Lyme disease can cause serious issues throughout a patient’s entire body. This is one of the attributes that makes the disease so hard to pin down, and why reliable diagnosis is one of the most obvious problems doctors and patients face. Despite Lyme disease manifesting in all sorts of various ways, one of the areas it primarily affects is the gut. Around 70–80% of our immune system is controlled by our gut and the microbiome (helpful bacteria) contained within it. Lyme has a significant effect on immune regulation and often causes sustained inflammation in its chronic form. Therefore, Lyme disease has a major impact on gut health. This can severely impede recovery, leading to further issues and complications down the line. The subject of Lyme disease and the microbiome is often understudied by most doctors, yet its impact on the disease as a whole is significant.
Before we look at the specific ways that Lyme disease affects the gut, we’ll first define what we mean when we talk about Lyme disease in general. There are two specific types of Lyme disease: the acute stage and the chronic stage. While acute Lyme is a medically accepted problem, chronic Lyme is a much grayer area and is considered an outlier condition in many mainstream medical circles. Lyme-causing bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi is transmitted via tick bite. Not all ticks carry the bacteria, but the numbers are high enough for the CDC to estimate that there are around 300,000 new cases of Lyme disease a year. Acute Lyme carries many of the same symptoms as the flu, and is often mistaken for it. The telltale symptom that’s conclusively indicative of Lyme is a bullseye rash at the site of the bite. However, this isn’t always noticed or even present in all patients.
If acute Lyme is not treated, symptoms will recede in a few weeks to a couple of months. However, this is only a false recovery, as the Borrelia bacteria is actually busy evolving into chronic Lyme by digging deeper into the body. Acute Lyme can be successfully cured with a round or two of common antibiotics, but early intervention is crucial. Chronic Lyme is a much more complicated proposition, and often requires many years of treatment before symptoms abate. This is because the infection symptoms are compounded by inflammation symptoms. After the Borrelia bacteria has resided long enough in the body, the immune response will go haywire, resulting in chronic inflammation and fatigue. Chronic Lyme is particularly hard to diagnose and treat because of this complex interplay between infection-based symptoms and inflammation-based symptoms.
Many Lyme disease symptoms are generalized, non-specific, and different for every patient. Inhibited immune response is a common factor, but other symptoms can differ wildly, making initial diagnosis hard. However, there are a few common touchstones between Lyme cases – one of which is the baseline issue of a disrupted gut microbiome, stemming from a compromised immune system. The harmful Lyme bacteria can disrupt the natural balance of the gut microbiome, leading to complications such as leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome, and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). The latter occurs because the digestive system receives a “shock” in the context of the infection. The normal, positive flow of bacteria becomes shaken up, leading to overgrowth in your small intestine.
In addition, the chronic inflammation patients experience with Lyme disease can extend to the gut. This causes the tight junctions in the intestine to loosen over time, eventually allowing particles, bacteria, and viruses into your bloodstream. This is compounded by the cytokines (proteins secreted by the immune system) that are present in the patient’s symptoms from the Lyme infection. They too help promote intestinal permeability, otherwise known as leaky gut. This can severely impact the patient’s health, opening the doors to a number of other conditions in addition to the overriding Lyme infection.
Since many diseases start in the gut, focusing on it can help expedite recovery. Lyme is really no different: maintaining a healthy digestive system should be one of your and your doctor’s top priorities when it comes to Lyme. A healthy gut with a balanced, positive microbiome will help patients fight back against Lyme disease naturally, giving them the best foundations upon which to recover. A healthy microbiome can be achieved by utilizing probiotics and foods naturally high in probiotics and fiber. In addition, natural supplements can be added to a nutrition plan to keep the gut balanced and properly regulated. This will also help to curb inflammation symptoms and give the body a chance to recover.
Fecal matter transplants are also a promising addition to the treatment line-up. This procedure involves transplanting healthy fecal matter from a donor into the intestine of the patient. The result is an influx of helpful bacteria that will travel through the gut and propagate a healthy balance within the gut. However, as with any kind of transplant or transfusion, there is an element of risk associated with this procedure. Research and tests continue to determine the viability of performing FMTs on a regular basis, though the initial results are promising.
If you’re worried you may have Lyme disease, then you should consult with a Lyme-literate professional as soon as possible. Chronic Lyme is a very difficult disease to get a handle on; you give yourself the best chance by visiting an expert as the first step. Many patients suffer in silence for years as their claims and concerns are dismissed or misunderstood by doctors who simply don’t know any better. A Lyme-literate doctor will be able to give you a clear answer after a number of specific tests, meaning you can start tackling this debilitating disease as soon as possible.