by Dr. Bill Rawls
Updated 6/6/18

The misery of chronic illness is very real. But if you’re the one who’s suffering, you know that those around you typically can’t see it or understand it — not family, friends, or even medical providers.

They don’t know what it’s like:

…to push through oppressive fatigue day after day.
…to be tired beyond exhaustion, but unable to sleep.
…to ache all over so badly that all you want to do is curl up in a ball inside a dark closet.
…to feel like you have the flu every day of your life, but still have to go to work.
…to be isolated, both socially and professionally.
…to have bizarre symptoms that no one can put a finger on.
…to be told that all your lab tests are normal, even though something is obviously wrong.
…to become dependent on symptom-suppressing drugs prescribed by well-meaning doctors who didn’t know enough to know better.

I can relate better than most doctors, because I’ve lived it. I am part of a growing epidemic of people suffering from chronic ailments that the modern medical system is at a loss to help.

An unexpected twist during my late 40s changed my life and career path forever. Unrelenting stress from a too-busy medical practice combined with an entanglement of unpredicted life stressors plunged me into chronic misery that took me 10 years to escape.

After countless hours sitting in doctors offices and a myriad of tests that provided no answers, my only available choices for diagnoses were fibromyalgia and myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) — neither being diagnoses that anyone really wants.

For one, they carry a stigma. Many Americans believe fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue are made-up excuses for getting out of work and other life obligations. Which would help explain why people with fibromyalgia suffer for nearly a year on average before seeking a treatment.

What’s worse, both of these conditions are considered disorders and not true diseases. Why is that significant? Because a disease is treatable, whereas a disorder is a label given to a collection of symptoms for which there is no known cause or treatment.

Doctors prefer treating illnesses that are easy to define and have known solutions. If you have something that is difficult to define and has no known treatment, they don’t want to mess with it. I admit, I know the feeling: I’ve been confronted with patients who have a long list of seemingly unrelated symptoms, and when no tests pointed to a specific diagnosis, it was frustrating.

Now, I was the patient. I could almost sense my doctors roll their eyes the minute I came through the door.

To be honest, I didn’t even fit the strict criteria for either fibromyalgia or ME/CFS — I had more muscular pain than you’re supposed to have for chronic fatigue, but I also didn’t have all the specific trigger points of fibromyalgia. I now know that’s the norm. Studies have shown that greater than 70% of people given the label of fibromyalgia don’t fit the strict criteria for the diagnosis, and similar for ME/CFS.

The concept of “diagnosis” is artificial by nature — it’s simply a way to categorize an illness to define a treatment plan. It works exceptionally well for acute illnesses where the cause is well defined, and treatment specifically addresses the cause. Examples would include a broken leg, acute appendicitis, heart attack, stroke, acute pneumonia, or kidney stone.

The concept of diagnosis breaks down, however, when applied to chronic illnesses where the causes are complex and ill defined. “Treatment” ends up being drug therapy or procedures to artificially block symptoms or progression of the condition — the best possible outcome is a state of managed illness, not wellness. This is true not only for fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, but also a range of other chronic illnesses including autoimmune diseases, chronic Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS.

After getting nowhere with the medical system, I decided to take things into my own hands. Somehow I knew that I was destined to figure this thing out — and if I was successful, I could help others who were suffering like I was.

It wasn’t an overnight revelation; it took years of intense research and deep introspection. My search began with an extensive review of human biochemistry, physiology, and pathology. Eventually, I discovered that I had chronic Lyme disease in addition to fibromyalgia. But by now I was approaching my illness from a different angle than I had learned in medical school. Instead of studying how to label and inhibit disease (mostly with drugs), I was searching for answers as to why disease happens in the first place.

The human body has a remarkable capacity to heal itself if given the opportunity. At the simplest level, illness occurs because the self-repair mechanisms of the body (aka your immune system functions) become overwhelmed or damaged — a simple and important fact often ignored by medical science. So that’s where I focused my attention.

Here’s what I discovered in the process, how it ultimately led to my recovery — and how I believe it can help millions of others overcome their mysterious chronic illness, too.

Microbes: The Key Link Between Your Immune System + Microbiome

Your immune system has a big job.

It’s responsible for removing old and abnormal cells; repairing tissues and cell structures (including DNA) that have been damaged by free radicals; purging toxins; and connecting with the hormone and messaging systems of the body — all necessary tasks for keeping you well.

One of the immune system’s most important jobs is protecting you from a wide range of microbial threats, including viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and fungi. This requires keeping your entire microbiome in balance.

Your microbiome is the sum of all the microbes in your body. It includes roughly 100 trillion microbes — they are as much “you” as you are you. The microbiome is mostly made up of bacteria, but viruses, protozoa, and yeast are also part of the mix. With more than 40,000 microbial possible and an infinite number of possible combinations, your microbiome is unique from every other person’s on the planet.

Contrary to popular belief, microbes don’t just inhabit your gut. They’re also found on the skin and in body orifices, lungs, and the bladder. And now recent research is revealing that ultra-low concentrations of microbes may exist in all the tissues of your body — even your brain.

“The human body has a remarkable capacity to heal itself if given the opportunity.”

By adulthood, your microbiome is relatively stable, but new microbes are continually being added throughout your lifetime. Every time you get bit by a tick, mosquito, or flea, are nipped or scratched by a dog or cat, scrape or cut your skin, put your fingers in your mouth or your nose, hug or kiss another person, have sex, use a public toilet just after someone else had been there, take a breath just after someone sneezes, swim in a natural pond, lake, or river, or consume any food or beverage — new microbes enter your body.

Fortunately, the vast majority are not terrible pathogens like Ebola or HIV, so we call them “normal” flora. They may cause acute infections with fleeting mild to moderate flu-like symptoms, but often you experience no symptoms at all.

That’s because these microbes don’t want to make you ill — they simply want to use you as a host and gain the nutrients and resources they need to survive. In return, they help to digest food and make certain vitamins like B12 and K available. They also help prevent overgrowth of other, more threatening microbes.

However, some of the microbes that end up in your microbiome are total opportunists — they take and never give back. If your immune system is healthy, it’s able to maintain a preponderance of normal flora and keep many of the opportunists in check. But certain of these pathogens have adopted stealth as a primary strategy for evading immune functions and acquiring the nutrients and resources they need to survive.

When these stealthy invaders first enter your body, they target white blood cells, immune system cells that work to fight infection. By hitching a ride inside the cells, the microbes can distribute to all tissues throughout the body — muscles, joints, heart, organs, intestines, and even the brain and nervous system — where they steal nutrients like collagen that are essential for their survival.

There are many known microbes that fit the description of stealth microbes, and many more yet to be discovered. Mycoplasma, bartonella, chlamydia, and babesia are a few well known examples, and coinfections with these microbes are common in people with Lyme, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other chronic illnesses. Borrelia, the microbe commonly associated with Lyme disease, also fits the description and shows up regularly in chronic illnesses.

Despite stealth microbes’ manipulative ways, your immune system is well versed in all of their tricks. It evolved over millions of years from repetitive exposure to many thousands of microbes, and each encounter was recorded in your genes for future reference. The better your immune system “knows” a microbe, the better it is able to slow its growth rate and maintain ultra-low concentrations in tissues.

Notice I didn’t say the microbes are eradicated. They are very good at persisting. A much more common outcome is a stalemate in which the stealth microbes are marginalized, and their potential for harm is minimized (their natural aggressiveness is kept in check). But they can stay alive and dormant deep in tissues for a lifetime without you ever knowing they are there.

Though science is just starting to understand the role that stealth microbes and other opportunistic pathogens play in the microbiome, one fact is quite clear: Everyone, even the healthiest of us, harbors a variety of microbes—including stealth ones—that have potential to cause illness. As long as your immune system is healthy, you’ll never hear from them.

But let immune system functions falter for an instant, and you can end up being miserable for a lifetime. If your immune system can’t keep your microbiome in check, it increases your lifetime susceptibility to not only minor infections like cold and flu, but also chronic illnesses including Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, ME/CFS, autoimmune diseases, and more severe conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and ALS.

Your Immune System is Constantly Under Siege

Unfortunately, life in the modern world places unique pressures on the body’s operating systems, especially immune system functions. These stress factors are unlike anything that humans have ever been exposed to before. That’s because they’re a result of our own modern innovation.

I call them System Disruptors, and there are five of them:

#1 Unnatural diet: The human body is designed to run lean. But our plentiful and convenient diet of predominantly processed foods and fatty grain-fed meats is loaded with excessive carbohydrates and unhealthy fats that clog up the system and slow the machine down. Overloading on carbs leads to insulin resistance and sustained elevation of insulin levels, which strongly suppresses immune system functions and disrupt hormones pathways in the body.

Another carb concern: Excessive lectins — proteins in wheat and other grains — irritate the gut and compromise the intestine’s protective barrier. This allows them to leak across the gut-blood barrier, which sends the immune system into overdrive, causing fatigue, brain fog, flu-like symptoms, and other symptoms.

#2 Toxic environment: We’ve saturated the modern world with hidden toxins and toxicants. Toxicants — byproducts from the creation of plastics and using petroleum and coal — compromise cellular production of energy, disrupt hormone systems, and strongly suppress immune system functions.

The artificial energy from our computers, cell phones, electrical devices, and microwave towers also disrupt energy pathways in the body and suppress immune system functions. What’s more, toxic substances act like free radicals (unstable atoms that damage cells) and cause systemic inflammation, further compromising immune function and disrupting homeostasis.

#3 Chronic stress: The complexities of 21st century life cause a certain level of pervasive, low-grade tension. When the body exists in a constant state of alert, all of its systems, especially immune system functions, become overly taxed.

#4 Sedentary lifestyle: Until about 100 years ago, physical stress would have been characterized by excessive physical labor. Today, the opposite is true. Most of us have sedentary jobs, and prolonged inactivity (especially sitting in front of a computer) is stressing the body in different ways. It’s associated with decreased blood flow, retention of toxins, immune dysfunction, decreased endorphins, and low energy.

#5 Microbes: Wellness is associated with a strong prevalence of normal flora and high diversity of the microbiome. The modern human microbiome, however, is anything but. Processed foods, chronic stress, and liberal use of antibiotics in both humans and agriculture limit diversity of the microbiome, with a shift toward potential pathogens that are a constant challenge to the immune system.

If these system disruptors add up, immune function declines. Without optimal immune system functions, wellness is not possible.

Impaired immune function allows the microbiome to shift off balance and pathogens in your body to flourish. It’s not just one microbe that becomes activated, but all the questionable suspects — stealth microbes that have been dormant in tissues, pathogens in the gut and on the skin, and viruses in tissues such as Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and Cytomegalovirus (CMV).

You can almost feel the microbes becoming active in your tissues, not in one location, but throughout the entire body — joints, gut, skin, muscles, brain, nerve tissue, and all your organs. Initially, it may not be enough to get your attention, but it adds up insidiously, setting the stage for chronic illness.

You can think of it as a pot of water on the stove that starts out over a low simmer. As the simmer increases, minor discomforts start showing up — general body aches and joint stiffness; bloating, gas, and digestive issues; lack of energy; and simply not feeling well. Often, these kinds of changes become accepted as part of aging or life in general.

It’s not until the pot is fully boiling over that things become noticeably uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s a specific event that causes the pot to bubble over — severe emotional stress, an accident or trauma, an acute viral illness, or even a tick bite. But most often, it’s a perfect storm of System Disruptors accumulating over time until a tipping point is reached.

At that point, the immune system can no longer keep a lid on things, and life becomes miserable. I refer to this as Chronic Immune Dysfunction.

What Chronic Immune Dysfunction Looks Like

Typical Chronic Immune Dysfunction (CID) symptoms include fatigue, decreased stamina, stress intolerance, feeling flu-like, muscle pain, joint pain, and sleep disturbances. Also common are temperature fluctuations, digestive dysfunction, mood changes, brain fog, skin rashes, a range of neurologic symptoms, and allergic type reactions.

If you hadn’t already guessed, the default label for this morass of symptoms is fibromyalgia when pain is the primary symptom. Or, if fatigue predominates, it’s labeled myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. Both are conditions, not diseases, and thus are considered to have no known cause or treatment by the conventional medical community.

If a patient presenting with CID symptoms has any history of tick exposure, some providers may consider the possibility of Lyme disease. On the surface, this might seem like a much more attractive diagnosis than fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue because it has a recognized cause (infection with a microbe), which implies a condition treatable with antibiotics.

Unfortunately, this only applies to acute Lyme infection. Chronic Lyme disease is actually another consequence of CID, in which immune reaction is dysfunctional and the entire microbiome is disrupted. Concentrations of borrelia, the stealth microbes that cause Lyme, are low and embedded deep in tissues where antibiotics can’t reach them. As a result, treating chronic Lyme isn’t much different from treating fibromyalgia or ME/CFS.

When you consider the cause of all three of these chronic illnesses, the concept of diagnosis becomes practically irrelevant. Instead of being entirely separate illnesses, they are all very likely just different variations of the pot boiling over.

Indeed, all chronic illnesses — fibromyalgia, ME/CFS, chronic Lyme disease, and even more definitive diagnoses such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, ALS, and autoimmune diseases — share an association with Chronic Immune Dysfunction.

What types of illness you end up with during your life are dependent on three factors:

  • Genetics: Your genes define your risk of different illnesses, but not whether you will actually get those illnesses.
  • How System Disruptors come together to disrupt immune system functions.
  • Which stealth microbes you pick up through life. Some are worse than others.

When chronic illness is considered as a “pot boiling over” problem, the best solutions are directed toward decreasing System Disruptors to restore normal immune system functions and balance in the microbiome, instead of treating symptoms alone. Take this route, and wellness becomes a reachable endpoint, as opposed to living in a chronic state of managed illness. Here’s how to get from here to there.

Real Solutions for Chronic Immune Dysfunction

I divide options for overcoming illnesses associated with Chronic Immune Dysfunction and stealth microbes into two categories: Heroic Therapies and Restorative Therapies. A third category of solutions, Symptomatic Therapies, are best reserved for acute relief. Specifically directed at controlling symptoms, Symptomatic Therapies come mostly in the form of prescription drugs and contribute only minimally to healing and wellness.

Heroic Therapies have significant limitations. They include single agent chemical warfare (antibiotics), oxidative therapies (ozone, hyperbaric oxygen), rife machines, and any other therapies directed specifically at killing microbes. But stealth microbes hide in protected niches in the body, occur in low concentrations, and typically grow very slowly, so they are extremely hard to eradicate with antibiotics.

In fact, keeping stealth microbes in check is just about impossible without restoring normal immune function. When people do get better with heroic therapies, it is only because microbes are suppressed enough to allow rebound of immune function to get a handle on things, not because the heroic therapy eradicated the microbes completely. And sometimes, heroic therapies can suppress immune function further and actually make the person more ill.

Ultimately, where you want to be is with a healthy immune system keeping all stealth microbes well marginalized, so harm is minimized and you can enjoy a normal, healthy life. Restorative Therapies are the best way to get you there. They focus on minimizing System Disruptors to optimize immune function and restore homeostasis (natural balance in hormone and healing systems in the body), as well as killing or suppressing microbes.

With Restorative Therapies, the ability of the body to heal itself is restored, along with the ability of the immune system to control any threatening microbes in the margins. This approach takes time and patience, but because it has such low potential for harm, it can be followed for a lifetime.

A comprehensive restorative program includes the following essential components:

Nourish your body. A healthy diet for immune system support should focus on whole foods, ample vegetables that are rich in phytochemicals (beneficial plant chemicals that support your body’s systems and functions) , and healthy fats. Keep processed foods, grain-fed meats, excess carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats to a minimum, and fill at least 50% of your plate with veggies.

Purify your environment. Reduce your exposure to environmental toxins whenever you can. Opt for organic foods when feasible, filter your water and air, and choose non-toxic cleaning supplies and beauty products.

Calm your mind. Adopt some daily stress reduction and management techniques such as practicing meditation, doing yoga, walking outdoors, or even napping.

Activate your body. Doing gentle, restorative exercise every day helps keep the body moving and counters the modern-day pitfall of being too sedentary.

Balance your microbiome. Take synergistic herbal therapy to promote microbiome balance and help counter the four other System Disruptors.

Herbal therapy is the cornerstone of any restorative approach. Over millions of years of evolution, plants have developed an impressive array of phytochemicals that offer very sophisticated biochemical solutions to the same stress factors that threaten our health, including every variety of microbe, free radicals, toxins, radiation, physical stress, and maybe even emotional stress.

Medicinal herbs are plants that mesh particularly well with human biochemistry. Evidence supporting herbal therapy includes historical information from traditional use by every culture on earth, population studies of current use, lab-based studies, animal studies, and human studies. All totaled, we know more about medicinal herbs than any other therapy currently available, including all drugs.

Here are just some of the benefits of natural herbal therapy for overcoming all sorts of chronic illness:

  • Supports normal immune function
  • Reduces immune messengers stimulated by stealth microbes that cause inflammation
  • Balances the microbiome by suppressing stealth microbes and supporting normal flora
  • Features plant-based antimicrobials, a wide spectrum of phytochemicals that do not contribute to resistant strains of bacteria
  • Restores homeostasis (balances hormones and supports healing systems in the body)

Natural herbal therapy in combination with the other Restorative Therapies — healthy diet, detox, stress management, and regular exercise — is the best countermeasure to the System Disruptors that impair immune function and make us vulnerable to chronic illness. It wasn’t until I embraced them that I was able to begin crawling out of the deep dark well of chronic illness.

Since then, I’ve used everything I learned on my journey back to health to create an Herbal and Holistic Protocol that simplifies the process of reversing Chronic Immune Dysfunction. I also chronicled the exact steps I took to recover in my book, Unlocking Lyme.

I hope these resources can serve as a guiding light to those who need it. But none of it works unless you remember this: Your body is naturally powerful. It possesses the inherent ability to overcome chronic illness and fend off future illness. Clear the path of obstacles, and you will empower your body to find its own way to optimal wellness.

Dr. Rawls is a physician who overcame Lyme disease through natural herbal therapy. You can learn more about Lyme disease in Dr. Rawls’ new best selling book, Unlocking Lyme.

You can also learn about Dr. Rawls’ personal journey in overcoming Lyme disease and fibromyalgia in his popular blog post, My Chronic Lyme Journey.