by Stephanie Eckelkamp
Feeling frazzled, irritable, low in energy, or unable to get a good night’s rest often comes with chronic Lyme disease territory. Lyme is one of those ailments that basically leaves no part of your body unscathed — and your nervous system is no exception.
The microbes that cause Lyme and its common coinfections create a perfect storm of ongoing cellular stress that puts your body on high alert, ramping up the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which controls your flight-or-fight response, while suppressing the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is in charge of your body’s “rest-and-digest” mode.
This imbalance messes with your body’s ability to heal and interferes with functions essential for maintaining mind-body balance. Not only that, but the intense emotional stress that comes with having a painful chronic disease (and experiencing its many setbacks) also drives your fight-or-flight response, compounding the problem.
The good news: Taking strategic steps to rebalance a dysregulated nervous system will not only support long-term healing but also help you feel more calm and balanced in the short-term. Below, we’ll look at the science behind the Lyme-stress-nervous system connection and then highlight effective steps you can take to calm the chaos.
“Lyme disease is an assault on the cells of the body,” says Bill Rawls, MD, Medical Director of RawlsMD and Vital Plan. “And stressed cells are constantly sending out distress signals to the brain, which activate our sympathetic nervous systems and that fight-or-flight response.”
The fight-or-flight response isn’t inherently bad — in fact, it’s essential for survival, as it prompts the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that prime the body for swift action and your brain for quick thinking when facing a real-life threat (so you can literally fight or flee). However, it becomes problematic when it’s activated all the time and is not followed up with necessary recovery periods, as can be the case with chronic Lyme.
“Adrenaline and cortisol counteract everything going on in the parasympathetic system,” says Dr. Rawls. “That keeps your cells activated and robs them of their down time, which interferes with sleep, drives inflammation in the body, and makes you tired and anxious.” Over time, it can even worsen pain symptoms, which contributes to additional stress and feeds a vicious cycle.
Increased SNS and decreased PNS activity can also lead to changes in neural activities in the brain and interfere with creating beneficial neural connections responsible for memory, decision-making, managing emotions, and goal setting, while reinforcing harmful neural connections that further drive the fight-or-flight response.
None of these things are conducive to healing, of course. “So for someone with Lyme disease, calming that sympathetic response as much as possible is important,” says Dr. Rawls.
Reducing the microbial assault on your body’s cells that contributes to a revved-up SNS is key to addressing a key driver of nervous system imbalance. Thankfully, you have multiple avenues to lighten the stress burden on your body and start calming that angry nervous system ASAP, which can support physical, emotional, and cognitive health and free up resources your body needs to heal. Here’s how:
Consider exercises that stimulate your vagus nerve for an in-the-moment strategy to soothe your nervous system and bring about a sense of calm when you’re feeling acutely frazzled. The vagus nerve runs from your abdomen to your brain and is a crucial component of your rest-and-digest PNS. By engaging in habits that improve how well the vagus nerve functions, your body is better equipped to tap into that calming and reparative side of your nervous system.
Keep in mind, says Dr. Rawls, practices that stimulate your vagus nerve aren’t a cure-all, but when combined with an overall healthy diet and lifestyle, they can be a low-cost tool to calm the nervous system and maximize healing.
Living out of sync with your natural surroundings is a surefire way to increase stress and mess with your nervous system. Case in point: Not getting enough natural light exposure during the day and then blasting your eyes with artificial light from screens at night can throw off your body’s circadian rhythm, which regulates your sleep-wake cycle and other biological functions. This can interfere with sleep and cellular repair processes, driving further stress and cellular dysfunction.
The solution: If nothing else, get outdoors or to a window and expose yourself to natural sunlight within the first hour of waking and periodically throughout the day to support a healthy circadian rhythm. Research suggests bright light exposure between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. enhances PNS activity overnight, which may promote restful, reparative sleep.
We’re not trying to rob you of life’s simple pleasures, but that coffee could be doing more harm than good for your nervous system — especially if you’re burdened with a chronic disease. Caffeine can mimic excitatory hormones that trigger the body to produce the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. While some people with chronic Lyme may need to wean off caffeine altogether, others may be able to tolerate a small amount per day, which is where green tea comes in. Green tea has less caffeine and contains the amino acid L-theanine, which buffers caffeine’s stimulating effects.
Adaptogens such as reishi, cordyceps, rhodiola, and ashwagandha have an overall balancing or normalizing effect on the body, and they help you react to and recover from physical, mental, and environmental factors that might otherwise dial up your SNS.
One way they do this is by influencing the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis), a series of interactions between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands that regulate the body’s response to stressors. “Adaptogenic herbs send a message to the hypothalamus and basically say, ‘Hey, things aren’t as bad as you think. Let’s tone down that stress response a bit,’” says Dr. Rawls.
You know that Lyme’s stress-inducing effects can rob you of your cognitive sharpness, messing with your memory, focus, problem solving skills, and more — and this is only exacerbated by our modern era of multitasking. “If you’ve got brain fog, do yourself a favor and focus on one thing at a time and temporarily put aside worries about everything else,” says Dr. Rawls. There’s actually real science to support single-tasking’s calming effect: In one study, researchers found that SNS activity was significantly higher and PNS activity significantly lower while multitasking (doing 2+ tasks at once) and dual-tasking (switching between two tasks) than during single-tasking.
Lyme microbes trigger inflammation in the body, which ramps up SNS activity. Since you don’t want your diet to drive you further into fight-or-flight, eating an anti-inflammatory diet rich in vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, legumes, fermented foods, salmon, and other whole foods is your best bet. Keep processed foods to a minimum, too, particularly ones with refined carbohydrates and sugars — consumption of these has been shown to significantly increase SNS activity, according to one literature review.
An anti-inflammatory diet rich in plant foods (and fermented foods) also helps foster a balanced gut microbiome, which is important for a healthy nervous system. More on that below.
The bacteria in your gut are responsible for producing many of the body’s neurotransmitters, so an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria (i.e., gut dysbiosis) can alter your body’s normal balance of mood-regulating chemical messengers — tipping the scale from favorable, mood-elevating neurotransmitters to ones that activate the fight-or-flight response and cause agitation, says Dr. Rawls.
So what can you do to restore healthy microbial balance and indirectly support your nervous system? Take steps to foster the growth of good bacteria and support intestinal motility (since constipation can promote the growth of bad bacteria). Start by optimizing your diet, getting regular physical activity, drinking enough water, engaging in activities that bring you joy, and taking a quality probiotic supplement if you’re currently on antibiotics.
Any regular physical activity that your body can handle will have a beneficial effect on stress levels and, thus, your nervous system. “The intended follow-up to the fight-or-flight response is to be physically active,” says Dr. Rawls. “When you go for a 15-minute walk, you normalize all your stress hormones and lower cortisol and adrenaline.” And this can help bring you back to a calm, PNS-dominant state.
Don’t overdo it, though. Strenuous exercise can actually ramp up the fight-or-flight response, contributing to excessively high stress hormone levels, according to Dr. Rawls. Consider walking, cycling, swimming, gentle yoga, qigong, or simple bodyweight exercises, such as sit-ups, push-ups, planks, and leg lifts.
Not up for any sort of structured physical activity? No worries. Even just shaking out your body is thought to help relieve muscle tension and trauma, burn off excess stress hormones, and help rebalance the nervous system. You’ve probably seen your dog shake off after a stressful or overly stimulating encounter — it’s the same thing! To try it:
Whether you shake out one arm or leg at a time or move your whole body at once, there’s no wrong way to do it. Shaking helps to recalibrate the nervous system and decrease SNS overactivity.
Getting a dose of nature is one of the best ways to nourish your nervous system. Walking on a wooded trail, near a grassy park, or by a body of water has been shown to increase PNS activity and lower heart rate compared to walking in urban settings. Dozens of studies have affirmed the mind-body benefits of forest bathing (i.e., long walks in the woods), which include increased PNS activity, decreased SNS activity, lower blood pressure, and improved markers of immune health.
You don’t have to do it every day either — one study found that both men and women were more likely to report overall good health and greater psychological well-being when they spent at least two hours in nature per week. Even lounging in a lush park counts.
The physical and mental stress of chronic Lyme disease can wreak havoc on your nervous system. And while there’s no magic reset button to restore balance, the tips above can lighten your stress load, support a healthier stress response, and help your body tap into a calmer PNS-dominant state — all of which can help foster immediate improvements in well-being and support long-term healing.
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2. Gladwell VF, Kuoppa P, Tarvainen MP, Rogerson M. A Lunchtime Walk in Nature Enhances Restoration of Autonomic Control during Night-Time Sleep: Results from a Preliminary Study. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2016;13(3):280. Published 2016 Mar 3. doi:10.3390/ijerph13030280
3. Hannibal KE, Bishop MD. Chronic stress, cortisol dysfunction, and pain: a psychoneuroendocrine rationale for stress management in pain rehabilitation. Phys Ther. 2014;94(12):1816-1825. doi:10.2522/ptj.20130597
4. Kopp W. Chronically increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system: our diet-related “evolutionary” inheritance. J Nutr Health Aging. 2009;13(1):27-29. doi:10.1007/s12603-009-0005-1
5. Lin TW, Tsai SF, Kuo YM. Physical Exercise Enhances Neuroplasticity and Delays Alzheimer’s Disease. Brain Plast. 2018;4(1):95-110. Published 2018 Dec 12. doi:10.3233/BPL-180073
6. Mäkinen TM, Mäntysaari M, Pääkkönen T, et al. Autonomic nervous function during whole-body cold exposure before and after cold acclimation. Aviat Space Environ Med. 2008;79(9):875-882. doi:10.3357/asem.2235.2008
7. Nishimura S, Hyun K, Lee Y, et al. Increase in Parasympathetic Nerve Activity During the Nighttime Following Bright Light Exposure During the Daytime. Biological Rhythm Research. 2003; 34(3): 233-240. doi: 10.1076/brhm.126.96.36.19909
8. Pal GK, Velkumary S, Madanmohan. Effect of short-term practice of breathing exercises on autonomic functions in normal human volunteers. Indian J Med Res. 2004;120(2):115-121. https://www.proquest.com/openview/9b98ccfa3b77e8dc6667b20e1ca0f96c/1
9. Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2010;3(1):188-224. Published 2010 Jan 19. doi:10.3390/ph3010188
10. Tanaka M, Tajima S, Mizuno K, et al. Frontier studies on fatigue, autonomic nerve dysfunction, and sleep-rhythm disorder. J Physiol Sci. 2015;65(6):483-498. doi:10.1007/s12576-015-0399-y
11. Train Your Brain. Harvard Health Publishing website. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/train-your-brain
12. Vickhoff B, Malmgren H, Aström R, et al. Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers [published correction appears in Front Psychol. 2013 Sep 05;4:599]. Front Psychol. 2013;4:334. Published 2013 Jul 9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334
13. White MP, Alcock I, Grellier J, et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep. 2019; 9:7730. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3
14. Yu CP, Chen HT, Chao PH, Yin J, Tsai MJ. The Role of Social Context in Physiological and Psychological Restoration in a Forest: Case Study of a Guided Forest Therapy Program in Taiwan. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(19):10076. Published 2021 Sep 25. doi:10.3390/ijerph181910076
https://www.treatlyme.net/guide/lyme-detoxification-101-the-basics Video Here (Approx. 5 Min)
By Dr. Marty Ross
In this video and written article, I describe basic steps a person can take to detoxify in Lyme disease. The basic steps include:
Often people report they “feel toxic” in Lyme treatments. A major cause of feeling toxic is due to excessive cytokines the immune system makes as it tries to control Lyme infection.
A good way to deal with “feeling toxic” is to lower cytokines and work to remove the toxins triggering the cytokines. Read more about how to lower cytokines in Control Cytokines: A Guide to Fix Lyme Symptoms & The Immune System. Two basic steps that support lowering cytokines are to take liposomal curcumin and to use liposomal glutathione.
Start with your diet – eat organic foods. These do not contain harmful poisons. For specific diets I recommend see The Best Brain, Inflammation, Pain, Energy, and Detox Diet Ever and Elimination Diet to Find Problem Foods.
Avoid toxins in your environment. This includes mold toxins. Also use green cleaning supplies. The fumes and gasses of toxic cleaning supplies get absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs.
From the blood, toxins are cleaned out of the body by the liver. The liver transforms toxins from fat-based forms to water-based forms by tagging them with water-based chemical groups. In the intestines the tagged toxins are then moved out of our bodies through the stools. However, if a person does not have regular bowel movements, bacteria in the intestines can remove the water-based tag. If this happens, the now fat-based toxins move into the blood. Fiber in the diet and water intake promote regular bowel movements. In addition, fiber can bind the fat-based toxins so that they do not get reabsorbed.
Some use coffee enemas for detox. The tannins in coffee irritate the intestine lining causing bowel movments. There is a very small effect of coffee promoting more toxin release by the liver – but this is quite small. Because they have similar effects promoting bowel movements, I find using fiber and water in the diet is easier than coffee enemas.
Water. It is important to drink 1/2 of your ideal body weight in ounces daily (ie: a 150-pound person should drink 75 ounces of water a day). This helps to flush the kidneys and promotes regular bowel movements.
Fiber. To bind toxins in the intestines and to promote regular bowel movements have 3 or more servings a day of fiber. Foods rich in fiber are beans, legumes, and whole grains. Apples are also a good source. To determine how much to have in a serving, I advise that a clenched fist is roughly equal to two serving sizes.
Liver detoxification requires glutathione. Glutathione is a very powerful antioxidant generated in all cells and used in the liver to detox fat soluble toxins. Faced with toxin excess, the liver can exhaust its glutathione supplies. Most forms of oral glutathione are poorly absorbed. However there are sources designed for improved absorption which microscopically wrap the glutathione in fats called phospholipids. This type is called liposomal glutathione. For more information see Glutathione: The Great Fixer.
In my practice, I find that glutathione is more effective at promoting detox than other products like Nutramedix Burbur and Pinella. I do not recommend these supplements, but go with glutathione instead.
Sweating through exercise, hot baths, or using infrared saunas can help remove toxins. When you heat up and sweat, toxins move to the liver and some move to your sweat. About 80 percent are cleared by the liver and about 20 percent are removed in the sweat. For more information about saunas and hot baths see Far Infrared Sauna Detox: More Than Sweat.
At times it helps to bind toxins in the intestines so they cannot get absorbed into the bloodstream using binders. Binders include bentonite or zeolite clay, activated charcoal, silica, humic acid and fulvic acid. Some companies make products which contain a number of these binders together in one pill.
Healthy bacteria that line the intestines remove toxins. In Lyme disease it is common to have unhealthy bacteria in the intestines due to herbal or prescription antibiotics and the stress of the illness. Rebuilding the healthy lining with high quality probiotics can help with detox. For more information about probiotics see Probiotics in Lyme Treatment.
Liposomal Glutathione 400 to 500 mg 1 to 2 times a day. An example of liposomal glutathione shown to raise cell levels of glutathione is Tri-Fortify by Researched Nutritionals. (3)*
Liposomal Curcumin 500 mg 1 or 2 pills 3 times a day. An example of liposomal curcumin is Meriva 500 SF by Thorne.
Multi-biome by Researched Nutritionals 1 to 2 pills 1 time a day. This product is a soil-based spore-forming probiotic that includes strains of Bacillus scientifically proven to support intestinal health. It also includes human strains of probiotics too. This product does not require refrigeration.
GI Detox + by Biobotanical Research or MycoPul by Researched Nutritionals 1 to 2 pills 1 time a day. Do not take any medicines or supplements beginning 30 min before taking these binders through 2 hours after taking these binders. The reason for this is binders will bind your supplements and prescription medicines too. You can eat any time, but the best time to have a small amount of food or a meal is 30 minutes after taking the binder.
The ideas and recommendations on this website and in this article are for informational purposes only. For more information about this, see the sitewide Terms & Conditions.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
While kayaking recently, a friend noticed that I was getting a lot of sun on my face and asked if I wanted a hat. “No thanks,” I replied. “I’m wearing sunscreen, and I want to soak up as much vitamin D as I can.”
There were summers during my convalescence from tick-borne illness when I couldn’t be in the sun at all, due to the phototoxicity of the medication I was on. Doxycycline, the most common antibiotic used to treat Lyme disease, can cause you to be very sensitive to the sun. When I was on doxycycline or other antibiotics in the same family, my face would feel like it was on fire if I was exposed for more than five minutes. I spent summers bundled in protective shirts, under hats and umbrellas in the shade.
A former camp counselor who spent every day in the sun before I got sick, summers in the shade were not my style. Now that I am in remission, I want to (carefully) get as much sun as possible, making up for lost time and summer glow. But it’s not just sun-kissed cheeks that I’m after. I literally am trying to soak up vitamin D, provided by the sun, because I know that Lyme disease can cause a deficiency in that vitamin.
The Lyme disease bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, directly reduces vitamin D receptor expression in immune cells. Low vitamin D can be involved in immune dysfunction and autoimmunity, so Lyme patients who are already struggling with compromised immune systems may be further compromised by a vitamin deficiency. As Clinical Nutritionist Lindsay Christensen, MS, CNS, LDN, CKNS explains in her blog post “Lyme Disease Nutrition Tips for Optimal Immune Function,” Vitamin D3 is “essential for healthy immune function. Within the innate immune system, vitamin D3 supports the production of cathelicidin, an antimicrobial peptide (protein) that protects the body against bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Vitamin D3 also regulates dendritic cells, which are immune cells that ‘bridge the gap’ between the innate and adaptive immune system branches and may help defend the body against Borrelia.”
So what should Lyme patients do? First, make sure your doctor is monitoring your vitamin D levels. A blood test can tell you whether you have a deficiency. If you do, sunshine, and certain foods like egg yolks and fatty cold-water fish, can help you get vitamin D. You also may need to supplement with vitamin D3 to maintain what Christensen describes as “an optimal vitamin D3 level of 40-60 ng/mL, which is higher than the 30-60 ng/mL range suggested by most labs.”
Testing vitamin D levels can also help a Lyme Literate Medical Doctor (LLMD) determine if you have Lyme disease, if you have symptoms but have not yet been diagnosed. Though not a definitive diagnostic marker (low vitamin D is also seen in other conditions like multiple sclerosis), low vitamin D can be a tip-off that Lyme disease could be the cause of your symptoms.
Vitamin D is not the only vitamin that can be affected by Lyme disease, or that you may need more of to help fight tick-borne illness. Many Lyme patients have a vitamin B12 deficiency. Others have anemia or low ferretin. It’s important that your doctor do regular blood work to check for any nutritional deficiencies, and then you can determine together how to best supplement them, to support your overall healing. In the meanwhile, as long as you’re not on a phototoxic drug, sticking your face in the sun can’t hurt!
The above material is provided for information purposes only. The material (a) is not nor should be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, nor (b) does it necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of Global Lyme Alliance, Inc. or any of its directors, officers, advisors or volunteers. Advice on the testing, treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient’s medical history. *Make sure to protect your skin when in the sun.
https://www.treatlyme.net/guide/repair-restore-peptides-lyme-mold-toxins Video Here (Approx. 4 Min)
By Dr. Marty Ross
Peptide therapies are one of the newest types of supports some with Lyme disease and mold toxin illness are using. In this article I discuss the current oral peptides that are available as supplements. I focus on the oral agents because the FDA is starting to regulate compounded injectable peptides as drugs – removing many from the market.
Peptides are short strands of amino acids. By comparison, long strands of amino acids of 50 or more are called proteins. Peptides occur naturally in our bodies. Some of these peptides have various healing properties. Below I list four of the major peptides that are currently found in oral products offered by Integrative Peptides. In addition I include information about collagen peptides which are found in Collagen Plus by Thorne.
(See link for article and video)