Written by Dr. Will Cole
According to the CDC, around 300,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme disease every single year. And considering the fact that its difficult to diagnose and often mistaken for another illness, that number is likely much higher. Lyme disease is transmitted to humans by way of a tick bite—most often from black-legged or deer ticks—which is often so tiny a person doesn’t notice until after they’ve been infected with a type of bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. The incidence of Lyme is predicted to rise as much as twenty percent in the coming years as the planet gets warmer. There’s no denying it: Lyme disease is everywhere and it doesn’t plan on going away anytime soon.
The tricky thing about Lyme disease is that its symptoms can be hard to pin down and mimic other illnesses, which means it’s often misdiagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, dementia, or fibromyalgia. Lyme has even earned the nickname “The Great Imitator” due to this serious symptom overlap. Sadly, the result of this is a lot of people struggling with symptoms of Lyme disease without knowing what it actually is.
To pile on the bad news, Lyme can also trigger additional health issues like autoimmune conditions and inflammation-spectrum disorders that affect parts of the body such as the immune system, nervous system, and digestive tract. This complication can make diagnosing and treating Lyme patients even trickier. Many people struggle with their health for years without getting answers.
How is Lyme connected to diet and lifestyle?
There’s a LOT of talk about Lyme disease right now in the media, among friends, in the doctor’s office, and even at health conferences. The reasons for this are multifactorial. For one, we’re starting to know more about the infections and accurate testing is being done more frequently. In addition, we’re starting to realize that our modern lifestyles are not doing us any favors when it comes to Lyme.
You see, our genetics as humans haven’t changed in over 10,000 years, but the world around us has changed greatly. Factors like processed foods, soil nutrient depletion, and air and water pollution are all likely amplifying and perpetuating the impact that chronic infections caused by viruses, mold, protozoa, and bacteria (like Lyme disease) have on the body. At first this might seem like bad news, but the truth is if certain environments and lifestyle factors can make us more vulnerable to Lyme, certain lifestyle factors and environments can also make us less vulnerable, too.
What’s wrong with the way our healthcare system treats Lyme?
So how does mainstream medicine diagnose and treat Lyme? Most of the time it’s done through lab work and a round of antibiotics—but that’s only if you notice a bite or your doctor has been trained to recognize the many vague and mysterious symptoms of Lyme. And even if you do successfully treat Lyme, chronic Lyme can persist long after you’ve taken those antibiotics, a condition that is now referred to as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome. Thankfully, post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome is gaining recognition, especially in the functional medicine community and with the support of organizations like the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society.
As a Lyme-literate functional medicine expert, I take a multi-pronged approach to treating Lyme disease. This includes specific supplements, forms of exercise, and most importantly: using food as medicine.
Can a keto diet support your ability to heal from Lyme?
In my practice, dietary recommendations for Lyme often takes the form of a mostly plant-based ketogenic diet, which I call the Ketotarian diet. The Ketotarian diet avoids the common downsides and risks of the conventional keto diet (AKA, eating a ton of meat and diary), while still allowing you to take advantage of the benefits of nutritional ketosis to fend off Lyme disease and get you back to optimal health.
Want more details? You’ve come to the right place. Here’s how a Ketotarian diet can be a game-changer in healing from chronic Lyme disease:
Control your health at its roots
1. It supports healthy methylation pathways.
Many people don’t know this, but there are certain genetic factors that can make you more vulnerable to falling ill from Lyme disease. One of these is the MTHFR gene mutation, which affects more than a third of the population and impairs a process called methylation. This is a problem because methylation helps control the health of your hormones, inflammatory pathways, and detox pathways—which all help you manage Lyme. The Ketotarian diet is a great way to support healthy methylation. Certain foods like leafy greens and cruciferous veggies acts as extra credit since they are rich in folate and sulfur compounds that directly support methylation. Talk about food as medicine at its best!
2. It helps boost mitochondrial health.
Research shows that oxidative stress can harm the mitochondria in the immune cells of Lyme patients, which results in extreme fatigue. A Ketotarian diet can combat this by increasing mitochondrial biogenesis (AKA, the production of new mitochondria), which happens by way of autophagy. Autophagy is a process in the body that helps remove damaged cells; it’s essentially your body’s own cleaning system. If you want to take things to the next level, you can follow an intermittent fasting plan in combination with your keto diet. Fasting also causes ketosis and is another way to increase autophagy.
3. It combats chronic inflammation.
As I mentioned before, when you’re exposed to Lyme disease over a long period of time, it can trigger autoimmune diseases. To reverse this (Or prevent it in the first place!), it’s imperative that you reduce inflammation in your body. Luckily for us, the ketones produced when your body is in ketosis are anti-inflammatory. In one example, the ketone beta-hydroxybutyrate acts as a signaling molecule and epigenetic modulator, working to activate anti-inflammatory pathways (such as AMPK and Nrf-2) and inhibiting inflammatory pathways like NFkB, COX2, and the NLRP-3 inflammasome.
In plain English, this means that a plant-based ketogenic diet attacks chronic inflammation in multiple ways. This, combined with restored mitochondrial function, can help eliminate debilitating neurological symptoms like brain fog, which often occur with chronic Lyme. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
4. It restores the microbiome to its former glory.
Most Lyme experts can agree on one thing: The gut microbiome is a key player in fighting off Lyme infections. This is because about 80 percent of our immune system is located in your GI tract. The good news is that the combination of healthy fiber and probiotic foods on the Ketotarian diet will help bring balance to your microbiome by killing bad bacteria and inoculating your belly with healthy ones (called probiotics) that help boost the immune system, lower inflammation, and fight disease. The Ketotarian diet is also low in sugar and carbs, foods that are known for promoting inflammation and suppressing immune function.
Should you go Keto to combat Lyme?
More studies need to be done that test this diet on patients with Lyme, but for now I feel it’s a safe and effective way to support your body through the process of healing Lyme. Many of the pathways implicated in Lyme disease are also modulated with a high-fat, low-carb keto diet. Because of this, in my practice I put almost all my patients with Lyme on some form of Ketotarian diet. Depending on how severe your Lyme disease is, I suggest seeking out a Lyme-savvy functional medicine practitioner who’s familiar with Lyme and low-carb, high-fat diets like the Keto diet.