The Connection Between Lyme Disease and Mental Illness
May is both Lyme Disease Awareness Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. While the two may seem unrelated, there is actually a significant connection between the two. Lyme disease, a bacterial infection primarily transmitted through tick bites, can cause neurological and psychiatric symptoms, including anxiety, depression, and memory problems:
The History of Lyme Disease
Lyme disease was first identified as a separate illness in 1975, when a group of children in Lyme, Connecticut, began experiencing symptoms of what was initially thought to be juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers eventually linked the symptoms to a tick bite and identified the bacterium responsible for the illness, which they named Borrelia burgdorferi.
However, it’s now known that Lyme disease has likely been around for much longer than this. In fact, there are historical reports of illnesses that may have been caused by Lyme disease dating back hundreds of years. For example, there are reports of a condition known as “erythema migrans” that dates back to the 1800s and is thought to have been caused by the same bacterium that causes Lyme disease.
Over the years, researchers have learned more about Lyme disease and how it’s transmitted. They’ve also identified other species of ticks that can transmit the bacterium, including the black-legged tick and the western black-legged tick. Known as the “Silent Epidemic,” there are approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme disease reported by the Center of Disease Control (CDC) annually. However, the CDC also notes that around 476,000 people are treated for Lyme each year, according to insurance claims.
What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease can affect any organ or system in the body, including the immune system, brain, nervous system, heart, and gut. In the U.S., most cases of Lyme disease are caused by a corkscrew-shaped spirochete called Borrelia burgdorferi. This organism has a unique way of evading the human immune system, starting as early as the tick bite, and has learned to survive in the human body even when aggressive treatment attacks are mounted against it.
Upon infection, some patients may develop a “bull’s eye” rash, a circular red rash centered around the bite that is also referred to as erythema migrans (EM). Anyone who experiences this symptom should seek medical attention immediately in order to receive a full course of antibiotics. Antibiotics are critical immediately after infection as they can prevent chronic Lyme from developing (this will be explained below). However, at least 30% of people exposed to Lyme disease do not develop this rash, which means many may become infected and not even know it.
Once the Borrelia bacteria has entered the body, this spirochete is able to hide itself from the body’s immune system while wreaking havoc on bodily systems as it attacks tissues and later triggers an inflammatory response. In this way, although a chronic infection, Lyme disease mirrors many autoimmune conditions because not only is the spirochete bacteria attacking the body, the body is also triggered to attack itself.
The Link Between Lyme Disease and Mental Health
Research has shown that Lyme disease can cause neurological and psychiatric symptoms. The spirochetes can damage nerve cells, disrupt the balance of chemicals in the brain, and trigger inflammation. Additionally, studies show inflammation to the hippocampus (which is critical for learning and memory) caused by an infection or chronic stress can negatively impact the brain systems associated with motivation and mental agility.
Psychiatric symptoms can occur during the acute phase of the disease, as well as during the later stages of the disease. Some of the most common neurological symptoms of Lyme disease include:
- Memory problems
Psychiatric symptoms of Lyme disease can include:
- Mood swings
- Panic attacks
In some cases, these symptoms can persist even after treatment for Lyme disease. This is known as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS) or chronic Lyme disease. While the exact cause of PTLDS is not known, it is thought to be related to an ongoing immune system response to the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.
The condition known as neurological Lyme, or neuroborreliosis, occurs in about 15% of untreated patients. The condition can affect both the central and peripheral nervous systems. Potential symptoms include aseptic meningitis and facial palsy.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Lyme Disease
Diagnosing Lyme disease can be challenging, as the symptoms can mimic those of other illnesses. Blood tests can be used to detect antibodies to the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, but these tests are not always reliable, particularly during the early stages of the disease. It’s important to seek medical attention if you suspect you may have Lyme disease, as early treatment is crucial for preventing long-term complications.
Early treatment for Lyme disease typically involves antibiotics. In general, the earlier the disease is treated, the better the outcome. Ozone therapy is also a great potential anti-viral and bacterial treatment that may help stimulate immune defenses to prevent chronic Lyme developing (Ozone is commonly integrated into chronic Lyme treatment due to its promising results).
Although there are so many cases of chronic Lyme in the United States alone, because Lyme disease mirrors other inflammatory conditions, many Lyme patients remain un or misdiagnosed. It is important to note that standard blood tests for Lyme disease are often inaccurate, especially when testing occurs soon after transmission. This is in part because the guidelines around a “positive test” are hard to solidify. The CDC identifies a positive Lyme diagnosis as at least five out of ten total markers from a standard blood test. This means that someone could be exhibiting the three most common markers and still not be diagnosed with Lyme.
Prevention of Lyme Disease
The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to take steps to avoid tick bites. This can include:
- Wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants when spending time outdoors, especially in wooded or grassy areas.
- Using insect repellent that contains DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 on exposed skin.
- Checking yourself and your pets for ticks after spending time outdoors.
- Showering within two hours of spending time outdoors to wash off any ticks that may be on your skin.
- Keeping your yard free of leaf litter, tall grass, and brush, which can attract ticks.
- Proactive ozone therapy for potential immunomodulating benefits
Lyme disease is a serious illness that can have significant effects on both physical and mental health. It’s important to be aware of the symptoms of Lyme disease and to seek medical attention if you suspect you may have the disease. By taking steps to prevent tick bites, you can reduce your risk of contracting Lyme disease and protect your overall health.
If you are experiencing mental health symptoms related to Lyme disease, contact our team of experienced integrative medical providers who can empower you to restore your sense of health.