Why Western Medicine Misses the Mark on Lyme Disease: An Interview with Stephen Harrod Buhner
As it turns out, everything we’ve been told about Lyme disease is wrong.
Conventional wisdom states that Lyme disease results from being bitten by a deer tick infected with a certain strain of bacteria, called Borrelia burgdorferi. This tick must remain attached to its host for at least 36 hours. If symptoms common to Lyme disease begin to manifest, a blood test (or tests) will be ordered to confirm diagnosis. If these test(s) reveal B. burgdorferi antibodies, the patient is prescribed a 10 – 14 day course of antibiotics, typically doxycycline. During this period, the antibiotics kill the infectious bacteria, and order is restored.
According to Stephen Harrod Buhner, an expert in the fields of herbal medicine and infectious disease, the validity of each sentence from the above paragraph ranges somewhere between incomplete and erroneous.
You may have already developed a healthy skepticism for Western medicine’s grasp of this havoc-wreaking disease. Lyme disease runs rampant along the Appalachian Trail; many of our own have contracted the infection during their journeys. Some have struggled with getting a proper diagnosis, some have struggled with the efficacy of treatment, and more often, both is the case. I have talked to countless others who’ve offered a similar story.
And perhaps the subject that divides Western medicine and the “skeptics” most is chronic Lyme. Although more doctors are beginning to treat these generalized symptoms- such as headache, muscle aches, and fatigue- as chronic Lyme, it’s still seen as a “controversial diagnosis” in much of the medical community. The rift between the two camps is strong enough that Buhner refers to it as a “war zone” in his best-selling book, Healing Lyme.
I caught up with Buhner to learn more about why Western medicine misses the mark on Lyme disease and what those suffering from the illness can do to regain their health.
Appalachian Trials: What’s your background? How were you turned onto the subject of infectious disease?
Stephen Harrod Buhner: My bio, background, is the usual long story, incredibly interesting to me but to few others. To make it as short as possible, I became enamored of a simpler kind of healing from my close relationship with my great-grandfather who, though an M.D., for most of his life used mostly herbal medicines in his practice (he began practice before the availability of antibiotics). After he died, the 60s caught me up and I immersed myself in the back to the land movement and learning the forgotten crafts, among them the use of herbal medicines.
I began teaching workshops in 1980, primarily focused on the human growth potential movement in various of its shades, and fully immersed myself in depth understanding of herbal medicine beginning in 1986. Two things pulled me into infectious diseases. The first was an article in a newspaper about antibiotic resistant bacteria. I had formerly majored in mathematics and I was well aware of the implications of an exponential growth curve. I became curious, how would herbs work for resistant bacteria and how would bacteria respond to them. (It turned out that that conflict has been going for some 700 million years. As the bacteria develop resistance, the plants create a response. So, the answer was that plant medicines were the more sophisticated response.) The second was this: Over the next decade of my teaching the second most asked question in my lectures and workshops was, “Do you know anything that can help with Lyme disease?” Ultimately a physician I knew urged me to get involved. As she said at the time, “If anyone can figure out how to treat Lyme disease, it’s you.” These two things pulled me deeply into infectious diseases and ultimately very deep into a more sophisticated understanding of the world we live within.
What are the most common misconceptions about Lyme disease?
Buhner: Pretty much everything. Up front I need to make clear that all the information I present in my updated second edition of Healing Lyme (Raven Press, 2015) about Lyme disease is cleverly concealed in open source peer reviewed journals easily found via the internet. For several reasons, I decided to focus the book through the lens of the research that hundreds of researchers and physicians around the world were conducting. Over the past 4 years or so, I have read some 10,000 journal articles on Lyme and its major coinfections. I then created a synthesis of all this information to give as complete a picture of what was happening as possible.
I had several goals in this:
- To give those with Lyme infections a clear picture of what was happening so that their fear level would lessen;
- To give physicians a clear picture of what was going on so that they could begin to design more effective approaches and importantly, help them respond more compassionately to their patients;
- To develop alternative protocols that could help people when pharmaceuticals failed them, as they do for around 40 percent of those infected; and finally;
- Because I was walking into a war zone where there was a nearly complete disconnect between what the medical establishment was insisting was true about Lyme disease and what the people with the disease were experiencing. It was inevitable that my work would be attacked but it would make those attacks harder if I used the medical establishment’s own model and published studies.
To finally get to the point, everything that most people hear is wrong. Here is a tiny sampling of what is actually true and which conflicts with most common beliefs about Lyme:
- Lyme disease is not a new disease, it has been around since Borrelia bacteria have been, millions of years;
- Antibiotics only work for about 60% of those who are infected;
- It quite regularly takes longer than two weeks of antibiotics to heal an infection, if the drugs are going to work at all;
- Post Lyme disease and chronic Lyme disease are incredibly common;
- Infection rates are around 500,000 per year, minimum, and are increaseing;
- White footed mice and deer are not the primary reservoirs;
- Tick attachment of less than 48 hours very commonly transmits Lyme, in fact, as little as ten minutes can do so;
- Many other insects transmit Borrelia bacteria, not just hard ticks;
- There are scores of borrelial bacteria, more are being found all the time and most of them do infect people;
- Borrelia bacteria are endemic on every continent on earth, including the arctic and Antarctica – they are also very common in cities in parks, cemeteries, and open space;
- The bull’s eye rash is relatively uncommon, only about 30% of people get one;
- Diagnosis of Lyme disease is very difficult and often fails;
- Very few doctors understand the disease at all, many of them really don’t care to educate themselves either;
- There is no getting rid of these bacteria;
- Lyme bacteria are the tip of the iceberg; emerging stealth infections are going to only increase in numbers. This is because their emergence so powerfully in our time is generated by ecological instability and overpopulation.
There are many more, but that covers most of the misconceptions. Lyme bacteria are a poignant teaching for human hubris about the controllability of the natural world. It is just that that is a lesson very few humans want to understand.
What explains Western medicine’s poor understanding and handling of this infection?
Buhner: “Modern” medicine is actually using a model of reality that was developed in the late 19thcentury and expanded in the 20th. There is a lot of investment in that model. Most of our industry and nearly all of technological medicine is dependent on it.
Unfortunately that model has little to do with the real world. As the real world begins to intrude more and more strongly into that world view, through the regular emergence of new forms of bacteria, new viruses, and stealth pathogens, the system will inevitably begin to buckle. It already is.
Newer generations of healers do understand the problem, at least to some extent, but the older generation has to die off for a more reality based understanding to take hold. It is the insistence of the older generation of practitioners, as well as the entrenched financial orientation of most medical facilities (and I guess I should say as well, the insurance companies) on that outdated model that is the real problem. Specifically: that older system believes that humans are the only intelligent species on the planet, that the natural world is merely insentient background that we may treat any way we wish without repercussions, and that we can, through the use of science and technology, control the natural world. All three assertions are untrue. As most bacterial researchers will readily admit, bacteria are significantly more intelligent than we are, they possess cities, culture, language, technology that far exceeds our own, and are far more adaptable than we are. After all, they have been at this business of living for some 4 billion years.
Would you recommend those who spend a lot of time in areas highly prone to Lyme disease, such as the Appalachian Trail, to carry and take antibiotics in the case of developing symptoms related to Lyme?
Buhner: I would recommend the use of tick and insect repellants as a habit, the use of herbs to enhance immune functioning (simplest is astragalus, 1000 mg daily, 3000 mg during Lyme season), and the use of antibiotics at the first sign of a bull’s eye rash, then herbs if the antibiotics do not work. I don’t think the routine carrying of antibiotics is useful except for those who plan on being out of touch in the wilderness for a month or more at a time.
Why don’t US residents have access to a Lyme vaccine? Is it effective?
Buhner: The Lyme vaccine wasn’t very effective and it tended to make people sick. It was discontinued over a decade ago.
What advice would you offer to a loved one who was undertaking a several month-long backpacking trip in a region known for a high incidence rate of Lyme disease?
Buhner: Besides reading the book, I generally suggest taking 1000-3000mg of astragalus a day to keep up the immune parameters that are most effective against a Lyme infection. Additionally, I would take with me a bottle of andrographis tincture. As soon as a tickbite is found, remove the tick, and then mix the tincture with a little green clay powder or something like that and put the paste on the bite area, then cover with a bandaid. Oddly enough this will often prevent a Lyme infection. And finally, perhaps, get and take a large bottle of the Lyme protocol in capsules from Green Dragon Botanicals (https://greendragonbotanicals.com/). If you do start getting ill, this can often turn it around.
At what point should someone get tested for Lyme? What test(s)? How accurate is testing?
Buhner: I go into all this in the book and it is rather tedious to go into it again in any depth. It would bore the readers to sleep. In general some tests are better than others, none are really that good. The best outcomes in studies come from using a panel of maybe 10 different tests simultaneously and even then they miss a lot of people who are infected. Testing is not good, is not going to be good for some time, and it very inaccurate. Again, the reasons why are incredibly tedious to wade through.
What do you recommend for someone who has been exposed to Borrelia carrying organisms but is suffering from only general symptoms (i.e. fatigue, brain fog, mood disturbances)?
Buhner: The herbal protocol or antibiotics if they want to go that route. Those “general” symptoms are often the worst of all. They cause a significant deterioration of life and happiness.
What is your herbal protocol for healing from Lyme? Is this safe/recommended for those who merely suspect an infection, but haven’t received a test confirmation?
Buhner: At root is the use of Astragalus all the time if you live in an endemic area, as a regular part of the diet. They do this in various parts of Asia, the herb is a good grade herb and they often use it as a base for stews and soups. So, yes it is very safe and usable all the time.
The core protocol for an active infection is based on the use of three herbs: Japanese knotweed root (which shuts down most of the inflammation processes the bacteria generate in the body); cat’s claw (which is a fairly specific immune booster for Lyme); and andrographis (which is antibacterial). There are occasional side effects: Japanese knotweed root can cause loss of taste in about one in 1000 people (from reports we have received) and andrographis can cause an allergic reaction in about one percent of people who use it. The most common allergic response is hives that takes a few weeks to resolve. There are contraindications for women who are pregnant. Other than that, the protocol is very safe for the majority of people. We have had contact with some 25,000 people over the past decade, so we do have a pretty good sense of what kind of impact it has.
What will it take to get chronic Lyme (and it’s corresponding co-infections) the national attention, funding, and care it deserves?
Buhner: Continual complaining and activism by Lyme activists. That is the only thing that has raised awareness as much as it is. There are numerous Lyme activist groups throughout the US. They are easily found by Googling them. Quite often, there is one near you.
Is it unsafe for Lyme disease carriers to give blood?
Buhner: Complicated . . . maybe.
Can Lyme disease be transmitted sexually?
Buhner: Yes, very much so. Please note, that despite data and journal papers indicating this is a common route of transmission, most physicians still deny it.
Healing Lyme offers a formula for a natural tick repellent. Is there advantage to using this method versus treating one’s clothes with permethrin?
Buhner: I am not much a fan of industrial chemicals both for environmental pollution reasons and personal. But I feel people should follow their own sense of what to do in all of this, not just repellents.
Is there any other advice or information you’d offer to anyone who spends a significant amount of time hiking or backpacking that we haven’t covered?
Buhner: Yes, really, read the book. I know this sounds as if I am just trying to drum up sales, but I think that being deeply informed is the best thing of all. It really does lower fear levels and enhances personal empowerment. I am an unapologetic enthusiast of the human capacity for reason and deep thought, especially in those without Ph.D.s.
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