Life Beyond Lyme Podcast Episode 3: Why Does Nutrition Matter for Lyme Disease Recovery?

Episode 3 of the Life Beyond Lyme podcast is here! In this episode, I’m talking about the five main reasons why optimizing your nutrition is essential for Lyme disease recovery. Don’t put your nutrition on the back burner during Lyme treatment! Focusing on nutrition as part of your total treatment approach can help:

  1. Lower your inflammation levels
  2. Support healthy immune function
  3. Maintain a healthy, well-functioning gastrointestinal system
  4. Regulate your blood sugar, which significantly impacts immune and brain function
  5. Help your body detoxify itself from infection and antibiotic treatment

When your diet is left unaddressed, you may have a harder time tolerating Lyme treatment AND your recovery from Lyme disease may be hindered.

I’ll also discuss actionable steps you can take to start improving your nutrition so you can achieve a sustainable Lyme recovery!

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Episode Notes

Episode Transcript

Hi, this is Lindsay Christensen, functional nutritionist and expert on using nutrition and lifestyle to support healing from Lyme disease and complex chronic illnesses. This is the Life Beyond Lyme podcast, where I’ll help you navigate the confusing world of chronic illness recovery, so you can reclaim your health and live your life to the fullest. Each week, I’ll dive into a new topic related to chronic illness recovery. We’ll talk about health challenges such as Lyme disease, mold illness, and mast cell activation disorder, and how nutrition and lifestyle changes can help you heal. My goal with this podcast is to provide you with evidence-based and actionable information that will empower you in your healing journey. I hope you enjoy the podcast!

Welcome to Episode Three of the Life Beyond Lyme podcast. In today’s episode, I’d like to answer a common question that comes up in the Lyme disease community, which is why does nutrition matter for Lyme disease recovery?

Before we get started, please recall that all of the content shared in this podcast is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide or replace medical care. While I am a nutritionist, I am not your nutritionist. So, you should always check with your healthcare provider before trying any of the strategies that I discussed in this podcast.

Alright, so let’s dive into answering the question: “Why does nutrition matter for Lyme disease recovery?” If you have Lyme disease, chances are you’ve been told by your doctor to quote unquote, eat better. However, few people actually do this and many Lyme patients don’t fully grasp the impact that nutrition – either good or bad – can have on their recovery process. As a functional nutritionist who has had Lyme disease myself and worked with numerous clients with Lyme disease, I think I’m pretty well qualified to speak on this topic. I’m also pretty passionate about this topic too because when we focus on nutrition as part of our Lyme disease recovery process, it opens up a whole world of possibilities as far as steps that we can take to feel better faster while we’re recovering from Lyme disease. In other words, you don’t have to wait all the way until your Lyme treatment is over to feel better, and nutrition is one of the big dials that you can adjust to improve how you feel while you’re still going through treatment.

Unfortunately, many people place nutrition on the backburner during their Lyme disease treatment. This is something I’ve seen repeatedly with potential clients as well as new clients who are just signing up to begin working with me. Fatigue, chronic pain, brain fog, and overwhelm due to complicated and honestly sometimes exhausting antibiotic protocols are all potential reasons why an individual might put their nutrition on the backburner during their Lyme disease treatment. However, the truth is that nutrition plays a vital role in your Lyme disease recovery and when your diet is left unaddressed during your Lyme treatment process, your recovery from Lyme disease and other tick borne infections may be hindered.

There are five main reasons why nutrition is vital for Lyme disease recovery. I am first going to run through these five reasons rather quickly, kind of like a bullet-pointed list. And then I’m going to dig into each one in a bit more detail. So, reason number one why nutrition is crucial for supporting your Lyme disease recovery process is that the foods you eat can either increase or decrease inflammation inside your body. Chronic Lyme disease is not just an infection; in many ways, it is a chronic inflammatory illness. Borrelia burgdorferi and other strains of Borrelia, the bacteria that can cause Lyme disease provoke inflammation throughout our bodies, as do co-infections such as Bartonella and Babesia. Lyme-induced inflammation has been found to harm numerous body systems, including the brain and nervous system, the gut, connective tissue, your muscles, and the cardiovascular system. Lyme-induced inflammation can trigger a wide variety of symptoms, ranging from brain fog, to mood disturbances to gastrointestinal symptoms and chronic fatigue. To help our bodies recover from Lyme disease, we need to reduce inflammation inside our bodies. And according to many scientific studies at this point, nutrition is one of the most powerful tools that we have for reducing inflammation. Now, I’ll be perfectly clear that the studies that look at the impact of nutrition on inflammation are not looking specifically at Lyme disease patients. And honestly, it’s very unlikely that we’re ever going to have great nutritional studies on Lyme disease patients. However, what we can infer from these studies is that if nutrition can reduce markers of inflammation in other chronic health conditions, that are also markers of inflammation elevated by Lyme disease, then it seems probable that those same nutrition strategies could help reduce inflammation in those of us with Lyme.

When we remove inflammatory foods from our diets and focus on eating anti-inflammatory and nutrient-dense foods are really giving our immune systems a leg up in our battle against Lyme disease and co-infections, allowing our immune systems to quench unproductive inflammation and really hone in on the infections that need to be addressed. So, I’ll dig into the specifics of how nutrition impacts inflammation shortly after we talk about the four other main reasons why nutrition matters for Lyme recovery.

All right, so reason number two why nutrition is essential for supporting Lyme recovery is that your immune system needs specific nutrients to function properly. These nutrients are not going to come out of thin air if we are not eating them through our diet or through supplements. Ideally, we should be trying to get as many of our nutrients through food and then using supplements as supplements. Once you have these nutrients in place, your immune systems can function properly to target Lyme and co-infections and reduce inflammation. There are literally dozens of nutrients that your immune system needs to function properly. And some quick examples would include vitamin D, selenium, zinc, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA.

Reason number three why nutrition is vital for Lyme recovery is that a healthy gut will significantly impact your line recovery process, and food is one of the biggest inputs that affect your gut. A good 70-80% of your immune system resides in your gut, and we also have some preliminary scientific evidence that Lyme disease and co-infections can affect the gut and that Lyme treatment can affect the gut. So, we’ve got a variety of factors working against our gut health, and we need to have optimal gut health in order to recover from Lyme. So, it follows that one of the big things we should be focusing on nutritionally is eating a diet that supports our gut health. I’ll talk in a bit more detail about which foods you may want to eat to support your gut health and which foods you may want to eliminate or avoid to reduce further damage to your gastrointestinal system.

All right, reason number four why nutrition matters for Lyme recovery is that blood sugar control significantly impacts your immune system and many systems in your body that are affected by Lyme disease, and your blood sugar levels are profoundly impacted by the foods that you eat. The relationship between blood sugar control and Lyme recovery is an unexpected one for many people. I think a lot of us still, you know, when we hear the word, term blood sugar, we think primarily of people with type two diabetes or type one diabetes. However, all of us have blood sugar. And for all of us, the way that our blood sugar fluctuates throughout the day and behaves impacts many body systems including our brains, thereby impacting our cognition and mood. Our immune function is affected by blood sugar, so are our inflammation levels and even our energy levels. If you’re already foggy-headed, moody, experiencing immune suppression, and low energy from Lyme, having poorly managed blood sugar caused by non-ideal food choices could potentially compound those symptoms for you. So, we really want to focus on nutrition to support healthy blood sugar control.

And then finally, reason number five why nutrition is essential for Lyme recovery is that nutrition affects your body’s detoxification capacity. If you have Lyme disease and have gone through antibiotic treatment or herbal treatment, chances are, at some point, you’ve experienced a detox reaction or a Herxheimer reaction. Sometimes these are referred to also as die-off reactions. And these reactions occur when our bodies are overloaded by bacterial toxins that are being released as the herbs or antibiotics are killing off Lyme disease and co-infections. Some of us with Lyme disease also are dealing with mold illness or other toxic burdens. And when our bodies aren’t able to transform toxins and get rid of them promptly, we can end up having stronger reactions to treatment. In addition, certain micronutrients and food components like dietary fiber and protein significantly impact your body’s ability to detox. So, if you’re not eating in a way that supports detoxification during Lyme treatment, you may be more likely to experience die-off or detox reactions.

So now that we’ve covered at a high level, the five main reasons that nutrition matters for Lyme recovery, let’s dig into each of these topics in a bit more detail.

All right, so the first big reason why nutrition matters for Lyme recovery is that it impacts your body’s inflammation levels. Over the course of my own Lyme recovery journey and my work with many clients who have Lyme disease, I found that there are four main food groups that can trigger inflammation in people with Lyme, also in the general public, but especially in people with Lyme disease. And we want to be cognizant of either limiting our intake of these foods or removing them from our diet as much as possible, so that we can get our inflammation levels down.

For group number one/food component number one that can be very inflammatory is gluten. Gluten can have inflammatory effects both within the gut and outside of the gut. Gluten is not just an issue if you have celiac disease; it’s pretty clearly established now that people can have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, meaning an immune reaction in their bodies to gluten. Even without the presence of celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity has been linked to a variety of health issues, including IBS, autoimmunity, and even brain-related issues like mood disorders and cognitive dysfunction. So, I typically recommend removing gluten from your diet if you have Lyme disease, especially during your treatment process. But honestly, many people in my experience will feel better by strictly limiting their intake of gluten over the long term. At some point when your body is less inflamed and more resilient and your gut is healthy is in a good place. You may be able to tolerate some forms of gluten like sourdough bread or, or sprouted ancient grains, and be able to tolerate those in moderation. But at least in the initial stages of your line treatment, it’s often going to be really beneficial to just cut out gluten and try to avoid it as much as possible.

All right, so the second food group that can be inflammatory for people with Lyme disease are conventional dairy products. And by conventional, I am referring to dairy products from grain-fed, factory-farmed non-organically raised cows. So, if you’re shopping around for dairy products at the grocery store and you don’t see the USDA organic label on the packaging or you’re not buying dairy products directly from a farmer who uses organic farming methods you are [most likely] consuming conventional grain-fed dairy products.

The reason conventional dairy products are inflammatory is that cows really were never meant to consume grains in the quantities that they do in factory farming and this diet can create an inflammatory product – inflammatory milk. It [the milk] has the wrong fatty acid ratio for supporting anti-inflammatory processes in our own bodies, and the conventional dairy products are also likely to be contaminated with herbicide or pesticide residues based on the grains that the cows are fed. These dairy products may contain mycotoxins from the grains [that the cows were fed]. And the dairy products may also contain recombinant bovine growth hormone or other synthetic hormones given to the cows to make them produce more milk. So basically, you’re ending up with a milk product or dairy products from those cows that have a bunch of different inflammatory components.

This second piece is a bit more controversial. But we could argue that the processing methods used to process conventional dairy products also increase their inflammatory potential. So, pasteurization and homogenization of dairy products can potentially reduce some of the nutritional qualities of dairy, and also change the proteins in dairy products, potentially making them less digestible and more inflammatory to our guts and the rest of our body. I often recommend if a person with Lyme disease or a client of mine with Lyme disease, I should say, if they’ve never removed dairy products from their diets, and they’re very symptomatic, I’ll often recommend 30 to 60 days of dairy elimination. And then after that trial period, we may try reintroducing some higher quality, less inflammatory dairy products such as organic and grass-fed yogurt or kefir, raw dairy or A2 dairy, which is a form of dairy that can be less inflammatory and more digestible for some people. A2 dairy comes from certain types of cows, as well as goats and sheep.

Alright, trigger [food] number three that can be very inflammatory for people with Lyme disease is the grouping of processed carbohydrates and added sugars. By processed carbohydrates, I’m referring primarily to foods made with grain-based flours that have been processed in very various ways to make foods like bread pasta, cereal, and snacky types of foods. These foods can promote the growth of inflammatory bacteria inside our guts if you’re consuming them regularly, like most Americans are. Occasional bread intake is [usually] not going to be a problem, especially if it’s gluten-free. But high intakes of processed carbohydrates can be very inflammatory to the gut, and that gut inflammation can translate into inflammation within the rest of the body as well.

And then “added sugars” refers to concentrated sources of sugar such as cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and agave syrup. These added sugars can promote the growth of inflammatory gut bacteria. And both processed carbs and added sugars can raise our blood sugar, which in and of itself can have an inflammatory effect. So, we really want to limit processed carbs and added sugars during our Lyme recovery process.

And then finally, let’s talk about food group number three that’s highly inflammatory. I honestly think everybody, not just Lyme patients should avoid this food group. But this group is the industrial seed oils. Industrial seed oils may also go by the name vegetable oils, even though ironically enough, they do not come from vegetables. Industrial seed oils are extracted from seeds or grains. This food grouping includes things like soybean oil, corn oil, safflower, and grapeseed oils. And these are all oils that have inappropriately been given a kind of health halo. There’s a lot of controversy over why that is, but basically, these are recent additions to her diet, from an evolutionary perspective. These oils have too much omega-6 in them. Omega-6 is a type of fatty acid. When we consume too much of it, especially through foods like industrial seed oils, we can increase inflammation in our bodies. And then these oils are also inflammatory and can contain contaminants that end up in there [the oil] via the processing methods the seeds have to go through to make the oils. The contaminants [in the oil] can be inflammatory to us as well.

So just to recap gluten, conventional dairy products, processed carbohydrates and added sugars, and industrial seed oils are four inflammatory food groups that you should avoid if you have Lyme disease and want to reduce your inflammation level and help your immune system function in a more healthy way.

All right, so reason number two why we need to focus on our nutrition during Lyme recovery is that our bodies need certain nutrients, or sorry, I should say our immune systems need certain nutrients to function properly and fight Lyme disease. So, I’ll just give you a few examples of immune nutrients that we need and their relation to Lyme disease. So, vitamin A, for example, is really essential for the normal function of many immune cells, including B and T cells, natural killer cells, and neutrophils. These are cells that help us fight infections like Lyme. And I think the last time I checked, the rate of Vitamin A deficiency in US adults was about 43%, so almost half of the population. And, you know, that’s not even saying much, because honestly, the adequate intake level of vitamin A is basically the amount we need to consume to prevent symptoms of an acute deficiency. It’s not necessarily the level of vitamin A we need to consume for optimal health and optimal immune function. So potentially even more than 43% of US adults are susceptible to low vitamin A levels. Interestingly, there’s a study I came across a number of years ago that found that vitamin A deficiency increases inflammation in an animal model of MCs. So it appears that there’s a direct connection between vitamin A and our ability to quench Lyme-related information.

So where do we get vitamin A from? Well, first of all, I should clarify that the form of vitamin A, the immune system means is known as retinol. Sometimes we’ll see it listed as “retinoids.” But this is the form of vitamin A that our immune systems need and it is only found in animal foods, such as fatty fish, salmon and sardines, egg yolks, beef, liver, and full-fat dairy products. This is just one reason why I’m passionate about people with Lyme disease consuming an omnivorous diet because vegetarian and vegan diets will contain little to no vitamin A. Our bodies can take substances called carotenoids, which are found in red, yellow, orange, and green [plant] foods, and convert those into vitamin A inside our bodies. This conversion process is pretty slow and inefficient, necessitating that we consume some vitamin A-containing animal foods for optimal immune function. So that’s just a highlight of one nutrient that our immune systems need for optimal immune function. There are many more nutrients that we need as well, including vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc, selenium, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and a proper protein intake. So, if you’re missing out on one or more of these nutrients, which many Americans at least are, according to statistics, your immune system is going to be hindered in its ability to fight Lyme. You can’t ignore nutrition because it is the very basis upon which our immune systems are built.

So, reason number three why nutrition is essential for Lyme recovery is that a healthy gut significantly impacts our Lyme recovery process. Like I mentioned earlier, about 70 to 80% of the human body’s immune system lives in the gut, meaning your gut, bacteria, immune cells, and other substances in there regulate your immune system. Your gut is also going to be impacted by Lyme treatments such as antibiotics, and antimicrobial herbs. And at the same time, it’s your primary waste disposal system, so to speak, for dead bacteria that you’re killing off during your Lyme treatment process. So, your gut simply can’t be overlooked or shouldn’t be overlooked. And if you don’t care for your gut during Lyme treatment, in my experience, what will tend to happen is that you’ll have worse detox or Herxheimer reactions, you’ll potentially end up with more issues after Lyme treatment, and you may have difficulty recovering from Lyme disease in a sustainable way. Certain foods like gluten and processed carbohydrates and sugars, those are some of the main foods that can disrupt the gut microbiome, and create a gut that’s less capable of functioning properly from an immune perspective and an elimination perspective. Eating a whole foods oriented anti-inflammatory diet is essential for supporting your gut. And then many people will benefit from a bit more personalized treatment of their guts during their Lyme recovery. So that may include doing some gut testing, like stool testing, with a functional medicine provider to identify imbalances unique to that person’s gut so they can be corrected. So there’s a lot that we can do to modulate the gut and make it more conducive to your healing.

And then finally, reason number four why your nutrition matters for Lyme recovery is that your body’s blood sugar control significantly impacts many body systems that are impacted by Lyme disease. So, blood sugar regulation significantly impacts immune function. There’s actually a really interesting study, I can link to it on this podcast page, but I found a study that looked at people with Type 2 diabetes and Lyme disease and found that poor blood sugar control significantly impaired the body’s ability to clear Lyme disease. So that was an extreme example, you know, Type 2 diabetes is one extreme end of the blood sugar dysregulation spectrum. But it’s possible that other more subclinical forms of blood sugar dysregulation may impair your immune function too. Eating a diet and living a lifestyle that is supportive of healthy blood sugar is vital, honestly. And some of the factors that you can adjust to support better blood sugar control are to avoid eating foods that spike your blood sugar. Typically, that’s going to be refined carbohydrates and added sugars. Making sure that you’re eating enough dietary protein is vital because protein plays a crucial role in preventing excessive blood sugar spikes and keeping blood sugar in a more narrow and healthy range during the day. And then optimizing things like sleep, exercise and stress management, which I know are outside the realm of nutrition, but are equally important for blood sugar control. You can’t ignore blood sugar control as it directly impacts Lyme recovery.

There are several ways to find out whether your blood sugar is an issue. One would be to ask your healthcare provider to routinely measure some markers of blood sugar control, such as your fasting glucose and fasting insulin, and a marker called hemoglobin A1c, which is a marker of average blood sugar control over the preceding three months. And then interestingly enough, there are some newer ways to track your blood sugar at home and essentially identify for yourself if you’re having issues. I use both of these strategies with my clients. So, strategy number one would be to use a finger prick blood glucose monitor, which you can buy at a pharmacy like CVS or Walgreens to track your fasting blood sugar first thing in the morning and see if it’s within a healthy range. Typically, we want to see it in the range of 70 to 90 mg/dL first thing in the morning after we’ve woken up before eating or drinking anything. And then you can also do blood sugar tracking with that glucometer around your meals to see how high does your blood sugar spike after you eat and does it return to a healthy baseline level, you know, in an appropriate timeframe, which typically is considered to be two to three hours after eating. So if you’re having significant blood sugar spikes after eating or if your fasting blood sugars elevated consistently, those are some initial signs that you need to pay more attention to your blood sugar control and potentially work with a functional health care provider and help you personalize and approach to balancing your blood sugar. And then a second way to gather more information about your blood sugar control would be to use a continuous glucose monitor or CGM. These are increasingly becoming available direct to consumers; for many years CGMs were only available to diabetics. But now we have companies such as Levels Health, Nutrisense, and Veri sell direct-to-consumer CGMs, giving you the opportunity to track your blood sugar in real time using a sensor that goes into your arm and doesn’t feel like anything. I used it [a CGM] myself and it basically provides information about your blood sugar day and night for at least two weeks at a time up to honestly as long as you want to use it. But it’s a super helpful tool for figuring out whether there are foods that are flying under the radar but spiking your blood sugar, or whether there are lifestyle behaviors that are adversely affecting your blood sugar. I highly recommend using a CGM at least once in your life to get a better look at what your blood sugar is doing for you.

All right, finally, reason number five why nutrition is essential for Lyme recovery is that nutrition is needed to support your detoxification systems, which do multiple crucial things for you during Lyme recovery. Chronic infections, such as Lyme disease and Lyme co-infections, release various inflammatory toxins that can impair our immune systems and worsen our symptoms. One example is that Borrelia burgdorferi, which is one of the types of Borrelia bacteria that causes Lyme disease, produce an inflammatory toxin called peptidoglycan. And if we don’t get rid of toxins like this through, bowel movements, urination, and sweating, in a timely manner, we may be more likely to experience “detox [reactions]” or Herxheimer reactions.

In addition, our bodies are exposed to an unprecedented number of toxins today, just through our environment, our foods, medications, drinking water, and fabrics. While we have natural systems in place, many of us could use some additional support in order to detox effectively and optimizing your diet is one of the first steps you can take to lower your toxin burden. And, you know, help your body detoxify more effectively. So, some examples of foods that can increase your toxin burden include potentially meat or dairy products from factory-farmed animals, we may be getting some exogenous hormones, pesticide herbicide residues or mycotoxins from those foods. And then non-organic produce is another potential source of pesticides and herbicides as well.

If you can’t afford to buy all organic or grass fed meat and dairy and produce, I recommend trying to prioritize where you invest your money. One resource, for example, would be the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists, which list the 12 types of vegetables and fruits that tend to be most heavily contaminated with pesticides and herbicides and then the 15 fruits and vegetables that, despite being grown conventionally, tend to have lower levels of pesticides and herbicides. So basically, those lists can help you determine, you know, where to spend the money in order to get produce with lower residues, and then it can help you prioritize which fruits and vegetables you may want to buy organic, just to be on the safe side. And then finally, there are certain micronutrients and, and even macronutrients that are essential for our detoxification enzymes and pathways to function properly. For example, for liver detoxification, we need nutrients like B vitamins, and to make glutathione, which is one of our body’s primary detox compounds. It [glutathione] also has some anti-inflammatory effects. We need a couple of amino acids and minerals such as selenium for glutathione to be made. We also want to optimize our intake of dietary fiber because fiber can act essentially like a gentle binder, inside our guts, helping to bind on to various toxins so that we can then eliminate eliminate those toxins in our stool. So detoxification In other words, is really significantly impacted by the foods that you eat and you know the foods that you may choose to have weighed.

So, as you can see, your nutrition can impact many aspects of your Lyme disease recovery process. I urge you to not leave it on the back burner while you’re going through your line treatment. It really should be front and center alongside your antibiotic and antimicrobial herbal treatments and any other treatments you’re doing like vitamins or minerals or IVs. I have a few blogs related to Lyme disease and diet and nutrition. I’ll link to one of them, titled “The Lyme Disease Diet: Foods to Eat and Foods to Avoid” in the notes for this episode.

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