Think of Lyme disease as a silent pandemic. The CDC reports there are 300,000 new cases every year in the US, while other estimates put the number much higher. More than 80 countries have reported cases of Lyme disease. Testing is unreliable, there is no human vaccine available and while it does not spread through casual human-to-human contact, it can spread from pregnant mother to fetus and may be sexually transmitted. It was the fastest growing infectious disease in the US and Europe prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, is grossly underfunded compared to other diseases and is underappreciated by the “conventional” medical community. Connecticut, the epicenter of Lyme disease since the 1970s when it was first identified, continues to suffer the worst of it.
Connecticut at High Risk
Data in a recent report from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES), with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), indicates that 2019 was a particularly bad year for ticks across the state.
Over 2,500 ticks, including 2,068 deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis) and 467 American dog ticks (Dermacentor variabilis) were collected, and all female deer tick samples were tested for several pathogens that cause disease in humans. The results were alarming, and experts warn that a mild winter can contribute to a larger boom in the tick population, so 2020 potentially could be a more active year.
Out of the adult deer tick samples tested, 46% carried Borelia burgdoferi(the bacteria that causes Lyme disease), 13% were positive for Babesia microti(Babesiosis), 9% for Anaplasma phagocytophilum(Anaplasmosis), 2% for Borrelia miyamotoi(tick-borne relapsing fever) and 1% for Powassan virus.
Given the prevalence of disease-causing microbes in our tick population, first-line prevention of Lyme disease requires vigilant tick-bite prevention. Avoid wooded, shaded or bushy areas and tall grasses. Wear light-colored clothing and tuck your pants into your socks. Use a tick repellent, of which there are many—both chemical and natural—on the market. Check your clothes and body thoroughly for ticks, including your hair and skin-folds. Washing clothes in hot water or putting them in the dryer on high heat for 10 or more minutes will kill ticks.
Why Antibiotics Don’t Always Work
In the ideal situation, a person bitten by a tick and infected with Borrelia burgdorferidisplays the common Lyme disease symptoms, including bull’s eye rash, headache, joint pain, muscle pain, fever and chills. That person would be promptly treated with a proper course of antibiotics and recover with no lingering effects. An integrative approach, incorporating herbs (astragalus is particularly helpful to enhance the immune response) and diet and lifestyle changes (a whole food, anti-inflammatory diet, restful sleep and stress management) will increase the chances of a speedy recovery.
In our less perfect world, tick bites often go unnoticed. Only about 30% of people infected get the tell-tale bull’s eye rash, and symptoms range widely from person to person. This predicament leads to delayed or missed diagnosis and the potential for the bacteria to persist in the body or cause lingering effects due to the highly inflammatory state caused by the infection.
Persister Bacteria and Biofilms
Borrelia burgdoferihas a particular ability to change its genetic expression as its environment changes. The bacteria can respond to changes in temperature, pH, nutrient content and changes in the host’s defense. A 2019 study in the journal Parasites and Vectorsexamined “persister” bacteria that can evade antibiotics, and potentially cause long term complications for patients, even after Lyme disease treatment.
Most concerning, the Lyme bacteria has shown a better ability than other infections to resist antibiotic treatment. Under pressure from antibiotics or environmental changes, the Lyme spirochete (the common corkscrew shape) can change to a less mobile, round body (cyst form) and other forms, making it less susceptible to antibiotics. After antibiotic treatment has ceased, the round bodies can revert back to the spirochete form. Even in the round body form, Borreliais still able to infect the host, and reversion to the spirochete form helps explains the high frequency of antibiotic treatment failure. Other studies have shown that round bodies themselves develop resistance to multiple antibiotic agents. Doxycycline, the most commonly used antibiotic in early Lyme disease treatment, was shown to reduce spirochete forms by about 90%, but doubled the number of round bodies.
Borrelia burgdorferican also form colonies or biofilms in response to pressures, making it more difficult to eradicate. Biofilms, which are formed by most bacteria (for example, the plaque on your teeth), are sticky tangles of sugars and other substances that provide protection and community, facilitating the transfer of oxygen and nutrients, and making individual bacteria less susceptible to treatment. Five common antibiotics researched only reduced biofilm formation by 30 to 55%, and a majority of those biofilms contained the viable spirochete form of Borrelia.
Prior studies have established the utility of specific antibiotic combinations and stevia leaf extract to break down biofilms with success, with more research ongoing.
Lyme Treatment Demands an Integrative Approach
The most important factor to consider in Lyme disease treatment is that Lyme is a multi-system infection. It can affect joints and connective tissue, the brain and nervous system, the heart and cardiovascular system, the gastrointestinal system, the thyroid gland, adrenal glands and the rest of the endocrine system, and on and on.
To complicate the picture, Borreliararely travels alone. Co-infections such as Babesia, Anaplasma, Ehrlichia, Bartonella, and co-existing conditions like viral infections, heavy metal or environmental toxicity, bad bacteria and yeast in the gut, disturbances in the balance of beneficial bacteria (potentially caused by antibiotics), mold toxicity, and nutrient deficiencies make Lyme disease one of the most challenging conditions to treat. For patients with persistent symptoms, this is not a one-infection-one-antibiotic solution. A Lyme and tick-borne disease-literate practitioner works with their patient to establish which co-infections are present, which organs are affected and which complicating factors need to be addressed. The goal of treatment should be to return the body to equilibrium, limit the inflammation caused by Lyme and eradicate the underlying infections.