By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Most people know about Lyme disease now, but believe it or not just 50 years ago the condition didn’t have a name. It wasn’t until 1975 that Lyme disease was first identified. Even so, researchers and doctors continued to be baffled as to what caused the mysterious arthritis-like symptoms characteristic of Lyme disease.
Six years later, in 1981, William Burgdorfer, PhD, a researcher with the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, discovered Borrelia burgdorferi—a type of bacterium that is carried by deer ticks. (And yes, the strain was named after him!)
Testing revealed that these bacteria, when passed to humans through tick bites, were the cause of Lyme disease.
Lyme Disease Symptoms
When you get bitten by an infected deer tick, the first telltale sign that you’ve contracted Lyme disease is a fever/flu-like symptoms, followed by an erythema migrans rash.
The rash usually appears at the site of the bite a few days to four weeks after infection. It gradually expands, reaching up to 12 inches or more in size. It may feel warm to the touch and usually has a distinctive “bullseye.”
If you notice a rash like this, seek medical attention immediately. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent long-term complications.
The problem is, the CDC estimates the erythema migrans rash only occurs in 70-80% of infected people. (And some sources report that number to be far less…as low as 40%.) For those who are unaware of possible infection due to lack of symptoms, the bacteria continue to multiply, which eventually leads to miserable and debilitating symptoms.
Later-stage signs of Lyme disease include:
- Severe headache and neck stiffness
- Facial paralysis
- Arthritis/severe pain and swelling in joints
- Pain in tendons, muscles, and/or bones
- Nerve pain or numbness/tingling in extremities
- Heart palpitations/irregular heartbeat (Lyme carditis) or heart inflammation (myocarditis)
- Shortness of breath
- Memory/cognitive problems
- Sleep disorders
If you look at that list of symptoms, it is painfully obvious why Lyme disease is one of the most misdiagnosed conditions.
Some of the most common misdiagnoses include:
- Psychiatric/psychological disorders
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Multiple sclerosis
- Autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus
- Thyroid disease
According to a 2018 research paper that looked at data from 3,903 Lyme patients, 51% did not get a proper diagnosis for three or more years and 54% saw five or more doctors before finally getting correctly diagnosed. The majority of patients also reported being initially misdiagnosed with another condition.
Accuracy of testing compounds the issue. Lyme disease testing isn’t perfect, especially in the first few weeks of infection. If you know you’ve been bitten by a tick and you’re fortunate enough to get a positive result early on, you can quickly get treated, which lessens risk of long-term complications.
But more often than not, blood tests given in the first few weeks come back false negative. Doctors usually offer second tests in these cases—but that’s equates to more wasted time, when treatment could and should be started.
So, as you can see, proper diagnosis is the first big hurdle.
Once you’ve conquered that, treatment is the next hurdle…
Lyme Disease Treatment
The standard treatment for Lyme disease is antibiotic therapy. This makes sense, since it is a bacterial infection. Doctors usually prescribe doxycycline, though other antibiotics like amoxicillin or cephalosporin may be used too.
Antibiotics are most effective when given in the earliest stages. And for the majority of patients, prognosis is good. However, for up to 39% of cases, this early treatment fails.
When all traces of B. burgdorferi bacteria aren’t eliminated (often due to antibiotic resistance), the ones that persist continue to proliferate and wreak havoc.
The efficacy of delayed treatment is even worse—by some estimates, it works about 50% of the time.
Not only that, treating later-stage/chronic Lyme disease often means you need to treat secondary problems that develop as a result of the original infection. I saw several patients over my career as a cardiologist who needed to be monitored for myocarditis or Lyme carditis. Patients also may need to see rheumatologists, endocrinologists, holistic practitioners, or other specialists.
Treating chronic Lyme disease always requires a multifaceted approach. Along with antibiotics, certain alternative treatments can really improve symptoms and help patients regain quality of life.
Remember, Lyme is a stubborn condition, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But here are some of the therapies that have proven to be most successful.
Herbs & Supplements
Samento is a liquid extract made from a woody vine in the Peruvian jungle. You’ll also see samento called TOA-free cat’s claw. Samento and a very similar herb, cat’s claw, contain compounds called pentacyclic oxindole alkaloids (POAs), which stimulate immune function. (This is the mechanism by which samento helps neutralize Lyme.)
However, cat’s claw also contains compounds called tetracyclic oxindole alkaloids (TOAs). TOAs are believed to weaken the effects of POAs. Samento specifically does not have TOAs, which is why for purposes of treating Lyme disease, make sure the cat’s claw you use is TOA-free.
Research shows that samento works even better when combined with banderol—an extract from Otoba parvifolia.
In one study, researchers tested both herbs, as well as the antibiotic doxycycline, for effectiveness against B. burgdorferi bacteria. Their results showed that “both herbal agents, but not doxycycline, had very significant effects on all forms of B. burgdorferi, especially when used in combination, suggesting that herbal agents could provide an effective therapeutic approach for Lyme disease patients.”
These aren’t the only two herbs that show promise against Lyme. In a more recent 2020 study, researchers from Johns Hopkins evaluated 12 commonly used herbals/antimicrobials for Lyme disease.
They found that seven of those botanical extracts were effective against B. burgdorferi compared antibiotics. In addition to cat’s claw, those herbs are:
- Cryptolepis sanguinolenta
- Juglans nigra(Black walnut)
- Polygonum cuspidatum(Japanese knotweed)
- Artemisia annua(Sweet wormwood)
- Cistus incanus
- Scutellaria baicalensis(Chinese skullcap)
Intravenous nutrients are also helpful for Lyme disease. Nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamins C and D, glutathione, omega-3s, CoQ10, and NAD+ help to reduce oxidative stress, detoxify the body, boost immunity, support metabolic and cellular functions, and decrease inflammation.
You can take all these nutrients orally, but with an illness like chronic Lyme, higher doses are needed to see real benefit. With IV delivery, nutrients bypass the digestive tract, so your cells are able to absorb 100% of the nutrients.
Garlic is a potent antimicrobial that has strong effects against Lyme disease. In fact, another team of researchers from Johns Hopkins found that oils from garlic and other herbs show strong activity against B. burgdorferi.
These researchers tested 35 essential oils and found 10 of them possessed “significant killing activity” against Lyme bacteria cultures. Some of the strongest were garlic, allspice, and myrrh. Other oils that performed well include thyme, cumin, and cinnamon bark.
Garlic is my top recommendation. You can either eat a few cloves of raw garlic per day, or supplement with garlic oil.
Other Lyme Therapies
Vitamins and herbs are the cornerstone of complementary Lyme disease treatment. But there are other external therapies that should be considered as well.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy saturates your system with pure oxygen. B. burgdorferi thrives in a low-oxygen environment, so hyperbaric oxygen essentially “chokes out” the bacteria.
Additional therapies that have varying degrees of success include:
- Electromagnetic therapy
- Heat therapy
The best way to explore these options is to find a Lyme-literate physician in your area who can steer you toward the right treatments based on your symptoms.
Prevention Is Key
Lyme prevention should be top of mind in the spring and summer months, especially if you live in the Northeastern United States—“Ground Zero” for Lyme disease.
When outside, protect yourself from tick bites by wearing long pants tucked into your socks, a hat, and long sleeves—as well as light clothing, so you have a better chance of seeing a tick that has made its way onto your body.
Applying eucalyptus oil to your skin (with a carrier oil or lotion) can help repel ticks, as can Neem oil, a natural insecticide product from India.
Once you’re inside, place your clothes in the dryer and run it on high heat for 10 to 15 minutes, and check your body & scalp (or have family member check you) for ticks. Taking a shower or can also help wash off ticks before they have a chance to attach and burrow.
I’ll conclude with this personal tidbit:
I share the information in this article not just from a doctor’s perspective, but from a patient’s too. I myself got Lyme disease about 20 years ago. While I don’t remember ever being bitten by a tick, I did notice that I began getting occipital headaches. I rarely get headaches, so I knew something was off. (Listen to your body, folks!)
I used several of the treatments I discussed here, including TOA-free cat’s claw and garlic. While it took three or four months to fully eliminate my symptoms, these therapies worked—safely and effectively.
If you’re a frustrated, disheartened Lyme patient, I encourage you to give these interventions a try. Be patient…and stay hopeful. Because now more than ever, there is hope.
- NIH Intramural Research Program. Discovery of the disease agent causing Lyme disease.
- American Lyme Disease Foundation.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lyme Disease.
- Cameron D. Study Finds Misdiagnosis and Delayed Diagnosis Common for Lyme Disease Patients. DanielCameronMD.com.
- Johnson L, et al. Removing the Mask of Average Treatment Effects in Chronic Lyme Disease Research Using Big Data and Subgroup Analysis. Healthcare (Basel). 2018;6(4).
- Datar A, et al. In Vitro Effectiveness of Samento and Banderol Herbal Extracts on the Different Morphological Forms of Borrelia Burgdorferi. Townsend Letter. 2010 Jul.
- Feng J, et al. Evaluation of Natural and Botanical Medicines for Activity Against Growing and Non-growing Forms of burgdorferi. Front Med (Lausanne).2020 Feb 21;7:6.
- Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Press Release. Essential Oils From Garlic and Other Herbs and Spices Kill “Persister” Lyme Disease Bacteria. 2018 Dec 3.
- Huang C, et al. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy as an effective adjunctive treatment for chronic Lyme disease. J Chin Med Assoc. 2014 May;77(5):269-71.
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.