We are still learning all the various ways that Lyme can wreak havoc on our bodies. Unfortunately, the longer the disease stays in the system, the more unpredictable its effects can be. Consequently, the less we know about it. Borrelia burgdorferi, the Lyme-causative bacteria, is a resilient, durable species of pathogen that actively resists the body’s attempts to overcome it. As it is allowed to spread further around the body, it can infiltrate key areas, leading to many varied symptoms and responses. One of the lesser-studied symptoms of Lyme disease is the toll it can take on the endocrine system. While it may not be the first thing that many people associate with a Lyme infection, it can still have a measurable impact on a patient’s health.
What Is Lyme Disease?
Before examining the distinctive ways that Lyme interacts with the endocrine system, let’s take a look at what Lyme disease actually is. Discovered in Northeastern America in 1975, Lyme disease is spread by a certain species of tick called the black-legged tick (or deer tick in Europe). After a bite by an infected tick, a patient will first experience flu-like symptoms, often accompanied by a bullseye rash. This is known as the acute stage of Lyme. If they are not treated with antibiotics, the symptoms will recede and the bacteria will lie dormant for a time.
When symptoms reappear, they are usually far more serious. This is known as chronic Lyme, involving an interplay between both infection and inflammation symptoms. The inflammation subset of symptoms, which manifest as chronic joint pain, impeded movement, and fatigue, are caused by the body’s own misfiring response to the overriding infection. It can be very difficult to treat chronic Lyme, as there are many different aspects to it. Compounding this is the fact that Lyme disease is not recognized as a legitimate disease in many circles.
What Is The Endocrine System?
Essentially, the endocrine system is a network of glands in the body that create hormones. These hormones help cells communicate with each other and are broadly responsible for every function in the body. Hormones control our emotional states, metabolism, growth development, organ functions, and reproduction. The endocrine system chooses when to release these hormones into the bloodstream and controls how they are released. Most of the major glands in the system are located in the brain, including the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the pineal gland. The thyroid and parathyroid are also key; these are located in the neck. The thymus is found between the lungs, and the pancreas, the largest gland in the system, sits towards the back, behind the stomach. The testicles and ovaries are two more crucial glands for men and women respectively.
Lyme Disease And The Endocrine System
Can Lyme disease affect the endocrine system? If so, how exactly? There is strong evidence that Lyme can cause thyroid problems, most notably hyperthyroidism. This is because of a process called molecular mimicry, a situation where a pathogen (in this case, Borrelia burgdorferi) shares an amino acid sequence with self-antigens (in this case, thyroid tissue). The end result is that the immune system attacks both the pathogen and the healthy tissue simultaneously, unable to discern between the two. This means that the thyroid is impaired and does not produce sufficient amounts of the thyroid hormone – a condition otherwise known as hyperthyroidism. This can negatively affect many of the processes that the thyroid regulates, such as metabolism, heart rate, body temperature, and cholesterol. In addition, some of the symptoms of hyperthyroidism can mirror the symptoms of Lyme, making the specifics of the patient’s disorder hard to discern.
Can Lyme Disease Cause Adrenal Fatigue?
Misdiagnosis is a major problem among Lyme sufferers, and the fact that endocrine-related symptoms can be entirely missed by doctors is one of the many problems surrounding this issue. Adrenal fatigue is a textbook example of how Lyme symptoms can be misinterpreted, as they are extremely generalized. The adrenal glands are small, triangular-shaped glands located on top of the kidneys. They produce crucial hormones like cortisol, which helps you respond to stress, adrenaline, and sex hormones. In adrenal fatigue, also called adrenal insufficiency, the glands produce insufficient hormones to sustain the body. A chronic infection like Lyme is considered a stressor and can cause this condition. Symptoms can be wide-ranging and varied, but can include fatigue, mood issues, cognitive issues, weight gain or loss, and digestive problems.
Gender-specific Lyme Problems
Can Lyme disease cause low testosterone in men? Or, for women, can Lyme disease cause menstrual problems? Gender-specific issues aren’t really brought up around Lyme, but when it comes to the endocrine system, the disease can affect men and women differently. In the former, low testosterone levels can induce hair loss, erectile dysfunction, weight gain, fatigue, and mood-related problems. For the latter, these hormone imbalances can lead to menstrual irregularities, mood swings, hot flashes, headaches, migraines, depression, and low sex drive if estrogen levels are too low. These symptoms are challenging to spot in isolation and can be tricky to address even when diagnosed. Regardless, it’s obvious that hormone disruption can hugely affect a patient’s quality of life.
Chronic Lyme needs to be treated with a two-pronged attack, utilizing antibiotics for the infection symptoms and nutritional therapy for the inflammation symptoms. This will hopefully address some of the hormonal regularities a patient may be experiencing in due course, but like anything to do with a chronic disease, it is a long, hard road.