So, is it Lyme?
Lyme disease takes its name from Lyme, Connecticut, where it was first identified in the 1970s, and if you google 'lyme in horses', you'll read pretty much the same symptoms cropping up - low-grade fever, chronically stiff and swollen joints in more than one limb, muscle tenderness, hyperaesthesia, swollen joints, lethargy, weight loss, neurological problems, eye inflammation and behavioural changes. You'll also see the word 'subclinical', because Lyme doesn't present with obvious symtpoms. Some say it's transmitted from sheep ticks, others say from deer. What everyone's saying for definite is that it's steadily increasing.
If you're reading this page, you probably already know that Lyme is all about a particular bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, that the tick passes on when they've fed for at least 24hrs. Early 'diagnosis' is the key to preventing the most serious effects of Lyme disease, but that's easier said than done as usually, bloods come back as normal. You may never see the tick that bit your horse, as the ticks generally drop off after feeding, plus signs of disease often don't emerge for five to six weeks after the event, and the signs can vary widely.
It’s like Fibromyalgia in humans, in other words, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a very real, chronic illness. Like affected humans, a horse will be trying to push through oppressive fatigue day after day, tired beyond exhaustion yet unable to sleep properly because the adrenals are pumping adrenalin and cortisol – the survival hormones – through the body, literally putting them full time in the fight/flight survival mode, which means they're now in tired-and-wired react mode. Angry, frustrated and very uncomfortable, they'll also be aching badly all over and feeling like they've got the worse flu virus.
No-one can put their finger directly on the range of Lyme-associated symptoms, and some will have different symptoms to others, often more muscular pain than chronic fatigue is meant to have - we now know this is the norm. In human health, studies have shown that more than 70% of people given the fibromyalgia label don’t fit the strict criteria for the diagnosis, similar for ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
For most, it means a future of becoming dependent on symptom-suppressing drugs prescribed by well-meaning practitioners who don’t know enough about this debilitating syndrome to know better, and also don't know how to use food as medicine.
What’s worse, it’s more often than not considered more of a disorder than a true disease, because a disease is considered treatable, whereas a disorder is a label given to a collection of symptoms for which there is no known cause or effective treatment.
Diagnosis Break Down
These days the concept of 'diagnosis' is outdated - it's simply a way to categorise an illness to define a treatment plan. It works well for acute and obvious problems such as a broken leg, appendicitis, heart attack or kidney stones - the cause is obvious, well defined, and interventions exist specifically to address it.
However, the concept of diagnosis is often less functional when applied to chronic illnesses. The signs and symptoms of many chronic illnesses overlap, and the underlying causes are not always obvious. All too often, we’re left endlessly searching for the right 'label'.
Unfortunately, for most chronic illnesses, medical therapies are designed to artificially block symptoms or the progression of the condition, which for many horses simply having repeat scripts of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, pain relief and steroids shovelled down them tends to be the norm, doing nothing more than destroying their immune response further. Patients simply end up in a state of managed illness and never fully recover.
There are antibody tests showing a horse's immune response to the bacteria, but the horse doesn't produce these antibodies immediately, so false negative results are likely if tests are run soon after infection. Plus antibodies may continue to circulate in the blood long after the bacteria are gone, so a low or even a high level may just mean that your horse was exposed to the bacteria at some point in the past.
Thing is, antibiotics don’t help, because the borrelia bacteria are extremely resistant to antibiotic therapy. What’s more, there are many other bacteria that can cause Lyme disease-like symptoms, equally as resistant to antibiotics.
In addition to the nonspecific infection symptoms of fever, fatigue, aches and pains, the symptoms of Lyme disease can appear to be anything and everything. It’s not called the great imitator for nothing because the bacteria settle deep into the connective tissue’s cells, which are everywhere in the body - all cells in all organs are anchored in a huge connective-tissue network, and wellness boils down to one thing: the health of the cells of the body. Borrelia prefers a fairly low level of oxygen so it’s not going to be happy in the lungs or blood, so deep-rooted connective tissue fits the bill perfectly.
In addition to the background connective tissue where cells are anchored, connective tissue includes tendons, ligaments, joint cartilage, joint capsules - this is why legs very often become swollen, because the lymphatic system is flooding the site with gallons of its congestion-removing fluid, lymph, desperately trying to weed out the invader, but failing badly because it's so well hidden. Encasing membranes of the brain and spinal cord are also affected, as well as the sheaths surrounding all the organs and muscle groups and tissue planes between and surrounding all body structures.
Pulling this altogether, it’s that old catchphrase – ‘Fix the cell to get well’, which I mention a lot on the website 😉
Healthy cells equal a healthy body
The mammalian body is one big complex collection of chemistry and living cells. When all the cells in the body are healthy and working in unison, the body feels well. When the cells are stressed, it doesn't feel well at all and symptoms occur. Sometimes the symptoms point to the source of stress, i.e. joint pain indicates that the cells in the joints aren’t happy. However, symptoms like fatigue or stress suggest that the cells throughout the entire body are overburdened so it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where the problem is. Lyme really is a whole-body experience.
The good news is that cells can recover from being stressed – cells are constantly in a state of regeneration - it’s what healing is all about. Cells can repair internal damage, and even when they’re injured beyond repair, other cells in the body can divide to make replacements.
Chronic illness occurs when stress never resolves, and the cells don’t get a chance to recover from being overworked. The reason there are so many different chronic illnesses because different cells in the body can become chronically stressed in different ways.
The immune system plays a vital role in the body’s healing process. It’s responsible for removing old and abnormal cells, cleaning up cellular debris and dead microbes, clearing foreign substances from the bloodstream, and purging toxins from the body. During chronic illness, however, when the immune system can’t do its job, all cells in the body suffer.
It becomes a vicious cycle that increases cellular stress throughout the body, and increases the burden on the immune system, which intensifies the process of chronic illness.
It's important, therefore, to make sure we do everything possible to lessen the risk of cellular stressors:
- Inappropriate diet - to function properly, cells needs carbs and fats to generate energy, amino acids to make proteins, and a wide spectrum of nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, all of which must be extracted from food by the intestinal tract. If the right balance of nutrients isn’t present, then cells suffer. It’s not just deficiencies of nutrients that cause problems; the gross excess of carbohydrates that have become signatures of the current-day equine diet is extremely damaging to cells. The type of food we feed also influences how well the digestive system works; the GI tract requires dietary fibre and a healthy balance of gut microbes to function properly. Carb-loaded, refined, artificial, processed, pro-inflammaory food causes overgrowth of the unfriendly bacteria, which compromises the intestine’s protective barrier. This allows foreign proteins and bacteria to leak across the gut-blood barrier, which sends the immune system into autoimmune red-alert overdrive, causing fatigue, brain fog, flu-like viral symptoms, and so many more symptoms.
- Toxic environment - something else I mention a lot on the website! There’s no doubt we live in a modern-day toxic world. Toxic substances in water, food and air, or those that come in contact with skin, have the potential to disrupt biological processes of cells directly or impede communications (hormones, neurotransmitters) which affects all the cells in the body. Beyond toxic chemicals, there are hundreds of other sources that can disrupt cellular functions.
- Chronic mental stress - continually remaining in high-alert mode hampers all communication systems in the body, and eventually, the body and its cells will begin to break down. Chronic stress also disrupts the normal rest and digest mode, a necessity if cells are to have downtime to recover from being stressed.
- Sedentary lifestyle - until around 100 years ago, horses were our tractors and 4x4’s. These days, they’re our pets mooching slowly around a field. Increased blood flow associated with physical activity flushes debris and metabolic waste that has collected around cells - it’s such an integral part of cellular health that being sedentary is extremely detrimental. Without regular movement, everything in the body stagnates, toxic substances accumulate, muscles turn to mush, arteries become clogged, and cell loss is increased.
- Microbes - we share our bodies with trillions of microorganisms known as the microbiome; they outnumber the rest of the body’s cells by at least 10:1 - t'is true; we're more bug than human! The microbe list includes thousands of different bacteria species but also protozoa, fungi, amoeba, multicellular parasites, and an untold number of viruses. Though we have a mutually beneficial relationship with most of our microbes, some aren’t so friendly, and beyond this, foreign microbes from the outside are also constantly trying to get inside the body.
Microbes: a key to chronic illness
The vast majority of microbes that inhabit the body are confined to the gut, skin, and body openings. Technically, however, these microbes are outside the tissues of the body. Because all microbes have the potential to consume our cells, the body maintains barriers to keep them out. The primary barriers include:
- Mucus membranes lining the mouth and nasal passages
- Bronchial passageways in the lungs
- The lining of the stomach and GI tract
In other words, even though our microbes are part of us, they are kept apart from the cells that make up our tissues because of the potential to do us harm. Of course, certain microbes have a higher potential to cause harm than others.
The microbes with the lowest potential for harm are defined as 'friendly' flora. Friendly, normal flora are microbes that the immune system knows better than any others - it’s a relationship that has been honed over millions of years. Because the immune system is able to keep these microbes completely in check, the partnership is mutually beneficial.
An organism depends on its friendly flora to keep other, more aggressive microbes in the gut and on the skin suppressed. Intestinal and skin diseases result when the balance of normal flora is disrupted by poor diet, chronic stress, or antibiotic therapy which sadly, completely destroys the microbiome.
Because the barriers of the body aren’t nearly as secure as we might hope, we rely on the immune system to protect cells from pathogens that get through. Without protection from the immune system, the body’s cells are defenceless. Studies over the past decade, however, have shown that microbes regularly trickle across barriers. This means the immune system must constantly stay on guard to protect cells. Beyond that, microbes from the outside are constantly trying to cross barriers to get inside the body.
Case in point - every time we get bitten by a tick or mosquito, are bitten or scratched by a dog or cat, scrape or cut our skin, use a public loo just after someone else has been there, take a breath just after someone sneezes, swim in a natural pond, lake, or river, or consume any food or beverage, foreign microbes enter the body, and its potential to do harm is more about the relationship the immune system has with that particular microbe than the microbe itself.
Of course, there are varying degrees of pathogens and fortunately, most of the foreign microbes we’ll be exposed to during a lifetime are low-grade pathogens, all well known to the immune system. If the immune system is healthy, there's a low risk of causing harm.
However, if the immune system becomes compromised, low-grade pathogens can be problematic. Certain microbes have adopted stealth as a primary strategy for evading immune functions. First, they enter the bloodstream, then they hitch a ride inside white blood cells to all the tissues throughout the body — muscles, joints, heart, organs, intestines - even the brain and nervous system.
Termed intracellular microbes, they’ve adopted the ability to live inside cells by cannibalising them for nutrients to survive and make new microbes. When that cell is used up, they emerge to infect other cells.
Beyond borrelia, there are many known microbes that fit the description of being intracellular, and many more yet to be discovered, i.e. bartonella and babesia are two well-known examples; coinfections with these microbes are common with Lyme and other chronic illnesses.
Despite intracellular microbes’ manipulative ways, the 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 the genes for future reference. The better the immune system ‘knows’ a microbe, the better it can slow its growth rate and maintain ultra-low concentrations in tissues.
Notice I didn’t say the microbes are eradicated, because they are very good at persisting. A much more common outcome is a stalemate in which the stealth microbes are relegated, and their potential for harm is minimised, with their natural aggressiveness kept in check. But - they can stay alive and dormant deep in tissues for a lifetime without us ever knowing they’re there. All they need is a gap in the immune system's strength, and they're off and running again.
Though science is just starting to understand the role that stealth microbes and other opportunistic pathogens play, one fact is quite clear: everyone, even the healthiest of us, harbours a variety of intracellular microbes that are low-grade pathogens. So long as the immune system stays healthy, we’ll never hear from them.
However, if the microbiome shifts off balance, an impaired immune function allows the pathogens in the tissues and gut to flourish. It’s not just one microbe that becomes activated, but all the stealth microbes that have been dormant in tissues, pathogens in the gut and on the skin, setting the stage for chronic illness. The associated symptoms result from the immune system’s reaction to the microbes and the damage the microbes inflict upon the cells directly.
And then the pan boils over
Imagine a pan of water on the hob that starts off on a low simmer. As the simmer increases, minor discomforts start showing up — general body aches and joint stiffness; maybe a bit of bloat and gas, along with minor digestive issues; definitely a lack of energy, and generally feeling a bit off colour.
It’s not until the pan starts to boil over that things become noticeably uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s a specific event – severe emotional stress, an acute viral illness, or … a tick bite. But most often, it’s a perfect storm of cellular stress factors 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 because there's now a state of Chronic Immune Dysfunction (CID).
Typical CID symptoms include fatigue, decreased stamina, stress intolerance, flu-like symptoms, muscle pain, joint pain, and an inability to rest properly because the body’s tired and wired at the same time. Temperature fluctuations, digestive dysfunction, mood changes, brain fog, skin irritations, blurred vision, a range of neuro symptoms and allergic-type reactions are all typical as well. Sound familiar?
Pain is the primary symptom, but all these are often collectively labelled as chronic fatigue, with no known cause or treatment from the conventional medical community. It’s only if there’s any history of tick exposure that the possibility of Lyme disease might be considered, yet concentrations of borrelia are embedded so deep in the body’s tissues that a) they’re difficult to find, and b) they’re resistant to antibiotics anyway. What we do know is that the immune reaction is dysfunctional, and the entire microbiome is disrupted.
Keeping stealth microbes at bay is just about impossible without restoring normal immune function, so when illness is at chronic stage, the first step is alleviating pain and stabilising cellular stress factors, to restore normal immune system functions and balance in the microbiome. While a horse remains in pain/stressed, there are no open pathways receptive to repair.
Ultimately, the aim is to restore the body’s natural ability to heal itself, along with strengthening the ability of the immune system to control any threatening microbes. We need a healthy immune system to keep the stealth microbes well relegated, to minimise the risk of invasion, focusing on restoring homeostasis - the natural balance in hormone and healing systems in the body - as well as killing off, or at the very least suppressing, those stealth microbes.
Restorative therapies are the best way to get us there, and 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 body’s stress factors, including every variety of microbe, free radical, toxins, radiation, and both physical and emotional stress.
We go back to the beginning and follow the Alleviate / Detox /Fortify protocol. To quote Juliet Getty, "The only way to fix your horse is to help him return to his natural state."
First up, we need to alleviate and stabilise those pain and stress symptoms, as in reduce the pain/inflammation and reduce the adrenal stress so the body isn't focused so much on the pain which continues to feed the stress, which in itself creates its own toxic residue.
- If it's stress, or worse, if your horse has shut down, it’s our StressTonic. For the full story of what chronic stress actually does to the body and what systems it shuts down, see our Stress page. Stress urgently need stabilising, all the more so as an ongoing state of chronic stress will cause glandular (pyloric) ulcers.
Now we address the root causes with a deep, full-body clean, aka detox, by targeting the toxic pathogens from cellular-level up, while replenishing the microbiome and rebooting immunity. Similar to our OptimaCARE full-body detox, with Lyme we’re talking the stealth microbes, so the approach is different. The blend in question is our 3-stage LymeCARE.
Our LymeCARE programme is a synergistic herbal protocol to simplify the process of reversing CID, of which Lyme disease is a consequence of. LymeCARE helps to suppress the stealth microbes, promote microbiome balance, and counter the cellular stress factors.
Our LymeCARE formula supports the integrity of the microbiome/balance of the gut microbes, with immunity, liver and antioxidant support; adaptogen herbs help maintain homeostasis, improve stamina, and increase physical tolerance to stress by supporting adrenal function; mitochondrial support addresses homeostasis at cellular level that helps promote cellular function and optimises cellular energy production.
To get the body clean we need to clean out anything that’s blocking a function, which means giving the body a clean-up programme. Once done, your horse – and you – can start with a cleaned-up blank canvas and a rebooted immune system.
A body relies on its two circulatory systems - a healthy blood circulation to transport the food nutrients to fuel it, and the lymphatics to drain away toxins and congestion. Thing is, healthy blood relies on a healthy liver to purify it, and the lymphatic system relies on healthy kidneys and the liver - the body's two main detox organs – to eliminate the toxins it’s dropped off. And both the liver and kidneys rely on a healthy gut function, which relies on a healthy microbiome. For further info, see our Detoxification page.
While a body’s in the throes of CID, it’s too overburdened for this to happen - it’s all connected. So, we have to detox the body in the right order on who relies on who – gut first, then liver/kidneys/circulatory systems; finally we fix the cells.
- Stage-1 starts with restoring and rebalancing the microbiome, in order to reset the immune response.
- With an improved gut system, we then move onto Stage-2, which addresses cleaning up the 3-Amigos, the body’s natural – and very sophisticated – detoxification organs; the liver, kidneys and lymphatics.
- Finally, we can move to Stage-3, which focuses the cellular mitochondria, to support homeostasis at the cellular level, promoting cellular function and resetting energy production.
Alongside the clean-up, we Fortify. This is where we re-look at the diet - feedbowl and forage - looking to see if we need to switch it up to a more species-appropriate, nutrient-rich diet, in order to benefit – to fortify – the whole body, the gut and its defence system, the immune system, with a nutrient-rich protocol. When you fortify a body, you literally transform it.
A quick reminder that a horse is nothing more, and nothing less, than a hindgut fibre-fermenting machine - that's it, full stop. A horse has an absolute requirement for forage fibre.
Thing is, there's good forage - hay, and bad forage – green grass, haylage and alfalfa. In our UK climate, hay is the only forage that provides the horse’s hindgut with the right kind of fibre - not our neon-green completely non-fibrous grazing grass or bacteria-laden acidic haylage, or even gut-disrupting alfalfa – it’s all about hay, hay and more hay, as in long, stemmy, late-cut, grass gone to seed so there's lots of cellulose fibre in the stems type of hay. Keep those hindgut fibre-fermenting microbes happy, and they’ll look after the rest of the body in return.
The horse then needs its body's chemistry balanced by correct mineral ratios because our UK forage is deficient in certain nutrients that a horse needs to thrive - it’s all about the chemical information from those micronutrients in their forage that radically influences their body's genes, hormones, immune system, central nervous system, brain chemistry, skeletal and soft tissue structure; you name it – everything from mood, energy and physical health of the whole organism (body), at cellular level, with every single bite - all connected.
So, if their forage nutrient levels are unbalanced, so the horse will be too. The source and nutrient-density of our horse’s food plays a huge role - an absolute role - in their health. See our EquiVita forage-balanced mineral solution.
Calories are also not created equal - in a lab, all calories are the same when you burn them, but they aren't when they’re eaten. They're information that the body's cells need to function, information that the metabolism can use to either run efficiently or not. When we feed our horses the right information, the body will function at its highest level of balanced homeostasis and performance.
This is all covered in the Feeding our horses to health section off the main menu, and specifically the Why what we feed has to be right page, plus there's my own feed routine for my horses in the What I feed page. Feel free to email over to me your entire feed/forage routing - everything that goes in the feedbowl, brands, supps, the lot, then onto their forage - grass/hay/haylage, what type, how often, how much - and I'll have a look at it.
Once the programme is finished, allow a week off so your horse's body can realign, strengthen and function by itself; this will also gives you the chance to assess how your horse is.
You should now have a restored blank canvas to work with, so any presenting issues thereafter can be dealt with effectively, without having to struggle through an overburdened exhausted system.
That's it - we're pretty much done - you'll find our CARE range in the link below.
Wishing your horse the very best of health 😉
Contraindications - the Herxheimer Reaction
Meet the Herxheimer Reaction, commonly referred to as ‘feeling worse before feeling better’. This can mean a rare, but occasional, short-term (as in a couple of days) detox reaction in the body, aka 're-toxification'.
Herxing, as it's commonly referred to, was first observed in syphilis patients by dermatologists Adolf Jarisch and Karl Herxheimer in the late 1800s/early 1900s, who noticed that sufferers receiving treatment often got worse before they got better. The phenomenon was dubbed the Jarisch-Herxheimer Reaction, and has since been shortened to Herxheimer Reaction or simply, herxing.
The classic explanation of a Herxheimer Reaction is that when certain bacteria are killed off by an antibiotic, parts of dead bacteria called endotoxins are shed. These endotoxins then circulate throughout the body and cause an fairly intense, but short-lived inflammatory reaction, which temporarily makes the war against the toxins that’s already going on inside the body feel worse.
Simply put, it’s an overload reaction - it’s basically an immune system reaction where, as the body detoxifies, an overload of toxins overburden the blood supply while stuck in the queue waiting to be eliminated.
In general, Herx reactions are more common and more intense with conventional antibiotic use than with use of herbs. With herbs, the bacterial die‐off is more gradual and the immune response is less intense.
While there’s no clinical research on the prevalence of herxing, it's not uncommon to witness ill-at-ease symptoms, anything from joint/muscle pain, itching/scratching, sweating and gut imbalances amongst other symptoms. In humans, chronic headaches are a common sign.
This is a perfectly normal - and even healthy - reaction that indicates that the parasites, fungals, viruses, bacteria and other impurities are being effectively killed off. Although it may appear that the detox isn’t working, a noticeable Herxheimer reaction is a sign that a healthy, positive detox is taking place. Worsening symptoms don't indicate failure of the detox - just the opposite.
I’ve only had one client who reported concernable agitated behaviour from her usually very calm, sweet, elderly chap who turned into a fire-breathing dragon. He was half way through Stage 2 (liver/kidneys) and no doubt experiencing a tough time, but understandably his owner decided to pull the plug as she was really worried at the 360-degree character change, plus any potential injury risk.
Other than this one instance, I’ve not had any client report any noticeable side effects at all, only beneficial improvement - see the testimonials on the product page.
Naturally, if your horse experiences a touch of Herxheimer's and you need some moral support, email me at email@example.com
Warning - Do not detox horses during onset laminitis due to the risk of re-toxification.
PS - I've been asked whether carrying out a vigorous worming procedure before the Lyme protocol is a good idea, and I've got two opinions here :
First up, if worming chemically, definitely not, as the chemicals will damage the gut and liver function further. so worst case we’d be setting the body up to fail, or at the very least have a less-effective chance of targeting the stealth microbes.
Secondly, it could further risk ‘re-toxification’ with any added parasite toxins overburdening the waste queue waiting to be eliminated - remember, as we're in already in a state of chronic immune dysfunction, the whole gut system is also disrupted, so the hindgut function and main waste exit is likely to be potentially clogged, which could bring on a more significant Herxheimer Reaction, aka ‘feeling worse before feeling better’.
Our LymeCARE is a detox programme in itself, so I'd suggest waiting until after the programme.
DIY Lemon Eucalyptus Tick Repellent
Research suggests lemon eucalyptus essential oil may be as effective as DEET at preventing tick bites. You can make your own to keep on hand with the following ingredients:
- 30 drops of lemon eucalyptus essential oil
- 1 tsp of vanilla extract
- 100ml either witch hazel, ACV or vodka
Mix ingredients together in a bottle, and apply as required.
NB - natural tick repellents need to be reapplied more often than tick repellants made from chemicals, so consider a touch-up every two hours or so.