How Herbs Treat Lyme Disease

Research reveals how herbal treatments can succeed where antibiotics fail
April 20, 2020 Updated: April 30, 2020

Every few years, a new disease grabs all the headlines. Meanwhile, millions suffer from a potentially deadly and disabling infection that receives little attention.

As many as 400,000 new cases of Lyme disease occur in the United States each year, according to 2018 statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—more than 10 times the number of annual diagnoses of HIV/AIDS.

Lyme disease can invade a person’s organs (including the heart and brain) and damage the immune system, leaving the body vulnerable to a host of many common health problems that can affect every system in the body. In fact, Lyme can manifest differently in different people, and it can sometimes take many years and visits to several different doctors before patients realize what is at the root of their health problems.

Lyme is typically transmitted through a tick bite, but other insects may also carry the disease (it can even be transmitted sexually.) However, the actual cause of a Lyme infection is a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. Under the microscope, this organism looks like a wiggling corkscrew—a bacterial shape known to microbiologists as a spirochete. Conventional treatment is antibiotics, but Borellia can be very difficult bacteria to kill.

Evidence suggests that herbs may offer treatment advantages that antibiotics don’t.

A new study published in the peer-review journal Frontiers in Medicine found that seven herbal medicines are capable of killing Borrelia in test tubes, and one of these plants caused complete eradication—a result that regularly prescribed antibiotics such as doxycycline and cefuroxime couldn’t deliver.

This high performing plant is the West African shrub, Cryptolepis sanguinolenta (also known as nibima, Ghanaian quinine, or yellow-dye root). Cryptolepis is an herb best known in traditional Ghanaian medicine for treatment of malaria. Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) was also found to be highly effective. The five other herbs shown to kill Borellia include black walnut (Juglans nigra), sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa), rock rose (Cistus incanus), and Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis).

The lab work was done at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and funded primarily by the Bay Area Lyme Foundation—a nonprofit whose mission is to make Lyme a disease that is “easy to diagnose, and simple to cure.” It may sound simple, but this mission is an ambitious one.

The foundation’s founders started the organization because of several challenges that weigh on Lyme diagnosis and treatment.

Testing

Conventional tests used to identify the disease are often unreliable. And even after several courses of antibiotics, the symptoms, and the bacteria that causes them, may still persist. Some experts estimate that at least 2 million Americans may be suffering from debilitating long-term complications because of Lyme disease.

But health officials don’t typically discuss or acknowledge these complications.

A recent report from the CDC states that “Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics.” Doctors and patients, however, often confront a different reality. Because of the treatment challenges of Lyme, many patients now turn to herbal remedies as a way to fill the void left by often unsuccessful and inherently depleting antibiotic regimens. One of these doctors is Sunjya K. Schweig, a contributing author on the herb study, and scientific advisory board member at the Bay Area Lyme Foundation.

Schweig says his study tested 14 different herbs or natural remedies that many doctors already use in clinical practice for treating Lyme. Although seven of these remedies didn’t demonstrate an ability to kill Borellia in test tubes, Schweig explains that they may still have benefits in practice.

The Epoch Times talked to Schweig about his study, and the role herbs can play in Lyme treatment.

Epoch Times: What makes Lyme disease so difficult to treat?

Dr. Sunjya K. Schweig: Lyme disease is a very complex condition. We know with research that has come out of Johns Hopkins through Dr. John Aucott’s lab with the SLICE study, 15 to 25 percent of those people who get an acute case of Lyme disease, even with adequate treatment, go on to have persistent symptoms.

There is a debate in the medical field as to what is happening there. Is it an inflammatory or autoimmune activation? This is what the CDC would have us believe. Or, in fact, is it a bacteria, which has a persistent phenotype stage that doesn’t get killed by that first round of antibiotics? We believe strongly that there is a likelihood that the bacteria can go into a persistent phase and can evade antibiotic treatment on the short term course of an acute case. We’ve seen that in the research across many different animal models, including most recently at Dr. Monica Embers’ lab at Tulane University, which has a research macaque monkey model. They’ve shown residual Borrelia organisms even with a duration of antibiotic treatment for up to four months.

Developing scientific evidence is showing that this bacteria is capable of hiding out in body tissues where the immune system can’t find it. In addition, these areas frequently have poor blood supply, which makes it so the antibiotics can’t really get to them either.

There are doctors who treat based on the patient’s clinical response and use antibiotics or herbal treatments for a much longer term, and follow the patient’s symptoms and recovery.

Unlike bacteria like strep, which is rapidly dividing and usually effectively treated with antibiotics, Borrelia is more persistent, like a TB or leprosy type of bug. There are many examples in the medical literature and in treatment protocols for having much longer duration treatment in these types of cases, frequently using multiple medications in combination.

Of course, antibiotics are not without their risks. Today we have increased appreciation for the benefits and importance of the microbiota, and we don’t want to disrupt this if we can avoid it. I think that’s where herbal medicines have a really interesting role to play.

Furthermore, there is also a lot of drug discovery work that’s been done looking for other treatments. For example, a medicine called Disulfiram, which is marketed for alcohol abuse, has been found to have some activity against Borrelia as well.

Epoch Times: What is it about Borrelia that makes it so evasive toward treatment?

Dr. Schweig: It is important to know that Borrelia is one of the most genetically complicated bacteria that we know of.

It’s related to syphilis. Borrelia bacteria and syphilis bacteria are cousins of each other, and it’s well understood from the literature that “to know syphilis is to know all of medicine,” because of the fact that it can basically affect any body system. There are different stages of illness: acute, intermediate, and a later stage which has more neurological complaints, and more musculoskeletal complaints.

The Borrelia bacteria is very similar to syphilis. However, it’s much more genetically complex. It has a variety of different ways it can trick the immune system, hide out, and basically shape-shift.

When there is an immune attack on Borrelia bacteria, it changes its surface proteins to hide or cloak itself.  The immune system looks for the target that it saw previously, to which it had generated the appropriate antibodies. But this bacteria pulls in these surface flags and puts out different ones over time, so the immune system gets confused and eventually gives up. That’s just one of the techniques the bacteria uses to persist. It can also go inside of cells and hide out there. It can hide in the joint tissue, synovial tissue, or around nerves in the myelin, where the immune system has trouble finding it. We think it can also form a kind of cyst, basically a hibernating form which makes it very, very difficult to attack. So once the immune system forgets about it, then the bacteria can come back out again.

Epoch Times: Does your study indicate that Cryptolepis is the best herb to treat Lyme disease?

Dr. Schweig: The Cryptolepis finding was a very exciting development. It has been shown in the research literature to be active against other bacteria, and it is. It’s commonly used in Africa for malaria. It’s also commonly used in the Lyme disease community for treating one of the co-infections called Babesia, which is a different bacteria/parasite that can also be passed through tick bites.

The finding we showed with Cryptolepis against Borrelia was a new contribution to the field, so we were really excited about that. It was one of the most active herbs in the study, and the only one in this study that showed the ability to eradicate the stationary phase of the bacteria and to prevent regrowth of the bacteria.

But it is important to remember that this is a test tube study, where we put in the different control solutions of the herbs, and then counted how many of the Borrelia are left over.

It’s really important to me to make this differentiation, because I really respect these plants. There’s a lot of things that happen in the body with an herb’s activity which may or may not be related to its ability to kill the Borrelia. A lot of herbs work with immune modulation, or anti-inflammatory, or anti-cytokine pathways, just to name a few.

Some of the plants might not do a great job killing Borrelia in the test tube, but could still be a very good herb for treating Lyme. These herbal medicines may be able to work through pathways that only manifest within the living organism, and that’s not going to happen in a test tube separate from the immune system function.

Epoch Times: What are some features herbs have that antibiotics don’t?

Dr. Schweig: This is why I love plants. Antibiotics have a single mechanism of action. They’re very focused and very targeted. Plants on the other hand can have hundreds of different active compounds that have a variety of different activities. Some might be antimicrobial and kill bugs. Some might be anti-inflammatory and modulate cytokines. Some might be immune modulating, or even immune boosting.

Herbal medicines really work in synergy in the body. When you combine herbs, you can create further synergies where you can leverage the additive effects. So that complexity and layering, where you have many active components, has a lot of wonderful effects. What we see frequently is that the disease has less resistance to the herbs because of how complex and nuanced their mechanisms of action are, and how many different pathways that they’re hitting. As opposed to the antibiotics, where it can frequently be easier to develop resistance.

In fact, many doctors will use multiple antibiotics together and even do rotation protocols for increased efficacy, given the complex nature of the pathogens and the multiple bugs that can be present. And I have seen that help some patients. But antibiotic resistance is a huge problem in our world. We’re running out of antibiotics to use and the development of new ones is slow.

I think if we can find solutions in plant-based medicines that can be a really critical avenue for helping a lot of patients.

Epoch Times: We’re often led to believe that the cures of the future will come from drug companies, not from nature. Why do you think herbs don’t get more respect in modern medicine?

Dr. Schweig: There have been many very successful pharmaceuticals that come from a plant source. But I think medicine has taken a turn where it has become much more laboratory-based, where they’re synthesizing these compounds on mass, then testing them and seeing what activities they have. The problem is that this process of drug development and discovery is extraordinarily expensive, and it can take decades. So they really need to have blockbuster drugs to make money.

And they certainly do make a lot of money. They can patent those medicines, and keep those patents for a good amount of time and really generate huge revenues.

But on the plant side, unless you come up with something completely novel, it’s hard to patent that and protect it. Research on herbs happens more in the academic setting, in the lay public, and in the clinics. But it’s not a big business. There’s not a lot of money to be made. It doesn’t have the profit motive.

One problem with Lyme disease research in general is that there hasn’t been adequate funding coming from the government. It hasn’t really been recognized as that significant of a problem as we know it is. Fortunately, this is starting to shift. We’re starting to see more research dollars coming in, and more recognition, especially in the U.S. government. But up until now, it’s really just been private organizations, like the Bay Area Lyme Foundation, who have really driven the agenda. They have raised almost $30 million dollars for Lyme disease research. They are the No. 1 funder of Lyme disease research in the world. They work to stay clear of the debate in the medical field.

The idea is to move past the controversy, let the science speak for itself over time, [and] keep publishing studies and eventually affect change on the academic and governmental levels, so that we can get more funding to help deal with this incredibly complex and devastating epidemic that we’re seeing.

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner