By Chris D. Meletis, N.D.
For years, Lyme’s disease was thought to be transmitted by a tick bite exclusively. But new research is unveiling something quite troubling about this baffling condition: Lyme disease may be transmitted sexually as well.
This is particularly sobering given that many people have Lyme disease and don’t even know it. This is because it’s often confused with other illnesses such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome or even Lou Gehrig’s disease (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS).
In this article, I’m going to address the new research showing Lyme may be the newest STD. I’m also going to touch upon how you may have Lyme and not even know it, as well as the best way for your doctor to test you for the disease to avoid false negatives.
But first, let’s talk about what Lyme disease is and some startling new statistics about how common it really is.
A Hidden Epidemic
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which is a type of corkscrew-shaped bacteria known as a spirochete (pronounced spiro’keet). It’s the most common vector-borne infectious disease in North America. At first glance, it seems like only a relatively small number of people contract Lyme disease. More than 38,000 new cases were reported in the United States in 2009.1
However, because the symptoms match those of other diseases and because the standard tests used to diagnose the disease have a high rate of false negatives, that 38,000 is just the tip of the iceberg. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that Lyme disease is much more common than previously thought, with over 300,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the United States.2 That would mean that Lyme disease is almost twice as common as breast cancer and six times more common than HIV/AIDS!
The new study showing that Lyme may be sexually transmitted explains how so many people could have Lyme, even though only a small number are exposed to ticks.
Lyme As a STD
While at first it seems surprising that Lyme could be transmitted sexually, the Lyme spirochete actually resembles syphilis. And like syphilis, Lyme can imitate other infectious and non-infectious diseases
In the study investigating whether Lyme could be transmitted sexually, researchers tested semen samples and vaginal secretions from three groups of subjects:
- Random participants who tested positive for Lyme disease.
- Married heterosexual couples practicing unprotected sex and who tested positive for Lyme.
- Control subjects who did not have Lyme disease.
The researchers found that all women with Lyme disease tested positive for Borrelia burgdorferi in vaginal secretions. Approximately half of the men with Lyme disease tested positive for Borrelia burgdorferi in semen samples. In addition, in one of the heterosexual couples with Lyme disease, both the husband and wife had identical strains of the Lyme spirochete in their genital secretions, adding more support to the theory that Lyme is a STD and that sexual transmission occurs. By contrast, every control subject tested negative for Borrelia burgdorferi in semen samples or vaginal secretions.3
The study authors weren’t sure why so many more women than men showed evidence of Borrelia burgdorferi in genital secretions.They hope that future studies will investigate further.
“There is always some risk of getting Lyme disease from a tick bite in the woods,” internist Dr. Raphael Stricker, one of the researchers involved in the study, said in a press release. “But there may be a bigger risk of getting Lyme disease in the bedroom.”
Could You Have Lyme and Not Know It?
The answer to that question is a resounding yes. And knowing that Lyme may be sexually transmitted makes this concept even scarier.
There are several reasons why Lyme could be lurking in your body without being properly diagnosed. First, not everyone has the characteristic target bull’s eye rash that occurs right after a tick bite and serves as a red flag for Lyme disease. In fact, only 60 to 90 percent of Lyme disease patients develop the rash.4
To make things even more complicated, the rash doesn’t always look exactly like a target. And one study showed that up to 72 percent of doctors surveyed could not correctly identify the Lyme rash when shown both a Lyme disease rash as well as other common rashes.5
Another reason Lyme often goes undetected is because its symptoms mimic those of other diseases. People who have Lyme disease can suffer from long-lasting fatigue, joint pain, muscle aches and cognitive dysfunction as well as tingling, tickling, prickling or a burning sensation of the skin (paresthesias).
Often, patients who have any of these symptoms go through many different kinds of tests either without any definitive diagnosis, or they’re told they have chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia or depression.6 Often, they’re never even tested for Lyme disease, or if they are, their test comes back with a false negative and they’re told they don’t have Lyme disease.
Two of my patients had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) by other doctors. When I had them tested for Lyme, it came back positive, indicating it was really Lyme that was causing their health problems. These inaccurate diagnoses can be devastating for people who are, in reality, suffering from the damaging effects of Lyme—not to mention allowing this devastating disease to continue to wreak havoc on the body.
Lyme on the Brain
The central nervous system (CNS) and the brain pay the price for being infected with Lyme. The Lyme disease spirochete gravitates to the CNS not long after infection. In fact, researchers have isolated B. burgdorferi from spinal fluid of humans as early as 18 days after the bite of an infected tick.7
Lyme’s presence in the central nervous system can trigger inflammation, which causes meningitis, headaches or facial nerve palsy. Peripheral nerve disease is also common, and in some patients, seizures can occur.8 It’s estimated that these neurological effects occur in up to 15 percent of people who have Lyme but remain untreated.7
And in people who are treated for the disease, long-term symptoms remain in up to half of patients even five years after they are first treated.7
One analysis of the medical literature also found that Lyme disease patients frequently have memory problems, poor concentration, difficulties in formulating ideas and difficulties in word-finding tasks.9
There are, in fact, more than 250 peer-reviewed scientific articles demonstrating the connection between Lyme/tick-borne disease and mental disorders, including depression.10-11
What Makes Symptoms Worse?
The severity of Lyme disease symptoms varies from person to person. Researchers are finding that the severity of your symptoms may depend on your genes. In a study of mice inoculated with Borrelia burgdorferi, the genetics of the host controlled the development of symptoms and regulated the level of spirochetes in tissues.
The genes of the animals determined how many spirochetes ended up in the tissues as well as which tissues the bacterium invaded the most heavily. In one strain of mice known to develop severe arthritis after being infected with Lyme, the heart, ear and ankle were particularly heavily infected, although B. burgdorferi was also detected in the spleen, liver, brain, kidney, bladder, uterus and lymph nodes. In contrast, much lower levels of spirochetes were detected in tissues of another strain of mouse that develops less severe arthritis when infected with B. burgdorferi.12
In Utero Exposure
Not only can Lyme be passed among sexual partners—it might also be passed from mother to child before birth. It’s unclear the extent to which this happens.
Syphillis, as mentioned earlier in this article, resembles Lyme disease, and a syphilis infection in the mother can result in devastating prenatal outcomes in the fetus.
However, it’s not known to what extent chronic infection of the fetus by Borrelia burgdorferi occurs because placental transmission of the spirochete can only occur during a narrow window of time at conception.13
A study of 19 pregnant women with Lyme disease tried to paint a clearer picture of whether infection with Lyme could harm the unborn child. Eight of the women were infected with Lyme during the first trimester, seven during the second trimester and two during the third trimester; in two women, the trimester of onset wasn’t known. Thirteen of the women received appropriate antibiotic therapy for Lyme disease.
Of the 19 pregnancies, five had adverse outcomes, including cortical blindness, intrauterine fetal death, prematurity and rash in the newborn. The researchers could not determine whether the Lyme was to blame for any of the adverse outcomes. However, they concluded, “The frequency of such outcomes warrants further surveillance and studies of pregnant women with Lyme disease.”14
There’s some evidence to suggest that the worst harm to a fetus occurs when the mother is infected during pregnancy rather than prior to conceiving. For this reason, one study suggested that the harm to the fetus is really due to a maternal response to infection rather than fetal infection itself.15
The Lyme-Schizophrenia Link
Prenatal exposure to Lyme might also be the trigger for the development of schizophrenia. Researchers believe that genes may work together with Lyme and the immune system to cause the development of schizophrenia.16
The time of year when many people who have schizophrenia are born adds merit to this theory. Researchers have noted that schizophrenia occurs more often in people born in winter and spring. This means the season when ticks are the most prevalent coincides with the prenatal period.17
Testing for Lyme Disease
It’s not easy to get an accurate diagnosis for Lyme. The bacteria tend to hide inside the cells and evade detection by standard testing.
One test I have used in clinical practice that is extremely accurate is the Complete Lyme Panel, offered by the lab IGeneX. I have used this lab to diagnose the patients mentioned above who were told they had Lou Gehrig’s disease. Both of these patients came up negative for Lyme with standard testing, but the IGeneX test was positive.
I began treating the patients for Lyme and the patients have since made full recoveries. Imagine being told you are on the verge of dying when in reality you have Lyme! Speak with your doctor about using IGeneX to conduct your Lyme disease test.
Lyme and POTS
Some people who have Lyme disease respond well to antibiotic,s only to later develop symptoms such as fatigue, joint pain and poor memory. This is called post-treatment LD syndrome. And some patients who have post-treatment LD syndrome also go on to develop POTS— postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome.23
The primary symptom of POTS is orthostatic intolerance, when an excessively reduced volume of blood returns to the heart after a person stands up after lying down. This causes lightheadedness or fainting. In POTS, this is also accompanied by a rapid increase in heartbeat of more than 30 beats per minute, or a heart rate that exceeds 120 beats per minute, within 10 minutes of rising. As soon as POTS patients lie down again, the lightheadedness goes away. People who suffer from POTS often also suffer from headaches, decreased concentration and exercise intolerance.
In some post-Lyme POTS patients, the problem occurs so often and is so troublesome that it causes them to miss school or lose their job.
Treating Lyme Disease
The standard treatment for Lyme disease is antibiotics. B. burgdorferi is sensitive to penicillins, tetracyclines and macrolides antibiotics, but many factors can affect how well the medications work.6 For the treatment to work, specific antibiotics must be used over a sufficient period of time. Antibiotics also come with a number of side effects, not the least of which is the destruction of the good bacteria in your colon, which play a role in immune defense.
For anyone interested in natural support, an herb called Uncaria tomentosa (Cat’s claw) is worth learning about. Myself and many of my colleagues have used a special type of Uncaria tomentosa rich in pentacyclic oxindole alkaloids (POA) and guaranteed free of tetracyclic oxindole alkaloids (TOA) with a great deal of success in Lyme patients.
Most cat’s claw products on the market contain a mixture of POA and TOA in unknown proportions. This is important because the pentacyclic oxindole alkaloids act on the cellular immune system. They increase the rate of germ-killing by granulocytes (a type of white blood cell) and cause the cells that line the heart, blood and lymph vessels to release a factor that regulates the production of lymphocytes (germ-killing white blood cells). The secretion of this important immune factor was only affected by the pentacyclic alkaloids, but not by the tetracyclic alkaloids. In fact, the tetracyclic alkaloids stopped the release of the immune factor.18-20
To my knowledge, there are no studies testing Uncaria tomentosa on the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium. However, there are numerous cell culture studies showing it can inhibit other forms of bacteria including Streptococcus mutans, Staphylococcus spp. and Enterobacteriaceae.21
In animals, Uncaria tomentosa enhances the immune system and acts as an anti-inflammatory.22 It has had similar effects in humans.22
Lyme—The Newest STD
The new study indicating Lyme disease may be sexually transmitted is a surprising new development. If you have any symptoms at all—including muscle aches or joint pain—or if you have fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue, it would make sense to ask your doctor to test you for Lyme using the IGeneX test. It’s also a good idea, if you’re sexually active, to wear a condom or insist that the person you’re with does. If you do test positive for Lyme, antibiotics and Uncaria tomentosa are two ways to help you win the battle against Borrelia.
- Aucott JN, et al. Qual Life Res. 2013 Feb;22(1):75-84.
- Middelveen M, et al. Journal of Investigative Medicine. 2014;62:280-1.
- Brissette CA, et al. Clin Vaccine Immunol. 2010 February; 17(2): 274-80.
- Lipsker D, et al. Archives of Dermatology. 2004;140(5):620-21.
- Donta ST. Open Neurol J. 2012;6:140-5.
- Brissette CA, et al. ASN Neuro. 2013 Aug 16;5(3):221-9.
- Markeljević J, et al. Coll Antropol. 2011 Jan;35 Suppl 1:313-8.
- Cairns V and Godwin J. Int J Epidemiol. 2005 Dec;34(6):1340-5.
- Bransfield R. 2nd International Lyme and associated diseases society European meeting, May, 2011;Augsburg, Germany.
- Bransfield RC. Open Neurol J. 2012;6:88-93.
- Yang L, et al. Infect Immun. 1994 Feb;62(2):492-500.
- Silver RM, et al. Infect Immun. 1995;63:66-72.
- Markowitz LE, et al. JAMA. 1986 Jun 27;255(24):3394-6.
- Silver RM, et al. Infect Immun. 1995 Jan;63(1):66-72.
- Carter CJ. J Pathog. May 26, 2011;2011:128318.
- Fritzsche M. Int J Health Geogr. 2002 Nov 1;1(1):2.
- Falkiewicz B and Lukasiak J. Case Rep Clin Pract Rev. 2001;2:305-16.
- Reinhard KH. Alt Comp Med. 1999;5:143-51.
- Keplinger K, et al. J Ethnopharmacol. 1999;64:23-34.
- Ccahuana-Vasquez RA, et al. Braz Oral Res. 2007 Jan-Mar;21(1):46-50.
- Lamm S, et al. Phytomedicine. 2001 Jul;8(4):267-74.
- Kanjwal K, et al. Cardiol J. 2011;18(1):63-6.