by Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio
Heart symptoms are a serious concern for people with chronic Lyme disease — and rightfully so. While research suggests up to 10% of Lyme cases result in cardiac involvement, the consequences of which can be life-threatening, that number is likely deceptively low. That’s because the actual number of cases of Lyme are underreported in most areas of the country, and many Lyme specialists believe heart issues such as Lyme carditis or an irregular heartbeat may be more prevalent than statistics currently demonstrate.
The number of missed cases may be due in part to the fact that heart symptoms don’t look the same in every Lyme patient — they vary from person to person and exist on a spectrum — and so they can be difficult to detect. Some people may experience no symptoms at all, while others might notice mild symptoms like an occasional skipped beat here or a small flutter there. Still, others may experience more severe cardiac manifestations like shortness of breath, chest tightness, or heart palpitations.
“The threshold for tolerating heart symptoms should be pretty low,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, Medical Director of RawlsMD and Vital Plan. “Anytime you have something irregular with the heart, you should see a doctor right away.”
Whether or not you have cardiac symptoms, there are strategies that can and should be incorporated into a protocol to augment heart health while dealing with Lyme disease.
Here are, four natural ways you can keep your heart functioning optimally:
1. Lower Your Microbial Load
“Herbs are heart-friendly because they help protect the various cells of our body, including heart cells,” says Dr. Rawls. Herbs defend against free radical damage, physical stress, toxic substances, and most importantly, pathogens like borrelia, bartonella, babesia, and mycoplasma, all of which can cause harm to the heart.
Therefore, taking antimicrobial herbs to suppress the microbes that could contribute to cardiac problems is a top priority. Dr. Rawls’ preferred herbs for heart health include:
Cat’s claw is a native herb to the Amazon region. Its antimicrobial properties make it a foundational herb in most Lyme disease protocols. Additionally, it has immune-modulating and anti-inflammatory qualities.
Suggested dosage: 375-750 mg 1 to 2 times daily (inner bark standardized to 3% alkaloids or 7:1 concentrate inner bark is preferred). It is especially important to take this herb with food, as it is activated by stomach acid. If you take acid-blocking drugs, cat’s claw won’t have a significant impact on you.
Side effects: The herb is generally well tolerated, but occasional stomach upset has been reported.
Andrographis has a long history of medicinal use in India. It contains several properties, including antibacterial, antiviral, and antiparasitic, providing defense against a range of microbes. The herb also has immune-enhancing, cardioprotective, and liver-protective qualities. Andrographis is also a staple among natural Lyme protocols.
Suggested dosage: 250 mg (extract standardized to 33% andrographolides) 1 to 2 times daily
Side effects: Approximately 1% of people who take andrographis develop an allergic reaction with whole-body hives and itching skin. This is a higher percentage than most other herbs, but still extremely low. The reaction will resolve gradually over several weeks once the herb has been discontinued.
Used for medical purposes since as far back as we can trace, garlic contains an active ingredient called allicin, a volatile chemical with antiprotozoal, antiviral, and antifungal properties. It supports the immune system and balances the flora of the microbiome as well.
Suggested dosage: 200 mg of a standardized 1% allicin product 1 to 2 times daily (dosage is dependent on the garlic preparation used)
Side effects: Raw garlic may cause stomach upset, but stabilized allicin products are associated with fewer side effects and are generally well tolerated.
Berberine is a bioactive compound that assists in balancing the microbiome. It’s found in the stems, bark, roots, and rhizomes of a variety of herbs including goldenseal, barberry bark, yellowroot, goldthread, Oregon grape, tree turmeric, coptis, and phellodendron.
Suggested dosage: The dose will vary depending on the preparation used; follow the instructions on the label.
Side effects: In most cases, berberine is generally well tolerated. Side effects may include gastrointestinal discomfort and low blood pressure.
Reishi is known as a medical mushroom and contains adaptogenic properties. It’s antimicrobial and immune-modulating. The herb reduces inflammatory cytokines — a major player in prolonged Lyme symptoms — and supports the immune system’s ability to combat pathogens. Reishi supports the heart and liver as well.
Suggested dosage: 1-2 grams (1,000-2,000 mg) whole mushroom powder or 175 mg standardized extract (minimum 7% beta-glucans preferred) 1 to 2 times daily
Side effects: Reishi tends to be well tolerated with rare side effects and no known toxicity.
2. Flow Through a Mind-Body Practice
“Exercising within the confines of what your doctor recommends is one of the best ways to keep your heart healthy,” says Dr. Rawls. But when your heart health is compromised, it’s extremely important to not overdo it. To avoid setting yourself back, consider a mind-body practice like yoga to keep your heart healthy.
Why yoga? Research from the Journal of Evidenced-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine investigated yoga as a therapeutic intervention for individuals at-risk for or suffering from cardiovascular disease. Although the study had some limitations, yoga emerged as a lifestyle activity that fostered improved heart health. The researchers believe it could be due to yoga’s ability to reduce stress and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system — the part of your nervous system responsible for “resting and digesting.”
Additionally, mind-body activities centered around breathwork and meditation achieved similar results in the reviewed medical studies. Other mind-body exercises that can get you moving and be tailored to your fitness level or symptoms include Pilates, qigong, and tai chi.
3. Curb Inflammation
“Cytokines are chemicals that promote inflammation and persistently activate the body’s immune system,” says Dr. Rawls. Over time, chronic low-grade inflammation begins to damage blood vessels that supply your heart muscle and brain, leading to a host of trouble.
To keep your heart as strong as possible, Dr. Rawls recommends the following natural remedies:
Omega-3 fatty acids like those found in krill oil are vital for many processes of the body and may lessen inflammation. Omega-3s facilitate heart health, cognitive function, and cell membrane function. Krill oil is unique in that it contains a natural antioxidant called astaxanthin. Astaxanthin benefits the cardiovascular system and provides anti-inflammatory benefits.
Suggested dosage: 2,000-3,000 mg of krill oil daily (can be broken down into 4-6 500 mg capsules) daily. The omega-3s in krill oil occur as phospholipids(instead of triglycerides (like the omega-3s in fish oil), which are more easily absorbed through the intestines and more readily utilized by the body, so you may be able to use a lower dose.
Side effects: Omega-3 fatty acids thin blood, so if you’re taking blood thinners or have a bleeding or clotting disorder, discuss taking krill oil supplements with your doctor. Avoid krill oil supplements if you have shellfish or fish allergies.
Hawthorn supports heart function by increasing blood flow to the organ, strengthening contractions of the heart muscle, and improving circulation by dilating blood vessels. This allows increased oxygen delivery to tissues and assists in normalizing blood pressure.
Suggested dosage: 600-1,000 mg extract (combined leaf, stem, and flower standardized to 10% Vitexin) twice daily
Side effects: Side effects aren’t usually associated with Hawthorn, and it’s very safe for long-term use.
French Maritime Pine Bark
Antioxidants and other compounds in French maritime pine bark inhibit platelet aggregation (blood thinner), reduce vascular inflammation, improve the integrity of blood vessels, and enhance blood flow to the tissue.
Suggested dosage: 75 mg daily standardized to 35% OPCs 1 to 2 times daily.
Side effects: Rare — pine bark has a low potential for toxicity.
4. Get Your Stress Levels Under Control
When dealing with Lyme disease, stress is an almost daily occurrence. With pressures like paying for medical treatment, finding a doctor, and managing symptoms, it’s hard to catch a break.
“The problem with chronic stress is that it has the potential to disrupt all normal functions of the body and mind, including the heart,” says Dr. Rawls. For example, when you’re chronically stressed, your sleep patterns change, digestion becomes less efficient, and tissues begin to break down, which may contribute to heart-related conditions like high blood pressure or hardening of the arteries.
There isn’t a large body of research on the effects of stress on the heart, specifically, and there’s even less when Lyme disease is added to the mix. But what we do know is that the body releases adrenaline in response to a distressing event or situation. Adrenaline speeds up your breathing, gets your heart pounding, and raises your blood pressure, facilitating the “fight or flight” response. Chronic stress pushes your body to function in overdrive for weeks or months at a time.
“When the body is constantly on alert, it cannot devote resources toward day-to-day repair and maintenance, and systems of the body can begin to go haywire,” explains Dr. Rawls. So while stress isn’t good for your health in general, for those with Lyme disease trying to make heart-conscious choices, stress interrupts the healing mode and may lay the groundwork to weaken crucial functions of the body.
Although you’ll never banish stress from your life entirely, reducing it as best as you can does help to bolster the health of all organs and tissues in your body. There are a variety of cost-effective and easily accessible options to minimize stress, such as:
- Taking a leisurely stroll outside
- Finding support through online groups or mental health professionals
- Relaxing in a warm bath
- Practicing vagus nerve stimulation or neuroplasticity exercises
- Doing deep breathing
To help bring on the heart-healthy calm, find a stress-relieving activity and stick with it as best you can — the more you genuinely enjoy it, the higher the likelihood you’ll stick with it. With some trial and error, you’ll discover what works for you.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, heart-supportive strategies can help keep your ticker working more efficiently, but if you have any symptoms or concerns, you should consult with a healthcare professional. “If someone is having symptoms like chest pains or a frequent, irregular heartbeat, don’t hesitate to see a doctor,” advises Dr. Rawls. “Anytime you’re concerned about your heart, it’s always better to play it safe.”
1. Haider T, Sharma M, Branscum P. Yoga as an Alternative and Complimentary Therapy for Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2017 Apr;22(2):310-316. doi: 10.1177/2156587215627390
2. Heart Inflammation. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/heart-inflammation
3. Yeung C, Baranchuk A. Diagnosis and Treatment of Lyme Carditis: JACC Review Topic of the Week. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2019 Feb 19;73(6):717-726. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2018.11.035