According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Lyme disease is one of the most rapidly emerging infectious diseases in North America and Europe. Named after a small Connecticut town, Lyme disease is transmitted to humans by the bite of ticks infected with the bacterial spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi. To make matters worse, there are several other species of Borrelia that cause Lyme disease and tick-borne relapsing fever. On the East Coast, 50-60% of western black-legged ticks are infected with species of Borrelia that cause Lyme disease. Typical signs and symptoms when first infected are very similar to that of the flu and can often be dismissed as such, leading to an undetected infection. These symptoms include fever, body aches, fatigue, headaches, nausea, and Erythema migrans (the classic “bullseye rash”). If left untreated or not properly treated, Lyme disease can spread to the heart, joints, and nervous system, causing symptoms ranging from stiff neck, swollen joints, and muscle pain to heart palpitations, headaches, psychiatric symptoms (anxiety, depression, and aggression), irritable bladder, cognitive decline, insomnia, and night sweats.
Several factors must be taken into consideration to prevent Lyme disease: knowing where you are most likely to pick up ticks, how to keep your lawn and pets free of ticks, preventing a bite if a tick hitches a ride on you or your children, identifying the ticks that put you at most risk, removing the tick promptly and properly, knowing the symptoms of an infection, and recognizing the flaws in testing and the rate of misdiagnosis. That’s a lot of information to digest! Still, being aware of all of these factors is crucial in protecting your family.
Taking a Bite out of Lyme
But what if you are bitten? Do not panic, as there is plenty that both conventional and naturopathic medicine can do acutely to prevent infection from taking hold and causing illness. First things first, however, you must remove the tick safely. Do not use anything to “suffocate” the tick, as this may cause the tick to regurgitate its contents into you and expose your body to Borrelia burgdorferi and other species of Borrelia that cause Lyme disease, as well as its co-infections. Use flat-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick at the base of the head (not the body) and slowly but firmly pull the tick from the skin in the same direction that it is implanted.
Once the tick is removed, use a clear plastic sealable bag to store it. Apply hydrogen peroxide to clean the wound. Mix bentonite clay and Andrographis tincture (an anti-spirochetal herb) to form a paste and apply it directly to the bite. Cover with a bandage soaked in the Andrographis tincture and let it heal.
The International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS) recommends that those experiencing Erythema migrans undergo antibiotic therapy for four to six weeks. For those without access to antibiotics or aversion to pharmaceutical use, herbal antimicrobials taken internally can be used effectively to address the suspected infection, either instead of prescriptions or in addition to them. A recent study looked at several antimicrobial and antiparasitic herbs as compared to the controls of prescription doxycycline and cefuroxime (Feng, 2020). The botanicals with “good” to “strong” activity against Borrelia included Cryptolepis sanguinolenta, Juglans nigra (Black walnut), Polygonum cuspidatum (Japanese knotweed), Artemisia annua (Sweet wormwood), Uncaria tomentosa (Cat’s claw), Cistus incanus, and Scutellaria baicalensis (Chinese skullcap). In fact, Cryptolepis sanguinolenta extract caused complete eradication of the spirochete, while doxycycline and cefuroxime could not fully eradicate B. burgdorferi. This research makes a powerful case for using herbal antibiotics in addition to or instead of pharmaceuticals.
You may also consider taking homeopathic Ledum and Apis, two remedies excellent at addressing puncture wounds and insect bites and stings. Dr. Alexis Chesney, a Lyme literate Naturopathic physician, put together a very helpful Tick Preparedness Kit that contains herbs, homeopathics, and items for tick removal and storage, which can be found at www.lymecorebotanicals.com.
An Unusual Way of Doing Things
Before we dive into natural interventions that are useful to treat and heal Lyme disease, it is extremely important to understand how Lyme develops. In a fascinating study published in 2019, researchers in Amsterdam found that tick saliva is not only the medium through which the pathogenic bacteria enter their hosts, it also contains a mixture of proteins that disarm the body’s immune system. This protects Borrelia from any natural defenses that you would normally mount to infection (Nuttall, 2019). We have also learned that once a tick bites, the saliva further decreases normal immune function by slowing blood coagulation and other aspects of wound healing. This way, the tick can continue to feed for a longer period, while also transmitting higher loads of Borrelia in the process (Pham, 2021). Together, the tick saliva and Borrelia further manipulate the biochemistry of the body to degrade connective tissue. Collagen is rich in nutrients that nourish Borrelia, so the bacteria tends to migrate to areas high in collagen–like joints– in order to feed themselves and reproduce (Zambrano, 2004). This ultimately makes the collagen-dense connective tissue in the body an ideal place to host bacteria and let Lyme disease thrive.
An Herbal Arsenal
Because of the complexity of spirochetal infection, prescription antibiotics may not be a cure-all for Lyme disease. When we focus simply on killing a pathogen, we miss the opportunity to bolster the body’s own defense mechanisms. As a licensed Naturopathic physician, I believe in utilizing a comprehensive approach to Lyme disease, attacking the pathogen at every step, while also supporting the body’s innate healing wisdom with whole plant medicines. My focus is making the body inhospitable to the infection while healing the body.
Addressing the immune system imbalance that the proteins in tick saliva create as well as inhibiting movement of the infection is a crucial step in treatment. Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) counteracts the exact modulation of the immune system that tick saliva and pathogens initiate and maintain to keep infection going (Bani, 2006).
One of the immune molecules that spirochetes alter in the body is NF-kB (Nuclear Factor Kappa Beta), which feeds inflammation. Spirochetes stimulate NF-kB to drive inflammation, breaking down tissues from which they need to feed (Parthasarathy, 2014). Inhibiting NF-kB to prevent excessive inflammation is a very important goal in pharmaceutical drug development, as this pathway affects many other inflammatory diseases as well, including various cancers, COVID-19, and Alzheimer’s disease. Luckily, this is where herbalism shines.
Among the masses of botanicals that are available to the general public, there are a good number of herbs that show NF-kB inhibiting properties and have the scientific research to back them up. Among my favorites are Astragalus membranaceus, a legume that has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries, most notably as a general immune system enhancer. A 2020 study showed that the herb alleviates inflammation specifically through the NF-kB pathway (Dong, 2020). Astragalus also has the benefit of being an adrenal adaptogen, balancing the body’s stress response and fighting fatigue (Huang, 2021).
Another natural remedy which you may have seen at your local health foods store is Cordyceps militaris, a type of fungus that has been historically used in folk medicine to improve immune function. Its ability to modulate NF-kB was identified in the 2000s, and a recent study from China showed that different preparations of the fungus (water, 50% ethanol, or 70% ethanol extract preparations) could encourage the immune system to operate in different ways (Lee, 2020). This is a tremendous development in the individualized approach to healing Lyme disease, as different people will need different aspects of their immunity adjusted to effectively eradicate the infection. In addition to its anti-inflammatory actions, this botanical reduces fatigue (Song, 2015) and is a potent antioxidant (Rupa, 2020).
There are a multitude of other medicinal herbs that I combine to naturally treat Lyme disease and co-infections but the last I will discuss in this article contains high levels of resveratrol; helpful for relieving Lyme-associated inflammation. Resveratrol (a flavonoid found in foods like grapes, wine, peanuts, and soy), is highly concentrated in an herb called Japanese knotweed, Polygonum cuspidatum. Not only does Japanese knotweed stop the inflammatory NF-kB cascade (Diaz-Gerevini, 2016), it also inhibits the growth of Spirochetes at several different developmental stages of the parasite (Feng, 2020). Lastly, resveratrol is highly neuroprotective, which can be very helpful for the brain fog associated with Lyme infection (Wiciński, 2020).
Putting It All Together
The biggest challenge for those battling Lyme disease and co-infections, whether it is a new diagnosis or a recurring chronic case, is knowing how to move forward. Patients are constantly bombarded with either apathy about their situation or unsolicited advice on how to deal with it. Family, friends, teachers and even doctors seldom understand the multi-system dysfunction and the serious emotional toll Lyme disease takes on the patient. Patients can be left feeling hopeless, confused and alienated, and are often told it is all in their head and prescribed antidepressants. I completely understand! As a fellow Lyme warrior myself, I have made it my mission as a physician to make sure my patients (and their families, teachers and doctors) understand how Lyme develops and becomes a chronic infection, how to make their body inhospitable to the infection, how to bolster the body’s innate ability to heal itself, and ways to weave both conventional and natural medicine interventions together in order to fully recover from this destructive inflammatory infection. With all of that said, here is a summary of my advice.
Prevention is key! Make your environment and your body inhospitable to ticks and the pathogens they harbor. Perform tick checks on yourself and your children daily. If you find a tick, properly remove it, send it off for testing immediately, begin prophylactic herbal immune balancers, herbal anti- inflammatories, and herbal antimicrobials to prevent infection of the pathogens that cause Lyme disease and co-infections. When you receive the tick testing results, add the proper prescription antibiotics or antiparasitics if necessary while remaining on the herbals. Continue this for four to six weeks or as prescribed by your physician, and seek the care of a qualified Lyme literate provider for further guidance.
As I mentioned before, a rock-solid foundation for health is essential to a properly functioning immune system. Continually work to achieve proper nutrient levels by eating nutrient dense foods and avoid those that are processed and filled with sugar; drink an adequate amount of water; get enough rest; and manage your stress in order to support normal and healthy inflammatory responses. Naturopathic physicians are incredible resources for those interested in making lifestyle changes to support health and wellness, and we are fortunate enough to live in a state where naturopathic medicine is covered by most major medical insurances. Take advantage of the knowledge and support of a qualified Lyme literate physician (ILADS.org) along your Lyme journey. It can make all the difference.
About the Author
In addition to naturally treating patients with complex illness stemming from underlying tick-borne disease at TAO in Connecticut, Dr. Myriah Hinchey created LymeCore Botanicals™ to provide quality clean and effective herbal formulas for Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections, and is highly active in sourcing, testing, and overseeing production of the herbal formulas she uses to treat her patients. Dr. Hinchey also founded LymeBytes™, a multimedia company dedicated to educating patients and other practitioners about Lyme disease and tick-borne illness and focuses on bringing Patients, Practitioners and Resources together for healing Lyme disease. LymeBytes™ is hosting its first Symposium on May 21-22 at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, CT (live virtual attendance is also available). For more information, visit www.lymediseaseconference.com
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