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Lyme disease is one of the fastest-growing diseases in the nation, with an estimated 500,000 new cases each year. Yet Lyme research is severely underfunded, receiving less than 5% of the funding that less common diseases like West Nile virus or malaria receive.
And while the mortality rate for Lyme is relatively low, symptoms can range from a simple rash to severe neurological issues and chronic pain. Many patients can develop meningitis (inflammation of the brain), Bell’s palsy (paralysis in one side of the face), permanent muscle weakness.
The standard pharmacological treatment for Lyme disease is antibiotics. These can include a 2- or 3-week course of oral antibiotics or (in more severe cases), intravenous antibiotics. Unfortunately, IV antibiotics are usually accompanied by a long list of side effects.
And with antibiotic resistance a major threat to global health, finding natural ways to combat disease should always be the preference. In fact, when antibiotics fail to completely eradicate Lyme disease, bacterial cells that have developed antibiotic resistance can continue to proliferate. These are known as persister cells
As researchers have continued to search for alternative ways to treat Lyme disease, they’ve discovered that herbal remedies may be MORE effective than antibiotics for treating Lyme. We’re going to take a look at these natural, plant-based solutions in a moment. First, let’s make sure we understand what Lyme disease really is.
What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is caused by four main species of bacteria. Borrelia burgdorferi and Borrelia mayonii cause Lyme disease in the United States, while Borrelia afzelii and Borrelia garinii are the leading causes in Europe and Asia. The most common tick-borne illness in these regions, Lyme disease, is transmitted by the bite of an infected black-legged tick, commonly known as a deer tick.
Many people with Lyme disease have no memory of a tick bite. People who live or spend time in wooded areas known for transmission of the disease are more likely to get this illness. People with domesticated animals that visit wooded areas also have a higher risk of getting Lyme disease.
Lyme is called “The Great Imitator,” because its symptoms mimic many other diseases. It can affect any organ of the body, including the brain and nervous system, muscles and joints, and the heart.
Patients with Lyme disease are frequently misdiagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and various psychiatric illnesses, including depression. Misdiagnosis with these other diseases may delay the correct diagnosis and treatment as the underlying infection progresses unchecked.
Symptoms of early Lyme disease may present as a flu-like illness (fever, chills, sweats, muscle aches, fatigue, nausea and joint pain). While a small, red bump, similar to the bump of a mosquito bite, often appears at the site of a tick bite or tick removal and resolves over a few days, Lyme has a more unique rash.
From 3-30 days after an infected tick bite, an expanding red area might appear that sometimes clears in the center, forming a bull’s-eye pattern. The rash (erythema migrans) expands slowly over days and can spread up to 12 inches across. It’s typically not itchy or painful but might feel warm to the touch.
Erythema migrans is one of the hallmarks of Lyme disease, although not everyone with Lyme disease develops the rash. Some people develop this rash at more than one place on their bodies. For those without a rash, it’s especially important to listen to your body for signs of disease.
If Lyme disease is not diagnosed and treated early, it may become late-stage or chronic. This may also occur when early treatment is inadequate. Although Lyme disease is commonly divided into three stages — early localized, early disseminated, and late disseminated — symptoms can overlap.
Some people will also present in a later stage of disease without having symptoms of earlier disease. Check out the graphic below to compare the symptom rates of early Lyme patients vs chronic Lyme patients.
Are Herbal Remedies Effective?
The short answer: YES!
In 2018, an in vitro (meaning it was tested in the lab rather than in humans) study suggested that 10 plant-derived essential oils could help fight off B. burgdorferi. Researchers tested 34 essential oils against B. burgdorferi and found cinnamon bark, clove bud, citronella, wintergreen, and oregano show strong activity against the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, even more effectively than daptomycin, the “gold standard” antibiotic many people with Lyme disease are prescribed.
According to the lead researcher and study author Dr. Zhang, “We found that these essential oils were even better at killing the ‘persister’ forms of Lyme bacteria than standard Lyme antibiotics. At this stage, these essential oils look very promising as candidate treatments for persistent Lyme infection, but ultimately we need properly designed clinical trials.”
Now, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, MD, and from the California Center for Functional Medicine and Focus Health in Berkeley, have conducted a new study that has led them to believe that two specific plants may lead to more effective therapies against Lyme disease.
“Many thousands of Lyme patients today, especially those with later-stage symptoms who have not been effectively treated, are in great need of efficacious, accessible treatment options,” notes study co-author Dr. Sunjya Schweig.
In their study (published in Frontiers in Medicine) the investigators analyzed the potential of 14 different plant extracts in killing B. burgdorferi. They compared the results with those of two of the traditional drugs used against Lyme disease: doxycycline and cefuroxime.
The researchers pitted each of these plant extracts against free-swimming (planktonic) B. burgdorferi and microcolonies of this bacterium — aggregates of bacterial cells. The in vitro tests suggested that extracts from seven different plants were more effective against the Lyme disease bacteria than doxycycline and cefuroxime.
The plants in question were black walnut (Juglans nigra), cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa), sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), Mediterranean rockrose (Cistus incanus), Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), Ghanaian quinine (Cryptolepis sanguinolenta), and Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum).
But the researchers were especially impressed by the targeted antibacterial activity of Ghanaian quinine and Japanese knotweed. The active ingredient in Ghanaian quinine is an alkaloid called cryptolepine, which people have traditionally used against malaria, hepatitis, septicemia, and tuberculosis.
Japanese knotweed features an antioxidant called resveratrol. Some studies have suggested that resveratrol may have anticancer properties, and may protect heart and brain health.
“This study provides the first convincing evidence that some of the herbs used by patients, such as Cryptolepis, black walnut, sweet wormwood, cat’s claw, and Japanese knotweed, have potent activity against Lyme disease bacteria, especially the dormant persister forms, which are not killed by the current Lyme antibiotics,” says study co-author Prof. Ying Zhang.
The scientists observed that extracts from Ghanaian quinine and Japanese knotweed prevented free-swimming bacteria from proliferating, even when they were present at low concentrations — of 0.03-0.5% — in laboratory dishes.
The two plant extracts also killed entire microcolonies of the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.
In fact, just one 7-day treatment with 1% Ghanaian quinine extract was able to eradicate the bacterium in lab dishes. What is more, the bacterium was unable to make a comeback following this treatment.
If you visit the Mayo Clinic’s website, they have the following warning:
But the wave of complementary and alternative medicine is sweeping the globe… and it’s backed by science:
“Due to limited therapeutics and a rise in treatment resistance, current treatment options for this disease are inadequate and many patients rely on herbal therapies for which there is only anecdotal evidence of efficacy,” said co-author Sunjya K. Schweig.
“Increasingly, Americans with chronic diseases are pursuing complementary and alternative medicine to improve general health or quality of life. We hope this data offers inspiration to other researchers to further explore similar options for people living with persistent tick-borne diseases that do not respond to current treatments,” added Dr. Schweig.
We’ve written before about how Lyme disease can increase your cancer risk through inflammation, immune suppression, and mutations in cellular DNA. Catching this disease early and beating it naturally are the keys to living a longer, healthier, happier life. Thanks to emerging research, we now have proof that nature’s medicine chest has everything we need.