Maintaining a healthy diet is essential for recovery from Lyme disease. As the famous Hippocretes once said, “Let medicine be thy food, and food thy medicine.” Food is the fuel that the body uses to rejuvenate, repair, and rebuild itself, so it plays a crucial role in healing. That said, no two people are alike, and while most Lyme-literate healthcare practitioners would probably agree that it’s good to eat some veggies, healthy fats, and organic animal protein, the agreement about what type of diet is best for a person with Lyme disease seems to stop there.
Types of Diets for People with Lyme Disease
There are lots of diets out there, and those that I see most often recommended for those with chronic Lyme disease are usually some version of the paleo, ketogenic, GAPS or anti-histamine diet. There are variations on these such as the autoimmune paleo (AIP) or Wahls Paleo. So how do you know which one (if any) is best for you? Good question. Sometimes, I think the only way to really know is to try them out, and see how you feel. However, I suggest getting guidance from a nutritionist who understands Lyme disease, or at least your local Lyme-literate practitioner, before doing this. Some diets can be dangerous for people with Lyme disease and have unwanted side effects.
Case in point: a couple of years ago, I followed a basic ketogenic diet (which involves consuming high amounts of healthy fat, moderate amounts of protein, and low amounts of carbohydrates). I did this without any professional guidance and instead opted to follow the guidelines found in Jimmy Moore’s book, Keto Clarity.
Bad idea! I felt horrible on this diet; I was fatigued, depressed, brain fogged and weak, my hair fell out, and to this day, I’m not sure way. Perhaps it’s because a gene test revealed that I don’t metabolize fats well. Or maybe it crashed my adrenals. Some ketogenic diets have been rumored to skew the balance of hormones in the body, and I’ve read reports about people who have adrenal fatigue not doing well on them. Or it could have been that the diet wasn’t successful for me because I wasn’t monitoring my ketones close enough and was cycling in and out of ketosis — which can bring on symptoms.
Whatever the case was, either that version of the keto diet was not right for me, or I was doing something wrong.
Despite my experience, ketogenic diets have been shown through much clinical and lab research to be powerful for reducing symptoms of neurological disease, and for being one of the best diets for combating Lyme disease (among other degenerative diseases). Indeed, the widely-respected medical doctor Terry Wahls completely overcame her symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) and got out of her wheelchair largely by following her own version of the ketogenic diet.
Dr. Wahls’ diet differs from other ketogenic diets out there like the Atkins in that, for instance, it allows for the consumption of more carbohydrates from fresh non-starchy vegetables, and encourages the intake of fermented foods, sea vegetables like kelp, organic organ meat, and lots of fat from cononut milk, cream, and oil. Her diet also forbids the consumption of anything artificial, unlike some ketogenic diets, which focus more on the ratio of carbs to protein and fat, regardless of what form those macronutrients might come in.
There are many testimonials about the diet helping to reduce neurological symptoms in people with MS, and I have personally talked to a few people with Lyme disease who have experienced a dramatic reduction in their symptoms as a result of following the diet.
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Dr. Wahls’ clinical research also suggests that her ketogenic diet, also called Wahl’s Paleo Plus, may be a beneficial diet for others with neurological disease. So it may be that some types of ketogenic diet are healthy for some people with Lyme disease, too.
Unless you are working with an expert on any extreme diet like the ketogenic one (and the keto is an extreme diet because it is very low carbohydrate, which most of us are not used to), it can be difficult to know for sure whether you are giving your body what it needs. Diet books all provide general guidelines to follow, along with a section of suggested recipes at the end, but the problem with books is that they don’t take into account each person’s individual biochemistry. A person who might otherwise do well on a ketogenic diet might feel horrible if the food proportions in a particular diet book are tailored to a human being half their size, or if they get those proportions wrong somehow. So, working with someone who is really an expert in diet and Lyme disease is key.
The paleo diet, which basically consists of lots of vegetables, healthy nuts and oils, healthy animal protein, and varying amounts of fruit, has been recommended by some Lyme-literate practitioners, including a few who participated in my book, New Paradigms in Lyme Disease Treatment: 10 Top Doctors Reveal Healing Strategies that Work. And I agree that it is a good one for many of us to follow. Grains and dairy, along with sugary and processed foods that contain artificial ingredients, are generally inflammatory for people with Lyme disease, can cause leaky gut syndrome, and some researchers believe that grains feed the microbes. Even legumes can be problematic.
When I was really sick with Lyme, I couldn’t get away with eating grains and most dairy products and still feel good, even if they were non-gluten. Now, I can do it occasionally, and most other people with Lyme that I’ve met are generally in the same boat. Some of us might do well with some organic goat cheese, kefir, or butter, but that’s about it.
There are different types of paleo diets as well, so again, it’s good to work with an expert to find out which one is best for you — or modify and tailor one of the existing ones to your needs.
With all that said, and despite their track record of effectiveness, it can be difficult for people with Lyme disease to even follow a paleo or ketogenic diet since these diets both recommend vegetables as the main form of carbohydrate (especially the paleo diet). Raw veggies can be difficult for people with Lyme to digest. This is because people with Lyme tend to have low amounts of hydrochloric acid and enzymes in their gut, or other gastrointestinal issues that make the digestion of veggies difficult.
At the same time, vegetables are a crucial component of a healthy diet for most people. So if you feel led to try a paleo or ketogenic diet, you may find it helpful to put your veggies in a blender or lightly steam or sautee them to make them easier to digest. Cooking destroys some of the nutrients, but when you’re really sick, sometimes this is the only way to go. Consuming a portion of your veggies raw and a portion cooked, is also a good way to navigate this issue.
As I mentioned, there are multiple versions of the ketogenic and paleo diet out there, and I’ve found that while each of these diets has a core set of principles, I believe the differences in their versions don’t matter as much as tailoring them to your individual chemistry and health condition does. Veggies may be good for you, but you and your doctor may want to consider other things like your allergies, pH, digestive capability, metabolic type, and specific health challenges, before embarking upon a specific type of diet. Most diet books don’t consider individual chemistry, although some, like the Wahls Paleo, eliminates foods that have proven to be allergenic for most chronically ill people.
In the end, we are all unique, and while diet books can provide great tips and guidelines about the type of diet you would best thrive on, in the end, pay attention to how you feel on any one particular diet, and follow your gut and your doctor’s recommendations above any type of food plan. You may also want to consult New Paradigms in Lyme Disease Treatment to learn more about what types of diet different Lyme-literate doctors recommend.
This article was first published on ProHealth.com on March 14, 2017 and was updated on March 2, 2021.