by Stephanie Eckelkamp
Recovering from Lyme disease or any chronic illness is rarely straightforward. What works for someone else won’t necessarily work for you, and quick-fix remedies you see touted by “success stories” on social media can often be a distraction from the basic healthy habits that underlie true healing. So it’s understandable that you might end up focusing your energy in the wrong areas and hindering your success in the process.
Below, we highlight some common habits, mistakes, and assumptions that can get in the way of getting well, plus what to strive for instead to support recovery.
5 Habits That Impact Your Recovery
Habit 1 Taking an All-or-Nothing Approach With Carbs
There’s no question that a standard American diet high in refined carbohydrates and added sugars is not conducive to recovering from Lyme. This type of high-carb, high-sugar diet can deprive your body of the vital nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants) it needs to thrive on a cellular level, contribute to chronic inflammation, alter immune system function, reduce the efficacy of white blood cells, and increase gut permeability (a.k.a. leaky gut), which can further drive inflammation and immune dysfunction.
On the flip side, ultra-low-carb diets like a keto diet — which limits carb intake to below 50-75 grams per day — aren’t a magic bullet, despite often being touted as a good option for Lyme. “We know that people with seizure disorders and certain types of cancer benefit from ketogenic diets, but I don’t think it’s what all of us need to do,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, MD, medical director of RawlsMD and Vital Plan. “I think we actually feel better and do better with some carbs.”
Plus, these diets can be hard to sustain. They often push people toward excessive consumption of meat and animal products, which can be just as toxic as excessive carbohydrates and lack in nutrient-dense plant foods.
The Fix Target 150 Grams or Less From Whole-Food Sources
A better idea? Skip the extremes and land somewhere in the middle, ideally around 150 grams of carbs per day (still far lower than the typical range of 225 to 325 grams recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans). Additionally, eat an overall anti-inflammatory diet that prioritizes vegetables, healthy protein sources, fruits and berries, nuts and seeds, and other nutritious whole foods. “I’ve been capping my carbs at 150 g per day for about six months,” says Dr. Rawls. “I don’t get as hungry, and I feel much better compared to when I was eating more carbs, but I still have the room to eat things like an apple with nut butter, wild blueberries, lots of vegetables, and even the occasional slice of pizza if I plan well — that’s not possible on keto.”
Habit 2 Assuming Someone (A Doctor) or Something (A pill) Will Heal You
One thing Dr. Rawls sees time and again is the expectation from patients that a practitioner, a pill, or some other type of treatment will “fix” them. And then, when that treatment fails, the patient gets extremely discouraged. “Who among us doesn’t want to just walk into a doctor’s office and say, ‘cure me with a pill?’”says Dr. Rawls. “But for chronic illness, the capacity of the medical establishment to cure you, even functional medicine providers, is really low.”
The Fix Take Accountability for Your Own Health
This isn’t to say you’re all alone when it comes to healing from Lyme — a good doctor and a supportive community of fellow chronic illness sufferers can be incredibly beneficial for suggesting routes of treatment, monitoring your progress, troubleshooting new symptoms, and just venting. But, what’s often required to make real strides is consciously shifting from being a passive recipient of care to an active coordinator in your healing. “Something like 90% of overcoming any chronic illness comes down to self-care strategies such as dietary and lifestyle changes, so what you rely on from providers should only make up about 10% of your pursuit,” says Dr. Rawls.
In other words, start buying into the mindset that the only person who can truly make you well is you. (More on how to do that below.)
Habit 3 Jumping To Expensive Therapies or the Next Treatment Craze
You probably won’t get much relief from fancy treatments like cryotherapy, infrared saunas, or hyperbaric oxygen chambers if you’re not also sleeping well, eating well, moving your body — you get the idea. (Remember, 90% of overcoming chronic illness comes down to basic self-care practices.) But time and again, people with chronic Lyme spend thousands of dollars jumping from one pricey treatment to the next while letting core, healthy habits fall by the wayside.
The Fix Master Core, Healthy Habits and Stick with Them
If you find yourself getting sucked into the latest craze, remind yourself that Lyme recovery is a marathon, not a sprint — and small habits done consistently can really add up.
What does this look like? Because Lyme is so invasive (i.e., infiltrating all types of cells, compromising their function, and triggering widespread symptoms as a result), but you not only want to take steps to kill the microbes, you also want to engage in habits that lower cellular stress from multiple angles. Dr. Rawls recommends honing in on diet, mental stress levels, sleep, toxin exposure, and physical activity. For each, you can start small and build — consider these tips:
Fill your plate with at least 50% vegetables and cut out refined, processed foods. Veggies should comprise the bulk of your diet, says Dr. Rawls, followed by things like low-glycemic fruits, nuts, seeds, quality animal protein, legumes, and whole grains.
Limit caffeine intake, try a guided meditation app like Insight Timer, call a friend or family member, take ashwagandha to support a healthier stress response, move your body, or do anything that sparks joy — even if it’s just reading.
Move your body in any way that feels good. Do some gentle stretches or yoga, go swimming, take a walk around the block after meals, or go on an easy hike with your dog. You’ll be building strength and supporting detoxification.
Aim for at least eight hours of sleep to support cellular repair and recovery. Taking steps to optimize your circadian rhythm, like getting early morning light, can help.
Curb toxin exposure by filtering your water, buying quality food (think: organic), and using natural personal care and cleaning products. Consider this 5-week detox plan, which helps you progressively layer in simple detox strategies for maximum benefit.
Load up on herbs and spices in your cooking (basil, rosemary, thyme, garlic, turmeric, ginger), which are potent sources of antioxidants and antimicrobial compounds that can suppress Lyme microbes, and consider herbal therapy as a foundational treatment element.
Habit 4 Thinking More Exercise is Always Better for Healing
Exercise can be great for supporting Lyme recovery. It gets your blood flowing, which is excellent for freeing up and clearing out the congestion and toxins that can build up around cells. Exercise can also help rebuild strength and boost energy. But (and it’s a big but), you have to be extremely careful not to over-exert yourself when you have a chronic illness like Lyme, as overtraining could drive inflammation, elevate stress hormones, and trigger major flare-ups and setbacks.
The Fix Start Slow and Cautiously Challenge Yourself Over Time
No matter where you’re at in your recovery, listen to what your body is telling you and adapt your workouts accordingly. If you’re in the throes of illness, something ultra gentle like breathwork or stretching may be enough to improve energy and reduce pain and stiffness. If you’re making strides in your recovery, low-impact aerobics (walking, swimming, gentle cycling) or light resistance training and bodyweight exercises (planks, squats, leg lifts, crunches) may be helpful. But for some people, simply doing their daily activities like vacuuming, laundry, or caring for children may be the most physical activity they can tolerate for a while.
So how do you know if you’re in a healthy zone or have pushed your limit? It’s natural to feel a tad crummy at the start of a workout, but you should begin to feel better after a few minutes, as blood flow and endorphins increase, says Dr. Rawls — and you should really hit your stride about 20 minutes in. If you start to feel depleted, you’ve hit a wall, and it’s time to ease up.
Habit 5 Going Overboard on the Wrong Supplements
Supplements can be great — but it’s also easy to get sucked into the idea that you need a supplement for literally everything when you have chronic Lyme. “Unfortunately, I believe people are getting steered in the wrong direction,” says Dr. Rawls. “A lot of functional and integrative medicine practitioners measure various hormones, chemical pathways, and levels of vitamins, then tweak those things by giving people high doses of individual nutrients or hormones.” But you can end up chasing your tail because the body is remarkably complicated; what the tests are measuring is only a fraction of what’s going on in the body.
The Fix Opt for Herbs That Support Cellular Health
On the other hand, Dr. Rawls sees the value in supplements that have a more widespread effect and create an overall environment in the body that supports cellular function and communication, thereby supporting recovery — and that includes herbs. “Herbs protect cells from free radicals and other stressors, and when cells aren’t as stressed, they don’t have to work as hard, they coordinate functions better, and hormones get balanced out.” Many herbs also have powerful antimicrobial properties against Lyme and coinfections, reduce inflammation, support immune system function and communication, and restore homeostasis in the body.
Which herbs are the best for Lyme recovery? Dr. Rawls prefers Japanese knotweed, cat’s claw, and andrographis (antimicrobial support), reishi, cordyceps, and Chinese skullcap (immunomodulation and symptom reduction), and NAC (n-acetyl-cysteine) and glutathione, two non-herb supplements that support cellular health and detox.
There is plenty of misguided advice and assumptions related to Lyme treatment, which can lead to habits that compromise healing. The good news: You can significantly boost your odds of recovery by making the subtle tweaks above. Remember, with Lyme, success often comes down to performing small, healthy habits consistently — so all this stuff matters, even if it seems like a micro-change.
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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