Chronic Lyme Disease: Myth or Reality?
Photo: Ben Goldstein/Studio D
Mehmet Oz, MD, host of The Dr. Oz Show, sorts out the truth.Lyme disease, a bacterial infection transmitted by the bite of a deer tick, can cause a variety of flu-like symptoms—achy joints, fatigue, fever, headache. But chronic Lyme disease is a different beast. Experts can't agree on a case definition—or if the condition exists at all. What's clear is that some Lyme patients, even after taking the standard treatment of antibiotics, continue to suffer long-term and often serious health problems, including poor mental function, migratory joint pain, and sleep disturbances. Whether the condition is an autoimmune or nervous system response triggered by the now-eradicated infection (sometimes called post–Lyme disease syndrome), or a chronic case of the disease directly attributable to an ongoing infection depends on whom you ask—as does the treatment.
The Case for Diagnosing CLD
"There is absolutely no doubt chronic Lyme disease [CLD] exists," says Richard Horowitz, MD, president of the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Educational Foundation. What's more, he adds, many of those who contract Lyme disease can also have tick-borne coinfections like babesiosis, caused by parasites, and their symptoms can easily be mistaken for those of other ailments such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. "Like syphilis, chronic Lyme disease is a great imitator," Horowitz notes. He has seen more than 11,000 patients whose CLD he has helped to pinpoint using his own broad differential diagnosis, which looks at all possible causes of symptoms. Along with specific treatments for any overlapping conditions, he often prescribes a combination of targeted antibiotics to beat the infection, and says he has seen dramatic recoveries.
The Case Against Diagnosing CLD
"There's simply no scientific evidence that these symptoms are caused by an ongoing infection of Lyme disease," says John Halperin, MD, chair of the department of neurosciences at Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey, and professor of neurology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. Halperin agrees that some Lyme disease patients can experience real, ongoing health issues. However, he says, "The best guess is that it has to do with how our nervous systems respond to different stressors. It's probably due to a fundamental neurobiological trait of some people." Halperin believes the way to treat the problem is symptomatically. That means everything from therapy for depression to surgery for severe arthritis—but not months of antibiotics, which can result in serious side effects, according to National Institutes of Health–funded studies.
Dr. Oz Says…
Let's get past the fundamental argument over whether this is a chronic condition or an autoimmune response by acknowledging that it could be both. Someday we might discover that ticks aren't giving people just a bacterial infection but also a virus or a hybrid bug. Patricia Gerbarg, MD, is the coauthor of How to Use Herbs, Nutrients, and Yoga in Mental Health Care as well as a former Lyme patient. What she found, and what I support, is that certain supplements strengthen the body's ability to repair itself from the long-term problems associated with CLD. Taking vitamin B12, coenzyme Q10, chromium, folate, omega-3 fatty acids, and herbs such as Rhodiola rosea can improve energy and help with cellular repair—all key in recovering from conditions that can be as resistant as Lyme disease.
Read another column by Dr. Oz: 4 treatments for headaches
As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.