A patient recently came into my clinic here in New Hampshire who was dealing with chronic joint and muscle pain throughout her body, debilitating fatigue, she couldn’t sleep, and her days were starting to be consumed by her poor health.

She had been to multiple doctors and specialists who didn’t give her any answers and was finally found to have a positive ANA (an autoimmune marker) by a rheumatologist. 

She was told she had autoimmunity and there were no treatment options other than immunosuppressant drugs to shut down the immune system and stop the attack. When she asked the specialist what causes autoimmunity he simply told her it was genetic. When she asked what nutritional approach she should take he said diet doesn’t matter. 

As she shared her story in her 80-minute new patient appointment, I started putting the pieces together and ordered a few tests.

The results showed she had been exposed to Lyme disease, a test she had begged multiple doctors to run, but they all refused. 

Unfortunately, I see this pretty frequently in my clinic because Lyme is so often missed or overlooked. But once patients uncover it and take a comprehensive approach to treating it, it can make all the difference in their recovery!

So let’s get into what Lyme disease is, how it leads to autoimmunity, and how to treat it and restore optimal immune function.

What is Lyme Disease?

Lyme Disease is caused by a bacterial spirochete called Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted primarily by tick bites. 

It can cause a huge variety of symptoms, including fatigue, migratory muscle and joint pain, headaches, memory issues, numbness and tingling, and other mysterious neurological symptoms.

Lyme’s nickname is “the great imitator” because the symptoms it causes can be so vague and many of them overlap with other illnesses, especially autoimmune diseases.

It is not uncommon to find patients diagnosed with autoimmunity that actually have Lyme disease and vise versa, or they have both and are only diagnosed with one.

3 Big Misconceptions Around Lyme Disease

A lot of people think that Lyme disease is relatively rare, but it’s actually one of the fastest-growing infectious diseases in the US. There are an estimated 329,000 new cases each year, which is 10x higher than the Centers for Disease Control predicted just a few years ago and a 320% increase from the 90s.

You may have also heard that the first sign of Lyme disease is a bullseye-shaped rash. However, not everyone gets this telltale rash and basic tests often don’t pick it up, which is why it’s easy for patients and doctors to miss.

The third big misconception is that it’s an acute, short-lived sickness. Most people, and honestly most doctors, think you get bitten by a tick, you get sick, you take antibiotics, and you get better. 

In reality, a lot of people develop chronic persistent Lyme either because it doesn’t get diagnosed and treated, or because it isn’t fully treated and you’re left with lingering symptoms.

In these cases, there are often co-infections at play, such as Bartonella, Babesia, Mycoplasma, or Rickettsia. They are called co-infections because they are also passed on with the tick bite that transmitted the Lyme disease. They are important to identify because they can be just as problematic for your health.

The Lyme Disease and Autoimmune Connection

Once you’ve contracted Lyme disease, it suppresses your immune system, which lowers your defenses and allows it to multiply quickly and spread throughout your body. Even worse, it has the ability to hide from your immune system in your own cells.

Unfortunately, this sets you up for autoimmunity in a few different ways. 

Since the bacteria are hiding inside your cells, your immune system can attack your tissues when it goes to kill off the Lyme disease, triggering an autoimmune response. This is a process known as bystander activation.

Because the infection quickly spreads throughout your body, it also leads to huge levels of systemic inflammation, which leads to and exacerbates autoimmunity.

And since your immune system is working overtime AND is suppressed from the infection, it becomes stressed out and is more likely to misfire and attack your own tissues by mistake. 

How to Treat Lyme Disease to Fight Autoimmunity

I’ll be honest with you, Lyme is one of the most complex conditions to treat and it takes time and hard work.

Simply prescribing an antibiotic doesn’t do the trick once inflammation is systemic, the condition is chronic, or there are autoimmune complications involved. 

You need a holistic approach that supports your immune system from the ground up so that your body can fight back against the disease and restore a normal inflammatory response.

This includes eating a nutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory diet, relieving stress, getting plenty of sleep, promoting detox, and overcoming any underlying deficiencies and imbalances.

That being said, I’ve seen patients make tremendous progress with a functional medicine approach to Lyme disease.

The patient I mentioned earlier is currently leaps and bounds from where she was before. She is now living life how she wants to, as opposed to what her body and illness was letting her do before.

About the Author: Dr. Seth Osgood is a Doctor of Nursing Practice, Board Certified Family Nurse Practitioner and Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM) Certified Practitioner. Dr. Osgood received his post-graduate training in Functional Medicine through the IFM and from working with Dr. Amy Myers. He has helped people from around the world improve their health utilizing a Functional Medicine approach.

Want to work with Dr. Osgood and the GrassRoots team? Become a patient in our West Lebanon, New Hampshire Functional Medicine clinic, our Burlington, Vermont Functional Medicine clinic, or our Austin, Texas Functional Medicine clinic!