h1

Learning about Host Microbiology

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Over the past several years of learning about my tick-borne infections, I’ve understood at a very basic levels a few principles. Some are widely known, like that the chemicals that Lyme bacteria produce are neurotoxins which cause neurological symptoms. Removing those toxins is the impetus for doing lots of detoxification. I’ve also known that my intestines house lots of beneficial bacteria that my body needs to digest food and absorb nutrients. So I’ve been religious about consuming probiotic supplements, both during antibiotic treatment and since I stopped.

There have been other hypotheses that I’ve developed along the way as a result of carefully observing my symptoms as well as noting the changes in my body as I continue treatment. For example, I think that Lyme infections slowly change the host. The bacteria modify their environment, much like beavers build river dams, making their environment more conducive to their survival. In the case of Lyme bacteria, it suppresses the host body’s immune response in order to protect itself, while at the same time replacing the function by also suppressing other infectious agents. (While my Lyme disease was very active and debilitating, I never got colds or other respiratory infections, nor did I get stomach flus or fevers.) Another obvious change is that it lowers the host’s body temperature, allowing it to live more comfortably. I think there are other changes as well, but these are two clear examples.

These are the kinds of information and hypotheses I’ve used to guide my treatment, both with antibiotics and with the coil machine. It turns out there is a lot more to know. Fortunately for those of us who are sick today, the work that scientific researchers have been doing over the past decade has reached a point where they have figured out a lot more about the interplay of the beneficial bacteria in our bodies with our immune systems as well as new understanding about how microbes in our guts develop complex colonies that have an effect on chronic illness, nutrition and much more.

From what I’ve read, it seems that all we have are clues, not guidelines, for how to affect the health of our intestinal microbiota. But as I’ve read, I’ve begun to change my understanding of what happened to me when I got sick, what happened when I became disabled by these illnesses, how the various antibiotic treatments both helped and damaged my body, and what I can do about it now.

There are three articles that have had the strongest influence on my thinking.

  • Some of my Best Friends are Germs, Michael Pollan, NY Times Sunday Magazine, 5/15/13
    This article covers the gamut of what scientists have been looking at, from fecal transplants in mice and humans, to breast milk and cultured food which introduce beneficial bacteria to the intestines, to the comparative lack of diversity of intestinal microbiota in developed countries, to the idea that a person’s microbiota is relatively stable starting around age three.
  • Are Happy Gut Bacteria the Key to Weight Loss?, Moises Velasquez-Manoff, Mother Jones Magazine, Jul/Aug 2013
    This article discusses the interplay of inflammation, metabolic syndrome, and the intestinal microbiota. It explains the idea that we can eat to feed certain types of bacteria rather than others in our intestines and influence the make-up of our intestinal microbiota through diet and introducing new bacteria.
  • The Boy with a Thorn in His Joints, Susannah Meadows, NY Times Sunday Magazine, 2/1/13
    This article looks at what happens when intestinal microbiota are disturbed resulting in leaky gut syndrome. It includes information about food sensitivities/allergies, joint inflammation, and what some parents have done to help their children rebuild their bodies.

The Original Tick Bite

My first tick bite was when I was two years old. I think it gave me Bartonella. I don’t think there was any way that anyone in 1977 could have figured out that I had it. Over the years I believe I had a series of flares, each of which went away eventually without treatment. One of the long-term problems I developed was recurrent constipation. From a microbial perspective, I wonder if the Bartonella infection had an impact on my intestinal microbial colonies, possibly introducing something that changed the balance in its favor. I suspect that it was at a level that allowed my body to continue to function, causing problems only during Bartonella flares.

As a child I took my fair share of antibiotics. I wasn’t on them all the time, but took them occasionally, once or twice a year, usually for a respiratory infection. These antibiotics may have reduced the diversity of species that survived in my intestines. Fortunately, I had plenty of opportunities to be outside, especially during the summer, and I had lots of interactions with other people as well as domestic animals. Both of these would have afforded me the unintentional opportunity to replenish the bacterial colonies in my intestines (as well as on my skin and in my respiratory tract).

After the bite of a Lyme-infected Tick

Back in spring 2001, I got bitten by a tick. In the immediate aftermath, I had a “flu” that no one else had. Then it went away. A few months later, I started having problems with my wrists. It looked similar to carpal tunnel, but not quite, and the inflammation and pain went up my arms into my neck. That was the first obvious sign of inflammation. It continued to limit my daily activities until I found an acupuncturist.

Around the time I started going to the acupuncturist, I started having loose bowels. I had night sweats. These were odd symptoms. But they were signs of additional inflammation in my body. They may have been affecting my gut flora, as evidenced by the change in my bowels, but I wasn’t aware of this concept at the time.

Several months later, I got the first inkling that my hormones might be off. I had a really bad period, the kind I’ve described in the past, with lots of digestive tract problems, extreme drop in blood pressure, weakness and vagus nerve symptoms. Within a few weeks, I started to find dark chin hairs. (I called them misplaced eyebrow hairs.) Looking back, I believe that this was the first sign of metabolic problems that would eventually culminate in a diagnosis of PCOS/insulin resistance.

In the article in Mother Jones (see above), there is a strong argument to be made that metabolic syndrome and the associated disorders are caused by chronic inflammation. One source may be from the intestinal tract, like poor diet, lack of diversity in the intestinal microbiota or leaky gut syndrome (all three of which may be related to each other). The metabolic syndrome comes from the body attempting to fight off the cause of the chronic inflammation, and at the same time reinforcing the inflammation, as it attempts to protect the body. Over time, this process wears out all of the body’s reserves. Meanwhile, the normal maintenance and upkeep of all the body symptoms are put on hold.

Now, in my case, I suspect a similar process was at play, only it wasn’t poor diet that was causing chronic inflammation. It was at least one chronic infection, but maybe all three that I know I have were active.

Then over the next several years, my body valiantly tried to suppress or eradicate the Lyme infection and the Bartonella infection whenever it was active. During this time, my body was subject to chronic inflammation. In the first few years, I think the acupuncturist gave my body a boost, slowing down the damage caused by the infections and the inflammation, but when he moved and I stopped seeing him, I began a downward slide.

With the chronic infections and inflammation, my body slowly used up its reserves. I started having bouts of fatigue. I was experiencing intense emotions, such as being easily aggravated, more frequently. I started having cognitive issues, like the inability to make decisions. My menstrual cycle was getting worse and causing illness more frequently, rather than a few times a year. Towards the end of this period of time, I started gaining weight.

I reached a point where I knew something was about to give. I was considering taking a leave of absence from my job. I wasn’t sure why I got so stressed so easily. But I could tell that I couldn’t continue the way I was going.

From the tick bite to the point where I used up every last bit of my reserves was almost 6 years. During that time, I think the infections were making large changes in the way my body worked, making my body a more accommodating host.

During that time, I took no antibiotics for any reason. Even without them, I think the tick-borne infections had a significant impact on my intestinal flora as part of their way of suppressing my immune system. In addition, the chronic inflammation made my body more susceptible to external stressors, from NYC subway pollution to office politics to the upcoming episode of food poisoning.

End of Part 1

Over the next few posts, I’ll continue to look back at my history of tick-borne illness and treatment revaluating the events and observations with what I’m learning about the human microbiota. At the end, I’ll discuss what I’ve done and will do over the next few months to remedy the damage my body has endured.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: