Nutritionist Lindsay Christensen provides instructions on which foods are most beneficial for those with neurological Lyme disease.
Research has revealed that the bacteria that causes Lyme disease and its associated infections can profoundly affect the brain, including mental health issues and other neurological impairments such as anxiety, depression, meningitis, headaches, and brain fog.
According to a 2021 study, Lyme borreliosis patients have a 42% increased incidence of depression and bipolar disorder and a 75% higher rate of death by suicide compared to people without Lyme disease. (1) The significantly elevated incidence of mental illness and neurological issues in Lyme disease may be related to the extensive inflammation that Borrelia (the bacteria that causes Lyme disease) and other vector-borne pathogens exert in the central nervous system. (2)
Poor nutrition is also a causal factor in mental health disorders and may exacerbate neurological imbalances in Lyme disease. (3) In my clinical experience, I’ve found that optimizing nutrition can often improve neurological Lyme symptoms, including anxiety, depression, brain fog, and neuropathy. Read on to learn how nutrition can improve neurological Lyme symptoms and aid you on your road to recovery!
How Does Lyme Disease Cause Neurological Symptoms?
Numerous scientific articles demonstrate associations between chronic infections and mental health disorders. Lyme disease is no exception! Lyme disease and similar vector-borne infections may trigger mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, and other neurological disorders, including challenges with executive function and neuropathic pain. Neurological symptoms in Lyme disease may stem from the immune system and metabolic changes that occur during infection. (4)
Lyme disease infection can cause neurological dysfunction through several mechanisms, including infection of the meninges and the cerebral blood vessels, infection within the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), and infection outside the central nervous system (CNS) causing inflammation within the CNS. (5) Persistent inflammation from the infection and autoimmunity that develops due to chronic infection can both lead to neurological imbalances. To support mental health, we must do everything we can to quell chronic inflammation and balance the immune system. Nutrition can help substantially!
Let's discuss how nutrition can reduce neuroinflammation, provide the substrates for neurotransmitter production, and heal the gut, which has a significant impact on neurological health through the gut-brain axis.
Food Can Reduce or Provoke Neuroinflammation
The Borrelia bacteria that cause Lyme disease are known to trigger neuroinflammation, defined as an inflammatory response within the brain or spinal cord. Neuroinflammation is mediated by small immune signaling molecules called cytokines and chemokines and by reactive oxygen species (ROS), highly reactive chemicals formed from oxygen. (6) Neuroinflammation contributes to psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and depression, and chronic neuropathic pain; each of these disorders can occur as a result of neuroinflammation in Lyme disease. (7, 8, 9)
Treating chronic infections is essential for calming the neuroinflammatory response. However, nutrition also has a powerful impact on neuroinflammation and can help or hinder healthy nervous system function! For example, when we eat inflammatory foods, such as refined carbohydrates and food additives (10, 11), we send inflammatory signals to our brains that may exacerbate the neurological deficits triggered by Lyme disease. Conversely, by reducing our intake of inflammatory foods, we can better support the healthy functioning of our brains and nervous systems. Dietary changes that can minimize neuroinflammation include:
- Avoiding gluten, which can trigger an inflammatory response that impacts the brain in susceptible individuals (12)
- Avoiding refined carbohydrates (such as added sugars and flour-based foods) and eating nutrient-dense whole food carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, root vegetables, and fruits instead
- Consuming several servings of fatty cold-water fish per week, such as salmon and sardines (13)
- Eating various plant foods with anti-neuroinflammatory properties, such as berries, cruciferous vegetables, and mushrooms. (14, 15, 16)
Supply Nutrients Needed for Neurotransmitter Synthesis
Lyme disease and other vector-borne infections can cause metabolic changes that result in changes in neurotransmitter production. For example, Lyme disease can decrease the production of serotonin, the body's "feel-good" neurotransmitter, and increase levels of quinolinic acid, a neuroinflammatory substance. (17) Our bodies need specific nutrients to make serotonin, including the amino acid tryptophan, vitamin B6, and magnesium. The top food sources of tryptophan include salmon, poultry, and eggs. Top food sources of vitamin B6 include pork, poultry, salmon, tuna, and bananas, whereas magnesium is found in dark leafy greens, avocados, halibut, and various nuts and seeds.
We also need specific nutrients to make many other neurotransmitters, including dopamine, which is involved in motivation, and GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps us relax. Our bodies can’t make these neurotransmitters without the nutritional “building blocks,” so eating a nutrient-dense diet is key for balancing these neurotransmitters.
Support the Gut-Brain Axis
The gut-brain axis is a collection of nerves and signaling molecules that link the enteric nervous system (the system of nerves in your gut) and gut microbiota with your brain. Via the gut-brain axis, the foods we consume interact with our intestinal microenvironment, sending signals from the gut to the brain that ultimately impact our mood and attention, among other brain-related processes. (18) Optimizing gut-brain axis function is crucial for Lyme recovery. You can support your gut-brain axis by:
- Eating fermented foods: Fermented foods contain probiotics and other bioactive compounds that support a healthy gut-brain axis and a resilient mood. (19) Examples of fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, and kefir.
- Avoiding refined sugars: When we eat refined sugars, we promote the growth of certain types of inflammatory gut bacteria. These inflammatory gut bacteria disrupt the gut-brain axis and negatively affect brain function, including memory. (20)
- Consume bone broth: Bone broth, a savory broth typically made from roasted and slow-cooked bones and other collagen-rich animal tissues, supports the gut-brain axis. Bone broth is rich in the amino acid proline, glutamine, and glycine, amino acids that help the integrity of the intestinal barrier or the layer of cells that line the intestines. A robust intestinal barrier is a prerequisite for a well-functioning gut-brain axis. The glycine in bone broth also serves as a precursor to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the body's primary calming neurotransmitter. Lyme disease promotes excitotoxicity (an overactivation of glutamate receptors in the brain) by raising levels of glutamate, a stimulating neurotransmitter that competes with GABA. (21) By increasing GABA, glycine consumption via bone broth may help calm the nervous system and balance brain function.
Nutrition plays an instrumental role in supporting healthy brain function and is a powerful tool for supporting neurological recovery in Lyme disease. You have the power to improve your brain health with the food you consume!
More related blogs:
Opinions Expressed by contributors are their own. Lindsay Christensen, MS, CNS, LDN, CKNS is a Clinical Nutritionist at Ascent to Health and ADAPT Certified Functional Health Coach. If you have Lyme disease and need one-on-one nutrition support, consider working with me in my clinical nutrition practice, Ascent to Health. In my practice, I help clients with Lyme disease restore their energy, mental clarity, and gut health so that they can feel their best and be fully engaged in their lives. In addition, I help my clients uncover the factors standing in the way of a full recovery and optimize their health from the ground up, using science-based functional nutrition and lifestyle strategies.