Chronic Lyme Disease Can Be Managed Successfully — an MD’s Perspective

My Chronic Lyme Disease Journey

by Dr. Bill Rawls
Updated 7/30/20

A tick and an enlarged image of spirochete bacteria in the bloodstreamLikely, you have come to this page in hopes of sorting out some of the confusion surrounding Lyme disease.

There is so much controversy around this disease because most doctors don’t understand it. Even many doctors who consider themselves Lyme experts or Lyme literate medical doctors (LLMDs) do not completely comprehend its complexities.

But I have one qualification that most other physicians do not. My life — and a busy medical career — were disrupted midstream by Lyme disease, though obtaining that diagnosis was quite the journey through multiple diagnoses including fibromyalgia.

My late 40s were marked by debilitating fatigue, tremendous brain fog, aching all over, burning in my feet and tingling in my hands, skin rashes, joint pain, chest pain, heart palpitations, mood changes, and poor sleep. I know what it’s like to start and end every day feeling like you have a terrible flu. Over several years, I experienced virtually every known symptom of Lyme disease.

Ultimately, this caused me to stop practicing obstetrics. But because I didn’t have a firm diagnosis at the time, declaring disability wasn’t an option. As an alternative, I started a less demanding primary care practice that did not require nightcall. The practice provided me with the environment I needed to recover. I had control over my work hours and the intensity of the work.

However, the obligations of the practice prevented me from leaving town, and working limited hours created financial constraints. Traveling to see specialists in Lyme disease or having expensive labs done simply wasn’t possible.

I had to figure things out using resources at my immediate disposal. Having since met numerous people who squandered their life savings chasing heroic solutions that didn’t work, I now consider it a blessing in disguise.

Over several years of persistent effort, I was able to recover my health completely — the things that I learned along the way changed my life forever. My struggle with chronic Lyme disease taught me things that most other physicians do not know. I now use that knowledge to help others understand and overcome this often frustrating illness. Play video:

Borrelia, the Misunderstood Microbe

Retrospectively, I may have harbored Borrelia burgdorferi (the microbe that’s associated with Lyme disease) for years before I actually developed symptoms. I’m an outdoor person; tick bites have always been a common affair.

It’s not uncommon for people to harbor Borrelia and not know itstealth is this microbe’s middle name.

Lyme disease is mostly transmitted by nymphal ticks, which are about the size of the pin. They bite, transmit the microbe, and then drop off — most people aren’t even aware of being bitten. Because symptoms of the initial infection are so mild (if they occur at all), it’s not uncommon for people to be completely unaware of being infected.

And Borrelia isn’t the only microbe to worry about. Ticks carry many microbes that have similar characteristics to Borrelia. What they all have in common is stealthy characteristics that make them hard to find — and even harder to get rid of.

If immune system function is robust, a person can harbor these types of microbes indefinitely, keeping them in check without ever having symptoms. When illness does occur, it’s typically chronic and debilitating, but not life-threatening. Additionally, the degree of chronic illness is highly variable. Some people are severely debilitated, while others are only marginally miserable.

What You Need to Know About Borrelia

Borrelia is an ancient microbe dating back 15-20 million years, and possibly even longer. It’s an extremely adaptable microbe that can infect most anything with blood; today, it commonly infects mammals, birds, and even some reptiles.

Infection is imperative for Borrelia’s survival. To complete its life cycle, it must infect a new host via a tick-bite, reproduce within that host (which only requires maintaining a simple presence of the microbe hiding stealthily in the host’s tissues, not an overwhelming infection), and then reboard a new tick when the host is bitten again.

That last step — reboarding a new tick — is crucial. If the host is never bitten by another tick, the microbe reaches a dead end. It can’t spread to new hosts. Here are some either key facts you should know about Borrelia:

  • Borrelia rarely causes life-threatening illness, but it can make you desperately miserable for years and even a lifetime.
  • There are 20 known species of Borrelia that can cause human illness (not just Borrelia burgdorferi), and it is not uncommon for people with Lyme disease to harbor at least two species.
  • Beyond Borrelia, there are hundreds of species of stealth-type microbes that can be transmitted by ticksMycoplasma and Bartonella are the most common, but there are many, many others. Most everyone on the planet harbors some stealth microbes without knowing it.
  • All these factors make Lyme disease extremely difficult to diagnose; lab tests are notoriously unreliable, especially in chronic illness.
  • Because Borrelia is so difficult to diagnose and can be harbored without causing symptoms, no one really knows how many asymptomatic carriers there are worldwide.

My Experience with Antibiotic Treatment for Lyme

When I was first diagnosed with Lyme disease, my first response was standard: Try antibiotics. But every time I started a new round, I was absolutely miserable by the second week.

Nausea, abdominal discomfort, and feeling generally terrible all over increased until I was forced to stop the drugProbiotics didn’t help, and I had the same response to different types of antibiotics. While some people tolerate antibiotic therapy better than others, it became obvious that I would have to find a different solution.

I later discovered that my experience was not unique; many people seem to have the same response to oral antibiotics. I also met numerous people who had undergone 6-9 months of intravenous (IV) antibiotic therapy, only to be right back where they started within a couple of months of finishing.

Though there may be some logic in using antibiotics for 2-4 weeks during acute infection, many people develop symptoms despite initial use of antibiotics. And as I came to know the microbe better, I began to understand why antibiotics are not necessarily a good treatment for chronic Lyme disease. Though some people do overcome Lyme disease with antibiotics, those results aren’t consistent enough to be considered reliable. To date, no clinical studies have shown benefit from long-term antibiotic therapy for chronic Lyme disease.

Why Antibiotics Have Limited Use for Chronic Lyme

#1. Borrelia is a highly evasive stealthy microbe.
#2. Borrelia grows very slowly.
#3. Borrelia becomes part of the microbiome.
#4. Microbial coinfections complicate therapy.
#5. Chronic use of antibiotics disrupts the microbiome.3,4
#6. Chronic use of antibiotics disrupts the immune system.4
#7. Antibiotics can damage mitochondria inside cells.5
#8. Antibiotics can disrupt protective biofilm in the colon.6,7,8
#9. People are still searching for solutions.

Note: The primary situation where antibiotics have proven value is in early treatment of infections with more virulent tick-borne microbes such as Rickettsia rickettsii (the cause of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever), Ehrlichia, Anaplasma, and in some cases, Babesia. These microbes typically present with high fever and severe symptoms during acute infection. Being more virulent, they typically respond better to antibiotic therapy and generally, one to two months of antibiotics is curative if infections are caught early.

Desperate for Solutions

After realizing that oral antibiotics weren’t a solution for me, my faith in the medical system diminished. My medical colleagues didn’t seem to understand Lyme disease or have much interest in treating it. Other than prescriptions medications for treating symptoms, they had little to offer.

I became desperate to find something — anything — that would relieve my misery.

I searched the Internet and read every book available about Lyme disease. I was aware of “Lyme docs” who promoted prolonged use of IV antibiotics, but I couldn’t get comfortable with the idea. I knew enough about synthetic antibiotics to be gravely concerned about what it would do to my intestinal flora and immune functions after several months of treatment (either IV or oral).

Anyway, I really didn’t have the luxury to choose — my new medical practice kept me locationally confined and financially restricted. I would have to find an option that came to my doorstep.

There were a lot of options to choose from. Ever since people became aware of Lyme disease, they’ve been throwing everything imaginable at it — from “ray beam” energy generated by Rife machines to drinking turpentine — all with the hope of killing the microbe.

I created a list of all potential solutions and prioritized according to cost, potential for toxicity, and evidence of benefit. Things that were very costly or carried a high potential for harm were kept at the bottom of the list.

At one point, I actually considered buying a Rife machine. The potential for harm seemed very low, but I couldn’t find any scientific evidence that the technology worked or that anyone had actually been cured. Ultimately, paying $2,000-$4,000 for a machine that may or may not do anything was a risk I couldn’t afford to take.

Natural herbal therapy was definitely on my list; I had a longstanding interest in herbal therapy. But my medical background made me skeptical. How could anything natural and non-toxic actually get rid of something like Lyme disease?

It was about that time that I came across Stephen Buhner’s book, Healing Lyme. In Healing Lyme, Buhner provided a better explanation of Lyme disease than any I had read. He also presented compelling evidence for treating Lyme disease using herbs with antimicrobial properties (used with or without antibiotics). His approach was logical and based on sound scientific evidence.

I was intrigued. Simple, nontoxic, cost-effective, and I could have it delivered to my doorstep. Why not give it a try?

A Turning Point

The only drawback was the complexity of the protocol. It required purchasing multiple ingredients from different sources and taking 3-5 capsules of each ingredient three times a day. Keeping up with it all was a challenge.

I wanted to give the protocol full opportunity to work, however, so I made a concerted effort to follow it to the letter.

And… it started working.

The intestinal side effects that I experienced from taking antibiotics never happened. Within weeks, the misery started to ease; the pain in my joints and muscles became tolerable and my chest pain started to dissipate.

The Buhner protocol gave me a new lease on life, but I was determined to go further. As my health continued to improve, I immersed myself in the study of herbal therapy. I studied herbal traditions from different cultures, as well as the accumulated science and research available. Through this process, I discovered additional herbs with potent healing properties and added them to my herbal regimen.

The more I studied, the more it became apparent that herbal therapy was a perfect fit for suppressing the stealthy microbes associated with chronic Lyme disease.

7 Reasons to Choose Herbs

#1. Herbs provide a wide spectrum of antimicrobial properties.
#2. Using multiple herbs together is synergistic.
#3. Herbs are inherently safe.*
#4. Herbs enhance immune functions.
#5. Herbs support a balanced microbiome.*
#6. Herbs help the body deal with biofilms and cyst forms.*
#7. Herbs provide a wide spectrum of other benefits.*

*Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Creating the Perfect Environment for Healing

More than anything else, chronic Lyme disease is a breakdown of the body’s ability to fight off everyday threats and heal itself. It isn’t as much the microbes themselves as it is that the microbes are no longer constrained by a strong immune system.

I had likely harbored Borrelia and other stealth microbes long before I got sick — everyone harbors some stealth microbes in the grand mix of their microbiome. For me, years of rigorous night call, eating on the run, and other bad health habits weakened my immune system enough to allow the microbes to flourish.

Creating a healing environment within my body was essential for my recovery. Though herbs were essential for my recovery, I recognized that I also had to curb the habits that contributed to my immune dysfunction in the first place.

Even before starting herbal therapy, I had given up night call by necessity. Adequate restorative sleep is essential for overcoming any chronic illness. My sleep was so disrupted, however, that it took a lot of effort for me to restore normal sleep.

Poor eating habits and antibiotics had made a mess out of my intestinal tract. I also knew that I needed to make some drastic changes to my diet. Admittedly, it was a challenge at first—I grew up in the middle of the fast-food generation. But with time, eating healthy became the new norm. With a cleaner diet, all the digestive issues cleared, including leaky gut.

Stress didn’t go away. In fact, the process of changing my life added new stress, but I learned how to manage stress on the fly. I took control of my life. Being proactive about your own situation is essential for success.

A Holistic Path to Recovery

3 Lyme disease treatment approaches: heroic, symptomatic, restorativeThrough my quest to find solutions for chronic Lyme disease, I found it useful to divide therapies into three categories:

  1. Restorative Therapy
  2. Symptomatic Therapy
  3. Heroic Therapy

Restorative Therapy

Everything I’ve discussed so far — herbs, a healthy diet, managing stress — I classify as Restorative Therapy. It’s the foundation for getting well. Restorative Therapy focuses on optimizing immune function and restoring homeostasis (natural balance in hormone and healing systems in the body), as well as killing or suppressing microbes. Herbs are the cornerstone of Restorative Therapy.

Healing takes time, however, and pronounced symptoms can be a real impediment to progress. Symptoms of pain and poor sleep are especially aggravating. In the short term, treating symptoms directly until healing occurs can have value.

Symptomatic Therapy

Symptomatic Therapies, as you might expect, are therapies that are specifically directed at controlling symptoms. Sometimes treating specific symptoms directly and aggressively can expedite recovery. It mostly comes in the form of drugs (prescribed by a primary care provider), but there are some natural and alternative options that fit into this category.

The benefits of symptomatic therapies are generally limited to acute relief of symptoms. The contribution to healing and wellness is generally minimal. Suppression of symptoms is transient and only lasts as long as the therapy is administered.

Heroic Therapy

In chronic Lyme disease, Heroic Therapies are mostly focused on aggressively killing microbes. Heroic therapies commonly used in Lyme disease include synthetic antibiotics, steroids, and anti-inflammatory drugs of various types. Alternative forms of heroic therapies use oxidation, electricity, and various types of radiation.

This strategy is always passive — you go to a healthcare provider and have something done to you. It puts someone else in control of your recovery.

Use of heroic therapies is limited by the incidence of side effects and the potential for disrupting systems in the body even further — generally the more potent a heroic therapy is, the greater the potential for harm.

Though there is a place for each type of therapy, that place must be kept in perspective — every person’s pathway and needs are slightly different. The conventional medical approach of relying almost exclusively on heroic and symptomatic therapies rarely results in wellness.

A holistic approach to recovery uses all three therapies wisely, and as needed:

  • Restorative therapies as a foundation
  • Symptomatic therapies in early stages as necessary
  • Heroic therapies only when specific indications are present.

When Restorative Therapy is your foundation, if heroic therapy of some type ends up being necessary, lower doses of shorter duration are generally adequate. This greatly reduces the potential for toxicity.

People who try to get well using heroic and symptomatic therapies alone often fail. They bounce from one heroic option to the next, never achieving a goal of true wellness.

In contrast, people who make the effort to build a solid restorative foundation have a high probability of achieving wellness and enjoying normal life!

Simplifying the Process for Others

Once I got my health back, I wanted to help others do the same. To do so, I had to simplify the process. What had taken me years of effort and research to figure out needed to be boiled down into an easy protocol.

The first step was simplifying the process of taking the herbs. My interest in herbal medicine extended to the herbal industry itself. I had learned where to get the best quality herbal extracts, how to properly evaluate the quality of herbal extracts, and the best place to have the extracts encapsulated and bottled.

My daughter, who witnessed firsthand how herbs had helped me, came on board to manage the business. Our intent was creating the best possible herbal supplements for the money.

The guiding principles for creating effective supplements were:

  • Purity: The highest quality ingredients are essential for maximum benefits.
  • Potency: The use of modern herbal extracts with concentrated medicinal benefits.
  • Synergy: The combination of herbs with different properties to potentiate the value of each individual herb

I condensed my entire natural protocol for overcoming chronic Lyme into four primary formulas. These four formulas contain the top 50 ingredients that I’ve researched for strengthening the immune system. The daily regimen is simple: 3 capsules of each formula twice daily.

Dr. Rawls’ Herbal Blends

Herbal Formula #1: Antimicrobial Support
Herbal Formula #2: Immunomodulation, Symptom Reduction
Herbal Formula #3: Cellular Support, Optimal Detoxification
Herbal Formula #4: Daily Nutrients, Cardiovascular Function

Building A Solid Restorative Foundation

The supplements are essential — it’s hard to get well without them — but it’s important to remember that recovery is a process. To guide people through the process, I created a thorough email course. Over 6 months, participants receive brief emails several times a week.

The emails are a blend of inspiration, instruction, and education. They are designed to answer almost any question that might come up in a timely fashion. With each day that passes, the emails step you through the process of getting your life back.

A three-phase diet and recipe guide for restoring normal intestinal function and embracing clean eating is also included. Learn more about Dr. Rawls’ herbal protocol »

Life As It Should Be

Dr. Bill Rawls, Lyme disease doctor kayakingAlthough I do things differently now, I’ve come to really enjoy a healthful lifestyle. The trade-offs are worth it — things seem to improve for me every year.

My joints are in great shape. My energy levels are sustained throughout the day, and I’m as active as I want to be.

As for the Borrelia microbe, I may still harbor it. Whether anyone ever gets rid of it entirely is a complete unknown. But the most important thing is that I’m living a normal life, free of symptoms and also free of many of the effects of aging that most people of my age experience.

Over the years, I’ve compiled everything I’ve learned about restoring health and resilience into a book called Unlocking Lyme. I hope it can help guide the way for others to reclaim their life, too.