In recent years, tick-borne diseases (TBD) have become an increasingly significant public health concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Lyme disease is one of the most rapidly emerging infectious diseases in North America and Europe. The CDC recently released an estimate based on insurance records suggesting that approximately 476,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease each year. This number is greater than the annual rates of breast cancer (266,400) and colon cancer (150,000) combined.
A Brief Introduction to Lyme, Babesia, and Other Tick-Borne Diseases
Most people are not thinking of ticks or tick-borne disease this early in the spring, but due to milder winters and the life cycle of ticks, the transmission of Lyme disease occurs throughout the entire year, and in New England, the highest rates of transmission are during the months of April and October. In April, transmission occurs by the tiny and sometimes translucent nymph form of the black-legged tick. Nymphs are much harder to see than adults and are reported to be about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. In addition to Lyme disease, there are many co-infections that can be transmitted by ticks, including Mycoplasma, Bartonella, Babesia, Ehrlichia, Anaplasma, RMSF, and the Powassan virus, to name a few.
Lyme Disease and Babesiosis: A Brief Overview and Differences
Lyme disease and babesiosis are two of the most prevalent illnesses associated with ticks, and they pose a significant threat to those living in tick-infested areas. With the recent steady rise in Babesia cases, it’s crucial to understand these diseases and explore the benefits of natural treatments for individuals diagnosed with Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses.
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, transmitted to humans through the bite of infected black-legged ticks. There are several other species of Borrelia that cause Lyme disease and tick-borne relapsing fever (TBRF). On the East Coast, 50–60% of western black-legged ticks are infected with species of Borrelia that cause Lyme disease. Typical signs and symptoms when first infected are similar to that of the flu and are often dismissed as such, leading to an undetected infection. These symptoms include fever, body aches, fatigue, headaches, nausea, and sometimes Erythema migrans (EM—the classic “bullseye rash”).
If left untreated or not properly treated, Lyme disease will spread to the heart, joints, and nervous system, causing symptoms ranging from stiff neck, swollen joints, and muscle pain to heart palpitations, dizziness, headaches, psychiatric symptoms (anxiety, depression, and aggression), irritable bladder, cognitive decline, insomnia, and night sweats.
These symptoms are often intermittent, migratory, and come and go in a cyclical pattern.
How Babesiosis Is Different
Babesiosis is caused by microscopic parasites of the genus Babesia (B. duncani, B. microti, B. odocolei), which infect the liver, spleen, blood vessels, and red blood cells. Babesia is transmitted to humans by the same ] ticks that carry Lyme disease. Symptoms of babesiosis are like those of Lyme disease and can range from mild to severe, depending on the person’s immune status. In most people, babesiosis has a wide range of symptoms, including fever, night sweats/excessive sweating, chills, headache, body aches, anxiety, dizziness, chest pain, air hunger, jaundice, and fatigue.
In some cases (especially the elderly, immunocompromised, or splenectomized), it can cause hemolytic anemia, low platelet counts, respiratory failure, congestive heart failure, renal failure, and death.
The Rise of Babesiosis
According to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, TBDs have increased by a substantial 25% from 2011 to 2019. Over the past year or two, there has been a notable increase in reported cases of babesiosis. Previously, babesiosis was considered endemic to Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. Recently, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont have been added to the list of endemic states. This surge can be attributed to various factors, including climate change, increased deer populations, and urbanization, which have created favorable environments for ticks to thrive.
Proper Diagnosis of Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases and Co-Infections
The diagnosis of TBDs, especially Lyme disease, is controversial. Diagnosis should be primarily based on the patient’s clinical presentation and history. Tests that evaluate immune system status and levels of inflammation can be helpful in diagnosis, as well as direct and indirect testing for TBDs. Unfortunately, this is not how most cases are handled. Even if the practitioner strongly suspects TBDs, they often rely solely on the test result for diagnosis.
According to the CDC, Lyme disease should be diagnosed based on symptoms, physical findings, and the possibility of exposure to infected ticks…and that laboratory testing is helpful if used correctly and performed with validated methods. This does not mean that Lyme disease should be diagnosed by laboratory tests alone. Additionally, the EM rash occurs in less than 40% of patients infected with Lyme disease. However, the presence of an EM rash confirms a diagnosis of Lyme disease even if the laboratory test comes back negative.
Accurate Testing for Tick-Borne Diseases
Testing for Lyme and co-infections is complex and can lead to false negatives that cause misdiagnosis and allow the disease to become chronic. Standard testing most often involves a two-tiered test: first, an ELISA is used to detect antibodies (IgM/IgG), and if found positive, a western blot or immunoblot is performed to confirm the initial diagnosis. The problem with this technique is that the ELISA is not a sensitive test, especially during the first few months of infection. It’s positive in less than 30–60% of patients infected with Lyme disease.
The MarDX Western Blot (which tests for Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto species only, 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. These tests pose further problems since they are not evaluating the 18 other species of Lyme disease-causing Borrelia, collectively known as Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato.
In addition to issues with test sensitivity, there is the matter of timing. It can take weeks for IgM to become positive and well over a month for IgG to show a Lyme infection, so testing too soon after a tick bite may not be accurate. If a patient is not mounting a strong immunological response to Lyme, it’s difficult to detect antibodies in the patient’s blood, which is what ELISA, western blot, and immunoblot testing investigate.
Additionally, it’s important to be tested for all the common co-infections of Lyme disease, including Babesia, Mycoplasma, Bartonella, Anaplasma, and Ehrlichia, RMSF, and viruses that are not detected by any Lyme test. Specialized laboratories like Igenex or Vibrant Wellness can be used to properly test all tick-borne diseases. Again, being proactive and treating comprehensively is the best approach.
Early Treatment of TBDs
If Lyme disease is caught in its very early stage (within four days of attachment of the tick), 3–4 weeks of doxycycline can eliminate the infection. It is important to note that all TBDs are not treated with doxycycline alone, so it’s important to know what infections are present.
However, when left untreated for just a few months, the spirochete can enter the cerebral
spinal fluid, penetrate nerve cells and organ cells and begin to destroy the nervous system. In an attempt to eliminate the infection, the body mounts a massive inflammatory response that can lead to a host of other symptoms, including autoimmunity. At this stage, months or even years of antibiotics are needed to control the disease. Lyme disease that has been unsuccessfully treated can manifest into chronic Lyme or late Lyme.
Lyme-causing Borrelia is known as the “great imitator” because it mimics many other neurological diseases and autoimmune conditions such as MS, ankylosing spondylitis, ALS, lupus, Parkinson’s, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis. Because of its ability to eventually cross the blood-brain barrier, it’s thought to possibly cause some psychiatric symptoms, including bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, dementia, ADHD, and psychosis. Over the past several years, there has been growing evidence of the role Lyme disease and Bartonella play in autism spectrum disorder (ADS) as well as pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS).
Natural Herbal Treatments for Lyme, Babesia, and Other Co-Infections
While conventional medical treatments, such as antibiotics and antiparasitic medications, are often prescribed for Lyme disease and babesiosis, there has been growing interest in the use of natural remedies to complement or even replace these traditional approaches. Natural treatments can provide several benefits for patients diagnosed with tick-borne diseases:
- Reduced side effects: Natural treatments may cause fewer side effects than conventional medications. For example, antibiotics can disrupt the balance of gut flora, leading to immune and digestive issues, whereas natural treatments tend to be gentler on the microbiome.
- Improved immune function: Some herbal medicines support the immune system, helping the body to fight off infections more effectively. Herbs such as Echinacea, Astragalus, and cat’s claw have been shown to possess immune-balancing properties, which can be beneficial in combating tick-borne diseases.
- Holistic approach: Natural treatments often address the root cause of illness and improving overall health, not merely treating symptoms. This approach can lead to a more comprehensive recovery and long-term wellness.
My 5 Natural Treatment Goals for Lyme, Babesia, and Other Tick-Borne Diseases
Because of the complexity of TBD, prescription antibiotics may not be a cure-all. When we focus simply on killing a pathogen, we miss the opportunity to harness the body’s defense mechanisms.
As a licensed naturopathic physician, I believe in a comprehensive approach to treating Lyme and TBDs, attacking the pathogen at every step while supporting the body’s innate healing wisdom with whole plant medicines. My focus is making the body inhospitable to infection and healing the body. This is predominantly done by following these five steps:
- Decrease inflammation: TBDs are all inflammatory infections. They initiate an inflammatory cascade that causes all the associated symptoms and, in turn, feed the bacteria/parasites of the by-products of this inflammation. Herbal medicines that decrease the inflammatory cytokines—Chinese skullcap, Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), cordyceps, kudzu—will help to control the inflammation. It’s important to identify and address all sources of inflammation in the person’s diet and lifestyle. There are often several micronutrient deficiencies, increased intestinal permeability, and food sensitivities that must be dealt with to get the inflammation under control.
- Balance the immune system: Often, these infections will cause an imbalance in the immune system and create a Th2 dominance, which in turn suppresses the production of immune cells crucial in eradicating the infection. Adaptogenic herbs like Ashwagandha that balance Th1 and Th2 are crucial to recovering the immune system. Cat’s claw helps increase NK cells and is directly anti-spirochetal. A healthy microbiome is key for optimal immune function—80% of our immune system is in the gut!
- Inhibit the destruction of ECM and
collagen: Various enzymes are stimulated by the organisms that cause TBD, breaking down collagen and various proteins from the extracellular matrix that aid the organisms’ ability to spread and evade the immune system. Using herbs that inhibit this process, such as Japanese knotweed, Echinacea, Ashwagandha, and Chinese skullcap, can stop the migration of the infection and the breakdown of connective tissue.
- Kill the infectious organisms, including opportunistic infections: It’s important to use proven killers like sweet Annie, Japanese knotweed, Cryptolepis, and Chinese skullcap. Cryptolepis was studied and shown to kill persister forms of Borrelia that commonly used antibiotics could not eliminate.
- Ensure the body can properly detoxify and eliminate: This is important not only on a cellular level but also to organs (kidneys, liver, lungs, colon, skin) and routes of elimination (bowel movements, urination, breathing, sweating). It’s also important to have healthy, tight junctions in the gut to keep permeability issues in check to stop the reabsorption of toxins into systemic circulation. Binders like Chlorella and G3M are often helpful.
One of the immune molecules that Borrelia alters in the body is NF-kB (nuclear factor kappa beta). Borrelia stimulates NF-kB to drive inflammation, breaking down tissues from which they feed.
Inhibiting NF-kB to prevent excessive inflammation is a fundamental goal in pharmaceutical drug development, as this pathway affects many other inflammatory diseases, including various cancers, COVID-19, and Alzheimer’s disease. A 2020 study showed that Astragalus alleviates inflammation specifically through the NF-kB pathway. Additionally, Astragalus is an adrenal adaptogen, balancing the body’s stress response and fighting fatigue.
Cordyceps militaris is a type of fungus 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. In addition to its anti-inflammatory actions, this botanical reduces fatigue and is a potent antioxidant.
Herbal medicine 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.
There are many herbs I use to treat tick-borne disease, and when choosing herbs for a patient, I try to select those with many overlapping benefits.
By far, one of my favorites is Japanese knotweed. It’s packed full of resveratrol and is known for relieving Lyme-associated inflammation. Not only does this herb stop the inflammatory cascade initiated by NF-kB, it also inhibits the growth of spirochetes at several developmental stages. Resveratrol is highly neuroprotective, which can be very helpful for the brain fog associated with Lyme infection.
The biggest challenge for those battling tick-borne infections, whether a new diagnosis or recurring chronic case, is moving forward with new information. Patients are bombarded with either apathy or unsolicited advice on how to deal with their situation. Family, friends, teachers, and even doctors seldom understand the multi-system dysfunction and the serious emotional toll Lyme disease takes on the patient. Often, patients are told it’s all in their heads and offered antidepressants.
I completely understand! As a fellow Lyme warrior, I have made it my mission to ensure my patients (and their families, teachers, and doctors) understand how Lyme and other TBDs develop and become 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 medical interventions together to fully recover from this destructive infection. Here’s a summary of my advice:
Once you have sent the tick off for testing (www.tickreport.com), begin prophylactic herbal immune boosters, herbal anti-inflammatories, and herbal antimicrobials to prevent the migration of the microbes that cause Lyme disease and co-infections.
When you receive the testing results, consult your health practitioner to add any necessary prescriptions while remaining on the herbals. Continue this for at least 4–8 weeks or as prescribed by your physician, and seek the care of a qualified Lyme-literate provider (ILADS.org) for further guidance along your Lyme journey. It can make all the difference.
In addition to naturally treating patients with complex medical conditions 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 making the herbal formulas she uses to treat her patients. Dr. Hinchey also founded LymeBytes™, a multimedia company dedicated to educating patients and other practitioners on the truth about Lyme disease and tick-borne disease and focuses on bringing patients, practitioners, and resources together for healing Lyme disease. LymeBytes™ is hosting its 2nd Annual Symposium November 10–11, 2023, at Mystic Hilton in Connecticut (virtual attendance available).
For more information, visit: www.lymediseaseconference.com.