Every year, 30,000 new cases of Lyme are reported to the American Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and that number doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down anytime soon. Elsewhere, Lyme has infected almost every country on the globe, resulting in numerous debilitating symptoms that aren’t well understood by the medical community at large. Lyme disease is transmitted to humans via tick bites, with various species of tick carrying the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria required for human infection. Despite knowing exactly how patients contract the disorder, remarkably little is known about how Lyme affects the body, and what exactly can be done to treat it. The interaction between the virus and the patient’s immune system undoubtedly plays a key role; but how exactly does the relationship debilitate sufferers?
There are two distinct phases to Lyme disease: the acute stage and the chronic stage. If caught early, the disease is relatively simple to treat, and will usually clear up after a round or two of antibiotics. The primary symptoms of Lyme infection are similar to flu; this is the immune system launching its first attack against the alien invasion, and results in fever, chills, fatigue, aches and a headache. Unfortunately for many patients, these symptoms subside after a few days, and in many cases, Lyme patients will simply write off their malaise as a bout of standard-issue flu. The key to diagnosing Lyme disease is found in the distinctive bullseye rash that appears at the location of the tick bite. Though it doesn’t always manifest, it’s an almost surefire sign of Lyme infection and should always be acted upon, even if the accompanying flu-like symptoms are mild.
Eventually, maybe months or even years later, chronic symptoms of the Lyme infection will emerge, and patients will experience a whole new set of debilitating symptoms. Usually, these remain unlinked to the tick bite (if the bite was even noticed in the first place), and both doctor and patient alike will have trouble identifying the symptoms as Lyme disease. It’s in this chronic stage where we see the full effects of the infection upon the immune system. Sometimes called the autoimmune stage, this is a culmination of the bacteria working its way through the body, resulting in the immune system firing on all cylinders and actually serving to heighten the debilitating effects of the disease.
This is an important thing for patients and doctors to keep in mind at all times. The symptoms of chronic Lyme are primarily caused by the body’s attempts to defend itself, not by the toxicity of the bacteria. When the immune system detects the offending bacteria, it releases antibodies. These are designed to attack the pathogens, but in certain cases, they’ll overcompensate and attack the body, because the protein antigens found in Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria are very similar to the self-antigens produced by the body. The result is a constant sense of fatigue, as well as chronic inflammation of joints and muscles, which make free movement exceptionally hard.
In addition to this, the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium is an unusually insidious pathogen, capable of transforming itself once inside the host’s body. A tick’s saliva contains elements capable of covering the spirochete, a group of spiral-shaped bacteria, when it enters the skin, and can subsequently hide the bacteria from the immune system for a long time. In addition, the bacteria contains a structure known as a flagellum, which allows it to move. Because of this, when it comes to Lyme disease, traditional defences like mucus aren’t much of a defence at all. This is why it might take a few months or years for the infection to actually reveal itself, and also goes some way to explain why Lyme can be so debilitating; when faced with this threat it has thus far failed to detect, the body’s immune system kicks into overdrive, resulting in a number of damaging symptoms for the body.
This crucial interplay between Lyme and the immune system also makes it hard to treat, and explains why the chronic form of the disease has so confounded doctors. Because the symptoms are generated entirely by the body itself, they will vary wildly from person to person, as each of our immune systems is different and produces a different response. The relationship between autoimmunity and Lyme disease is not something that’s well understood in the wider medical community; if you’re worried that you or someone you know might have Lyme, it’s important to find a Lyme-literate doctor to begin your treatment. Make Well has vast experience in the arena of tick-borne diseases, with their line-up of all-natural products specifically created to support the treatment of conditions like chronic Lyme. While there are still many mysteries to Lyme, especially in its chronic form, education is one of the most effective tools we have. Getting to grips with how Lyme disease affects the immune system is a critical first step in the process.