Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the May 2018 edition of TTAC’s Insiders member newsletter.
There’s new news about Lyme disease, and it’s not great.
According to the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC)1 – the leading source of information on parasitic diseases that affect both pets and people – veterinarians are seeing more cases of Lyme in dogs in the areas of Northeast U.S. where this infectious disease is already known to be prevalent.2
What’s worse, Lyme seems to be moving into nearby regions that were not previously affected, suggesting that human risk will be increasing in these areas. Since these new regions are close to high-incidence areas, dogs may be more sensitive than humans to Lyme. In fact, Lyme incidence in dogs might help to serve as an early warning system for changes in human Lyme risk.
Let’s take a quick look at what we know so far about Lyme disease.
Lyme Disease: The Facts
Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne illness in North America and Europe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Lyme is the fastest growing vector-borne disease in the U.S. today.
Every year, approximately 30,000 cases are reported to the CDC by state health departments and the District of Columbia. However, this is very likely to be an underestimate. Estimates using other methods suggest that approximately 300,000 Americans are infected with Lyme each year.3
In the U.S., Lyme is caused by a germ known as Borrelia burgdorferi, which is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis and Ixodes pacificus). These are also known as deer ticks because they are typically found as parasites on white-tailed deer, as well as on other animals.
Black-legged ticks typically live for two years and have four life stages.4 Since ticks can’t fly or jump, they typically sit on the tips of grasses and shrubs with their upper pair of legs outstretched. When a host animal brushes past the grass or shrub, the tick quickly climbs on.
Once it finds a feeding spot, the tick then cuts into the skin and inserts its feeding tube, which may have barbs to help keep it firmly attached to its host. Ticks also typically secrete small amounts of saliva with anesthetic properties so that the bitten host can’t feel anything.
A black-legged tick will feed for several days. If the host animal has the Lyme bug in its blood, the tick may ingest the bug. If it later feeds on a human, then he or she can also become infected. Unfortunately, once infected, a tick can transmit infection throughout its entire life.
To make things worse, black-legged ticks also usually carry multiple other debilitating infections, including Powassan virus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and human babesiosis, a rare microscopic parasite that infects red blood cells.
Lyme is a multi-stage disease, named after the east coast town of Lyme, Connecticut, where the illness was first identified in 1975. One of its most typical symptoms include a rash or spreading area of redness, known as erythema migrans.5,6
This rash can occur anywhere on the body and is seen in approximately 70 to 80% of infected persons. It expands gradually and can reach up to 12 inches or more (30 cm) across, clearing as it enlarges, resulting in a target or “bulls-eye” appearance.
Other early signs and symptoms that usually occur within 3 to 30 days of a tick bite include:
- Body aches
- Joint pain
If left untreated, Lyme infections can progress to:
- Muscle spasms
- Loss of coordination
- Severe headaches with neck stiffness
- Joint swelling
- Meningitis (swelling of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord)
- Heart palpitations
- Temporary paralysis.6,7
Complete recovery IS POSSIBLE if patients receive the correct diagnosis and suitable treatment as early as possible during the infection. However, some people have reported joint pain and swelling, shooting pains or tingling in their arms and legs, tiredness, and memory problems many months to years after the original infection, even after undergoing treatment.7 In fact, some health experts strongly feel that Lyme is a chronic and persistent disease for which the word “cure” is not realistic.
As mentioned earlier, Lyme is often accompanied by other infections – all carried by black-legged ticks – which together raise inflammation levels and damage the immune system. It’s estimated that as many as 40% of patients with chronic Lyme disease may also be afflicted with one or more other infectious diseases.7
Patients with chronic Lyme disease consistently report significantly lower health quality, more bad mental and physical health days, and greater limitations on their activity levels and ability to work, relative even to patients with other chronic diseases.8
Last but not least, Lyme is known as “the great imitator,” because it seems very similar to many other disorders, including arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid disease, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis (MS), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), psychiatric illness, and Alzheimer’s disease.9
What Can You Do to Prevent Lyme Disease?
As we’ve seen, Lyme is a complex disease and usually occurs with other infectious diseases, which makes treatment both extremely complicated and challenging. In other words, prevention by reducing exposure to ticks is key.
Here are some ways to avoid contracting Lyme disease:
- There’s a common misperception that ticks are only active in spring and summer. In reality, different species of ticks are active all throughout the year. Specifically, black-legged ticks are active at different times of the year in different parts of the U.S. In other words, year-round protection is critical.
- Many people believe that if they don’t go on hikes or spend time in wooded areas, they aren’t at risk for Lyme. In fact, ticks are everywhere, including in suburban communities where deer, raccoons, opossum, birds, and other hosts frequent back yards. Many people get ticks in their own yard or neighborhood.
This is yet another reason why the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) recommends year-round tick prevention, including for dogs and other pets, along with regular screening.2
- Ticks live in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas, and on animals. Walking your dog, camping, gardening, or hunting can increase your exposure to ticks.
Therefore, it is advisable to completely avoid tick-infested areas, such as leaf piles around trees. When hiking, walk in the middle of trails and avoid brushing against long grasses and shrubs as much as possible. Avoid sitting on logs, wooden stumps, stonewalls, or the ground.9
- The TickEncounter Resource Center (TERC) advises people to wear tick-repellent clothing, including those treated with the insecticide permethrin.10 Permethrin is recommended as being safe for use on the skin in adults and children over the age of 2 months.
However, excessive exposure to permethrin is known to cause nausea, headache, muscle weakness, excessive salivation, shortness of breath, and seizures. Further, it is classified by the EPA as a likely human carcinogen, based on multiple studies in which mice fed permethrin developed liver and lung tumors.
If you prefer not to wear clothes treated with permethrin and other toxic chemicals, wearing light-colored long pants and long sleeves with a tight weave to make it easier to see ticks. When venturing out into wooded areas, tuck your shirt into your pants and pull your socks up over your pants. Also, wear closed shoes and a hat.
How to Check for Ticks
Ticks are very tiny and difficult to spot. It is vital to find and remove them before they bite.
So, when returning indoors from a hike:11
- Check your clothing for ticks – Any ticks found should be removed immediately. It’s advisable to tumble dry outdoor clothes in a dryer on high heat for 15-20 minutes to kill ticks. Damp and wet clothes may need more time. If the clothes require washing first, hot water is recommended.
- Examine gear and pets – Ticks can ride indoors on clothing and pets, then attach to a person later – so carefully examine pets, coats, backpacks and other outdoor gear.
- Shower as soon as possible after being outdoors – Showering within two hours of coming indoors has been shown to reduce the risk of getting Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.
- Check your body for ticks – Conduct a full body check using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body, including armpits, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, back of the knees, hair, between the legs and groin, and around the waist. Continue to check your body and bedding for several days after being in an area likely to have ticks.
If you find that a tick has latched onto you, there’s no need to panic. If you remove a tick within 24 hours of it latching on, you can greatly reduce your chances of getting Lyme disease.
How to Remove a Tick
To remove a tick that is attached to your skin, dermatologists recommend the following tips:12
- Use sterile fine-tipped tweezers to remove the tick – Sterilize the tips of the tweezers using rubbing alcohol and grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
- Pull upward with steady, even pressure – Avoid twisting, squeezing or crushing the tick, as this can cause its head or mouth to break off and remain in your skin. If this happens, use tweezers to remove the remaining parts. If you cannot remove the rest of the tick, see a board-certified dermatologist as soon as possible.
- Dispose of the tick – Dispose of a live tick by putting it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag or container, or flushing it down the toilet. If you save the tick in a sealed jar, it can be tested for disease if you develop any symptoms later.
- Wash the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
What to Ask Your Physician
If you’ve been bitten by a tick and are concerned about the possible consequences for your health, it may be best to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. If necessary, they will then refer you to a rheumatologist, or infectious disease specialist.
Before your appointment, write down:13
- Your symptoms, and when they began
- All medications, vitamins, and other supplements you take, including their doses
- Any questions you’d like to ask your doctor
If possible, it’s a good idea to take a family member or friend along to help you remember the information your physician gives you.
If you’re concerned about getting Lyme, or feel that you have symptoms of Lyme, here are some basic questions to ask your doctor:
- What is causing my symptoms?
- Other than the most likely cause, what are other possible causes for my symptoms?
- What tests do I need to take and why do I need to take them?
- What is the best course of action available to me?
- What alternatives do I have to the course of action you’re suggesting?
- I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them together with treatment for Lyme?
- Are there any dietary or lifestyle restrictions I need to follow?
- Should I see a specialist or specialists?
- Are there brochures or other printed material I can read?
- Which websites do you recommend for further information?
Carefully note down your doctor’s responses – and don’t hesitate to ask any other questions that occur to you.
Lyme Disease Diagnosis (or Misdiagnosis…)
Lyme is notoriously difficult to diagnose. In fact, it’s often misdiagnosed.
As we’ve seen earlier, Lyme symptoms seem very similar to that of other health conditions.9,14 Also, the germs that cause Lyme are hard to detect.15
For instance, the singer Avril Lavigne told Good Morning America that she visited many doctors and underwent a battery of tests, but that it wasn’t until she found a Lyme disease specialist that she was given a correct diagnosis.16
Unfortunately, pinpointing Lyme is not an exact science. Although many people develop the tell-tale bulls-eye rash, this symptom is sometimes faint or hidden away – and some people don’t get it at all.
Other early symptoms such as fever or aches and pains might get attributed to a virus or flu. So, if you don’t see a rash, you might not even go to the doctor. Even if you go, if your physician has not had much exposure to Lyme, he or she might not recognize the rash for what it is. Some Lyme cases go away on their own, so it’s entirely possible to have had the rash and never even known you were infected.
If you’ve been experiencing fatigue or joint pain for several weeks or months – and if you’ve spent time in an area known for Lyme disease outbreaks, or if you’ve been hiking outdoors – getting a Lyme blood test is a good idea.
A blood test cannot confirm whether you are currently infected, but it can tell if you have been exposed to the Lyme germ in the past. This test identifies antibodies to the Lyme germ and can help confirm or rule out the diagnosis. Its most reliable a few weeks after an infection, after your body has had time to develop antibodies.
Your blood test may show up as negative when you’ve actually have been infected because it’s too soon after the bite and Lyme antibodies have not yet shown up in your blood.
On the other hand, you may test positive for Lyme when in fact you have a different bacterial illness. This can happen if you were infected with Lyme at some point earlier, even if the infection is no longer current.
Either way, early testing can mean the difference between getting Lyme and dodging the bullet, so never wait to get tested if you believe you’ve contracted Lyme.17 A bulls-eye rash indicates a high likelihood of Lyme and must be treated immediately.
An experienced doctor can use these test results, along with your current symptoms, to make a diagnosis although physicians who aren’t used to dealing with Lyme can sometimes get confused themselves. Experienced doctors will diagnose Lyme based on their combined evaluation of both your risk level – in other words, whether you live in, work in, or have frequented tick-infested areas – as well as your symptoms, and not just one or the other.
If you don’t have the characteristic Lyme disease rash, your doctor might ask about your medical history, including whether you’ve been outdoors in the summer where Lyme disease is common, and do a physical exam.
Remember, there is a lot of misinformation about Lyme, even in the medical community. We recommend that you get as many facts about Lyme before visiting your doctor to ensure a more accurate diagnosis and suitable, timely treatment, which may make all the difference to your health and wellbeing.
Lyme Disease: Mainstream Treatment Options
Treating Lyme disease is a complex matter. There are various stages of Lyme infection, and treatments differ according to the stage of infection.18
According to mainstream medical opinion, antibiotics are the most effective treatment option, especially in the early stages of the Lyme infection. If the disease progresses untreated, or if there are co-infections, complications can arise. For instance, it’s clear that a single course of antibiotics is not enough, especially if the infection has been left untreated for several months.19
#1. Oral antibiotics
A 14- to 21-day course of antibiotics is typical, but courses lasting 10 to 14 days seem to be equally effective for treating early-stage Lyme disease. Effective treatment at an early stage gives the best outcome. If you’re still experiencing symptoms, your doctor may prescribe additional oral antibiotics or move to intravenous (IV) antibiotics.
#2. Intravenous (IV) antibiotics
If the central nervous system is affected, or if the Lyme infection is in a late stage, an IV antibiotic course of 14 to 28 days will typically eliminate infection, although it may take longer to recover from the symptoms. Also, Lyme disease can remain dormant for weeks, months, or even years. When symptoms do eventually develop, they can be severe and patients often need aggressive IV antibiotic treatment.
Unfortunately, IV antibiotics can cause various side effects, including a lower white blood cell count, mild to severe diarrhea, or colonization or infection with other antibiotic-resistant organisms unrelated to Lyme.
Patients being treated for late-stage Lyme often receive supportive therapies such as physical therapy, antidepressants, anti-inflammatories, and others.
#3. Intramuscular treatment
The slow and sustained release of intramuscular antibiotics allows people who cannot tolerate oral antibiotics a better chance at recovery.
A chronic version of Lyme – which typically occurs when a patient has been infected for more than a year before seeking treatment – is known to cause continuous, low-grade symptom flare-ups, and can last for years or even longer.
Research shows that antibiotics are only partially effective against Lyme. Up to 35% of those infected will not respond or will relapse. Further, new research shows that the Lyme germ can survive a 28-day course of antibiotic treatment for up to four months after the original infection. Despite testing negative for Lyme, some of these test subjects still had the germ in their heart, brain, and other organs.20
The Lyme germ has the ability to change its shape to protect itself, become more mobile, more invasive, and so on – all of which help it evade the immune system and resist antibiotic therapy.21,22
B. burgdorferi also creates so-called antibiotic-resistant “biofilms” or colonies wherever there is moisture and a surface, including inner surfaces in our body.23 Last but not least, Lyme germs grow very slowly, dig deep into cartilage and brain tissue, and can live hidden away inside our body’s cells.
In other words, Lyme bacteria are stealthy pathogens – and Lyme itself is a potent, emerging epidemic for which the available mainstream treatment options are at best only partially effective.
So, are there any other, more effective treatment options?
3 Promising Lyme Disease Natural Treatment Options
This herb grows mostly in India, Pakistan, and Indochina, and has been widely used for hundreds of years to treat malaria and other parasites, syphilis, bowel problems, liver dysfunction, and other chronic and acute infectious diseases.
Andrographis paniculata is the most popular Andrographis species and was first introduced as a treatment for Lyme by herbalist Stephen Buhner in his 2005 book, Healing Lyme.23
Along with its actions against Lyme, Andrographis also has anti-parasitic properties, enhances immune function, protects the heart, is anti-inflammatory, and crosses the blood-brain barrier, which allows it to access harmful organisms in the brain.
Buhner states that clinical trials and studies have found Andrographis to be effective against a wide range of parasitic organisms. Since many people with Lyme have other parasitical infections, by treating Borrelia these infections will also be eliminated.
According to Stephen Buhner, Andrographis:
- Acts against the Lyme germ and other “spirochete” germs
- Heals the neurological aspects of Lyme
- Lowers inflammation, especially in the nervous system
- Relieves pain, headache, confusion, and chronic fatigue
- Stimulates the immune system to fight Lyme
- Protects the heart and cardiovascular system
- Acts throughout the body to protect the body against damage from spirochetes
According to Buhner, Andrographis helps around 60% of people treated with it and may not be enough to put Lyme into remission.24 However, natural health experts still believe that it’s a valuable addition to any anti-Lyme regimen – and for some, Andrographis may be enough. Indeed, Buhner’s protocol for Lyme patients has been widely regarded as being both safe and effective.25
Side effects of Andrographis include dizziness and heart palpitations. Up to one percent of users experience severe allergic reactions. If any of these side effects occur, the herb should be discontinued and only resumed according to your alternative therapist’s recommendations.
#2. Cat’s Claw
Cat’s claw (scientific name Uncaria tomentosa) is a woody vine that grows wild in the Amazon rainforest and other tropical areas of Central and South America. Its bark has been used in traditional medicine to treat gastric and inflammatory disorders. Its thorns resemble a cat’s claws, hence the name.26,27
Using cat’s claw for health dates back to the ancient days of the Inca civilization. Its historical uses include contraception, as a therapy for inflammation, cancer, and viral infections, and to stimulate the immune system.
Today, cat’s claw is used as a dietary supplement for viral infections such as herpes and HIV, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, arthritis, peptic ulcers, colitis, gastritis, hemorrhoids, parasites, and leaky bowel syndrome.
In laboratory experiments, compounds found in cat’s claw have been shown to stimulate the activity of specific immune cells.27 It also may help halt the spread of diseases and assist in eradicating bacterial infections and other pathogens.28
Cat’s claw also lowers inflammation levels, enhances DNA repair, and speeds up wound healing. While most of these effects have been observed in laboratory studies, preliminary human studies indicate that cat’s claw may benefit patients with active rheumatoid arthritis.
Further, cat’s claw was shown to reduce the adverse effects of chemotherapy in breast cancer patients and improve the quality of life in patients with advanced cancer.27 However, a cat’s claw extract was shown to enhance the survival of pediatric leukemic cells, suggesting that this herb may not be safe for all cancers.
Back in 2003, a six-month pilot study was conducted on 28 patients suffering from advanced chronic Lyme disease.29 The control group of 14 patients got conventional antibiotic treatment. At the end of the study, three of these patients had improved slightly, three had gotten worse, and the rest had no change in their clinical condition.
Promisingly, of the remaining 14 patients who had been treated with cat’s claw, 85% tested negative for Borrelia burgdorferi – and all patients reported a massive improvement in their symptoms.
#3. Essential Oils
Laboratory research conducted at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health shows that various essential oils – including garlic, Allspice or Jamaica pimento, cumin seeds, lemongrass, myrrh, thyme leaves, lemon eucalyptus, Hedychium, Amyris, and Litsea, as well as cinnamaldehyde (the active component of cinnamon bark) – can kill the long-persisting forms of the Lyme germ.30,31
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.”30
Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne illness in North America and Europe.
Lyme is caused by a germ known as Borrelia burgdorferi, which is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected black-legged ticks
Complete recovery is possible if patients receive the correct diagnosis and suitable treatment as early as possible.
It’s estimated that as many as 40% of patients with chronic Lyme disease may also be afflicted with one or more other infectious diseases.
How to avoid contracting Lyme disease:
- Practice year-round protection
- Avoid tick-infested areas (even your back yard!)
- Regular screening
- Wear tick-repellent clothing
You may test positive for Lyme when in fact you have a different bacterial illness.
3 Promising Natural Treatment Options:
- Cat’s Claw
- Essential Oils