In my personal experience with Lyme disease, and that of the clients I coach, I have learned that the foods we choose to consume can either greatly help or hinder our recovery process. Optimal nutrition plays several crucial roles in Lyme disease recovery: It reduces inflammation, supports a healthy immune response, enhances detoxification, and promotes gut health. In this blog series, I intend to cover in detail each of these nutritional components of Lyme disease recovery. In this first post, I will delve into the effects of nutrition on inflammation in Lyme.
Lyme disease is an infectious illness with an extremely strong inflammatory component. Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium responsible for Lyme disease, provokes immunological and inflammatory responses throughout the body. B. burgdorferi raises levels of the inflammatory cytokines IL-6, IL-8, and chemokine ligand 2 (CCL2); these molecules have been found to promote apoptosis (cell death) of neurons; this phenomenon contributes to the neurological issues experienced by chronic Lyme patients. (1) Research has also found that late disseminated Lyme disease (scientist-talk for “chronic Lyme disease”) causes pro-inflammatory immune cells to infiltrate blood vessels and collagenous tissues, causing heart, skeletal muscle, and nerve inflammation. (2) Given the inflammatory nature of Lyme disease, reducing inflammation is key. One of the best ways to reduce inflammation is by eating a whole foods-based, anti-inflammatory diet.
Step 1: Remove Inflammatory Foods
The Standard American Diet is chock-full of inflammatory foods; avoiding these foods is crucial for reducing inflammation. I advise my clients with Lyme disease to avoid the following four “food groups:”
- Conventional dairy products
- Processed food
- Industrial seed oils
Despite what the mainstream media may have led you to believe, gluten sensitivity is a very real issue. It is entirely possible to be sensitive to gluten, even if you don’t have celiac disease. In fact, research has found that gluten consumption causes intestinal cell damage and systemic immune activation (aka inflammation!) in individuals who are sensitive to gluten but don’t have celiac disease. (3) Furthermore, gluten breaks down tight-junction proteins between intestinal epithelial cells, promoting leaky gut. (4) Leaky gut causes bacterial metabolites and other substances originating in the gut to “leak” from the intestinal lumen into the systemic circulation, provoking an immune response and inflammation. Conversely, a gluten-free diet has been found to reduce inflammation. (5)
Lyme disease patients already have a lot of inflammation to contend with; for this reason, I recommend that my clients do a trial run of complete gluten avoidance for at least 6-8 weeks. Instead of eating gluten-containing grains such as wheat, spelt, farro, barley, and rye (note: this is not a complete list of all gluten-containing foods), I advise them to consume gluten-free grains such as rice, buckwheat, millet, and quinoa. I have personally been almost 100% gluten-free for 5 years, and believe that avoidance of this inflammatory food component has been very important in my recovery process.
Conventional Dairy Products
While lactose intolerance is the most widely recognized form of dairy intolerance, it is not the only component of dairy to which people can have adverse reactions. Cow’s milk also contains proteins, such as casein and whey, that can provoke inflammation, especially in people with a compromised intestinal barrier. Conventional dairy products are also a source of synthetic hormones and antibiotic residues, which may have adverse effects on hormone balance and the gut microbiota, respectively. As with gluten, I recommend a trial run of dairy elimination for 6-8 weeks. If you find that you are not sensitive to dairy, at least consider choosing organic, hormone-free, grass-fed dairy products, which are lower in toxins and higher in nutrients. (6)
Processed Foods and Added Sugars
Processed, packaged foods contain sugars that feed bad bacteria and yeast (Candida albicans) in the gut, causing dysbiosis and inflammation, as well as additives and preservatives that challenge our detox pathways. I recommend avoiding processed foods and instead consuming whole foods in their natural form. The following foods should replace packaged, sugary products:
- Whole fruits and vegetables
- Organic and/or grass-fed protein sources such as red meat and poultry
- Wild-caught or responsibly-raised seafood
- Gluten-free whole grains (if tolerated)
- Legumes such as lentils and chickpeas, if tolerated
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil, coconut oil, cold-pressed flax seed oil, avocados
Industrial Seed Oils
Industrial seed oils, such as canola, soybean, and safflower oil, have been promoted as a key component of a “healthy” diet by numerous government agencies and conventional nutrition organizations. However, industrial vegetable oils are not a natural part of the human diet - they were only introduced into our diet within the past 150 years due to agricultural surplus and their low cost. During the anti-saturated fat campaign that began in the 1960s, which we now know was based on weak, faulty research, vegetable oils were endorsed as a “healthy alternative” to animal fats. Unfortunately, this label stuck and continues to be promoted today. However, a growing body of research indicates that industrial vegetable oils are anything but healthy; rather, they are extremely pro-inflammatory. They are high in omega-6 fatty acids; an excess of dietary omega-6 fatty acids in relation to omega-3 fatty acids promote inflammation. (7) Furthermore, these oils are produced using heat, pressure, and chemicals (including heavy metals), which oxidize the fatty acids and create a rancid product. The consumption of rancid fats promotes oxidative damage and inflammation in the body. I advise my clients to avoid all industrial seed/vegetable oils.
Here is a complete list of industrial seed/vegetable oils to watch out for:
- Soybean oil
- Corn oil
- Canola oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Sunflower oil
- Peanut oil
- Rice bran oil
Instead, consume these anti-inflammatory fats that are a natural part of the human diet:
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Grass-fed butter or ghee (if you tolerate dairy)
- Soaked and sprouted, or lightly-roasted nuts and seeds
- Animal fats such as lard, tallow, and duck fat
- Wild-caught or responsibly-raised seafood for omega-3 fatty acids
If you have chronic Lyme disease, the removal of pro-inflammatory foods from your diet may be just the boost you need accelerate your healing process. However, the health benefits of eating an anti-inflammatory diet go beyond just facilitating recovery from Lyme disease; eating this type of diet creates a foundation for lasting health. It has been instrumental in my own healing process and I highly recommend it to anyone who is working to recover from Lyme disease or any other chronic, inflammatory illness.