From herbs, acupuncture and nutrition to stem cell therapy, hyperbaric oxygen and more, here are 15 ways to battle multi-symptom chronic Lyme disease and co-infections as told through Grace (a standard poodle) and her Mom's four-year epic battle.
There is a line in my life. It’s before and after Grace got sick.
The man who became my closest friend in that nearly four-year battle, told me very few people will understand my grief. He was our family veterinarian. “To them,” he said, “she will always be just a dog.” To me, she was my daughter. She was my light. She will always be my little girl.
Grace got sick when she was seven – an amazingly strong, supremely-conditioned, athletic seven. I thought then, that if a dog parent gives their kids an ideal diet, hours of daily off-leash exercise, and an emotionally healthy life, their kids will live long, thriving lives. I was wrong.
There are other things. Over-vaccinations, early-spay or neutering, environmental hazards, and atrocious mistakes in conventional medicine are killer cocktails.
The first two things compromise immune systems. They happened on my watch in 2007; I should have asked better questions. The third introduces stealth pathogens like Lyme disease. The last – well, it can be the last straw. In Grace’s case, it was a doctor of internal medicine at one of those fancy referral hospitals who diagnosed but then failed Grace.
That doctor discovered that Grace – who was already Lyme positive, symptomatic, and worsening on antibiotic treatment – was also positive for anaplasmosis and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (tickborne co-infections). Then, she failed to prescribe the right antibiotic protocol, and failed to tell me of the infections. Instead, she prescribed prednisone – an immune suppressant – to treat what she wrongly told me was immune-mediated disease.
When I discovered the error, and attempted to fix it with appropriate antibiotics, it was too late. Lyme, Anaplasma and RMSF had staged a coup. They had taken over Gracie’s immune system – aided by the prednisone.
The prednisone and infections destroyed Grace’s neuromuscular health. Her knees would dislocate because of poor muscle tone. She developed entropion (where her eyelids rolled inward and irritated her corneas). Then came megaesophagus – where Grace could not swallow food or water – again because her esophagus had lost its muscle tone. She lost her voice. Grace also had relentless daily fevers that later morphed into weekly cyclic fevers – much like malaria or tickborne relapsing fever; the fevers consumed her body. She was chronically anemic, had low blood protein levels, and became hypothyroid. She dropped from a healthy 60 pounds to 47. On one emergency visit, her blood pressure was nearly undetectable, and I was asked if I wanted to sign a DNR.
This happened within five months of her initial Lyme diagnosis.
I remember my last conversation with Gracie’s internist; it was my last conversation with the entirety of strict conventional medicine. The doctor offered me a choice of three pharmaceuticals. They were all flavors of immune suppressants – one of which could stay in Gracie’s tissues for three years. “To make Grace comfortable,” she said. It was six weeks before Gracie’s eighth birthday. The internist had given up.
Then, nearly every soul in my circle suggested I give up too.
Not long after, Grace and I flew (together in coach) to Edmonton Canada to see Dr. Steve Marsden, arguably one of the world’s foremost holistic veterinarians. It was a 5,200 mile roundtrip. We would make that trip three times before connecting with Dr. Nathan Heilman, a protégé of Dr. Marsden.
Nate is the man who became my closest friend and warrior. His practice, Qi Veterinary Clinic, in Burlington VT, was an eight-hour round trip for us from our Massachusetts home. Grace and I would see him every Monday for three years – without fail. At each visit, he would treat Grace to nearly four hours of healing in one of his two exam rooms.
Integrative veterinarians have bigger toolkits. In my experience, they also have broader minds, better ears, and really big hearts. Through teamwork, natural approaches, and mutual inspirations, Grace regained her 13 pounds. Her megaesophagus was healed to the point where she could eat food normally. (She would continue to need a liter of subcutaneous fluids daily because she remained unable to swallow water.) The pain and inflammation in her joints eased. After about two years, we finally broke the cycle of fevers. She was alert and happy, interested in squirrels and able to catch a ball midair…
… from her wheelchair. We built a pool in our basement for Grace. Through twice-daily aqua-therapy and strolls in her “bike” we slowed the progression of disease. Her heart was “all-in,” her eyes were loving, patient, and vibrant, but the neuromuscular cascade of damage was irreversible.
In those three and a half years, I became a voracious reader and adventurous explorer of everything related to Grace’s condition and healing. Much of the rest of my life, including my personal health, went on autopilot. This is what mothers do. I would have laid down in front of a train if it would have healed my little girl.
Lyme and Co-Infections
Borrelia burgdorferi (“Bb”), the borrelial organism most associated with Lyme disease, is a stealth pathogen. It must be respected and treated as such. It releases neurotoxins. It can evade detection. It can hide and resurface later. It can hijack cytokines (proteins in your body important for cell signaling) and jam with them like a blues band on a Friday night – all to its benefit.
Research suggests that Lyme Borreliosis and Anaplasma have symbiotic relationships with ticks whereby the ticks carrying these bacteria become metabolically stronger – able to survive longer without blood meals and in colder winter temperatures. Anaplasma, for example, enhances expression of antifreeze glycoproteins (AFGP) in ticks making the infected ticks hardier to freezing episodes. The symbiotic nature between these bacteria and ticks is one reason for the expansion of tick populations and tickborne diseases.
Humans and other animals co-infected with Lyme and any of its buddies (Anaplasma, Ehrilichia, Bartonella, Babesia, Rickettsia, etc) generally have very complex and durable disease states. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that over 426,000 Americans (humans) are infected annually with Lyme disease. Statistically, this is more than half the number of heart attacks or strokes in the US each year. This 426,000 does not include other diseases commonly carried by those same ticks.
As a kid growing up in upstate NY in the 1970s and 1980s, we ran and played in the woods with our dogs and never saw a tick; we certainly never contemplated the risk of disease. Today, in those same woods, after a hike with my three dogs, I easily pick 50 – 80 ticks off the four of us. And that’s despite my ultra-rigorous tick preventative protocol. This experience is backed up by CDC data which shows maps of the growth and expansion of reported Lyme cases from 2001 – 2018.
The list of interventions that Nate, Gracie, and I tried to heal her is long. Some of it directly correlated to improvement. Some of it didn’t work at all. Nothing caused suffering – which is more than I can say for conventional medicine’s interventions. I think most of our approaches worked synergistically to heal Grace – and in the process, as Dr. Marsden later pointed out – to heal me.
My hope is that in reading on, mothers and fathers will find encouragement and healing, and a comfort in knowing they are not alone. There is a healing path and that path travels through the garden of natural medicines.
Here are the approaches we tried:
An Amazing Integrative Veterinarian
Dr. Nate Heilman saved Grace. He saved me too. When your patient cannot verbalize what’s wrong, or whether treatment makes her feel better, worse, or nothing at all, you must be intuitive and receptive. You must look for signs without preconceptions. For complex cases, doctors must be masters in the realms of acupuncture and herbal medicines and have an integrative approach.
In the hundreds of hours Dr. Nate laid hands on Grace, Grace and I were never outside of each other’s sight, voice, or reach. I was touching Grace through 99% of her treatments and diagnostics. Good vet practices don’t examine patients in back rooms. There is a beautiful and powerful connection between pups and parents; amazing vets honor their light and lives, and that bond.
From witnessing hundreds of acupuncture treatments (and receiving them myself) I know this: you want to read your patient’s pulse; through heat signatures or palpation you want to feel for a needling point; and you want to stick a needle into that point and have it modulate that pulse. This gives a roadmap to healing.
If the practitioner is not reading your dog’s pulse, feeling for clues, and checking how that needling is affecting the patient’s pulse, then how can she tell if the needling is working? In my opinion, it’s time for you to consider a different veterinary acupuncturist. An acupuncturist that only follows point prescriptions for common conditions is not enough for complex cases.
The acupuncture points that have the most impact on your pup’s pulse indicate the type of problem (e.g. spleen qi deficiency, wind invasion, toxic heat, etc.). This diagnosis then points to helpful herbal formulas.
In Gracie’s case, over the course of 3+ years, we used many formulas (and herbal tweaks to those formulas) to modulate her immune system, build red cells, support her GI tract and more. I can’t name them all here. Two, however, are often used in the treatment of Lyme disease. They are Xiao Chi Hu Tang (a traditional formula using minor bupleurum) and Clear Spiro (a formula specifically crafted to antagonize and usher spirochetal bacteria out of the body).
Think of your body as a battlefield. Pathogens invade. They hit the perimeter. If unchecked, they penetrate deeper into the body. Herbal medicines offer actions to expel invaders that conventional medicine cannot replicate. One of these actions, for example, is an aromatic “venting”. Using herbs with this action of expelling heat through the surface is one of the ways we treated Gracie’s fevers.
Jarisch-Herxheimer, Liver Enzymes, and Doxycycline
Grace and I may never have ended up at that referral hospital if we had the information I am about to share with you. Grace was started on doxycycline by our local vet to treat Lyme disease. This treatment was indicated through a Quant C6 Test (i.e. titers) and symptoms – the main one being mild lethargy. Within a few days her symptoms dramatically worsened. She went from mildly lethargic to unwilling to move.
I now believe she was experiencing a Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction (i.e. “herxing”). Herxing refers to a worsening of symptoms as the bacteria die off and cause inflammation in the body. Generally, this condition is resolved by easing back on the treatment for a couple days and then reintroducing treatment.
We were not given this information by our local vet, and I had never heard of herxing. Instead, the local vet ran bloodwork and fixated on elevated liver enzymes. She thought those “hoofbeats” were from zebras and not horses (i.e. maybe cancer and not a reaction to doxycycline); so she sent us rushing to the ER at that referral hospital.
To be crystal clear: doxycycline can raise liver enzymes. The higher the dose of doxy, the higher the elevation in liver enzymes, and the more liver damage there can be. I have had multiple conventional doctors over time dismiss me when I tell them this. I saw it happen repeatedly in Grace. I have seen it in another little girl of mine. After discontinuation of the doxycycline, liver enzymes return to normal, and imaging shows us that the liver can heal itself of damage.
In our case, Grace was switched at the referral hospital from doxycycline to enrofloxacin (Baytril) another antibiotic. While Baytril can cover for Lyme, it does not cover Anaplasma and RMSF. (Doxycycline does.) And so the machinations of mistakes began.
Doxycycline is the go to antibiotic for most tick borne infections. It can be very effective on its own in early-stages in clearing the infection. Ideally it is given with herbs and other nutraceuticals to support the body, counter unwanted side effects like insults to the liver and GI tract, and enhance its effectiveness in beating disease.
For chronic Lyme cases like ours, Dr. Nate and I effectively incorporated low-dose doxycycline into a comprehensive natural medicine protocol to to help alleviate fevers and antagonize Lyme spirochetes. Essentially it helped us make Gracie's body an inhospitable place for this bacteria, and modulate her immune system from triggering fevers.
Stephen Harrod Buhner is one of the foremost plant geniuses of our time. He has written many books on Lyme disease and co-infections. Two are must-reads: Healing Lyme and Natural Treatments for Lyme Coinfections. In them he explains the dynamics of infection. He provides a core protocol and extended repertory of specific herbal remedies for Lyme and co-infections. He also offers preventative care.
At the center of Buhner’s core protocol is Japanese Knotweed (Hu Zhang) for endothelial cell protection. Endothelial cells are the thin layer of cells lining blood vessels that regulate exchanges between the bloodstream and tissues. They also participate in the formation of connective tissues. Good endothelial cell health mitigates bacterial invasion and spread of disease.
Buhner adds other herbs and natural compounds to his protocol to remodulate cytokines and immune responses, protect collagen, antagonize spirochetes (spirally twisted bacteria like Bb) and to heal neurologic damage. Among them are Salvia miltiorrhizal (“Danshen”) and Scutellaria baicalensis (“Huang Qin”), Uncaria tomentosa, Eleutherococcus senticosus, Cordyceps, Uncaria rhynchophylla, Withania somnifera, Andrographis, tryptophan, gelatin, vitamin C and selenium. It is important to discuss these compounds with your veterinarian as some – like selenium – have toxic levels for dogs. And others – like Andrographis – can be harsh for sensitive patients.
The third book, Why Can’t I Get Better, by Richard I. Horowitz, MD leans a little more toward mainstream. He deals a lot with combinations of antibiotics. There are many inspiring cases of true healing though natural compounds in his approaches. He also explains Jarisch-Herxheimer reactions and how to handle them.
IV Glutathione and N-Acetylcysteine
IV Glutathione correlated to “eureka” moments in Grace’s care. Dr. Horowitz and Buhner both discuss glutathione in their books. Glutathione is a protein made in the liver that helps detoxify chemicals – like heavy metals and neurotoxins – in the body. It can be helpful in detoxifying Lyme neurotoxins. Additionally, Rickettsiae bacteria can reduce glutathione. Glutathione can be given by IV, intramuscular injection (it hurts!), and orally in a liposomal form. We had the most success with IV forms given weekly. The dosage calculation can be found in Dr. Horowitz’s book. Restoration of energy, mental clarity and coordination can be immediate.
I remember the first time Dr. Nate and I tried IV glutathione in Gracie. Upon arriving home, she charged out the door and took her sisters on a whirlwind tour of the neighborhood. (I was in joyful tears and in tow supporting her back legs in a harness.)
N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) is a supplement that supports glutathione production. Buhner recommends NAC in infections with significant neural damage. NAC is widely dispersed throughout the body; has strong protective effects against neurotoxicity throughout the central nervous system; can correct neurotoxic effects in the brain; and inhibits inflammation throughout the entire peripheral nervous system.
If IV Glutathione was a highlight, blood transfusions were a low light. Grace was chronically anemic. Anemia of chronic disease, I was told. No mother wants to accept that; it sounds so unfixable. If I just could improve Gracie’s red cell counts, she could feel better.
When her hematocrit dropped down and stuck at 20, I asked Nate to transfuse her. Healthy hematocrit is in the 40s. We gave her two units of packed cell volume (PCV). This should have been enough to restore her red cell counts. Yet, it had absolutely no impact whatsoever. It was confounding. If I poured two units of blood into a vase, I would have two units of blood in that vessel. So where did it go in Gracie’s vessel? Some hijacked, haywire process sequestered her cells and throttled back her health to an anemic state.
Grace had adequate iron, B vitamin supplementation, and sufficient thyroid function (aided by supplemental hormone); her erythropoietin levels were adequate (we tested them), and even her bone marrow didn’t seem to be diseased to the point where it would be incapable of making red cells.
We were ultimately able to elevate Gracie’s hematocrit to about 30 through herbs and other treatments. And gradually her tissue health improved. Our working theory was that an immune-mediated process was destroying the red cells as she made them.
Aqua Therapy and Walkin’ Wheels
You gotta move. Diet and exercise are the two most important lifestyle practices that influence health. Exercise not only makes beings feel better, epigenetics tells us that it changes the structure and function of our DNA. More exercise means improved cellular function, mitochondrial production, and increased energy. Humans with chronic Lyme disease report symptom resolution on exercise alone.
So how do you get a dog to move when she can’t walk on her own, and her knees give out? You swim!
We built a pool in our basement for Gracie. We did this because the impracticality and unavailability of aqua therapy elsewhere. My husband and I put a life jacket on Gracie and then we three got into the pool. My husband would hold Gracie’s patellae in place and gently provide resistance to keep her in one spot. I would cheer her on and get her to swim to me. We did this once or twice a day for twenty minutes each.
We also got Gracie her bike. This was one of the greatest gifts we gave each other – it restored her freedom, mobility and joy. (If only I had put an odometer on it!) We went everywhere in her four-wheeled wheelchair. We outfitted it with skis for the winter, and phat wheels for off-road terrain. We would walk together as a pack. When Grace got tired, she could coast and we would pull. When she saw a squirrel or a friend, she could “peddle” like Fred Flintstone. The bike kept her connected and engaged with her pack, and enabled her to have a vibrant, full life.
Vitamin C has a number of uses; it is a core part of Buhner’s collagen protection protocol of gelatin, vitamin C and selenium. The dosage if given orally, however, would likely result in GI distress. We gave Gracie Vitamin C therapy via IV every week.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT)
In one Texas A&M study, 91 human patients with severe, chronic Lyme disease underwent hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The rationale being that at elevated tissue oxygenation levels achieved through HBOT, Bb (Lyme bacteria) may be destroyed or may be more susceptible to antimicrobial treatments. The majority of patients in the study reported significant and lasting (though not immediate) resolution of their symptoms. Nearly all, however, experienced Herxheimer reactions following therapy.
We tried HBOT therapy with Gracie. She was patient and compliant through multiple sessions that lasted about one hour each. At the end of each session, she seemed to be perkier. My aim was to provide symptom relief not only from the Lyme, but from the tiring effects of chronic anemia.
Stem Cell Therapy
Treatment of companion animals (dogs, cats, horses) with autologous pluripotent stem cells and platelet rich plasma has shown to provide symptom reversal of orthopedic, autoimmune, soft tissue and neural complications. There are some amazing case studies of the near total reversal of neurologic deficits in cases of degenerative myelopathy (“DM”) and wobbler’s syndrome. Dr. Mike Hutchinson, DVM has reversed several cases of DM.
Stem cells work with other elements within the body to heal naturally. Adult stem cells are triggered by injury or degenerative conditions. When these conditions occur, bodies release chemical messengers that signal a need for regeneration at a particular location (currently thought to be parathyroid hormone which acts as both a homing and bio-activation messenger). These signals are received by stem cells and other hormones circulating in the blood stream. Stem cells get activated by these messengers and are directed to the site that needs regeneration. The hormones provide other growth factors needed for regeneration and work with the stem cells to do that job.
We initiated stem cell therapy to help with Gracie’s anemia and neurodegenerative state. Based on the Primostem method (developed by Tithon) and the advice of Dr. Mike Hutchinson, we cultivated pluripotent stem cells from Gracie’s blood and delivered them to her in her bone marrow, CSF space, and bloodstream. Neuromuscular improvements are generally noticeable 30-60 days from treatment. At the time of this treatment Gracie’s hematocrit was in the high 20s. Stem cell therapy did not produce the gains we hoped for, but it still appears to be a promising treatment option for other immune mediated neurologic cases.
BEMER is designed to improve microcirculation in the body and thereby support the body’s natural, self-regulating processes. Blood is the body’s ubiquitous means of transport – oxygen, chemical messengers (e.g. hormones), immune cells, etc., are all carried into, around, and out of the body through blood. When this highway system can adequately nourish cells, tissues and organs and remove metabolic waste, bodies can heal and function well.
The BEMER is comprised of a simple mat with coils that create an electromagnetic field that improves microcirculation and blood flow. Dogs (and people) lay on the mat for about 15 minutes. There are also spot treatment tools for specific problem areas. Depending on the application frequency and the sensitivity of individuals, beings may feel anything ranging from nothing to a slight tingling or warmth. There are no known undesirable side effects. Dogs who receive BEMER applications can have increased mobility, energy, vitality, use of hind legs, mental acuity, strength, and endurance. In dogs and humans with severe disease states, results may take up to eight weeks to be noticeable.
Chiropractic and Massage
Two and a half years into Gracie’s disease and treatment, she still had good sensation and motor control of all of her four limbs. Her muscle mass had gradually recovered through her abdomen, though she remained too thin through her hind limbs and unable to support her body weight. As a result of poor musculature there, her patellae would spontaneously luxate, they spent most of their time outside of the patellar grooves. Her left forelimb was also somewhat sore and weak, though she could maintain a seated position without support. The soreness seemed to carry into her cervical muscles. Dr. Nate treated Grace weekly with chiropractic and massage therapy working extensively on her neck muscles, to optimize shoulder advancement as well as the musculature around her shoulder blade.
Therapeutic lasers are an adjunct to good acupuncture and chiropractic care. They use light waves to alter cellular and tissue physiology. Light absorbed by cellular components activates cells to promote growth, proliferation, migration, and repair.
Laser therapy helps tissue repair by causing vasodilation (which increases blood flow to aid in healing). It also causes endorphin release, muscle relaxation and decreased inflammation which diminishes pain.
Food is Medicine.
When I became Mom in 2007, it took me all of three months to recognize the problems with most commercially prepared dog “foods”. The majority contained anything but “food” – “food” meaning edible ingredients. In my opinion, the ratios were wrong too. For example, most commercial options (even premium brands) are loaded with starch. I discovered early on that the only kitchen I felt I could trust was my own.
Admittedly, I know more about healthy, complete and balanced diets now than I did then. I also know a lot more about the energetic qualities of food. For example, lamb, goat, beef and chicken are considered energetically warming proteins; turkey, rabbit and white fish are considered energetically cool; pork and duck are neutral; pigmented fish and eggs are dampening. If you have a dog with inflammatory conditions (or one battling fevers, like Grace) you would want to reach for cooler proteins and veggies. Good, cooling, vegetable choices are celery, cucumber, broccoli, kale, swiss chard, and bitter greens (e.g. mustard greens, dandelion greens).
A complete and balanced diet goes beyond having the right ratio of macronutrients (like protein, fat, and fiber) and micronutrients (like vitamins and minerals). An ideal complete and balanced diet also considers the energetic needs of the individual and adjusts for external influences like the seasons (the heat of summer, the cold of winter, the dampness of spring) and weather patterns.
This is the first time I have spoken publicly about the line in my life, and the journey Grace and I traveled over it. If you have read these 4,000 words, then chances are you and your pup are on a similar path.
I publish this story on Mother’s Day, cherishing the love in my life and the flame in my heart that will never diminish. There is no Law of Love; it defies scientific explanation. Many will never understand the bond between Grace and me, but I write this for those that do. For those who know a love that cannot be differentiated or measured.
Grace and I had many quiet moments together. She was the source of my strength. I was born to be with her. Her purpose was to be with me, and to carry this message to you. The joy is in the journey, and “faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” MLK