Lyme disease is one of the most pervasive and yet under-diagnosed and misunderstood diseases out there. The American Lyme Disease Foundation (ALDF) reports that it is the most common arthropod-borne illness in the US, with over 150,000 cases having been reported to the Center for Disease Control since 1982. ALDF charts the first ever reports of Lyme to 1883, where it was mentioned in European medical literature. Lyme has been called many things over the years since then, including acrodematitis, chronica atrophicans, lymphadenosis benigna cutis, erythema migrans, and Bannwarth’s syndrome.
But all of these were just names for each of the diverse symptoms of Lyme and were not recognized as indicators of one umbrella disease until 1975, in Lyme, Connecticut, when a number of children and adults started experiencing uncommon arthritic symptoms. By 1977, the first 51 cases of Lyme Disease were diagnosed and the black-legged tick was targeted as the transmitter. By 1984, blood testing became standard in Connecticut and by 1997, the first Lyme disease vaccine was on the market, although it was taken off in 2001. There is currently no vaccine for Lyme Disease. The Connecticut State Department of Public Health hypothesizes that the emergence of Lyme is due to “changes in land use”: that is, land that had for many decades been used for farming was being converted for residential/suburban uses, which meant it was being “reforested” and thus repopulated with the fauna (deer, mice) that carry Lyme bacteria, which was now in very close proximity to humans.
What to know about Lyme Disease today?
According to the CDC, “Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi” and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks, “or deer ticks, which are prevalent in the northeast and mid-Atlantic United States.” The ticks themselves, typically in their immature or “nymph” stage when they infect humans, feed on white-footed mice, the principal reservoir of infection, become infected with the LD bacteria and then transmit it to humans the very next time they feed. These ticks can latch on anywhere, but you’ll most often find them in hard-to-reach areas such as the groin, armpit, and scalp. There are typical symptoms of Lyme, to be sure, but they are incredibly wide-ranging and diverse, and are also common signs of many other diseases and viruses, which is why it is often so hard to officially diagnose Lyme. However, typical symptoms include fever, headache, swollen knee joints, fatigue, facial paralysis, arthritis, dizziness and light-headedness, heart palpitations, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans, which presents as a bulls-eye on the skin. Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics, especially when started soon after the initial bite.
If left untreated, however, (which is quite common, given that the standard test for Lyme can be imprecise and only detects the antibodies called up to combat the infection, so cannot identify whether the infection is ongoing or in the past) the infection can spread to the joints, the heart, and the nervous system. And even if treated with a course of antibiotics, there are growing reports of chronic Lyme Disease or post-Lyme Disease Syndrome, which overwhelmingly affects women, and due to this, as well as to its diverse manifestations such as fatigue, musculoskeletal pain, difficulty concentrating or remembering things, and a host of other symptoms, is extensively misdiagnosed, simp
This is where traditional Chinese medicine comes in. In TCM, we have what we call Gu Syndrome (or “Rottenness Syndrome”), which describes a number of different chronic inflammatory conditions, including Lyme as well as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and others. Heiner Fruehauf, in the Pacifical College of Oriental Medicine blog, writes that the TCM treatment for Gu is two-pronged, treating both the internal and external symptoms of the disease, utilizing herbal formulas that have tonic as well as anti-parasitic effects. The idea is to increase your vital energy (yang qi) at the same time that you are attacking the Lyme pathogen.
An example of a typical Chinese herbal remedy used for Lyme would include:
- Anti-parasitic herbs that “release the surface” by basically fumigating your system and making it uninhabitable to pathogens
- Anti-parasitic herbs that tonify qi
- Anti-parasitic herbs that tonify blood
- Anti-parasitic herbs that tonify yang
- Anti-parasitic herbs that tonify yin
- Anti-parasitic herbs that rid the body of biofilm, “an aggregate of microorganisms that adhere to an internal body surface” and are resistant to antibiotics
What can you do so that you don’t even get to the point of complicated herbal remedies and medical establishment frustration? Educate yourself on tick prevention!
There are a number of steps you can take to reduce the likelihood that you will get bitten. The CDC recommends using insect repellent, removing ticks promptly (ALWAYS doing a tick check after being outside–even if just in Central Park!), applying pesticides and “reducing tick habitat”–that one is not super realistic, given that you’re not going to start converting people’s lawns back into farmland wherever you go.
My husband and I own a house in the Catskill Mountains and spend quite a bit of time outdoors these days, so tick prevention has been a hot topic in our household. We’ve become pros at incorporating tick-prevention into all our outdoor activities. It is possible to enjoy all the beauty of the outdoors and stay safe, especially if you follow these simple protocols:
- ALWAYS do a thorough tick check after being outside, especially in those hard to reach places (groin, armpits, scalp, etc.). This is the easiest way I have found to stay tick-free.
- Bug Spray: I love this natural bug spray, made by Tick Tock Naturals Organic Insect Repellent that is cruelty-free, PETA-certified, biodegradable and contains no synthetic chemicals. You spray it on your skin and it goes on like a body lotion. Its active ingredients are oregano oil, lemongrass oil and eugenol. Another favorite essential oil-based bug spray is Buzz Away Extreme – DEET-free Insect Repellent. Other popular homemade tick repellants include eucalyptus, neem and peppermint oils.
- Essential Oils: I particularly love cedar oil for prevention. A favorite, Cerdarcide, has a variety of products you can use on yourself, your pet or your yard. I personally use CedarCide Pco Choice Organic Yard Quart Bottle pest control for a lawn spray. It is toxic to ticks, fleas and mosquitos and has been a real life-saver.
If you do think you are experiencing symptoms of Lyme, my number one piece of advice would be: Do not be afraid to be an advocate for yourself! Find a doctor that listens and will do the appropriate tests. But also look beyond Western medicine. Seeking an acupuncturist, herbalist and TCM practitioner can help treat you wherever you are in your healing journey by creating an individualized treatment plan that is right for you.