Purpose of This Post
In this article, I will focus specifically on the bacteria known to cause what we currently call "Lyme disease", which are gram-negative, spirochete bacteria in the Borrelia genus. I will explain their infection tactics and mechanisms in a way that is easy to understand and gives insight to the best ways in preventing and healing Lyme infection, which I will refer to as Borreliosis.
There are 4 known genera of spirochete bacteria that cause disease in humans. These are Treponema, Leptospira, Brachyspira and Borrelia. There are 20 species known in the Borrelia genus that are currently in the Lyme group. B. Burgdoferi is the most common. There are currently 15 species of Borrelia that cause relapsing fever. More are being discovered and added to both groups each year.
Spirochetes are curious organisms. We know relatively little about them because they can be incredible difficult to study. Syphilis (in the Treponema genus) as an example, after 60 years of dedicated, focused research, can still not be grown in a laboratory. What's more, even if scientists are able to grow certain bacteria- how they behave in a petri dish or test tube scenario is often extremely different than how they behave in a live host.
What Makes Borrelia Bacteria Unique?
Borrelia act more like an intelligent protozoal parasite than a typical bacteria. Unlike nearly all other bacteria, Lyme expert Stephen Buhner describes them as having linear chromosomes, a cytoskeleton and a periplasmic flagelli that gives them rapid motility & unusual chemotactic properties. That means they're fast, (and Lyme spirochetes are the fastest of all spirochetes) faster by two orders of magnitude than our bodies' neutrophils-- which are the fastest white blood cells we have.
Borrelia bacteria are unusual in that they are among the extremely low number of organisms that do not require iron to live- they use manganese instead. They also possess the largest number of genetic units of replication (DNA replicons) of any bacteria currently known.
According to Stephen Buhner in his book "Healing Lyme" many bacteria produce a new generation every twenty minutes, but Lyme spirochetes take a little longer and do so between every 8-12 hours.
What Makes Borrelia Parasitic?
Lyme bacteria are capable of only minimal metabolisms. All nucleotides, amino acids, fatty acids & enzyme co-factors must be scavenged from their hosts. Stephen Buhner emphasizes that the most important thing you can understand about Borreliosis (Lyme) is that the bacteria have an affinity for collagenous tissues. Most of the food the bacteria need is found in collagen containing tissues throughout the body. The bacteria work to break these tissues down so that they can feed on their components- wherever they feed on those tissues is where symptoms occur and this tissue damage is at the root of every symptom they cause. Buhner stresses that if you protect the collagen structures of the body, the symptom picture begins to disappear.
The Beginning of Infection with Borrelia Spirochetes
Let's use what is currently known to be our most common route of infection as an example: a bite from an infected tick.
One way or another, a tick that is infected with Borrelia spirochetes manages to cling to your clothing or skin, find an exposed area, bite you and feed long enough for the spirochetes to enter your bloodstream. As soon as that blood meal starts to enter its body, the spirochetes in the mid-gut of the tick become activated and start to rapidly multiply and alter their behavior and genomic structure. Their task is to make themselves as adaptable to your specific body chemistry as they can in order to have the highest chance of survival.
Whenever any organism enters a human body, it will find an entirely unique eco-system. Bacteria, especially Borrelia bacteria, have devised incredibly complex and sophisticated ways of making themselves highly adaptable to all kinds of different hosts and environments. Bacteria already in the salivary glands will immediately enter your body. Those migrating from the mid-gut of the tick to the salivary glands will analyze your blood. Next, they rapidly multiply and actually alter their genomic structure and begin to replicate themselves in a way that will produce a wide range of genetically different offspring (taking into account information from their analysis of your blood) to further increase the chances that some, or multiple forms of those offspring will be able to survive in the new host and avoid its immune responses. Take into account that each spirochete has up to 24 extra pieces of DNA segments that are available to it at any given time, containing information about different possible hosts that ticks might feed on.
You may remember from my previous article "Valuable Information You Never Wanted to Know About Ticks" that tick saliva shuts down part of our immune system and helps give the Borrelia spirochetes a greater opportunity to infect us.
So, the tick saliva has hindered your immune system and now there is a flood of Borrelial organisms, all of which are slightly different to very different from each other in genetic structures, flooding into your bloodstream. The bacteria move throughout your body quickly. Some will attach to endothelial cells of blood vessel walls, some to macrophages, keratinocytes, neurons or glial cells. They will cause those cells to engulf the attached bacteria, and create a vacuole (a secure container for hiding in) in which the bacteria will reproduce. Other bacteria will choose to locate extra cellular junctions instead of cells. They will wiggle on in, penetrating them, initiate responses to further loosen those junctions and gain access to the extra-cellular matrix (which exists between cells of the body). According to Buhner's research, this takes only 10 minutes after the initial tick bite. The extra cellular matrix is an ideal location for spirochetes as it has ample food sources and is hard for immune cells to get to.
The bacteria that chose to hide inside cells in vacuoles, after 48 hours will have created dozens of new spirochetes. Hidden inside our cells, the bacteria can resist antibiotics for many days. Stephen Buhner states that they can resist Ceftriaxone for a minimum of 14 days.
Spirochete levels in the bloodstream, according to Buhner, tend to peak at 60 days of infection and then drop to low levels (undetectable by tests) in the system.
The Ongoing Problem With These Bacteria
Lyme spirochetes, once in a host, will continue to alter their structure in order to evade your immune responses to them, and to help them gain access to, and colonize different parts of the body. Recombination of the 24 extra DNA segments also continues to occur every time the bacteria replicate (every 8-12 hours), therefor producing even more resilient and "intelligent" offspring.
The spirochetes can live many places in the body but they have a preference for joints, the aqueous humors of the eyes, heart tissue, the meninges of the brain and any tissues that are very rich in collagen like the skin and the knees.
At this point, I want to stress that a strong and vital immune system will be able to eventually clear the bacteria, no matter what form they are in (I will elaborate) and rid the body of the disease. This is why it is so essential to make sure the immune system is supported as a preventative measure against Borrelial infection (but really any infection) in the body. That being said, these bacteria are extremely intelligent, resilient and crafty at developing ways to prolong infection and maintain a persistent presence in the body. Their DNA recombination tactics alone are incredible and get more sophisticated as the immune system attempts to take the upper hand and kill these bacteria. In fact, the immune system itself is partially what drives the innovation for the recombination events that occur- they try very hard to survive!
Once under any form of stress (from our immune systems or antibiotics) the bacteria can transform themselves into something called an encysted form, as well as they create biofilms. They will relocate to harder to find niches in the body and reduce their activity to attempt to hide from the "attack". Buhner references a study that shows "Atypical forms [of the bacteria] were seen within 1 hour of exposure to environmental stress". Basically, as soon as they detect that something is trying to kill them, they will quickly transform into their encysted state (which is considered to be a dormant state). This makes them difficult to find in the body; then when they detect the threat is over, they will change back into their active spiral form. Buhner also says that Borrelial organisms "always create some encysted forms during infection; it is one of the techniques they use to ensure continued infection in a new host". Depending on the various species of spirochete, they have been found to survive up to three years in encysted form.
Take a breath. This information can be frightening, but again, knowing about it could be the difference between overcoming an infection or living in a chronically diseased state for decades. Take some comfort in knowing that our immune systems (when healthy) are actually very good at killing encysted forms of bacteria. I won't mention the complicated mechanisms here, but for those who are very scientifically oriented, you can research Neutrophil extracellular traps which is one of the ways our immune systems trap and kill these forms of bacteria.
The other interesting thing that these bacteria do is form little colonies or cities called biofilms in the body. According to Stephen Buhner, in the initial stages of Lyme infection with borrelia bacteria, about 2% of the bacteria that come into your body will immediately form biofilm aggregates to start setting up their little communities. These biofilms have several types of bacteria that will live together and they create a kind of gel out of polysaccharides that provides protection and nutrients. Sometimes they also create a hard shell made out of calcium, kind of like a sea creature's shell. Don't stress, there are many herbs that can be used to break up biofilms- they key is to do it gently and slowly so as not aggravate disease symptoms. There are examples of beneficial biofilms in people's bodies too- your intestinal tract should have one!
The last thing I want to touch on is how these bacteria are interfering, hijacking and creating cytokine responses in the body. Cytokines are like little messengers that act as cellular mediators during the body's immune responses. Borrelia bacteria either create their own cytokines or else they stimulate our body's own natural cytokine responses by manipulating them to do what they want (not what our bodies need). The reason for this is to cause the break down of our bodily tissues so that the bacteria can feed on the nutrients that are released in the wreckage. Again, there are many herbs that will support the body in properly being able to thwart the bacteria when it comes to cytokines through various mechanisms. The next article I will be posting will focus on herbal support during Borreliosis (Lyme disease) including herbs for inhibiting and modulating cytokine response.
Because of what these bacteria do in the body, and also being that since every person's body ecology is so different, there is an extremely frustratingly wide range of symptoms that can be present (or not) for this illness and the disease will always be slightly different for every single person, every time it occurs. That is why for this disease especially, a one-regime-fits-all protocol is pointless, or worse, harmful. Each person needs to have their protocols tailored to exactly what is going on for them.
I hope that by outlining what these bacteria are doing in our bodies, that people can gain insight as to exactly what we need to do to try and support the body in dealing with them and protecting itself.
Lastly, if you have a Lyme story, whether the illness has touched you personally, or a family member or close friend, I want to hear about it! Please send me a message or leave a comment below. If you have questions, leave those too! Check back over the next couple of weeks for my next post about using herbal medicine to support Lyme disease.