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Is it Lyme disease or COVID-19? Research finds shared symptoms and treatments

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Inflammation may seem like a simple concept: you notice it when your knee swells, feels hot to the touch, and hurts as you walk. Your body is outwardly responding to stress. But chronic inflammation is not so easily seen, felt, or understood.

Both COVID-19 and Lyme disease can be classified as chronic, inflammatory diseases, according to the CDC. The organization has raised the question of whether COVID-19 has created a "new group of patients with chronic disease." Their uncertainty simply calls for more research.

COVID-19 and Lyme disease can present similar physical symptoms, such as fatigue, headaches, and brain fog; and they can share physiological characteristics, such as low antioxidant levels and activated inflammatory pathways.

Treatments that target the physiological imbalances first are treating the source of physical symptoms. If symptoms persist, that means inflammation persists -- but which types of inflammation, specifically? And why does inflammation often persist despite treatment? 

These are questions explored by Dr. Richard Horowitz, a leading Lyme disease specialist and board-certified internist, who has researched extensively on Lyme disease, COVID-19, and their overlapping relationship. Dr. Horowitz recently lead a presentation for the PA Lyme Resource Network on the subject.

If a lyme patient remains symptomatic despite antibiotic treatment, then initial treatments either didn't kill all of the bacteria, or the infection caused an "auto-immune response," according to Dr. Horowitz. With both possibilities, inflammation remains.

According to Dr. Horowitz, a patient can see a wide range of inflammatory symptoms such as gut imbalance, migratory nerve pain, fatigue, brain fog -- many of which we associate with Lyme. Simply put, then, think of inflammation as the primary symptom of Lyme disease.

Just as is there isn't one indicator of inflammation from a chronic disease, there isn't one solution to treating it. Dr. Horowitz recommends multiple techniques to target multiple sources of inflammation in the body; and many of those sources are seen in both Lyme disease and COVID-19 patients.

A leading cause of COVID-19 long-hauler's and chronic Lyme disease is glutathione deficiency, according to Dr. Horowitz. Levels can be checked with a simple blood test. An immunology study on COVID-19 patients revealed "highly statistically significant" low levels in COVID-19 patients. Low glutathione correlated to high inflammation in the body.

The first study on glutathione therapy among COVID-19 patients, published in April 2020, proved successful in treating acute, or early-onset, COVID-19. Within one hour of taking glutathione, patients of the study saw symptom improvements: less fatigue, less headaches, less respiratory issues. 

In Lyme patients, an inflammatory pathway known as NF-KB is active. Research studies have shown that taking antioxidants--such as glutathione--can block this NF-KB pathway and move toward "detox pathways."

One of these detox pathways is known as Nrf2, which Horowitz recommends feeding with "nutraceuticals"--a technical term for medicinal food, the kind touted by the wellness community. Think curcumin, also known as turmeric; think glucosinolate, or broccoli seed extract; think EGCG, or green tea. 

These products are largely unregulated, food-derived, pharmaceutical alternatives. But, according to Horowitz, and to peer-viewed, highly cited research, they really work.

Some recommendations are neither new nor controversial: Vitamin C helps; Zinc helps; melatonin, too (in low doses.) Horowitz once conducted a study on his Lyme patients that found zinc deficiency in 18 percent of his patients. Zinc activates "killer cells," said Horowitz. Less zinc would mean greater susceptibility to pathogens.

The same applies to COVID-19, which has been linked to zinc deficiency. Patients with low zinc levels fared far worse than patients with normal levels: greater mortality, increased hospitalization, more complications.

"Honestly, in this day and age, getting hundreds of thousands of environmental toxins into your body every day, I believe that everyone on this planet should be on NAC and glutathione," said Horowitz, who then added that there are very few proven side effects of the drugs. Horowitz also takes 1 to 1.5 milligrams of Melatonin every night to block inflammatory pathways.

The scientific community is often seen at odds with popularized, self-medication methods--hence the term "alternative medicine." Horowitz' ideas appear to be blurring these lines, or more likely, they were always closely allied. The goal is the same. The challenge is confidence in methods.

The medical community has yet to propose formal recommendations backing these alternative methods for the treatment of chronic Lyme or COVID-19 long hauler's, but the science itself supports their role in the treatment of chronic inflammation.

All of the mentioned supplements are readily accessible as an over-the-counter drug. However, remember to always consult your physician prior to starting a new health regimen.

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