Gut Issues and the hidden connection to tick borne infections

Do you suffer from chronic gut issues of bloating/gas, abdominal pain, constipation, food intolerance, irritable bowel movements and weight loss or gain? Maybe you should consider whether a tick related illness might be the cause.

Here in Sydney it’s nearly summer and unfortunately that means tick season. Living in a bushy area of Sydney that problem is made worse by hot dry and occasionally moist conditions. As a result tick borne infections are on the increase along with increasing chronic gut issues.

What are ticks and what do they cause?

Ticks are parasites that feed on the blood of humans and animals. They are small ranging from microscopic (nymph stage) to the size of a black sesame seed (adult stage). Ticks burrow part way into the skin, bite, draw blood, and then drop off. The feeding tick’s mouth will be under the skin, but the back parts will be sticking out. When they are full of blood or engorged they are usually blue-grey in colour.

Engorged tick

Tick after sucking blood

But it is not just the immediate effect of the bite or the toxin they inject. Many of them carry bacteria, viruses or other pathogens that cause disease in humans and/or animals. They are called vectors (carriers) because they can feed on a Lyme disease-infected animal (such as a mouse, bandicoot or deer), then subsequently they carry and transmit the Lyme bacterium (Borrelia burgdorferi) to the next animal or person they bite.

If they are not found immediately and removed, it takes an infected tick 4 to 6 hours to spread disease to the new host. Symptoms can run the gamut from temporary fever and aches to severe, lasting and debilitating pain and problems throughout the whole body.

Please note: Not all tick bites lead to serious disease infections but a tell tale clue is found when the inflammation forms a bulls eye pattern rather than just general swelling and redness. However only about 50% of infected individuals show the characteristic inflammation pattern and a similar number don’t recall a tick bite at all.

Lymes disease

                                                                                                            Bull’s eye inflammation

What diseases are connected to ticks?

Lyme disease is the most well known. It is hard to diagnose as the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease are found in other conditions. Sometimes it can take years to find out what is causing the different digestive and muscle symptoms.

  1. Antibiotics are the only proven treatment for Lyme disease. The usual treatment is a 2 to 4 week course of antibiotics especially if the infection is diagnosed and treated right away.
  2. But after treatment, as many as 40% of patients end up with chronic problems such as muscle aches and fatigue, consult multiple doctors and suffer for years before getting a proper diagnosis. The cause of these continuing symptoms, known as post-Lyme disease syndrome, is unknown and treating with more antibiotics doesn’t help. Some experts believe that certain people who get Lyme disease are predisposed to develop an autoimmune response that contributes to their symptoms. More research is needed.
  3. Other diseases passed on by ticks include relapsing fever, tularemia, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF), Q fever, and anaplasmosis.

How do tick infections affect gut health?

When you are infected by a tick borne disease, the immune system is invaded with a tiny microorganism called a spirochete that hides in the tissues of the body. As a result there can develop a constant state of infection which causes ongoing inflammation and immune system failures. Because over 70% of the immune system its in the lining the gut, this can lead to digestive and systemic symptoms that range from uncomfortable to debilitating.

Because the parasites are hard to eliminate from one short-term prescription of antibiotics, often a multiple course of antibiotics is prescribed. This in turn further compromises the gut bacteria and could possibly lead to

  • “leaky gut” (increased intestinal permeability) allowing pathogens to increase in numbers and toxicity
  • Antibiotic associated diarrhoea
  • Allergic reactions such as hives or swelling of the throat
  • Dysbiosis or imbalance of good and bad bacteria
  • Urinary symptoms with overgrowth of Candida
  • Nausea, vomiting and stomach

Treatment for possible tick related illness

  1. Avoid being bitten again by ticks if you are in an area known to be a hotspot. Dress with appropriate tick protection clothing (long sleeves and pants) and use a protective spray on clothing and shoes
  2. Consider having your garden and yard treated with a synthetic pyrethrum to prevent ticks attaching themselves to animals.
  3. Try a natural antibiotic such as thyme or oregano oil after a tick bite and bad allergic reaction. For internal use, only take 2 to 4 drops twice daily for up to 10 days. Also a regular intake of raw garlic of up to 2 cloves per day is antibacterial and antiparasitic
  4. Avoid gluten if you suspect you have a gluten intolerance as after a tick bite this could increase inflammation and digestive symptoms of bloating, stomach pain, constipation/diarrhoea, food intolerances.
  5. Go on an elimination diet where you eliminate the foods you think are causing problems and then reintroduce them after 3 weeks one by one to see if they are causing you problems.
  6. Colloidal silver has been anecdotally touted as one possible long term cure with anti microbial, antibacterial and antiparasitic effects. But it is controversial and has not been backed up by research.

Summary

So finally if you are experiencing unexplained or persistent digestive issues, consider ruling out tick borne infections as a possible underlying cause. Be particularly suspicious if in the past you had a tick biting for longer than 6 hours or if you have had a telltale bull’s eye skin reaction.

[1] Horowitz, Richard I. Why Can’t I Get Better? Solving the Mystery of Lyme & Chronic Disease. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2013. (382).

[2] Rahbar FS. GI Manifestations and Treatment Options in Lyme and Common Co-Infections. 2015. Available at http://zenilads.s3.amazonaws.com/ilads-2015-ftlauderdale/html/rahbar.html.