Lyme disease is a growing epidemic. And the numbers aren’t steadily creeping up like other diseases on the rise—they appear to be skyrocketing. As of 2019, it’s estimated that there are upwards of 300,000 new cases of Lyme disease diagnosed in the U.S. annually. But just four or five years prior, that number was reported around 30,000.
Why such a sharp spike? According to the CDC and other sources, this higher number reflects more comprehensive and accurate disease reporting. There is also an increased recognition of Lyme pathology within conventional medicine, as well as more sensitive methods for detection being developed.
Diagnosis is usually confirmed by lab tests along with symptom presentation. Initial Lyme disease symptoms may include a butterfly or bull’s eye rash following a tick bite, as well as flu-like symptoms, fatigue, neurological symptoms and others. Lab tests include enzyme-linked immunoassay (EIA), immunofluorescent assay (IFA) and Western immunoblot of Borrelia burgdorferi proteins — the spirochete bacterium that causes Lyme disease, as well as other tests.
Even with advancing diagnostics, confirming the presence of Lyme disease can be difficult, in part because one of Borrelia’s strategies is to suppress the immune system. This means that the infected person may not be able to mount the appropriate immune response that would be expected on test results.
Some entomologists and infectious disease researchers believe the steady escalation in new Lyme cases is due to increased exposure. More robust tick populations, weather changes producing longer tick seasons, and other related factors are contributing to a rise of Lyme disease and related co-infections. Furthermore, new data suggest that multiple species of insects may serve as vectors for this disease. Whereas it was once believed to be isolated to the black-legged tick/deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, new findings indicate that Lyme disease may also be transmitted by other species of ticks, as well as spiders, mosquitos and other insects.
The Terrain: A Map to Integrative Lyme Treatment
One theory regarding the rise in Lyme disease, shared by many functional medicine practitioners, is that our collective health terrain has been progressively overwhelmed with ongoing exposure to pro-inflammatory stimuli. Just as we’re seeing an increase in autoimmune disease symptoms, allergies and other conditions involving deregulated immune response, Lyme disease is also gaining ground, following the path of a perfect storm: Elevated burden of environmental toxins, rising stress levels, and numerous other inflammatory instigators — all exponentially compounding each other.
When practitioners speak of “addressing the terrain,” they’re referring to the overall health of the patient — including genetic predisposition — and the patient’s unique interrelationship with their environment. This terrain theory serves as an important cornerstone for the comprehensive treatment of Lyme disease. Using integrative medical approaches that strategically address the individual’s preexisting cofactors within the complex pathology of tick-borne illness, we can peel back the layers and help restore health to the whole person.
Successful integrative protocols for Lyme disease involve the strategic combination of dynamic approaches, including:
- Addressing the underlying conditions that lead a person to develop Lyme disease — specifically through detoxification, immune support and anti-inflammatory approaches
- Attacking the bacterial spirochetes and co-infections
- Modulating inflammatory-immune responses to the bacterial toxins
The Presence of Lyme Disease Co-Infections
One of the major and often overlooked issues in Lyme disease are specific co-infections that frequently come along with Borrelia. Bacteria including but not limited to ehrlichia, babesia and bartonella (the bacteria responsible for cat scratch fever), often accompany the Lyme spirochete inhabiting the insect, and thus can transmit to humans during a bite. These microbes may contribute to more aggressive symptoms and need to be properly identified and addressed as well.
Overcoming Lyme Treatment Barriers
Standard allopathic treatment for Lyme disease is first-line antibiotic therapy, starting immediately after infection occurs or is suspected. Antibiotic treatment usually lasts three to four weeks following initial infection.
However, there’s a significant issue with this approach: Many people who contract Lyme disease don’t realize it until months or sometimes years later, when chronic symptoms emerge as the body reacts to the biotoxins produced by the infection. A number of other conditions overlap with chronic Lyme symptoms, so patients may also be misdiagnosed and treated for other conditions, such as fibromyalgia symptoms.
Chronic Lyme disease, sometimes referred to as Post Lyme Disease Syndrome, can be devastating. For instance, Lyme disease can even affect the brain. A wide range of symptoms may manifest as:
- Aches and flu-like feelings
- Moderate to severe pain and muscle stiffness
- Extreme fatigue
- Rashes and other skin problems
- Allergic reactions
- Brain fog
- Digestive complications
- Cardiovascular problems, including blood pressure imbalances and irregular heartbeat
- And more
When Lyme disease reaches the chronic stage, antibiotics are often ineffective in eradicating the infection. That’s in part because the bacterium that cause Lyme disease, as well as other co-infections, burrow within tissues once the infection takes hold. One place they often hide is within the nervous system, including the brain. Therefore, anti-inflammatory therapies that can
cross the blood-brain barrier are particularly important for reducing neurological symptoms of Lyme and other diseases. Pure honokiol, a highly active biphenyl derived from Magnolia officinalis bark, is shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and is considered a powerful tool in Lyme disease treatment.
Lyme bacterium may also utilize biofilm structures to hide. Biofilms are protective barriers secreted by multi-species microorganism colonies, including candida and other fungi, pathogenic bacteria and other microbes. Biofilms are shown to be highly resistant to treatment. A growing body of evidence suggests that Borrelia can form biofilm matrixes in the
body, shielding themselves from antimicrobial therapies and immune surveillance.
The multi-targeted strategy of breaking up biofilms with biofilm-degrading enzymes; applying antimicrobial agents, following with detoxification binders and lastly, probiotics, holds potential as a dynamic approach to help eradicate persistent infections, including Lyme disease.
The Toxic Metal/Mold Problem
Toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium and others are persistent in our environment. Repeated exposure can result in elevated body burden of toxic metals that impair detox pathways, fuel inflammation, damage DNA, scramble cell signals and suppress immune function.
Other environmental toxins, including agricultural chemicals and pesticides, as well as mold and fungal toxins, can induce similar impacts. Patients with an elevated toxic body burden and suppressed immunity are significantly more susceptible to Lyme disease, allowing Borrelia and other infections to get a much stronger foothold.
And because Lyme infection fuels chronic inflammation and toxic body burden, Lyme symptoms are often much worse in patients who are already challenged by ongoing inflammation and elevated neurotoxins, creating a vicious cycle where detox capacity and immune function are further degraded.
Gene expression can play a role in evaluating individual response to Lyme disease, too. Patients with certain genes such as HLA DRB1 15, DQ 6 and/or other HLA genes can be much more sensitive to neurotoxins. These neurotoxins include mold/fungus, toxins produced by bacterial infections, heavy metals, environmental pollutants and more. (For more information, check out Mold Warriors: Fighting America’s Hidden Health Threat.)
For these patients, antibiotics don’t work as well in the early stages, either. These and other genetic predispositions can make it much more difficult for patients with Lyme disease to successfully detoxify, while exacerbating Lyme disease symptoms.
Safe, Effective Detox for Integrative Lyme Treatment
Safe, gentle detoxification of heavy metals, toxins — and especially mold — remains one of the frontline integrative strategies in Lyme treatment.
Published clinical studies demonstrate that the researched form of the supplement Modified Citrus Pectin (MCP) safely removes toxic metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic from the body without removing essential minerals. This form of MCP is also shown to successfully reduce chronic, systemic inflammation by blocking a pro-inflammatory protein in the body called galectin-3.
Elevated levels of galectin-3 drive cytokine cascades that promote inflammation, fibrosis, biofilm establishment, and suppressed immunity. This elevation in galectin-3 also fuels the progression of chronic diseases— including cancer and heart disease — through multiple mechanisms. Clinically studied MCP is the most-researched galectin-3 blocker, and is increasingly applied in the treatment of Lyme disease, in addition to other pro-inflammatory conditions.
Supporting the body’s detox systems, particularly phase 1 and phase 2 liver detoxification pathways, is also essential. For this, botanicals including milk thistle seed, dandelion, gingko, as well as the nutrients N-acetyl cysteine, alpha lipoic ccid and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) supplement are important. Alginates, derived from brown seaweed, possess detoxifying, immune-
enhancing and anti-inflammatory properties. These and other natural detox agents help support the body’s ability to safely metabolize and remove toxins from tissues and circulation.
Antimicrobial and Immune Support Therapies
Targeted antimicrobial nutrients, botanicals and antioxidants can help treat infection while also modulating immune and inflammation responses. Garlic and its derivative, allicin, is a treatment often used for addressing Lyme disease.
Other botanicals, including curcumin from turmeric, cat’s claw, Boswellia from frankincense, astragalus and prickly ash bark, can also be helpful in addressing infection. One formula consisting of a combination of artemisinin, whole herb Artemisia annua and an Artemisia annua extract is recommended because it may be more effective and better tolerated than the single ingredient artemisinin, which is commonly used in Lyme disease treatment.
I also recommend IV glutathione with phosphatidylcholine (PC), as part of a modified “Lipid Exchange Therapy” for neurological conditions, including Lyme. PC helps dislodge toxins from cell membranes, followed by glutathione, which helps the body to neutralize and excrete the toxins. Vitamin C IVs are also helpful for addressing infection, inflammation and immunity.
Some compelling new research points to the benefits of botanical essential oils in treating Lyme disease. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University found that among 34 essential oils tested at different concentrations against Borrelia, three stood out with similar or better efficacy than antibiotic therapy: Cinnamon oil, clove bud oil and oregano oil. While this is preclinical in vitro (cell culture) data, results are encouraging as they highlight the potential for additional integrative approaches to help prevent and treat Lyme disease.
There are a number of integrative strategies that can work to strengthen the immune system, fight infectious agents, remove toxic compounds, support the body’s detox pathways and modulate inflammatory responses. Together, with proper support for neurological function and other key organ systems that may be affected by Lyme, we can gradually work to restore health
in the face of this debilitating disease.
One treatment that we’re seeing a lot of success with at my medical center is called therapeutic apheresis. This treatment is somewhat similar to dialysis and works to remove inflammatory compounds from the circulation. Three to four liters of blood are removed from the body, drawn through the apheresis machine and filtered through specific columns. The cleaned blood is returned to the patient in a continuous circuit. This filtration procedure effectively reduces circulating levels of pro-inflammatory compounds, including oxidized LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol, fibrinogen, C-reactive protein (CRP), galectin-3 (Gal-3) and others.
Apheresis offers an immediate and significant reduction in blood viscosity, as well as a significant decrease in toxic congestion, making it a useful treatment for individuals with chronic Lyme disease as well as other pro-inflammatory conditions.
If you have concerns about Lyme disease, it’s critical to work with a Lyme-literate health provider. Lyme disease can be complicated by numerous factors, but with strategic approaches that combine multiple modalities and therapeutic targets, we can gain momentum on the healing journey and reach our goal of greater health and vitality, naturally.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc has been a recognized expert in the field of integrative medicine since the early 1980s, with a specific focus on cancer, immune health, detoxification and mind-body medicine. He is a respected formulator, clinician, researcher, author and educator. As part of his commitment to the advancement of integrative medicine, Dr. Eliaz partners with leading research institutes and has co-authored numerous peer-reviewed papers on innovative therapies for immune enhancement, heavy metal toxicity and cancer prevention and treatment. He is founder and medical director of Amitabha Medical Clinic and Healing Center in Santa Rosa, CA, where he and his team of practitioners pioneer individualized treatments for cancer and chronic illness.