Diagnosis of Lyme disease is surprisingly controversial. Testing for Lyme and co-infections is complicated, and in acute cases, it can lead to false negative results that cause misdiagnosis and allow the disease to become chronic.
Standard testing involves a two tiered test: first, an ELISA is used to detect antibodies and if it is found positive, a Western Blot is performed to confirm the initial diagnosis. The problem with this testing technique is that the ELISA is not a sensitive test, especially during the first few months of infection.
The 2 Tiered Testing for Lyme Disease is positive in less than 30-60% of patients infected with Lyme disease.
The MarDX Western Blot (which tests for ONLY Borrelia burgdorferi species and is used by most standard laboratories) is much more sensitive than the ELISA and detects Borrelia burgdorferi more often, but can still give a false negative more than 30% of the time.
In addition to issues with test sensitivity, there is the matter of timing. It can take weeks for IgM to become positive and over a month for IgG to show a Lyme infection, so testing too soon after a tick bite may not be accurate (CDC, 2021).
If a patient is not mounting a strong immunological response to Lyme, it is hard to detect antibodies in the patient’s blood, which is what ELISA and Western Blot testing investigate. Performing a urine PCR, which looks for DNA of Borrelia burgdorferi, is more accurate.
To complicate matters further, if you are only looking at Borrelia burgdorferi, you will miss the presence of other species of Borrelia that cause Lyme disease and TBRF.
Antibody and PCR testing does not test for co-infections, so you may receive a false negative, despite clinically showing signs of infection. For these reasons, it is important to be tested for all of the common co-infections of Lyme disease, including Babesia, Mycoplasma, Bartonella, Anaplasma, and Ehrlichia, none of which are detected by any Lyme test.
Once again, being proactive and treating comprehensively is the best approach.
An Unusually Natural Way of Doing Things.
The Science Behind The Herbs
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." ~ Dr. Myriah Hinchey
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.
Early Detection & Immediate Prevention Is key!
Begin by making 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 specialist for further guidance.
SUMMARY: Healing Chronic Lyme Naturally For 2022, Is All About Back-To-Basics Immune System Care
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!