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The first step in helping your body achieve a healthy weight while recovering from Lyme: Stop focusing on the scale.
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On my new client intake forms, I ask clients to write down their top three health concerns. For many of my clients with Lyme disease, stubborn weight gain or an inability to lose weight is marked as a primary concern. Chronic Lyme disease can make weight loss challenging, if not downright impossible, for several reasons. Read on to learn about factors that contribute to Lyme-related weight gain and how you can support your body in achieving a healthy, sustainable weight.
Weight Gain and Lyme Disease
Body weight typically either decreases or increase in chronic illnesses. In the case of Lyme disease, body weight can go in either direction, or fluctuate between the two. As if Lyme disease wasn’t complicated and confusing enough…
In my own journey with Lyme disease, my body weight fluctuated significantly. At the beginning of my Lyme journey, I gained at least twenty lbs without any change in my caloric intake. Several years later, I lost weight when I experienced a major toxic mold exposure because my digestive tract was malabsorbing everything I ate. My weight later bounced back with a vengeance. These weight fluctuations felt devastating to me. I was doing seemingly everything “right” for my health, yet my weight continued to trend upward. I couldn’t help but wonder, what was to blame for the stubborn weight gain?
Since then, I have returned to my normal body size and am happy with the way I look and feel on a daily basis I don’t know exactly what I weigh because I haven’t weighed myself in over two years (more on that later) but it is clear that my body has recovered and settled at a healthy weight. Over the course of my personal experience with Lyme and in working with clients in my clinical nutrition practice, I’ve learned a great deal about the factors that can trigger stubborn weight gain in chronic Lyme disease and how to achieve Lyme disease weight loss. I’d like to share my thoughts with you, in the hopes that my experience can help you in your healing journey.
Please, Get Rid of Your Scale!
Before I start discussing the various factors that contribute to weight gain in chronic Lyme disease, there’s one thing I’d really like to see you do: Stop weighing yourself. If you are struggling with chronic Lyme disease and weight fluctuations, the last thing you should be doing is weighing yourself daily.
If you have Lyme, your body is working extremely hard to try to keep you healthy. A growing body of research shows that our bodies respond discernibly to the thoughts and feelings we experience. Positive and accepting thoughts support our well being, while negative thoughts drag down our health. (1) If you are weighing yourself frequently and then bashing yourself internally when the number read back to you by the scale doesn’t satisfy, you are adding to your body’s stress burden. Show yourself some compassion and, at least temporarily, stop weighing yourself. Body weight tells you very little about your overall health so, contrary to the recommendations of some more mainstream health website, I do not recommend focusing on it. Either stuff your scale in the back of your closet where it isn’t visible, or throw it away! I got rid of my bathroom scale over two years ago and haven’t weighed myself since. This is the most free and comfortable I have felt in my body in my entire adult life.
Factors That Contribute to Weight Gain in Chronic Lyme Disease
Lyme disease is a systemic inflammatory disease that adversely affects tissues ranging from the gut to the brain. Chronic inflammation, in turn, is linked to metabolic dysfunction, including hyperglycemia, insulin resistance, leptin resistance, and weight gain. If you are in the throes of infection chances are that any unusual weight gain is a side effect of the inflammatory response that your body has launched against Borrelia burgdorferi and its co-infections. Furthermore, research indicates that peripheral inflammation in the body reduces your self-regulatory capacity; this may contribute to binge eating and exacerbate weight gain! (2) In other words, if you have chronic Lyme disease and struggle with regulating your food intake, it is not your fault! Inflammation is a powerful process that fundamentally alters how your body functions. Fortunately, there are ways to ameliorate inflammation, helping your brain and body restore a healthy relationship with food.
The first step towards returning to a healthy weight, is to treat the Lyme disease. Of course, I recognize that this is easier said than done! First, I recommend getting a great Lyme-literate doctor on your healthcare team, someone who you trust to oversee your recovery. Undergoing Lyme treatment will reduce the chronic inflammatory cascade triggered by B. burgdorferi and other pathogens. Throughout treatment, there are steps you can take to mitigate inflammation and support a healthy body weight:
Get 8-9 hours of sleep per night. If you don’t need to wake up to an alarm clock, allow yourself to sleep as long as you need in the morning. According to sleep researcher Dr. Matthew Walker, allowing yourself sufficient sleep in the morning (towards the end of your sleep cycle) is crucial for ensuring you get enough restorative REM sleep. Furthermore, make sure you sleep in a cool (~67 degrees Fahrenheit) completely dark bedroom and that you wear blue light-blocking glasses at least an hour before bed to optimize your melatonin production and sleep quality.
Move your body. Exercising can feel uncomfortable, if not downright impossible, when you are struggling with Lyme disease. However, moving your body is essential for keeping your lymphatic system flowing and eliminating bacterial toxins from your body. You do not need to exercise hard to get your lymph moving: A daily walk around the neighborhood or on a nearby trail, yoga, cycling, or using an elliptical machine are gentle ways to move your body and support your recovery. I discuss more ideas of ways to move your body and support healing in my book, The Lyme Disease 30-Day Meal Plan.
Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. I’ve discussed the importance of diet for Lyme recovery at length in my new book, The Lyme Disease 30-Day Meal Plan. In the book, you’ll find guidance on which food groups to focus on for reducing systemic inflammation, gut health, joint health, and brain function, and which foods to avoid. Need help customizing your diet? Consider becoming a client at Ascent to Health! Check out the Nutritional Consulting page on my website to learn more about my clinical nutrition services.
Chronic inflammation is a preceding factor in the development of insulin resistance, a condition in which cells in your body fat, muscle, and liver start resisting signals sent by the hormone insulin. Normally, insulin triggers your cells to take up glucose from your blood, so that glucose be used intracellularly to fuel energy production and other metabolic processes. In insulin resistance, cells stop responding to the signals send by insulin. Glucose thus remains stuck in the blood, causing hyperglycemia and a cascade of metabolic effects that ultimately lead to fat storage and weight gain.
If you are insulin resistant (this can be determined with some lab tests run by your doctor) and have Lyme disease, then treating your Lyme disease is crucial for reversing the metabolic dysfunction. However, there are ways you can support your body’s insulin sensitivity, no matter where you are in your treatment process.
Limit your consumption of acellular carbohydrates. Acellular carbohydrates are food-based carbohydrates not contained within plant cells. This group of foods includes all flour-based products and foods made from flour. These foods have a high carbohydrate density, a feature that causes spikes in our blood sugar when we consume them. Long-term consumption of acellular carbohydrates promotes insulin resistance and may contribute to weight gain. (2) Instead, eat cellular carbohydrates, or foods that contain carbs within plant cells. Cellular carbohydrates include all vegetables, starchy plants such as sweet potatoes, winter squash, and plantains, and whole fruit.
Supplement with vitamin D (after you’ve had your current level assessed) and GTF chromium. These micronutrients support insulin sensitivity. I prefer Pure Encapsulations Vitamin D3 Liquid and Pure Encapsulations ChromeMate GTF. If you can’t tolerate vitamin D supplements, try to Sperti KBD Sunlamp for supporting your body’s natural production of vitamin D in your skin.
Consume more magnesium. Magnesium is a critical but often overlooked nutrient in the context of insulin resistance. Serum magnesium deficiency is associated with insulin resistance in type 2 diabetics and oral magnesium supplementation improves insulin sensitivity. (3,4)
Don’t forget to sleep and move your body! Just as sleep and exercise are critical for reducing chronic inflammation, they are also essential for supporting insulin sensitivity.
While there are no studies (that I know of) linking leptin resistance and chronic Lyme disease, there is evidence suggesting an indirect link between the two.
Leptin is a hormone released from fat cells that regulates energy balance by inhibiting hunger. Leptin resistance occurs when cells do not respond appropriately to the hormone. The unresponsiveness of cells to leptin stimulates fat cells to increase leptin production, increasing inflammation and body fat gain. Several of the inflammatory cytokines triggered by Lyme disease are also associated with leptin resistance, including TNF-alpha and IL-6. (5) While treating Lyme disease may alleviate leptin resistance, nutrition and lifestyle changes can also increase leptin sensitivity and may assist weight loss.
For clients with leptin resistance, I recommend a grain-free diet because certain components of grains (namely gluten) have been found to prevent the binding of leptin to its respective receptors in the body. (6) A Paleo dietary template has been found to reduce fasting plasma leptin levels and may improve leptin sensitivity. (7)
Lyme disease takes a significant toll on mental and emotional health. I know this from personal experience. The stress Lyme patients endure as they struggle to obtain a diagnosis and undergo treatment has systemic effects on the body. Chronic stress disrupts the gut microbiota, promoting the growth of pro-inflammatory gut bacteria. (10) It also weakens immunity and compromises brain function. (11,12) Chronic stress will work against you every step of your recovery process, so you must get it under control to support recovery.
There are many stress-management techniques available. Personally, I love meditation. Meditation has been found to significantly attenuate the stress response and decreases markers of chronic inflammation. (13) Exercise, yoga, and spending time in nature also decrease psychological stress while improving inflammatory balance. (14,15,16) Decreasing “screen time” or the amount of time you spend on your computer, phone, tablet, etc. performing non-work activities such as browsing social media, may also help reduce stress. To learn more about the importance of reducing screen time for your health, read Cal Newport’s fantastic book Digital Minimalism.
Imbalances in the gut microbiota have been identified as critical factors in the development of insulin resistance, overweight, and obesity. (17) Supporting your gut health with prebiotic foods, probiotics, and an anti-inflammatory diet can help reduce chronic inflammation and a healthy weight. Eliminating trigger foods and correcting gut conditions such as SIBO may also help with weight management.
Exposure to environmental toxins, particularly mold and mycotoxins, induces chronic inflammation and metabolic dysfunction. In animal studies, Fusarium mycotoxins have been found to induce insulin resistance. (18)
My own weight fluctuated the most after I went through a series of toxic mold exposure in dormitories, an apartment, and campus buildings in college in my late teens and early twenties. If you’ve had a toxic mold exposure in your life, it may be contributing to chronic inflammation alongside your Lyme disease diagnosis.
A functional medicine practitioner can help you undergo the proper testing for mold/mycotoxin body burden and direct a course of treatment. Detoxing mold, mycotoxins, and other environmental toxins will improve your overall health and may help your body return to a healthy weight.
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Eat to Nourish Your Body and Mind
The weight fluctuations triggered by chronic Lyme disease lead many people to seek out weight loss “crash” diets and other restrictive forms of eating, in the hopes that these strategies will produce weight loss. I highly advise against doing these diets, as they will deprive your body of the nutrients you need to heal and trigger additional physiological stress. Instead, I recommend eating a nutrient-dense diet based on whole, real foods. Customizing your diet to fit your unique needs can provide additional support for your recovery process and may help you return to a healthy weight.
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Are you dealing with Lyme disease and stubborn weight gain? Do you need help with Lyme disease weight loss? Consider working with me! I am currently accepting new clients in my clinical nutrition practice. If you’re interested in diving deep into improving your health by working one-on-one with me, reach out to me here to schedule your discovery call. The discovery call will allow us to meet and talk together to decide if my nutrition services are the right fit for your needs. I look forward to connecting with you!