No longer an illness constrained to isolated areas of North America or Britain, Lyme disease has become an epidemic. Lyme disease is now found in all 50 states in the US and the District of Columbia, as well as across Canada.
A report released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that cases of Lyme in the US increased more than 80 percent between 2004 and 2016. In the UK, cases of the disease quadrupled between the years 2000 and 2011, and the National Health Service (NHS) estimates there are now up to 3,000 new cases of Lyme disease each year in England and Wales.
And these are just the reported cases. The CDC estimates there are more than 300,000 cases of Lyme infection in the US each year, as many as 10 times more than are reported.
The black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis), also known as the deer tick, carries the bacteria that cause Lyme infection (Borrelia burgdorferi) as well as the less-common tick-borne diseases, Babesia and Powassan. Early signs of a tick bite that carries Lyme are flu-like symptoms, fever, chills, headache, aches and pains, sore throat and fatigue.
The hallmark of a Lyme-infected tick bite is a large, red rash shaped like a bullseye—a ring around a central spot—that can get larger over time. If treated within 36 to 48 hours, it is considered highly unlikely that Lyme disease will develop.
If not treated with antibiotics, a person's symptoms can progress to include arthritis and severe joint pain and swelling, particularly of the knees, plus rashes, stiff neck, severe headaches, brain fog, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, irregular heartbeat, partial facial paralysis, shooting pains, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet.
Curing the incurable
In up to 20 percent of patients, symptoms such as fatigue, pain and joint and muscle aches persist even after treatment. Labeled post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS) or chronic Lyme disease, this condition has no clearly established clinical symptoms or definition.
Because of this, and because the diagnosis has been used to describe symptoms even in people with no history of B. burgdorferi infection, many doctors still don't believe the condition exists. Yet, animal studies (which may not necessarily apply to humans) show that mice can remain infected with B. burgdorferi after antibiotic treatment, and those that begin treatment during the chronic stage of the infection are especially vulnerable to continued infection.1
For Lyme infections that are diagnosed early, a short course of oral antibiotics such as doxycycline or amoxicillin is effective for the majority of cases. If there is no response in the short term, antibiotics are usually prescribed for up to a month.
Unfortunately, if symptoms continue to persist past that time, studies show that antibiotics are contraindicated and possibly even dangerous to administer. Until recently, in these cases of chronic Lyme disease, the recommended mainstream therapeutic options have been limited to cognitive behavioral therapy and low-impact aerobic exercise programs.2
But researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have now made the groundbreaking discovery that several essential oils may be effective in alleviating Lyme symptoms that continue past standard antibiotic treatment.
Derived from plants, essential oils are concentrated 'hydrophobic' liquids—meaning they don't dissolve in water—which contain volatile chemical compounds.
Essential oils are very unstable, and their components can quickly deteriorate.Aromatherapy, which is mostly associated with these oils, is an integrative holistic practice utilizing essential oils that are extracted in various ways, mostly via steam distillation.
Ying Zhang, MD, PhD, a professor in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Bloomberg School, and his colleagues have been testing panels of essential oils for their ability to kill the "persister" form of the Lyme disease bacterium—the type that remains lurking in the immune system once the disease becomes chronic.
So far, they've identified a number of oils that, even at low concentrations, outperform the antibiotic daptomycin, one of the standard treatments for persistent Lyme. As Zhang put it, "We found that these essential oils were even better at killing the 'persister' forms of Lyme bacteria than standard Lyme antibiotics."
In their first study, published in 2017, they discovered that oregano, clove and cinnamon bark essential oils were able to eradicate B. burgdorferi even at low concentrations. A follow-up study published in 2018 added 10 more oils to the list, which could wipe out the pathogen even when diluted to as little as one part per thousand.3
The top-performing oils in that study were extracted from garlic, myrrh trees, thyme leaves, allspice berries, cumin seeds, lemon eucalyptus, May chang, scented rush, Amyris wood and spiked ginger lily blossom. "At this stage, these essential oils look very promising as candidate treatments for persistent Lyme infection," says Zhang. "But ultimately we need properly designed clinical trials."
The research is being hailed as a breakthrough, and some websites are already making excited claims that using these essential oils can "cure Lyme disease in eight days." However, Robert Tisserand, international speaker, essential oil consultant and founder of the Tisserand Institute in London, says that while the findings are promising, it's definitely not appropriate to start making wild statements.
"I don't want people to run off with the idea that this is a cure in the same way that frankincense oil has got a reputation for being a cancer cure," he says. "But people tend to run with these things because I think there is a disconnect between many people's concept of what aromatherapy can do and what it can actually do."
Tisserand emphasizes that, scientifically, there's no evidence yet that any one particular essential oil can 'cure' any disease. This, of course, does not mean essential oils don't have healing properties—they do. And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies to prove it. On the other hand, he says, there are far too many people marketing essential oils who will make almost any claim to sell a product.
"Clearly we're not seeing things equally here," he says. "The truth is somewhere in the middle. For example, I like the evidence for peppermint oil and irritable bowel disease. The clinical trials have been going on since 1977, and the evidence is pretty strong."
As exciting as Zhang's findings are, Tisserand recommends caution and says further studies are necessary. "With a systemic infection like Lyme disease, there are all these questions that need to be taken into account. What do you need to take? How much do you need to take? What do you need to take it with? Should it be micro-encapsulated? Should it be taken with vegetable oil? What's the best way to deliver? It's the same process when any drug is developed. People have to figure out what actually works."
Contrary to popular opinion, essentials oils are not simply 'feel-good' products to be trifled with. Most of the oils identified by the Johns Hopkins team have been used medicinally for thousands of years. Their effects are complex, wide-ranging and potent.
Cumin, for example, has shown promise in aiding patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and lowering blood sugar, insulin and cholesterol levels, and in rats, it was able to reduce their stress response and stimulate faster mental recall.4
Overall, the list of health conditions that essential oils have shown effectiveness in treating is quite extensive. For example, sweet orange oil has been successfully used as an acute anti-anxiety remedy.5 Peppermint oil mixed with ethanol reduces headache pain and, when combined with eucalyptus oil, increases cognitive function and relaxation in the muscles.6
Chamomile oil is a traditional Persian remedy for pain relief, now thought to relieve migraines.7 Lavender oil is well known to improve sleep quality8 and has shown anti-inflammatory effects in test tube and animal studies.9 The essential oil of the cade or prickly juniper also reduces inflammation in laboratory studies.10
Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) oil has excellent antimicrobial properties, and was shown to protect mice against oral candidiasis.11 Lemon grass oil and basil oil are highly antimicrobial as well and have
proven effective against various bacteria including staph infections.12
And while no specific essential oil is a cure for cancer, a number of essential oils have shown anticancer activity. Most promising so far has been the discovery that some essential oils can increase the effectiveness of commonly used chemotherapy drugs, including paclitaxel and docetaxel. They also show immune-strengthening functions in cancer patients.13 Boswellic acid, which is derived from the resin of frankincense (not the essential oil of frankincense), has shown some antitumor effects in test tube studies of colorectal cancer and other cancers.14
One of the reasons it is so difficult to conduct research on essential oils and get reliable, replicable results is that even high-grade oils can have variations in their content. Where the plants used in making essential oils have been grown affects the chemistry of the oil when distilled.
If the same species of plant is grown at different temperature or humidity levels, the resulting essential oils will have slightly different chemical components. The same plant grown at different elevations will also produce different chemicals that end up in the end product—known as 'chemotypes.' Light conditions, oxygen content, storage conditions, the part of the plant used, the temperature it is exposed to—all affect the oil.
Gas chromatography in combination with mass spectrometry (GCMS)—a method to quantify the specific molecules in a substance based on their weight and chemical properties—is the preferred technique to identify the individual compounds that make up an essential oil.
Linda Anne Kahn, a San Diego-based certified clinical aromatherapist, lymphatic drainage therapist and holistic health practitioner, is clear that essential oils, at least at this juncture, have not been proven to cure Lyme. "But they can support the system as the body is working and fighting against Lyme disease. And there are many different treatments."
She says that rosemary is excellent for mitigating the mental confusion and brain fog that comes with Lyme, as is sweet basil. Rosemary is also helpful for the fatigue it triggers, while cinnamon is excellent for parasites, she says, and tea tree oil and oil of thyme have antimicrobial and antifungal properties that are effective for dealing with co-infections.
For neuropathy in the extremities, Kahn works with chamomile and peppermint. She claims that lemon balm, also called melissa, is particularly important for Lyme patients because it is antiviral as well as being a nervine (a substance that calms the nerves) that helps to stabilize moods.
Individualized treatment is essential. "I choose my essential oils depending on what symptoms that particular client is having, and I don't use the same oils every time," Kahn says. "I ask what specific areas of the body have been problematic for that week, and then I make up a blend. Any good aromatherapist will work that way."
How the oils work
Every odor you can detect has a receptor site on the cilia, the hairs in your nose. There are over 20 million nerve receptors in the human nose, and as you inhale the scent of the oil, the receptors are activated.
From there, an electrical signal travels via the olfactory nerve directly to the limbic system of the brain. When it gets there, it triggers thoughts, memories, feelings and emotions—a whole cascade of biochemical and neurochemical responses specific to the individual essential oil.
As the brain secretes these neurochemicals, they affect different systems of the body, such as the pituitary gland, the so-called 'master gland' of the body that regulates growth, sexual function and metabolism, as well as brain areas like the hypothalamus and amygdala, all of which can have major impacts, psychologically and emotionally.
Essential oils can also, of course, be absorbed through the skin and then travel through the bloodstream to all the body organs. "Some of the oils are specific to certain organs," says holistic health practitioner and aromatherapist Linda Anne Kahn.
"Some oils actually balance the hormones, like clary sage and sage. Other oils, for example blue chamomile, contain sesquiterpenes—anti-inflammatory compounds produced by plants and insects as chemical defense agents. You can use them for skin disorders such as psoriasis and eczema, wounds and other irritations."
Holistic Lyme protocol
Certified aromatherapist, holistic health practitioner and lymphedema therapist Linda Anne Kahn uses an integrative approach to treating Lyme and chronic Lyme conditions.
"As a lymphedema therapist, I believe working with the lymphatic system is absolutely crucial when working with Lyme disease," she says, largely because patients can experience a Herxheimer reaction, which involves detox symptoms that occur with the death of the Lyme bacteria, along with some co-infections and yeast. "And lymphatic drainage can have an anti-inflammatory effect and mitigate the symptoms."
Kahn strongly recommends working with an experienced, certified aromatherapist. "Internal use of essential oils through the mouth has to be done very, very cautiously," she warns. "The person administering really needs to understand what they're doing. And the dosage totally depends upon the client."
The essential oils she currently recommends most commonly for working with Lyme for antiviral and antibacterial support are: lemon balm (melissa), thyme, clove, oregano, tea tree, frankincense and cinnamon.
Dosages vary from client to client, but in general these can be taken orally in the following manner: one drop of each of these essential oils three times daily for one week in a vegetable capsule with olive oil or chlorella powder. Skip a week and then see how you feel. If symptoms persist, repeat for one more week and then stop. Do not just continue taking the oils indiscriminately.
In conjunction with the essential oils, Kahn recommends weekly manual lymph drainage, which will have an anti-inflammatory effect and can lower cortisol, often elevated in Lyme patients. Lymph drainage also induces a deep state of relaxation.
With one Lyme patient, she offered lymph drainage and an oil blend to place on her solar plexus for use during a morning meditation and whenever she felt panic attacks and anxiety coming on.
For chronic Lyme sufferers, Linda Anne Kahn recommends individualized blends of essential oils along with supporting the lymph system
Additional Lyme support treatments
• Colon hydrotherapy weekly
• Infrared saunas, daily if possible. If not, then weekly
• Epsom salt baths
• Dry brushing with a natural brush to stimulate lymph flow, improve circulation, exfoliate skin and help with detoxification
• Eliminating gluten from the diet
• Eliminating sugar
'How oils cured my lymphedema'
Patricia B. of San Diego was 41 years old when she was diagnosed with lymphedema (a swelling of the arms and/or legs) in 1988. At that time, many doctors were unfamiliar with the condition, and most had never heard of lymphatic massage, also called lymphatic drainage or manual lymph drainage, a technique developed in Germany.
On and off for the next 12 years, Patricia says she experienced multiple cases of cellulitis infection, ending up in the emergency room with greatly swollen lower extremities. Twice she almost died from the infections.
Then in 1999, after reading about a New York clinic that was treating lymphedema, Patricia discovered a practitioner in San Diego. "I firmly believe that had I not found Linda Anne Kahn and not been under her care for the last 19 years," she says, "I would have died."
Patricia's particular type of lymphedema was complicated. But she says that between the lymphatic drainage and the essential oils Linda Anne recommended, her health dramatically improved. "I have been using essential oils daily, and my health has never been better, even though I am 72 years old and have had this progressive condition for 31 years."
Kahn recommended juniper oil for her kidneys and lymph nodes, and lavender for treating her skin and for relaxation and headache. Peppermint was suggested to assist her breathing, lemon in water to aid in circulation, cedar wood for relaxation and tea tree to guard against infection. Patricia also uses spray diffusers with diluted essential oils in her home.
"I rarely have the dreaded cellulitis infections anymore," she says. "I'm sleeping better, do not get colds, my skin is healthier, I have not had stomach problems and rarely have headaches!"
How to reduce your risk of getting Lyme disease
• When hiking, use insect repellent on exposed skin.
• Try to steer clear of long grasses and stay on the trails.
• Even in hot weather, if you're going to be in a wooded area or fields where there is a known deer population, wear long-sleeve shirts and trousers. Tuck your pant legs into your socks.
• Wear light-colored clothes that can help you to spot ticks before they make skin contact.
• At the end of your hike, inspect for ticks and remove them promptly. Be sure to go over your hair and scalp.
• If you have pets, go over them thoroughly with a flea/tick comb. Be sure to check folds around the ear and between their toes.
• Be sure to check your children's head and neck areas, including their scalp.
Proper tick removal method
Using fine-tipped tweezers, grasp the tick as closely to the skin surface as possible and pull upward gently and slowly. Do not jerk, as the tick's head might separate from its body and remain embedded in your skin. If the tick's head breaks off in the skin, clean the area with rubbing alcohol and use a sterile needle to dig the head out. Clean the entire bite area and your hands afterwards with rubbing alcohol, iodine, or soap and water.
What else essential oils do
The essential oils that have been found to kill the Lyme bacteria have other medical applications. Most of these plants have long histories of medicinal use. There have not been sufficient studies to show exactly what compounds from each plant are effective for specific disease conditions, what exact mechanisms are involved, what dosages are appropriate or what their long-term effects are, but here's what we do know so far:
Oregano (Origanum vulgare): Oregano essential oil is antimicrobial and has potent antibacterial effects against multidrug-resistant strains of bacteria.1 It is also an antioxidant and, at least in animals, has been shown to modulate pain and inflammation.2
Cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum cassia or C. zeylanicum): Cinnamaldehyde, the active ingredient in cinnamon, is a potent antioxidant. It also has anti-inflammatory effects, improves glucose control in diabetics and has antimicrobial activity against bacteria, fungi and yeast. Cinnamon has also been reported to protect against cardiovascular disease, and may hold potential for the prevention or treatment of neurological disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.3
Clove (Syzygium aromaticum): Clove essential oil is an effective antimicrobial agent for external use and oral infections.4 It is also useful in oil blends intended to relieve pain.5
However, note that clove oil can be very irritating to the skin. Tisserand recommends using a maximum concentration of just 0.5 percent.
Garlic (Allium sativum L.) bulbs: Compounds in garlic have antimicrobial effects and are thought to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases as well as treat them. It is also thought to be potentially useful as an anti-tumor agent. Scientific studies indicate that eating garlic can lower blood pressure, aid in the prevention of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), and reduce blood cholesterol and triglycerides.6
Allspice berries (Pimenta officinalis Lindl): Ericifolin, a compound found in allspice, silences receptors for androgen (a male sex hormone) in prostate cancer. In test tube studies, it was found to delay tumor growth, inhibit tumor cell proliferation and colony formation, and trigger cell death.7
Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha): The aromatic gum resin of the myrrh tree has traditionally been used to treat inflammatory diseases, stomach complaints, skin infections and pain. It has also been used for cleaning wounds and sores. Studies show that myrrh has anti-inflammatory, anesthetic and antimicrobial effects.8
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris L.): Used medicinally for thousands of years, thyme is thought to have antimicrobial, cough-suppressing, antispasm and antioxidant properties, but there have been few clinical trials testing its efficacy. Thymol, a constituent of thyme, is added to antiseptic mouthwashes to help reduce plaque formation and gingivitis. Studies have shown that thyme has anti-inflammatory effects as well as antimicrobial activity against multidrug-resistant E. coli.9
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum L.): An ancient medicinal plant, the spice cumin has been widely used to treat digestive problems. Studies have shown that cumin may have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, pain-relieving and fever-reducing effects.10 It also helps with weight loss and lowering body mass index, reducing blood levels of fasting cholesterol, triglycerides, and low-density lipoproteins (LDL, the 'bad' cholesterol) and increasing high-density lipoproteins (HDL, the 'good' kind).11
Amyris wood (Amyris balsamifera): Amyris has been reported to relieve inflammation in skin diseases.12