Lyme Disease. I have a difficult time thinking of a more contentious health topic. The chronicity of the disease continues to be rejected by most of our medical professionals despite intense pressure from grassroots and non-profit organisations to remain more open minded about the thousands of Canadians suffering with chronic, debilitating symptoms.[i] Patients ask me: “How is this knowledge gap possible? Why aren’t our medical doctors prepared to treat these symptoms?” I have a few ideas.
Lyme Disease is not a simple bacterial infection that can be killed with an antibiotic. The notion that a single pharmaceutical intervention can overcome a wily and billions-of-years-old organism, is a hopeful reflection of old thinking, lacking appreciation for current scientific understanding of what it is to be human. Over the last 10 years, brilliant international research has shed light on the human microbiome, sometimes called the forgotten human organ. We know that each person is comprised of at least 60% microorganisms (i.e. arguably, only 40% of you is human). Our personal trillions of bacteria “talk” to each other in sophisticated ways. They share genetic material. They cooperate. They evolve inside of us. They tell our immune system, digestive tract, and nervous system, how to function. They also harbour strangers including, possibly, the Lyme microbe. Our first medical difficulty then, is comprehending the synergy that exists amongst bacteria and the corresponding complex ways they evade or inhibit our immune system.
The second medical difficulty exists in how poorly scientific tests identify harmful microbes. The Lyme bacterium, a spirochete called Borrelia, actually exists as different subspecies that are not all included on traditional tests. Further, the term “Lyme disease” appears to have morphed into an umbrella term for a variety of microbial infections, sometimes called Lyme co-infections (e.g. Bartonella, Ehrlichia). Health Canada acknowledges some of the limitations of our tests and urges health professionals to diagnose Lyme disease based on symptoms rather than test results. Because symptoms vary dramatically based on the microbe and the unique ecology inside each person, this makes accurate diagnosis quite challenging.
Lyme disease exposes the shortcomings of our current medical paradigm. It also offers us the precious opportunity to broaden our reductionist ways and integrate wise principles of older, more holistic medicines. These holistic medicines teach us that our life depends on microbes, in part because they teach our immune system how to behave. If we neglect the health of our personal microbiome (such as with antibiotics, high sugar diets, environmental pollutants, and stressful lifestyles), then of course our immune system will struggle with keeping these harmful bugs in check. While we wait on science to catch up with the billions of years of perfected survival skill in these critters, we’ll apply Naturopathic and integrative approaches that support, balance, and nourish the microbiome and immune system, so that our bodies can more easily function like they were designed to.[ii]
The truth is that I quite love Lyme disease. Its very existence brings to our attention the declining state of our environment and how human beings exist as part of it. It requires us to approach health more holistically than ever, and to shift our language from one of “fighting” a disease, to one of finding balance. It is a harsh teacher of facts we’ve ignored and knowledge we’ve forgotten for sometime. And we can all only hope to be worthy students.
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[i] In a fantastic step toward bridging this healthcare gap, our government recently responded with “Lyme Disease in Canada: A Federal Framework”. While offering many practical and essential ways to move forward, it offers little hope for people currently suffering with chronic Lyme disease. A deeper understanding of how this gap evolved in the first place, is necessary.
[ii] An integrative approach that combines antibiotics with immune system supports, is key to preventing chronic infections such as Lyme disease.