Does a Gluten-Free Diet Help Relieve Lyme Disease Symptoms?
We like to remind our readers consistently that diet is an essential element in the pursuit and sustainability of a healthy and energetic life. A good portion of our informative articles stress this, and, at times, it might seem a bit repetitive to our more avid readers. But there’s a reason why we so adamantly suggest that you eat and drink responsibly – we truly are what we eat.
In order to ensure our bodies are operating at maximum efficiency, we need to habitually ingest sufficient nutrition. We only get one chance at this life, and tailoring a diet based on health, rather than gluttonous indulgence, is one way that we can hedge our bets of success and happiness. As our culture of excess rapidly propels us into a future based purely on gratification and satiation, we often overlook the responsibility that we all have toward our bodies. In some cases, though, this responsibility is thrust upon us whether we want to confront it or not.
A Tiny Villain
Five years ago, unbeknownst to her, my cousin was bitten by a tick while living near Greenville, South Carolina. Although there was no visual evidence that she’d been bitten, within a few weeks, she began experiencing fatigue, joint stiffness, fever, and swollen lymph nodes – all symptoms characteristic of Lyme disease.
Unfortunately, testing for the bacteria that causes Lyme (Borrelia burgdorferi) is a delicate and imprecise process, and it can be difficult to determine the degree of accuracy.
In my cousin’s case, her physician initially ruled out Lyme based on a negative test, and she was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia (a syndrome commonly mistaken for Lyme disease as a result of the overlap of several symptoms between the two conditions). This diagnosis was especially adverse for her, as the condition can be cured successfully if antibiotics are administered during the initial stage of infection.
Over the next year, her symptoms intensified and became chronic. At this point, she was retested, and it was confirmed that she had contracted Lyme disease. Due to her initial misdiagnosis, her condition is no longer curable, as the Lyme has developed into a late disseminate infection and fully spread throughout her body.
Changes in Diet
Thankfully, she is a resilient, resourceful young woman who has bravely confronted this disease by making significant changes to her lifestyle, not the least of which has been a fundamental alteration to her diet. Based on her nutritionist’s advice, she has adapted a gluten-free diet over the past three years, and, coincidentally, her symptoms have greatly improved.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and other related grains. It helps bread rise and provides it with a chewy texture due to its elasticity. A great source of protein, gluten is often used as an additive to foods that are naturally protein deficient. It’s also used as a thickening agent and flavor additive.
In many people with weakened immune systems, gluten can cause an immune response, leading to an aggravation of various symptoms. The immune system recognizes gluten as an antigen and attempts to destroy it. When certain tissues are injured (as by bacteria in the case of Lyme disease), the immune system releases chemical mediators, such as histamine, which, in turn, lead to inflammation. (One of the primary symptoms of Lyme disease is inflammation, so it’s important not to advance it further by ingesting gluten.)
The Prevalence of Gluten
Common staples of the American diet like bread, pizza, fried foods, cereal, sauces (especially those found in canned or frozen items), processed meats, and beer all contain substantial amounts of gluten. Not only that, but gluten can be found in certain brands of everyday items such as soap, lotion, and toothpaste. Since so many foods and hygiene products contain the protein, the prospect of a gluten-free lifestyle can be overwhelming.
Nicola McFadzean, author and naturopathic doctor, is well acquainted with Lyme disease and tick-borne illnesses, in general. In discussing the monumental task of excluding gluten from your diet, she says, “With Lyme disease, it is almost impossible to wade through the plethora of available diets and information without becoming overwhelmed.” However, she goes on to stress the importance of nutritional awareness and choosing the best diet based on a person’s individual needs: “Food is medicine. It sustains us, nourishes us, and can heal us. It should be one of the most important factors in the treatment program of someone with Lyme disease.”
Making Lyme into Limeade
I have a very large, very close-knit extended family, and when my cousin was initially diagnosed with Lyme disease, we were all extremely concerned about what this meant for her health moving forward. However, by dedicating herself to finding alternative food options that align with her gluten-free diet and making other necessary lifestyle changes, her symptoms have greatly receded. In fact, she and her husband recently welcomed a new baby girl into the family, and they couldn’t be happier.
McFadzean, Nicola. “Nutrition and Lyme Disease.” Townsend Letter. Feb/Mar (2010): 64-65.