Named after a small Connecticut town in which it was first identified in 1975, Lyme disease is transmitted to humans by the bite of ticks infected with the bacterial spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Lyme disease is one of the most rapidly emerging infectious diseases in North America and Europe. To worsen matters, there are several other species of Borrelia that cause Lyme disease and tick-borne relapsing fever—on the East coast, 50–60% of western black-legged ticks are infected with species of Borrelia that cause Lyme disease. When initially infected, typical signs and symptoms—including fever, body aches, fatigue, headaches, nausea, and Erythema migrans (bullseye rash)—are very similar to that of the flu and can often be dismissed as such, leading to undetected infection. If left untreated or improperly treated, Lyme disease can spread to the heart, joints, and nervous system, causing symptoms ranging from stiff neck, swollen joints, and muscle pain to heart palpitations, headaches, psychiatric symptoms (anxiety, depression, and aggression), irritable bladder, cognitive decline, insomnia, and night sweats.
Several factors must be taken into consideration to prevent Lyme disease: knowing where you are most likely to pick up ticks, how to keep your lawn and pets free of ticks, preventing a bite if a tick hitches a ride on you or your children, identifying the ticks that put you most at risk, promptly and properly removing ticks, knowing the symptoms of infection, and recognizing the flaws in testing and rate of misdiagnosis. While that is a lot of information, being aware of all these factors is crucial in protecting your family.
Know Your Ticks…and Don’t Get Bit!
The first step in preventing Lyme disease is something many of us learn as we begin to explore the great outdoors: avoid tick bites. You don’t have to go into the woods to get ticks—a staggering 86% are found within the inner three yards of tree lines. Trees provide shade, stone walls make perfect mouse hotels, and leaves provide warmth for mice and other rodents, who serve as hosts for ticks. Leaf removal, cleaning stone walls, and increasing sunlight past the perimeter of the lawn will decrease ticks on your property by ninety percent.
Take additional precautions by setting up your children’s play area away from the tree line to reduce their exposure to the area of highest tick concentration. You can also utilize natural tick-repelling sprays that are safe for honeybees and amphibians as well as humans and pets. Spraying for ticks should be done in the early spring, summer, and late fall and should be applied to the entire lawn, well past the perimeter and into the woods.
When in grassy areas, leaves, or woods, wear light-colored long sleeves and pants, and pull your socks over your pants. There are many natural tick sprays that do not use DEET but contain essential oil of chrysanthemum or cedar, which are effective in repelling ticks and other insects. Insect Shield is a company that treats special clothing/gear for outside activities (hunting, fishing, rock climbing, hiking) with tick repellent and lasts seventy washes. Regardless of precautions, it is important to perform tick checks on yourselves, children, and pets after being outside, paying special attention to the hairline, armpits, belly button, back of knees, and groin.
Recognizing the types of ticks that carry Lyme disease and co-infections is crucial. Most people are aware that deer ticks range in size from that of a sesame seed to that of a poppy seed, while a dog tick is much larger. Nymph ticks are harder to spot, as they are a translucent/pale color and as small as the period at the end of this sentence. It is very common to not realize that you have been bitten by a tick and to never find the tick that transmitted Lyme disease to you. These ticks are usually hidden well enough to become fully engorged and drop off without your awareness, which is how most people contract Lyme and other co-infections.
But What if You Are Bitten?
If you take all of these precautions and are still bitten, don’t panic—there is plenty that both conventional and naturopathic medicine can do to prevent infection from causing illness. First things first, however—you must remove the tick safely. Do not use anything to “suffocate” the tick, as this may cause the tick to regurgitate its contents and expose you to infections. Use flat-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick at the base of the head (not the body) and slowly but firmly pull the tick from the skin in the same direction that it is implanted.
Once the tick is removed, use a clear plastic sealable bag to store it for testing. Apply hydrogen peroxide to clean the wound. Mix bentonite clay and Andrographis tincture (an anti-spirochetal herb) to form a paste and apply it directly to the bite. Cover with a bandage soaked in the tincture and let it heal. It is recommended to send the tick for testing so your practitioners can help you create a treatment plan tailored to the specific pathogens found in the tick. Although there are inexpensive and even free resources for tick testing, the most comprehensive way to test ticks may be to use the expanded panel through www.tickreport.com. The results typically come back within 48–72 hours, which allows for timely and proper antibiotic treatment.
Black-legged deer ticks are the most common ticks in Connecticut and carry multiple bacteria that can cause Lyme disease, as well as others that cause co-infections. Additionally, ticks can carry parasites and viruses, meaning that a tick bite puts you at risk for a multitude of diseases. It is essential, therefore, that the tick testing you choose is comprehensive to identify the infections the tick itself may have carried and choose the appropriate treatments accordingly.
Take a Bite out of Lyme
You do not need to have found a tick on your body or to have developed Erythema migrans to be diagnosed with Lyme disease. In fact, fewer than half of those diagnosed with Lyme have a history of a known tick bite or bullseye rash. If you develop any of the symptoms associated with Lyme disease, talk with your doctor or find a Lyme-literate practitioner who knows how to diagnose and treat appropriately.
As a naturopathic physician, I believe that improving our lifestyle, nutrition, and overall health is where we can make the greatest difference in the fight against Lyme and other tick-borne disease. Inflammation plays a huge role in our ability to fight infection from Lyme—if the body is constantly fighting exposure to events or substances that cause inflammation (such as stress, sugar, environmental allergens, food sensitivities, chemicals, nutrient deficiencies, etc.), it has a much harder time when a real threat enters the body. We must focus on creating a foundation for health, which sounds simple but can be difficult to implement in modern life. Rather than subscribing to a particular diet, I recommend returning to the basics. Eat food in its unprocessed form. Limit sugar and alcohol intake. Drink fresh, filtered water as often as possible. Move your body. Create a healthy sleep schedule and take time for short mental health breaks throughout the day. Prioritize stress-relieving activities. If it is too overwhelming to implement all these at once, work on one aspect of health at a time, and build upon that. It’s never too late to start improving your body’s resilience.
The International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS) recommends that those experiencing Erythema migrans undergo antibiotic therapy for four to six weeks. For those without access to antibiotics or aversion to pharmaceutical use, however, herbal antimicrobials can be taken internally to effectively address the suspected infection, either instead of prescriptions or in addition to them. A 2020 study compared the efficacy of several antimicrobial and antiparasitic herbs with the controls of prescription doxycycline and cefuroxime. The botanicals with “good” to “strong” activity against Borrelia included black walnut, Japanese knotweed, sweet wormwood, cat’s claw, Cistus incanus, Chinese skullcap, and Cryptolepis sanguinolenta extract—the last of which caused complete eradication of the spirochete, while doxycycline and cefuroxime could not fully eradicate it. This research makes a powerful case for using herbal antibiotics in addition to or instead of pharmaceuticals.
You may also consider taking homeopathic Ledum and Apis, two remedies excellent at addressing puncture wounds and insect bites and stings. Dr. Alexis Chesney, a Lyme-literate naturopathic physician, put together a very helpful Tick Preparedness Kit that contains herbs, homeopathics, and items for tick removal and storage, which can be found at www.lymecorebotanicals.com.
An Unusual Way of Doing Things
In a 2019 study on how Lyme disease develops, researchers found that tick saliva is not only the medium through which pathogenic bacteria enter their hosts, it also contains a mixture of proteins that disarm the body’s immune system, protecting the Borrelia from any natural defenses we would normally mount against infection. We also know 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 feed for a longer period while also transmitting higher loads of Borrelia. Together, the tick saliva and Borrelia further manipulate the biochemistry of the body to degrade connective tissue—collagen is rich in nutrients that sustain Borrelia, so the bacteria tend to migrate to collagen-rich areas, such as joints, ultimately making our collagen-dense connective tissue an ideal place for Lyme disease to thrive.
The Controversy of Lyme Diagnosis
Testing for Lyme and co-infections is complicated, and in acute cases, it can lead to false negatives that cause misdiagnosis and allow the disease to become chronic. Standard testing involves a two-tiered approach: an ELISA is used to detect antibodies in the patient’s blood and, if found positive, a Western blot is performed to confirm the initial diagnosis. The problem with this is that the ELISA is not a particularly sensitive test, especially during the first few months of infection, and is positive in fewer than 30–60% of patients infected with Lyme disease. The MarDX Western blot (which tests only for Borrelia burgdorferi and is used by most standard laboratories) is much more sensitive than the ELISA and detects Borrelia burgdorferi more often, but it still gives a false negative more than 30% of the time. In addition to these issues there is the matter of timing. Due to some testing limitations, being tested too soon after a bite may not be accurate. If a patient is not mounting a strong immunological response to Lyme, it is hard to detect antibodies. A urine PCR, which looks for DNA of Borrelia burgdorferi, is more accurate.
To complicate matters further, if tests only look at Borrelia burgdorferi, they will miss the presence of other species of Borrelia that cause Lyme disease. Antibody and PCR testing do not test for co-infections so you may receive a false negative, despite showing signs of infection. It is therefore imperative to be tested for all common co-infections of Lyme disease, none of which are detected by any Lyme test. Specialized laboratories like Igenex or Vibrant Wellness can be used for proper testing of all tick-borne diseases. Once again, being proactive and treating comprehensively is the best approach.
An Herbal Arsenal
Because of the complexity of spirochetal infection, prescription antibiotics may not be a cure-all for Lyme disease. When we focus solely on killing a pathogen, we miss the opportunity to bolster the body’s own defense mechanisms. Utilizing a comprehensive approach to Lyme disease, attacking the pathogen at every step, and supporting the body’s innate healing wisdom with whole-plant medicines all help make the body inhospitable to the infection while healing the body. Addressing the immune system imbalance created by proteins in tick saliva and inhibiting movement of the infection are crucial steps in treatment. For just one example, Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) counteracts the exact modulation of the immune system that tick saliva and pathogens initiate and maintain to keep infection going.
One of the immune molecules 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. Therefore, inhibiting NF-kB to prevent excessive inflammation is an important goal in pharmaceutical drug development, as this pathway affects many other inflammatory diseases, including various cancers, COVID-19, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Luckily, this is where herbalism shines. Among the many herbal remedies available to the general public, there are a good number that show NF-kB inhibiting properties and have the scientific research to support them. Among them is 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 Astragalus alleviates inflammation specifically through the NF-kB pathway and has the added benefit of being an adrenal adaptogen, balancing the body’s stress response and fighting fatigue.
Another readily available natural remedy is Cordyceps militaris, a type of fungus that has been 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 (water, 50% ethanol, or 70% ethanol extract preparations) could encourage the immune system to operate in different ways. 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 and is a potent antioxidant.
There are many other combinations of medicinal herbs used to naturally treat Lyme disease and co-infections, but in this context the most important to discuss contain high levels of resveratrol, which is helpful in 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 that not only stops the inflammatory NF-kB but also inhibits the growth of spirochetes at several of its developmental stages. Lastly, resveratrol is highly neuroprotective, which can be very helpful for the brain fog associated with Lyme infection.
Putting It All Together
The biggest challenge for those battling Lyme disease and co-infections, whether a new diagnosis or a recurring chronic case, is knowing how to move forward. Patients are faced with either apathy for their situation or unsolicited advice on how to deal with it. Family, friends, and even doctors seldom understand the multi-system dysfunction and serious emotional toll Lyme disease takes on patients, who can be left feeling hopeless, confused, and alienated, and are often told it’s all in their head and prescribed antidepressants. As a physician and fellow Lyme warrior, I have made it my mission to make sure my patients understand how Lyme develops and becomes a chronic infection, how to make their bodies inhospitable to the infection, how to bolster the body’s innate ability to heal itself, and ways to weave conventional and natural medicine interventions together to fully recover from this destructive inflammatory infection.
Prevention is key:
- Make 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 and send it off for testing immediately.
- Begin prophylactic herbal immune balancers, herbal anti-inflammatories, and herbal antimicrobials to prevent infection from the pathogens that cause Lyme disease and co-infections.
- When you receive your testing results, add the proper treatment prescription, if necessary, while remaining on the herbals. Continue for four to six weeks or as prescribed by your physician and seek the care of a qualified Lyme-literate provider for further guidance.
In addition to naturally treating patients with complex illness stemming from underlying tick-borne disease at TAO in Connecticut, Dr. Myriah Hinchey created LymeCore Botanicals™ to provide quality clean and effective herbal formulas for Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections, and is highly active in sourcing, testing, and overseeing production of the herbal formulas she uses to treat her patients. Dr. Hinchey also founded LymeBytes™, a multimedia company dedicated to educating patients and other practitioners about Lyme disease and tick-borne illness and focuses on bringing patients, practitioners, and resources together for healing Lyme disease. LymeBytes™ is hosting its first symposium on May 21–22 at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, CT (live virtual attendance is also available).
For more information, visit: www.lymediseaseconference.com.