The Lyme Light

By: Rachel Naar MS, RD, CDN.

Clinically reviewed by Michelle Miller, MSACN.

It happened suddenly, but gradually. A flight to Nashville back in the summer of 2017, begging the stewardess for a Benadryl, wondering if this is what a panic attack feels like. Walking myself to the ER after shrimp, tomatoes, and tofu, and begging the late-night ER staff not to give me prednisone because I had to take my Registered Dietitian exam a few days later and I wanted to feel clear-eyed. A weekend away with my cousins with a sunset dinner on the beach, to being whisked away in the car agonizing over WHAT was in that salad? Was it watermelon? Tomatoes? It would be funny if it was cucumber…right?

For the past 2 and a half years it appears I’ve been suffering from a histamine intolerance which developed more specifically into Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (also likely secondary to Lyme disease). I am used to using phrases like “robbed of my health,” or “I never signed up for this,” because that’s what it feels like. And to be honest, sometimes I still do. Aside from a cashew allergy, I had always been the picture of health, or so I thought. I was running half-marathons, finishing up my prereqs to become a dietitian, and enjoying life as a 20-something in New York City.

It happened suddenly. I can’t breathe. I can’t catch my breath. You’ve probably felt it, in the cold of winter or after an intense bout of cardio. It became my baseline. I’d begin to think of my life as pre-bizarre symptoms and post. Dinners with friends falling off because I couldn’t bear to explain to the waiter in a crowded restaurant across the table that “yes it needs to be NOT soybean oil” or “could you please check that there’s no cross-contamination?” or “could you please write it down!” I often wonder if I would take the stereotypical joint pain that is associated with Lyme disease over the slew of food intolerances I’ve since developed; I think I would. “No salt, no pepper, just plain please, with olive oil.” When I taste the tiniest drop of salt my face puckers up in disgust, it’s true your taste buds really do change. And then the pounding head pressure that neurologists want to refer to as a headache, which maybe it technically is, but it’s such an intense pressure that you have to hold your hand on your head so your brain doesn’t pop out. Not really, but it feels like it.

I bottled it in. I felt weird telling friends because I barely knew what was going on. I was moving to Philadelphia; I must just be anxious. Yes, it’s probably anxiety. But then it happened after running, or after a meal, so maybe it was late on-set food allergies? And then after dizziness, and word-finding, and hives (like you wouldn’t believe), I began to obsess over figuring out how to survive in my environment. I knew in my heart of hearts that these episodes weren’t panic attacks. If I ate shrimp salad and then had trouble with word finding and difficulty swallowing, THAT was not anxiety. I certainly had anxiety the next time I was in a restaurant though. Zyrtec quickly became my best friend.

So my diagnosis went from anxiety –> to oral allergy syndrome –> to Mast Cell activation Syndrome –> then questionable Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth –>and then Lyme disease. I bounced from doctor to doctor, most primary care physicians having absolutely no idea what to do with me. “Maybe you should take vitamin C?” I work in a hospital and only a few people even know what Mast Cell Activation is. When I went to the ER and said ‘Lyme disease’ once, they insisted on doing an EKG because “you never know.” But my EKG was always fine, it’s not an underlying heart condition, it was just the Lyme flaring up its ugly symptoms.

Below, I delve into my research on symptom management of Lyme disease. I’ll cover what Lyme disease is, and how to create an army against the Borrelia bacteria utilizing food and nutrition.

So what is Lyme disease anyway?

  • Lyme disease is contracted from a deer tick that carries the Borrelia bacteria
  • Lyme disease is considered one of the fastest-growing infectious diseases in the United States
  • Over 300,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year
  • 1.5 million people are diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease

Borrelia bacteria and its co-infections can (to name a few):

  • Suppress immune function
  • Contribute to chronic inflammation
  • Increase the risk of infection
  • Lead to joint pain
  • Cause chronic fatigue
  • Trigger cognitive dysfunction and neurobehavioral disorders
    • Anxiety, Depression, Panic Disorder

Nutrition and Lyme Disease

Through my own experience with Lyme disease, I’ve seen how functional medicine focusing on dietary changes CAN support energy, cognitive function and alleviate chronic inflammation. Nutrition has the power to ease symptoms and compliment medical Lyme treatment protocols.

Inflammation, the Swinging Pendulum

  • Lyme disease = inflammatory state
  • Removing inflammatory foods can shift the balance of inflammation
    • Limit or eliminate processed foods, refined carbohydrates and added sugar
    • Some individuals feel best off of gluten and dairy
    • Be mindful of making sure you meet nutritional requirements across an array of foods with the foods you DO choose to eat

Power to Protein

  • Animal protein contains all the essential amino acids, iron, and B12 which help support cognitive function
    • Focus on organic and grass-fed protein
  • Seafood is rich in omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA
    • I recommend seafood 2-3x/week of wild-caught

Non-Starchy Vegetables

Contain great amounts of:

  • Dietary fiber
  • Vitamins/ Minerals
  • Phytochemicals
  • Anti-Inflammatory properties
  • Gut supporting benefits

Examples include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, zucchini, bok choy.

Nuts and Seeds

  • Provide trace minerals, vitamin E, and B vitamins:
    • B vitamins for energy and cognition.
    • Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant.
  • Opt for one handful of nuts or one-fourth cup seeds.
    • Try a salt-free, organic nut butter.

Glutathione System

Glutathione plays a role in the immune response to B. burgdorferi (a type of Borrelia species).

  • The amino acids methionine, cysteine, and glycine are the building blocks of glutathione and are abundant in animal protein.
    • A low-protein diet has been found to result in significantly lower blood levels of glutathione, and may not be ideal with an individual suffering from Lyme disease.
    • Vegans with Lyme disease should consider supplementation.
  • Selenium is a critical cofactor for glutathione and helps with immune function.
    • Obtain selenium from whole foods by consuming: brazil nuts, cod, shrimp, salmon, scallops, chicken, eggs, turkey, lamb, and shiitake mushrooms.
  • Foods that Support Glutathione Production: cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and kale. Plants from the Allium genus, including garlic, onions, and leeks.

Gut Health

Many chronic Lyme patients have undergone many rounds of antibiotics which can severely disrupt the gut microbiota.

  • Consume plenty of fermentable carbohydrates:
    • Sweet potatoes, onions, artichokes.
  • Carbohydrates in these foods serve as fuel for beneficial gut bacteria.
  • Healthy gut = lower inflammation

Brain Health

Brain health is severely affected by Borrelia bacteria:

  • Promotes brain inflammation
  • Impairs neuronal energy production
  • Creates biofilm in the brain of its host which leads to cognitive dysfunction

Lyme disease is associated with changes in the metabolism of the amino acid, tryptophan. Rather than being metabolized to serotonin, tryptophan is diverted towards the production of neuro-inflammatory metabolites.

  • Vitamin B6 helps redirect the process, converting tryptophan into serotonin.
    • Sources of Vitamin B6 include: Salmon, eggs, chicken liver, beef, sweet potatoes, bananas, chickpeas, and avocados.

Antimicrobial Herbs and Spices

  • Cinnamon and oregano extracts have been found to inhibit the production of the bacteria’s biofilm.
  • Garlic oils and hydroxytyrosol, a phenolic phytochemical in olive oil, inhibit the growth of “persister” Borrelia.

Regularly incorporating these functional foods will not only add flavor to your meals but also may make you a less hospitable host to these bacteria. Lyme disease is a complicated and exhausting experience, but with the right tools, and persistent and educated medical practitioners, you too can prevail.

If you’re suffering from Lyme Disease or know someone that is and wants to explore how Integrative Nutrition can complement traditional medicine in alleviating symptoms, reach out to an Integrative Nutritionist. If you’re in the New York area, give us a call us now or fill out the form below.

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