In regions across the United States, it no longer feels safe to work in the garden or walk in the woods. Many of these once benign outdoor places now host disease-ridden deer ticks, which are the main carriers of Lyme disease (LD), one of the fastest growing infectious diseases here and in Europe. For people who work and play outdoors, ticks have become our biggest enemy.
Unfortunately, many people who have been bitten by a LD-carrying tick have no clue they have ever been exposed. It is actually unusual for someone to know they have contracted Lyme disease early and get treatment right away. Due to tremendous confusion about the nature of this illness, the majority of cases go unreported. Hundreds of thousands of people have the typical symptoms without even knowing that they have LD—until long after it has spread throughout their bodies. Many more seek out medical help for chronic cases of LD only to find that medicine has little to offer. Often they are misdiagnosed or improperly treated. In many cases, their concerns are even dismissed. The illness can strike anyone, and has even afflicted people in the public eye, including Avril Lavigne, Ali Hilfiger, Richard Gere and George Bush.
That is why, if we value our health and spend time outdoors, we must familiarize ourselves with—and protect ourselves from—LD. With or without a visible bite, it’s urgent that people learn to identify LD’s characteristic symptoms so that they can begin treatment as soon as possible—and before the disease progresses.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), over 300,000 cases of LD are reported in the United States every year with many more remaining undiagnosed. Instant action is a necessity, because if left untreated, acute LD can morph into chronic LD. An acute case consists of symptoms that develop within days or weeks of a tick bite and may be more easily treated at the outset. A chronic case occurs when LD makes its way deep into our system and keeps recurring, possibly with periods of remission. However, both are misunderstood.
Customary approaches to LD often miss the mark. Conventional doctors view LD as an infection to stamp out with antibiotics, but, unless antibiotics are administered within 72 hours of a deer tick bite, they have a poor track record. Up to 20 percent of short-term antibiotic treatments for LD fail. There is a lack of recognition that LD triggers an autoimmune reaction in the body. What happens is that even if we’ve eradicated the infection, we are still left with a dysfunctional immune system continuing to cause symptoms.
Once LD progresses to the chronic stage, many conventional doctors administer heavy long-term doses of antibiotics. Yet these undermine our immune system. This mode of treatment may cause symptoms to abate, misleading people into thinking they are cured when they are not. Later, when they least expect it, the elusive or dormant LD spirochetes can all too easily reactivate themselves, producing a sudden relapse. By then, the immune system may be too weakened to fight off the next round of belligerent LD. Long-term antibiotics can actually suppress the immune system so that we are unable to defend ourselves against this persistent bug.
Although this one bug is one we really want to try to kill as quickly as possible, using antibiotics simultaneously harms our immune system, which is our best resource for defeating LD permanently.
Symptoms of Acute and Chronic Lyme
Signs and symptoms of early acute LD, which can occur three to 30 days after a tick bite, include fever; chills; pounding, throbbing headaches; persistent, noticeable fatigue; numbness and tingling; muscle and joint aches; swollen lymph nodes; and Erythema migrans (EM) rash or the “bull’s eye rash”.
According to the CDC, the EM rash occurs in approximately 70 to 80 percent of infected persons; it begins at the site of a tick bite and expands, reaching up to 12 inches or more across. Rarely itchy or painful, this rash sometimes clears as it enlarges, resulting in a target or “bull’s-eye.” However, other Lyme experts suggest that the EM rash occurs in less than 40 percent of people with LD; the lack of a rash does not eliminate the possibility of having LD.
Late-Stage, Chronic Lyme
If not treated early—or correctly—LD may become late-stage or chronic. Here, too, there is no definitive profile. Typically, patients with chronic LD report on average three of the symptoms listed below.
Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Lyme Disease
- Severe headaches
- Neck stiffness
- Persistent fatigue and exhaustion
- Additional “bull’s eye” rashes or other skin rashes around the body
- Arthritis with severe joint pain and swelling, especially in the knees and other large joints
- Facial or Bell’s palsy, including loss of muscle tone, or drooping on one or both sides of the face
- Intermittent pain in tendons, muscles, joints and bones
- “Wandering” pains from location to location
- Irregular heartbeat (Lyme carditis) or heart palpitations
- Dizziness or shortness of breath
- Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord
- Nerve pain
- Shooting pains, numbness, tingling, or burning sensations in the hands or feet
- Problems with short-term memory
Diagnostic Confusion LD can imitate, contribute to and often worsen many other serious illnesses. But because of inadequate medical understanding of both LD and these other conditions, the LD is often missed. And while treating LD may support recovery from these other conditions, the overlapping symptoms may lead to confusing LD with chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and ALS.
To make matters worse, there is no good test for LD that can sort out the variety of symptoms and misdiagnoses to determine a definitive diagnosis. Current diagnostics miss up to 60 percent of true cases of LD. In fact, some physicians regard the current tests for LD as completely worthless as some of the antibodies it tests for are not LD-specific while some of the antibodies it does not test for are. LD researchers Drs. Raphael Stricker and Lorraine Johnson have referred to currently available tests for the Lyme spirochete as no more effective at making a determination than tossing a coin.
To find out if someone has been exposed to LD, it is advisable to work with a LD-literate doctor; that person must know how to properly evaluate symptoms and uses labs that specialize in LD testing. LD is actually diagnosed based on symptoms and not by a lab test alone. The lab test may help confirm exposure, but there is currently no test available that proves we have an active case. It is the combination of symptoms and tests that help us figure out if we have LD or another co-infection.
The good news is we don’t have to suffer and take months of antibiotics to get well. Our bodies have an amazing healing capacity; we just have to give it the right tools to do what nature intended. Think about LD as a complex medical illness that is the sum of multiple factors that undermine the immune system; to feel better, we need to address each of these factors that are the obstacles to cure.
Optimizing Immune System Function
Getting the immune system in better shape starts with a healthy diet and improving gut function. The gut accounts for 80 percent of immune function; if it doesn’t work well, then neither does the immune system. While there are many diets claiming to help various ailments, following an alkaline diet tends to give people with LD the best results. This means eating foods that help make our cells more alkaline. It has nothing to do with the acidity or alkalinity of the food itself, but rather what the food does to the body once eaten. For example, lemons are very acidic, but promote alkalinity in the body. So starting the day with a glass of lemon water is a great way to help move the body into a more alkaline state.
Gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, reflux or heartburn can be signs of an unhealthy gut. Working with a nutritionally oriented doctor can help heal the gut. Making changes to diet will help, but other herbs, nutrients and homeopathic remedies can help stop leaky gut and improve its function.
When LD is active, herbs can help control the load of microbe in the body. We don’t know for sure if we ever completely get rid of the LD bacteria, but we can certainly reduce the number of bugs that are causing symptoms. Although there are numerous herbal protocols, Dr. Zhang or a modified version of Dr. Cowden’s protocol seems to work the best for most people. The herbs help eradicate LD, while supporting the immune system and improving circulation to help bring nutrients and oxygen to the areas of the body that need it most.
Managing good lifestyle habits is important for getting well. Making sure to get enough quality sleep is essential for healing. It is also important to get as much exercise as can be tolerated because movement also helps with circulation. Gentle walking, yoga, tai chi or qigong are great forms of easy, slow movements that most people with LD can do on a regular basis without being wiped out. Lowering the body’s burden of chemicals, mold and other environmental factors can help. Use only non-toxic products in the home and on the body. Stop using toxic chemicals, herbicides and pesticides. Have the home checked for mold if there was ever water damage, or a leaky roof or basement. Mold toxicity looks and feels just like LD, so make sure the home environment is clean.
Sublingual immunotherapy and low dose immunotherapy have been effective at modulating the immune system and helping control allergies and autoimmune reactions.
LD can be challenging to overcome but it can be conquered. Finding a LD-literate doctor who can help support you in your process is important. Making some of these changes can be difficult, but the results will make it all worth it.