Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Lyme disease, named after Lyme, Connecticut, the town where it was first discovered in 1975, is an infectious disease caused by spirochete bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, transmitted by deer ticks. A bite by a deer tick passes the microbe to humans. Lyme disease is most prevalent in the Northeast and the northern Midwest, so 95 percent of cases are reported from the 13 states in these regions. The infection is the most commonly reported tick-borne illness in the United States.
If a patient visits a doctor within a few weeks after being bitten by an infected tick, diagnosis is usually easy. The characteristic bulls-eye skin rash is a giveaway, not to mention flu-like symptoms and a fever. However, it’s possible to have Lyme disease and never develop a rash. Symptoms may not show up for months or years after one is infected. In the early stages of Lyme disease, symptoms may include skin rashes, fever, joint pain, muscle pain, headaches, and possibly heart and nervous system issues. In the later stages of infection, sometimes years later, an infected person can develop chronic arthritis or serious nervous, cardiac, or psychiatric problems. Lyme disease can develop into a serious disorder.
Clearly, the earlier the treatment, the better! Antibiotics are the first line of defense, and usually bring about a rapid cure. Up to 90 percent of patients have initially good results with antibiotics, but up to 30 percent of those relapse.
As an adjunct therapy, select herbs can help to boost immunity and even kill bacteria. Although there has not been much scientific investigation of alternative remedies for Lyme disease specifically, according to clinical reports, as well as a recent review published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, herbal medicines can be beneficial in restoring proper immune function and in treating the arthritis that often results with long-term infection
In my own practice, my favorite go-to herb for Lyme disease is goldenseal root, an all-around antibacterial remedy that is often quite effective at killing Borrelia. This popular and potent root was recently found to be active against MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a type of antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus bacteria. Both Lyme disease and MRSA infections can cause similar-looking rashes. Good outcomes are often seen with doses of up 20 gm of powdered root in capsules for 2–4 weeks.
Ashwagandha, a revered and much-studied root from India, is used extensively as a natural remedy for fatigue and immune dysfunction. A 2014 review concludes that ashwagandha is helpful in improving memory and psychomotor performance, and may be a valuable adjunct in the treatment of diseases associated with cognitive impairment such as Lyme’s. Recent studies from Italy and India show the herb can also be helpful in reducing pain and inflammation. Take up to 30 gm per day of the dried root in capsules, or mix the powder with water and drink.
Althea Northage-Orr, LAc, RH, a Chinese medicine specialist with substantial experience with Lyme disease, recommends astragalus root, used to boost immunity in Chinese medicine. Use up to 30 gm per day. Northage-Orr also points out that the literature on treating bacteria with vitamin C is substantial, and recommends high doses of this vitamin for Lyme disease—up to 2,000 mg per day, in divided doses.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, DN-C, RH, is president of the American Herbalists Guild and author of The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs.