The naturopathic approach to Lyme disease
In this interview, Nutritional Therapist and Lyme disease expert Rebecca Ellison shares her inspiring health story and explains what Lyme disease is, how to get tested and ways to manage the condition with diet and lifestyle.
Tell us about your health journey and clinical experience
Up until aged thirteen I was a healthy normal child. Then one day I became very unwell and started experiencing extreme fatigue, noise and light sensitivity, brain fog, aching muscles, stomach pain and bloating. After numerous doctors’ visits, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) which is also known as ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis). The doctor said my case was so severe that there was nothing they could do for me. By this point, I was in a wheelchair and unable to go to school; I had also been hospitalised for some time. This went on for years, with little to no answers.
When I was eighteen, I began working with Dr Myhil who was extremely helpful. She is incredibly knowledgeable and experienced in treating chronic diseases. We did lots of functional medicine testing and discovered I had candida (yeast overgrowth), leaky gut (permeable gut lining), low thyroid function, poor mitochondria (energy) function, adrenal fatigue, dysbiosis (unbalanced gut bacteria) and heavy metal toxicity – the list was endless. It was also around this time, we remembered I was bitten by a tick when I was eight years old. Dr Myhill suggested we get tested for Lyme disease as a family via Armin Labs in Germany. The results came back positive for borrelia (the bacteria linked to Lyme disease) and multiple other co-infections and viruses.
From this point onwards, I became hopeful as we finally knew what was causing my illnesses so we could get a solid plan in place. Dr Myhill gave me a protocol which involved dietary and lifestyle changes, nutritional supplements, an extensive herbal protocol and lots of detox modalities. It was a long messy road; full of ups and downs, hurt and pain – but wow, it was worth it!
I now live a full life which I love. I’m a wife, a mother (which I was told would never happen), I run a successful business and have a busy social life with volunteer work thrown in too. I’m a firm believer that people can heal from Lyme disease and chronic illness – this is which is why I do what I do every day and the results speak for themselves!
What is Lyme disease and what causes it?
Lyme Disease is a bacterial infection in the blood called Borrelia. It is predominantly caused by a tick bite; however, it can also be transmitted via mosquitos, insect bites and the placenta. The tick holds the infection and as it sucks the blood of its host, it can regurgitate the bacteria into its human host. Some people know they have been bitten, but others don’t. Regardless, they still experience Lyme symptoms.
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?
The most common way it presents is via a bullseye red rash surrounding the site of the recent tick bite. If this does happen, I recommend a short dose of antibiotics or herbal remedies to be on the safe side, just in case the bacteria have entered the body from the bite. I also support the client with immune boosting foods and supplements.
The main symptoms of Lyme disease are fatigue, joint pain (that migrates around the body), noise and light sensitivity, hormonal changes, brain fog, depression, anxiety, insomnia, a creepy crawly feeling under the skin, twitching, tics, gut symptoms, body aches and pains.
What are the routine tests to diagnose Lyme disease?
In the functional medicine/holistic world, we prefer to use Armin Labs/AONM labs in Germany to test for Lyme and co-infections. This lab appears to have the most accurate blood tests for Lyme disease.
What factors exacerbate Lyme disease?
A poor immune system has to be the number one factor that exacerbates Lyme disease as the bacteria can flourish. If the immune system is under functioning due to chronic stress, multiple infections or high viral load, the body hasn’t got enough resources to keep the borrelia infection at bay and it can start to take over the body. Poor digestive function can also be another factor. The immune system and the gut are closely linked – a large percentage of immune cells reside in the gut, so someone with chronic poor digestion can be more susceptible to Lyme disease.
Many clients report Lyme disease symptoms after a period of trauma or chronic stress. The infection can lie dormant until such a situation arises and the body becomes compromised. It’s incredibly important to keep yourself healthy with a strong immune system, healthy boundaries and feeding yourself nourishing food. Eating a balanced diet comprising of quality proteins, healthy fats and organic vegetables is essential because when stress hits (as it will), our bodies bear the load and it’s much easier for the body to cope if we already have healthy habits.
Burning the candle at both ends can often come back to haunt us. I’ve seen this happen many times and if often leads to someone ending up with chronic Lyme disease symptoms.
Are there any dietary, lifestyle or environmental triggers?
A diet full of processed foods has to be the place to start. As already mentioned, the body needs good foods to be able to thrive and fulfil all of its tasks, right down to a cellular level. Poor stress management is unfortunately something I see often. Adrenal fatigue is prevalent at the moment, as is nervous system dysfunction, due to the 100mph lifestyles most people lead. Rest isn’t a priority and home cooked food isn’t a staple anymore. Society has changed and so has our health.
Environmental triggers are key for Lyme disease. There is a huge cross over with mould/mycotoxin illness and Lyme disease. If there is mould in someone’s home or perhaps, they have been exposed to mould previously, it’s highly likely that their immune system has been affected. Our overall exposure to chemicals and environmental toxins has grown enormously over the last 20 years – pesticide use (we didn’t used to need the label “organic” because all food was organic), chemicals in hair and beauty products, cleaning products, deodorants, plug in air fresheners, car fumes and electromagnetic stress from our phones/laptops. The world has changed dramatically. I urge clients to take back control and care for their bodies.
What is your advice for managing Lyme disease?
There is so much we can do with diet and lifestyle to ameliorate Lyme disease. Making dietary changes is a brilliant place to start and I like to begin with the foundational building blocks. I start by removing the unhelpful foods from people’s diets including gluten, bread, pasta, processed/packaged foods, dairy, sugar, fizzy drinks – basically all the foods that are made in factories. I quickly educate clients on why a diet rich in colourful vegetables and healthy fats (coconut oil, olive oil, fish, nuts and seeds) is a better option. I also recommend plenty of protein (chicken, turkey, beef, fish, chickpeas, beans, lentils, hummus, nuts and seeds) throughout the day to keep blood sugars under control.
If you can hold it in your hand and tell me what it is, you can eat it. If it has an ingredients list, it might be a struggle for your body to break down and process, especially if your body is already compromised by Lyme. Drinking plenty of pure filtered water is also a must to keep hydrated and support the liver and kidneys to detoxify.
Lifestyle-wise, I continually discuss stress management with clients. Is your current lifestyle sustainable? Has your lifestyle exacerbated your symptoms? Stress managements tools are really helpful for slowing down and aiding relaxation – walking, yoga, mindfulness, joy, purpose – bringing all these practices into your life enables the body to heal. Sleep is another key priority so I discuss bedtime routines and ways to enable the body to slow down. Minimising screen time is a must, especially in the evenings.
Are there any daily practices you recommend?
Speaking from personal experience, I eat well 80% of the time. I enjoy a glass of prosecco and chocolate cake, but the majority of the time it is salads, good quality organic meats, regular protein, lots of healthy fats like butter and coconut oil, and plenty of pure filtered water. Keeping my stress to a minimum and not overscheduling my diary is key. This is tricky with a family, but I have strong boundaries as my health is a priority. I go to sleep every evening at 9:30pm with a good amount of wind down time beforehand, perhaps reading, gentle yoga or a magnesium bath. I take very few nutritional supplements now because I get most nutrients from food. Detoxing with saunas, coffee enemas and binders are also part of my daily practice.
What is your top tip for managing chronic illness?
Research. Find people who have healed or are healing – positive people who can educate, advise, support and help you on your journey. Keep trusting that you can recover because the body CAN heal, it only needs to be given the right environment and tools to do so.
Listen to Rebecca Ellison’s Understanding Lyme Disease Podcast to learn more about her health journey and how to manage Lyme disease naturopathically.