by Dr. Bill Rawls
Updated 5/27/22

The human body is a complex, interconnected collection of cells. Depending on your age, your body contains anywhere from 20 to 40 trillion cells. All of your tissues and organs are made of cells. Absolutely everything that happens inside your body results from the actions of cells. Whether it’s your heart beating or brain impulses firing, it’s done by individual cells working in synchrony with other cells. But when microbes like Lyme disease-causing borrelia enter the picture, these actions can get derailed, and a range of symptoms emerge.

Borrelia infection in the blood. Borrelia bacteria cause borreliose, transmitted by ticks and by lice.

Although Lyme disease is mostly thought of in terms of the physical and mental misery it causes, technically, Lyme disease is an assault on the cells of the body. When the Lyme spirochetes enter the bloodstream by way of the tick’s saliva, they have only one goal — to get to the cells that make up the tissues of the body. The bloodstream is the highway that takes them there.

They course through the bloodstream, and when they arrive at tissues of the body, they invade cells — all types of cells — heart cells, brain cells, joint cells, intestinal cells, and many others. And you might be wondering, why?

To borrelia, cells offer a bountiful source of nutrients and resources. It causes harm by invading and destroying cells of the body to gain the nutrients that cells are made of. Borrelia and coinfections like bartonella, babesia, and mycoplasma invade and replicate inside cells and are called intracellular bacteria. Existing inside cells shields them from antibiotics and the immune system.

The types of cells the bacteria invade are one factor that defines the symptoms of the illness. For example, invasion of heart muscle cells causes cardiac symptoms. Invasion of joint cells and tissues causes joint symptoms. Invasion of cells that make up brain and nerve tissues causes neurological symptoms. More general symptoms, such as fatigue and malaise, are from cells throughout the body being weakened by invading bacteria.

Of course, the body doesn’t take the assault nonchalantly.

The Immune System’s Response to Infection

The job of the immune system is to eliminate the bacteria before they get to tissues. The very instant that bacteria invade the bloodstream, white blood cells of the immune system jump into action. They engulf the bacteria and destroy them with potent acid and enzymes.

3d rendered medically accurate illustration of too many white blood cells

In most cases, the vast majority of the bacteria are eliminated before they get to tissues. If some bacteria make it to tissues of the body, however, the infection can become chronic. The degree of symptoms associated with the initial infection and whether symptoms become chronic can be influenced by several factors:

  • The load of bacteria at the initial infection: Multiple tick bites simultaneously or prolonged attachment increases the bacterial concentration in the bloodstream, which increases their chances of reaching tissues of the body.
  • Whether or not antibiotics are taken: During the initial stage of infection, when bacteria are coursing through the bloodstream, antibiotics can reduce the concentration of bacteria. Taking antibiotics, however, doesn’t guarantee that all bacteria are eliminated. Once the bacteria invade the cells of the body, antibiotics have little effect.
  • The presence of coinfections with other microbes: All ticks carry a variety of bacteria, and coinfections with multiple bacteria are well documented in Lyme disease. Infections with multiple bacteria at once may influence the severity of symptoms and the possibility of chronic infection.
  • The strength of the immune system: An immune system overtaxed or weakened by poor health habits is less able to fend off or control any type of infection.
  • The health of cells of the body: As it turns out, cells of the body aren’t defenseless. Using a process called autophagy, cells can expel or destroy intracellular microbes. It means that healthy cells are less vulnerable to invasion by bacteria.

Autophagy and Cellular Defenses Against Lyme

Autophagy is the process by which cells perform internal housekeeping. Cells continually gather misfolded proteins, burned-out mitochondria, damaged DNA, and other worn-out parts and wall them off into contained areas within the cell, called vacuoles. Within the vacuole, worn-out parts are broken down into component organic molecules (such as amino acids) that can be recycled into new proteins and cell parts. In this way, cells stay lean and strong.

cellular autophagy diagram, microbes enter cell, from vacuole, recycled materials into cell, enzymatic breakdown

Cells of the body use this same process to destroy or expel many types of intracellular microbes. And although pathogens have mechanisms to attempt to circumvent autophagy, healthy cells can overcome it and purge themselves of infections with bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi. The ability of cells to expel microbes is a key part of the healing process for combatting any type of infection.

Impaired Autophagy and Lyme Disease

When cells of the body are chronically stressed from various factors, they must work harder and use more energy. Harder work and increased energy demands overtax mitochondria and accelerate wear-and-tear inside cells. If the capacity for autophagy and internal cleanup is exceeded, worn-out parts and damaged proteins accumulate inside the cell, compromising its ability to function properly. It also impairs the ability of cells to expel or repel bacteria and other microbes.

Woman sick in the bed, flu and virus infections, allergy, seasonal health issues.

This is what happens when Lyme disease becomes chronic. Most people identifying with chronic Lyme disease don’t become sick around the time of a tick bite. If a person is healthy — in other words, if cells of the person’s body are healthy — then symptoms at the initial infection are often mild or nonexistent. That’s true with or without antibiotics. However, the Lyme bacteria and any other coinfections can stay dormant inside cells of the body without causing chronic symptoms.

The onset of chronic symptoms is typically associated with other predisposing stress factors. That can be chronic exposure to a toxic substance such as mold, unrelenting mental stress, years of poor dietary habits, prolonged physical stress or trauma, or a new infection, such as COVID-19. Typically, however, it’s a combination of multiple stress factors coming together in a perfect storm.

Chronic cellular stress overwhelms the mechanics of autophagy and compromises cellular functions. That makes cells vulnerable to invasion by intracellular bacteria. Microbes emerge and infect vulnerable cells, increasing cellular stress and creating a vicious cycle of widespread cellular distress. Because cells are affected throughout the body, a wide range of chronic symptoms occur.

In this respect, the obvious solution to overcoming chronic Lyme disease is reducing cellular stress and normalizing autophagy. While reducing bacterial load is a part of that process, there’s more to it than just killing bacteria.

Normalizing Cellular Autophagy

Healing from chronic Lyme disease requires minimizing cellular stress such that cellular mechanisms of autophagy can rebuild the ability of cells to function normally. Minimizing cellular stress requires creating an ideal internal environment for cellular wellness. That includes:

  1. Optimal cellular nutrition
  2. Clean environment
  3. Low mental stress and adequate sleep
  4. Low-intensity physical activity
  5. Suppressing intracellular bacteria

But good health practices alone aren’t sufficient to achieve the escape velocity necessary to normalize autophagy, expel the invading microbes, and regain wellness. This is where herbal therapy can give you the extra edge you need. Herbs not only suppress microbes but also reduce cellular stress at every level.

Herbal Therapy to Support Autophagy

image broken into sections, showing japanese knotweed, cats claw, andrographis, garlic, cryptolepis, reishi mushroom, cordyceps

Research suggests that many herbal phytochemicals — beneficial plant compounds — positively affect autophagy in a variety of ways. And many of the phytochemicals are from herbs that are well recognized for suppressing borrelia and coinfections. Some of those herbs include:

To overcome chronic Lyme disease, taking herbs should be at the top of your list. The great advantage of using herbs over antibiotics is that the herbs suppress the pathogens associated with Lyme disease but don’t disrupt the balance of normal flora in the gut and on the skin.

However, herbs do a lot more than just suppress or kill microbes; herbs counteract all cellular stress factors. Reduced stress optimizes cellular autophagy and restores cellular functions — and this is what healing is all about!

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.


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