests for Lyme disease can be inconclusive (6)
Its broad symptoms and the limited diagnostic tests currently available compound the difficulty of diagnosing Lyme disease.
Integrative Treatment for Lyme Disease
The CDC maintains that most cases of Lyme disease–if caught early–can be effectively treated with 2 to 4 weeks of oral antibiotics. The approved medications used for acute Lyme symptoms include doxycycline, amoxicillin, and cefuroxime.
It’s crucial to see an integrative medicine doctor as soon as possible, or a Lyme Literate Physician who has the proper training if you suspect you’ve been bitten by a tick who carried Lyme disease. Swift treatment is important to ensure eradication of the infection.
In some cases, patients may experience pain, fatigue, and other neurological symptoms 6 months or more after the initial tick bite. This is known as chronic Lyme or post-treatment Lyme disease.
Is there a cure for chronic Lyme?
While there is no proven treatment for the cure of chronic Lyme or post-treatment Lyme disease, new research points to an autoimmune connection, which may shed more light on effective treatments.
Eradicating the infection is the first step toward curing Lyme disease, also important are:
- Eradicating co-infections (Babesia, Bartonella, etc.)
- Addressing autoimmunity by supporting your immune system
Supporting Your Immune System
Because your immune system is working hard to clear any infection present, it’s important to support this process, and try to protect against autoimmune flares.
- Eat anti-inflammatory, immune-supportive foods: Sugar and refined carbohydrates hinder immune function. Omit highly processed foods and replace with nutrient-dense, whole foods such as vegetables and quality proteins, plus healthy fats and some fruit.
- Fuel your immune system with vitamin C, zinc, and vitamin D. These nutrients help modulate immune function and may play a role in protecting from autoimmunity.
- Take basic lifestyle steps to support your immune system like getting moderate exercise and adequate rest.
Supplements Helpful for Lyme disease
New research is showing potential benefits in using herbal methods of treatment for chronic Lyme that act as anti-parasitic, anti-microbial, or anti-bacterial.
- Black walnut (Juglans nigra)
- Sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua)
- Cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa)
- Essential oils because they can cross protective biofilms
Protecting Yourself from Ticks
When spending time outdoors, regardless of your presumed risk of tick exposure, take steps to protect yourself in the following ways.
- Avoid walking through tall grass as ticks like to wait within the foliage to hitch a ride on an unsuspecting animal or human.
- Stay on trails as much as possible.
- Wear long pants and closed-toe shoes
- Use insect repellent
- Inspect your clothes and hair immediately after your activities
Around your home:
- Keep grass mowed
- Clear tall grasses at the edge of your yard and next to your home
- Place a barrier of wood chips between wooded areas if they border your lawn
Though it’s impossible to completely avoid tick bites, it’s important to take measures to reduce your exposure, along with practices to support your immune system.
Integrative Medicine and Lyme Disease
Lyme disease poses a significant threat to outdoor enthusiasts and backyard dwellers alike, and it’s important to take steps to protect yourself from infection and the development of chronic Lyme disease.
Be mindful of the symptoms of Lyme disease and contact your integrative medicine doctor as soon as possible after a suspect tick bite. Swift treatment is crucial to eradicate the infection and decrease your chances for chronic Lyme.