Lyme disease is an illness which is caused by an infected tick biting a human and passing on the bacteria through the skin.
A tick is tiny, barely the size of a poppy seed, but that ‘speck’ can cause a lifetime of illness, pain, and suffering if not recognised and treated in time.
What Exactly is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is normally transmitted from a tick to a human, although there is mounting evidence that other blood-sucking insects can also be responsible, such as fleas, mosquitoes, flies and mites. In fact, in a study of four Lyme patients in France, only one of them was ascertained to have been infected by a tick, while at least two of the others had been infected by a fly or mosquito.
In the early stages of Lyme, there will normally be a bite, indicative of most insect bites. However, if the insect was carrying the bacteria responsible for Lyme, other symptoms will follow.
- Bullseye Rash – this is a hallmark of Lyme disease and occurs in up to 80% of patients. It will normally start at the site of the bite, between 3 and 30 days after infection, and can expand to up to 12 inches. Although the name ‘Bullseye’ gives an idea of the appearance, not all people with the Lyme rash (Erythema migrans) will have the tell-tale centre markings and outer ring. The rash can also be uniform in colour or have other characteristics.
- Flu-Like Symptoms are usually present, with the patient feeling generally under the weather – aching, fever, chills, and a headache can all be present, along with an aversion to light.
With Lyme disease being notoriously difficult to diagnose, patients will often go into the chronic stage of the disease in the following weeks and months, and symptoms can become far more debilitating.
- Rash which can spread to other parts of the body.
- Joint Pain, affecting primarily the knees but can migrate to other joints in the body, and swelling may accompany the pain.
- Neurological problems may start to manifest over the months and even years following an untreated infection – including meningitis, Bell’s palsy, weakness and/or numbness in the extremities, and loss of muscle control.
- Nausea may also be present, depending on the type of bacteria responsible.
Other Signs and Symptoms
Although those mentioned above are typical of Lyme disease, there are other – less common – symptoms which could also occur if the infection is untreated.
- Irregular heartbeat
- Eye inflammation
What Causes the Disease?
Well, we already know that Lyme is caused by a bite from a tick. But in order for a human to become infected, that tick must first have fed on the blood of an infected animal, which in the UK are likely to be sheep, hedgehogs, foxes and even dogs.
The bacteria, which is carried from an animal, to tick, to human, is known as Borrelia burgdorferi, one of a number of bacteria called Spirochaetes. In the UK, there are four species of the bacteria carried by ticks which are known to be responsible for causing Lyme disease - Borrelia burgdorferi, Borrelia afzelii, Borrelia garinii and Borrelia miyamotoi.
How Common is Lyme Disease?
It’s difficult to be accurate when looking for the prevalence of Lyme disease in the UK, simply because it is very often misdiagnosed, often as fibromyalgia, arthritis, MS, or CFS. However, it is known that cases are rising – in 2003 there 346 lab-confirmed cases of Lyme Disease, whereas in 2015 this number had risen to 1000. Public Health England believes that there may be up to 3000 new cases in the UK every year, but the real figure is not known.
Does Lyme Disease Get Better?
The prognosis for Lyme recovery is good when early treatment is given, in the form of antibiotics for 2 – 4 weeks. The antibiotics may be administered intravenously in severe cases.
However, some patients have reported continuing symptoms, even after treatment – a condition referred to as Post Infectious Lyme Disease. It is thought by many medical experts that the symptoms experienced following treatment are caused by damage to the tissue and/or immune system sustained during infection, while others claim that the persistence of symptoms suggests continued presence of the bacterial infection. What is known, though, is that prolonged use of antibiotics, past the 2-4 week recommended period, has no further benefit.
Chronic Lyme Disease, although often labelled as Post Infectious Lyme, usually occurs when there has been no treatment in the early stages (unlike post-infectious which is the persistence of symptoms even after treatment.) Unless destroyed by antibiotics in the early stages, the bacteria can travel throughout the body and hide, causing problems months and even years later. Patients may develop symptoms involving the brain, heart, joints, muscles, skin and digestive system which can significantly impair their quality of life.
Is Lyme Disease a New Condition?
Not really, although when compared to many other conditions it is a relative newcomer. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, a worrying health trend was emerging in three bordering towns in Connecticut – Lyme, Old Lyme, and East Haddam. The three towns had a combined population of only 12,000 and yet 39 of the towns’ children were diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, while a further 12 adults were found to be suffering from arthritis of ‘unknown cause’.
By 1975, there were still no answers, so two mothers took it upon themselves to find the truth, and presented all the evidence they could find to Connecticut State Department of Health and the Yale School of Medicine.
Although the scientists there were able to recognise the symptoms as being of one cause, it wasn’t until the early part of the 1980s that a scientist named Willy Burgdorfer connected the tick with the bacteria which caused these conditions, and he had the dubious honour of having the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, after him.
Is Lyme Disease a Risk Everywhere?
It was once thought that Lyme was prevalent only in the United States, but that is not the case. In fact, it is possible to be infected in more than 60 countries across the globe, with the exception of Antarctica.
Can it Be Prevented?
A vaccine was released in 1998 by GlaxoSmithKline but was withdrawn in 2002 following a lawsuit brought about by anti-vaccine supporters. GSK settles out of court when it was claimed that the vaccine caused side-effects. However, further testing revealed no adverse reactions, and the vaccine has recently been given the green light for human testing.
There are some steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of being bitten – Staying away from grassed and wooded areas, wearing light-coloured clothes so ticks can be spotted, wearing long sleeves and trousers to minimise skin exposure, checking the body and scalp for ticks at the end of the day, and learning how to remove a tick safely.
What Can Be Done to Treat Chronic Lyme Disease?
By making sensible choices when it comes to eating, the damage caused by Lyme can be undone. The bacteria responsible for Lyme disease feeds off sugar, so that should be the first thing to go. Sugar is also an immunosuppressant, and in order to fight off the infection, the immune system needs to be as strong as possible. Cut out not only refined sugars but also cut down on fruits because of their high (albeit natural) sugar content. The lactose in dairy foods is also a sugar, so opt for non-dairy, organic alternatives.
Inflammation in the body is triggered by the bacteria in Lyme, so cutting out inflammatory foods such as gluten, refined foodstuffs (flour, carbohydrates etc), fried foods, cola and dairy - in effect all the foods known to be bad for us - will help to heal the inflammation in Lyme disease.
Sleep is good for everyone! But when the body is fighting a condition it becomes even more important. Ensuring a decent night’s sleep will help to not only combat the fatigue associated with Lyme but will also allow the body to heal.
It should be undertaken, but it is vitally important not to overdo it – let the body be the guide. Exercise releases endorphins, or feel-good hormones, which will help to combat the downheartedness which often accompanies any chronic illness. And since chronic Lyme sufferers often lead a sedentary lifestyle because of the joint pain and stiffness which can be present, it will help to keep the sufferer moving.
Many supplements are available which help with the effects of Lyme disease, and they fall into four categories:
Immune health. As mentioned before, in order to fight any illness the immune system must be strong, but sometimes it becomes compromised and that is where supplements play a vital part.
Vitamins A, C, D, and E are all well known for their immune system boosting powers and are the frontrunners when it comes to boosting the immune system. Vitamin D deserves a special mention of its own, “…as it enables your body to produce well over 200 antimicrobial peptides, which are indispensable in fighting off a wide range of infections.”
Vitamins are not the only supplements which are effective in strengthening the immune system though. Cordyceps, a Tibetan hybrid between a fungus and a caterpillar (don’t worry, it all comes in a nice supplement!) has been shown to be a powerful immune booster. In a study published in The Chinese Journal of Integrated Traditional Western Medicine, Cordyceps was shown to improve the activity of white blood cells in healthy volunteers by 74%, and in Leukaemia patients by a staggering 400%.
Minerals also play a huge part in immune function – Zinc deficiencies have been shown to increase susceptibility to infection and sickness, and it has been proven that taking Selenium “strongly influences inflammation and immune responses”.
Antioxidants. The bacteria which causes Lyme triggers an inflammatory response in the body, which is responsible for some of the symptoms of the disease – such as joint pain and swelling. Antioxidants destroy free radicals, which are both responsible for, and a result of, inflammation, thus relieving the inflammation and preventing more from occurring.
All of the above-mentioned vitamins and minerals are antioxidants, and another two which should be considered for chronic Lyme are CoQ10 and Astaxanthin. CoQ10 is a particularly powerful antioxidant, especially useful for protecting the brain and nervous system from the damage caused by Lyme disease. Astaxanthin is a supplement few have heard of, but its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties are truly superior. As an antioxidant, it is “65 times more powerful than vitamin C, 54 times more potent than beta-carotene, and 14 times more powerful than vitamin E.” Furthermore, Astaxanthin crosses the blood-brain barrier, which means it can directly ease any inflammation in the eyes.
Anti-inflammatory supplements are essential in the fight against chronic Lyme. As we have already seen, the bacteria triggers an inflammatory response in the body, which can cause joint pain, swelling, neurological problems – the list is endless. In addition to the dual properties of some of the supplements listed above, there are more which can be added to a natural medicine cabinet to use in chronic Lyme disease. Turmeric and Ginger are already in most people’s kitchens, but they are for so much more than flavouring food! Turmeric is well-known as a ‘superfood’, and it is a well-deserved title – turmeric lowers the activity of the inflammatory chemicals and enzymes, which in turn reduces the inflammation present in chronic Lyme. In fact, it has been shown to be as effective as ibuprofen in the management and treatment of osteoarthritis (a condition which Lyme is often mistaken for). The benefits of ginger when treating chronic Lyme disease are threefold – it is an antioxidant, it calms inflammation, and it also prevents the formation of inflammation in the first place, all vital in combating the disease.
Ginseng is another very important supplement to take when dealing with chronic Lyme disease. Its benefits are numerous, and almost all of them apply to Lyme – relieving chronic fatigue, improving memory and mood, strengthening the immune system, and reducing inflammation.
And finally, Probiotics. As 70% to 80% of the immune system is found in the stomach, it is vital that it is kept healthy, not only with immune-boosting foods and supplements but also with probiotic supplements such as Lactobacillus Acidophilus. Even a short course of antibiotics can alter the gut’s flora drastically, so imagine what long term usage, which is often what is prescribed for Lyme disease, can do. An imbalance in the gut flora is thought to be a contributing factor in developing autoimmunity, and it is also widely accepted that the balance of flora in the gut is instrumental in maintaining a healthy immune response to attack. Taking a probiotic can re-balance the stomach’s natural level.
With so much conflict in the medical profession around whether or not chronic Lyme disease even exists, and if it does, how to treat it, it pays to be pro-active and seek out natural remedies with which to treat the condition.
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