What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is defined as an infectious disease caused by tick bites infected with the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi.
While ticks are the most common source of infection, mosquitos, march/marsh flies, sand flies and midges may also transmit the disease.
It’s worth noting that not everyone who is bitten by a tick will get Lyme Disease.
Because the species of Borrelia varies across the world, diagnosis of the disease in Australia may be missed. In Australia, Lyme Disease is often referred to as Lyme-like Disease, or Relapsing Fever. The diversity of Borrelia bacteria complicates matters – it is currently thought that some infect humans and some don’t.
Lyme Disease is a complex interaction of signs and symptoms across many body systems. Key elements are chronic infection, chronic inflammation and immune suppression. Lyme patients may also be more susceptible to environmental toxins, and may be more adversely affected by the toxins released by the pathogens that cause the disease.
The endocrine system (hormones), nervous system (neurotransmitters and brain function), digestive system, and the cardiovascular system may all be impacted. Added to this is chronic pain, fatigue and insomnia.
The Lyme Disease Association of Australia has more information on Lyme Disease in Australia.
Tick bites carry more than the Borrelia species of bacteria, meaning that co-infections are quite common. Often signs and symptoms of Borrelia and the various co-infections are similar. Co-infections can make signs and symptoms more severe. Common co-infections include:
- Babesia species
- Bartonella species
- Ehrlichia species
Reduced immune function can lead to opportunistic infections such as Mycoplasma, Candida, Epstein Barr virus, and Cytomegalovirus.
Clinical diagnosis of Lyme Disease can only be done by a medical professional – GP or Specialist.
Naturopaths prefer to treat patients based on presenting signs and symptoms, and medical history. While naturopaths and herbalists cannot formally diagnosed Lyme Disease, they can use information from previous test results, along with their own observations, to make an informed decision about how to help people who have been bitten by a tick and suspect they have Lyme Disease, or have a clinical diagnosis of Lyme Disease.
Signs and Symptoms
First signs and symptoms appear soon after the bite – hours or days, and include:
- Bull’s eye rash – appears in around 30% of cases
- Flu-like symptoms
- Aching joints and muscles
- Heart palpitations
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and/or constipation
- Vertigo, blurred vision, tinnitus
If you have been bitten by a tick, and start to feel unwell, see your GP or another medical doctor as soon as possible. Early treatment with appropriate antibiotics can make a difference to recovery.
Sub-acute Chronic Lyme
Initial symptoms may subside in 2-4 weeks, sometimes leaving the patient feeling weak and exhausted. Signs and symptoms of acute Lyme may continue to a lesser degree. Some patients say that signs and symptoms appear to cycle from good to bad to worse and back to good.
Undiagnosed and untreated Lyme can result in chronic Lyme.
Patients I see mostly have chronic Lyme and may have been unwell for months or years. Patients often present with:
- Chronic fatigue
- Brain fog
- Gut problems e.g bloating, diarrhoea/constipation
- Head and neck pain
- Muscular aches and pains
- Mood disorders
- A range of other symptoms are associated with chronic Lyme.
Signs and symptoms often reflect the co-infections and opportunistic infections the patient has.
Naturopathic Treatment of Lyme Disease – it’s complicated
Naturopaths and herbalists will assist people with Lyme Disease by prescribing specific herbs and nutritional supplements. They will assess the patient’s current diet and lifestyle, and recommend changes if needed.
Acute Lyme needs to be treated by a medical doctor who may prescribe antibiotics. Naturopathic treatments can be given at the same time – the aim being to destroy the bacteria and help the immune system fight the infection. Naturopaths can assist patients taking antibiotics to reduce unpleasant side effects some people experience when taking antibiotics.
Chronic Lyme is more complicated to treat due to the constellation of symptoms the patient presents with. It’s essential to address underlying microbial infection with appropriate herbs. However, it is often necessary to first stimulate detoxification, reduce inflammation, support the immune system, and address the most pressing symptoms before starting on anti-microbial herbs.
Diet and Lifestyle
Diet and lifestyle can have a very big impact on recovery from Lyme Disease. I usually recommend patients follow a low inflammatory diet – a mostly plant based diet that excludes, for example, processed foods, added sugar, dairy, gluten and foods from the nightshade family (e.g tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, capsicum, chilli, cayenne, paprika, goji berries). Other recommendations around diet will be made depending on individual patient needs.
As far as possible people with Lyme need to have a stress free or low stress lifestyle. Unfortunately, in the modern world, avoiding stressful situations can be difficult. Most treatment plans will include stress management techniques. While many people with Lyme are too fatigued for formal exercise, undertaking some moderate exercise is essential to recovery.
Most importantly people with Lyme Disease need to recognise when they have done too much. People recovering from Lyme need lots of rest. Overdoing it can set back recovery.
Lifestyle changes are often the hardest to make.
It is possible to recover from Lyme Disease. However, the degree of recovery is individual to each patient. Some symptoms can ease within weeks or months, others may take longer. Some patients need ongoing naturopathic support, others do not. Recovery may be dependant on the patient making changes to diet and lifestyle, and generally taking better care of themselves.
There’s no easy one size suits all answer to helping people with Lyme Disease. Each patient will present with a complex interaction of physical, mental and lifestyle factors affecting their day health and wellbeing.
I think the key to any treatment plan is to make it as simple as possible, and personalise it to each patient I see.
I would like to acknowledge the work of Professor Kerry Bone, Amina Eastham-Hillier ND, and Dr Nicola Ducharme ND. These three people have generously shared their knowledge on how best to treat people with Lyme Disease. I am grateful for their generosity and encouragement.
- Go to the Lyme Disease Association of Australia for more information on Lyme Disease in Australia.