Herbal Alternatives to Antibiotics in Treating Lyme Disease

Stephen Harrod Buhner is a master herbalist, psychotherapist and award-winning author of
ten books on nature, indigenous cultures, the environment, and herbal medicine. His 2005 book, Healing Lyme, examines the research done on the disease and is considered an essential guide to understanding Lyme infection and its treatment. The book offers an herbal protocol for treating Lyme that can be used in conjunction with antibiotics and other protocols. I spoke with Stephen on November 30, 2006.

Okay, hi. We're here with Stephen Harrod Buhner, and you are the author of Healing Lyme: Natural Healing and Prevention of Lyme Borreliosis and Its Coinfections.  

I am. Thanks for having me here.

You're welcome. Well, I wanted to know, I know you did extensive research on this disease going into the book, and that you also are known as a person who focuses on herbal and alternative medicine. Did you have a feeling about Lyme patients themselves, and what is the most important thing for them to know?

Well, the primary thing that I, it's a kind of a complicated, when you get into Lyme you're dealing with a very complicated thing. It's not like any other disease system I've ever worked with. And the main reason that I say that is because of how the conservative mainstream medical community approaches Lyme.

I mean, I'm used to them not thinking very expansively about disease, and I'm used to them not thinking very much about wellness, and so that part was true, but the most difficult part was they have such a strange mindset about Lyme disease they almost seem to view the whole Lyme community as an enemy rather than as a group of people that needs help. So, oddly enough, by the end of focusing so extensively on Lyme and looking at it the primary that I got to at the end, the most important thing for Lyme patients is an acknowledgment of the kind of condition that they've got.

I think probably the most difficult thing Lyme patients have to deal with is the lack of understanding in the medical community and how they're treated by the medical community. So many of them are told it's all in their heads. So many of them are misdiagnosed. So many of them are told that after they do a regular course of antibiotics they should be well, and if they aren't, well, then that's their problem, it's something wrong with them, mentally.

And, so that's the primary thing that I found that was most essential in the book. And one of the biggest  challenges in the book was writing it in such a way that the disease is demystified, that the adversarial-ness that is so present in medical treatment about it was removed. And yet, at the same time, I kind of had standing behind me as I wrote the book three people: a conservative medical physician, a conservative alternative medicine practitioner and an activist Lyme patient.

I wanted to try to get the book to approach all three, because one of the primary things I wanted to do was just give really good in-depth information about the disease so that it just wasn't so grandiose anymore and that physicians could actually use it to educate themselves. So anyway, that's the primary thing that I really felt was necessary for Lyme patients was somebody who said yes, this is a real condition, it works because of this, and it's not all in your head.

I have to say, as a person struggling with Lyme, I really dug into those parts where you describe in detail for the lay-person how the Lyme bacteria does its thing. At first I thought, uh-oh, here's comes the gross-out factor, I don't know if I'm ready for this, you know, graphic descriptions of what's going on. But it was fascinating to read about how the spirochete behaves. How long did it take you to learn about the spirochete, and how did you learn about the life cycle of the spirochete?

Well what I did was, and that's another area that was kind of odd for me, in that, I reviewed about a thousand articles, peer-reviewed scientific journal articles on Lyme disease, and the spirochete. And especially helpful was the tremendous work that the epidemiologists have done, and they're almost the only people whose work I found had no political agenda at all. I mean, the medical physicians have a tremendous political agenda, which affects their work.

So, I have the luxury, because of the way I've designed my life, is when something interests me, I can devote myself full time to it. And Wendy Leffel, the physician that wrote the foreward, that's one of the things she mentioned, is that as a physician she's just to busy to research Lyme and there's no definitive text on Lyme disease, in print in the world. Mine comes the closest, which it shouldn't. I mean, there should be an extremely good, very complex medical research text on it and there's just not.

So, I was able to take off pretty much a year of time, and devote myself completely and utterly to studying the Lyme spirochete, what it does, and to read every piece of research that I could get my hands on, and so up to the moment the book went to print, I was able to do that. And of course, there's going to continue to be new material coming out, but basically I immersed myself in the study of the spirochete and what it does in the body and I pretty much didn't do anything else for about a year.

Well, it comes through in the clear descriptions. I have to think, when we have such an ancient organism, the spirochete has been around forever, and yet so little is still known about it. And you mentioned that there were six things, you name six things that you discovered about Lyme after a long and intensive search. You discovered there is something very strange going on with Lyme disease. I wondered what do you think that is? I haven't finished the book yet, so forgive me.

Well, primarily, it's that it's the first, well, I didn't actually study AIDS, that came out, and I haven't done much work on that, that came out, the recognition of AIDS in the late 70s. It was called the “gay flu” for awhile, and all kinds of strange names because they didn't know what it was.

The major thing that's really strange about it is that there's such incredibly good research information from epidemiologists and other researchers about the spirochete, and what it does, and how it acts, and everything, and nevertheless, the mainstream medical community is completely, for the most part, unaware of any of that research. They don't know anything about it, so there's this huge disconnect between the research arm of medical practice and the medical practitioners themselves. And that is very strange.

The only other disease where I'm aware that that occurred is with AIDS, and there's still significant problems within certain parts of AIDS treatment and research that there's a huge disconnect.

But in Lyme it's phenomenal, you've got, what, 200,000 people a year becoming infected. The diagnosis rates are extremely low. And the diagnosis dynamics themselves are extremely poor. Treatment outcomes for this disease are extremely poor using antibiotics. I tend to think of it as roughly about 50% of the people that take antibiotics will get well, but that's only 50% of the people that are diagnosed, and diagnosis is not even at 50% of those infected.

And the doctors are completely and utterly as a group, hostile, to understanding Lyme and its treatment. And that doesn't make any sense to me. I mean, why this disease? And why that incredibly strong, knee-jerk response? It doesn't make sense that the research is there, but nevertheless it's not been put into comprehensive form, and the doctors just basically don't want to know about it. And I find that extremely strange.

Then at the same time, they've got this massive group of ill people who say, “No I still don't feel right.  Something's wrong.” And doctors as an entire group are saying, “Well, that's your fault. It doesn't have anything to do with us.” That just doesn't make sense to me.

You talk about, in your book, that it's okay for patients to use your protocols and use the herbs that you explain very well in the book along with antibiotics, if they're using those. But you don't talk very much about other alternative therapies, and I wondered about the dangers. Is it okay for patients to use your protocols while they're on other types of protocols?

There isn't any reason that I'm aware of that somebody with Lyme who is using Rife machines for instance, or any of the other different approaches, can't use the protocol at the same time. There's a kind of a thing, and I think that it tends to come mostly from exposure to conservative medical practice. Oh, get off of everything else, there's no telling what that's doing and just do the antibiotics.

The United States is the only country on earth where this kind of fear about different medical approaches is so incredibly rampant. It's not true in Europe, it's not true in China, certainly, in Asia, it's not true in Africa. So it's this one country where we've been trained to do that and I think that kind of uncertainty translates across in a lot of different areas.

So, as far as I know at this point, and I have fairly extensive exposure to people doing a lot of different things, there's no reason why you can't do pretty much whatever you want along with the protocol. I note contraindications for the herbs along with pharmaceutical protocol in there, but it shouldn't interact in any strange way with any other protocol people use.

That's good. Okay. It's interesting about the United States being the only country who uses antibiotics to the extent that we do. I talk to a lot of doctors and health care practitioners. Some of them seem to, especially the ones who are in the alternative fields, really feel like there's sort of an awakening going on. Do you see any other evidence of that? An awakening in mainstream medicine? Or do you feel that Lyme patients just doomed to fight this battle that we chose simply because we got sick?

Well, the thing about people that use other healing approaches than technological medicine. We see three primary types, well maybe four primary types of people:

People with colds and flu, because technological medicine doesn't work well with that. Women's reproductive problems, because technological medicine doesn't work well with that. People with long-term chronic disease conditions, because pharmaceuticals don't usually work well with that. And people with terminal diseases such as cancer, because pharmaceutical medicine sometimes doesn't work well with that.   

So, we become the treatment group of last resort, and in a way, we should really be the treatment group of first resort like we are in many other cultures. So all of these groups tend to be fairly active, they're activists, each of them in their own way. Women probably have been the largest initial group of people who said, this is not right, this whole technological stuff is not working. And they, there's a huge alternative community or subculture, you might say, of women using specific protocols. The AIDS activists were another group, and they came up with a lot of tremendous things. Within cancer, the cancer subculture is extremely active. But probably, at this time, the most active of all is the Lyme community.

And, you know, what of course what I would love to see, is if the United States just shifted their approach. When you look at health care, we spend more on health care than any other culture on earth and our outcomes are about half as good as, for instance in Sweden and Norway and many of the countries in Europe.

What we do doesn't work, so what it really comes down to is, you just have to follow the money. The pharmaceutical companies make a huge amount of money off of Americans and our health is not the better for it. We're basically bankrupting ourself. And I think, because of that, because of the poor outcomes and the high expense, there is a definite awakening going on throughout the country, but it's a long hard process, as it is with any fundamental change in a culture, and we're just going to have to keep working at it. Because the pharmaceutical companies, they have, what, one representative for every three physicians or something like that in the United States. They spend billions of dollars.

They're the most powerful lobbying group.

Yes, and we don't have the money, and who wants to spend their life doing that? That's not why we do this kind of work. So, it's a slow, grassroots process. And it's people like the people with Lyme who decide to inform themselves and form support groups, and really create some sort of an alternative approach, that is more respectful of their dignity as human beings that have a particular illness, and that is what really drives the whole thing.

It's wonderful to hear you put it that way, because as you're speaking I'm realizing, and I know that I'm not alone, you do feel like you're being reduced in every way when you deal with the medical community with this disease. Not recognized to begin with, and then reduced once you are recognized. I have found that the Internet is an extremely powerful tool, for good and for bad, but especially for organizing. One of the things that I know has been organized over the Internet for Lyme disease patients is this rally of protest that is going on today, in fact, against the new guidelines that were posted that the infectious disease society created. Are you aware of that protest?

Actually I haven't seen those new guidelines yet.

Okay. Well, they're simply saying that Lyme can be cured with a short-term of antibiotics, and that long-term Lyme or what they're calling post-Lyme Syndrome, or chronic Lyme, is still very much in question, and that Lyme can be cured with I think it's a 14 – 28 day protocol of antibiotics. And also, that it must be diagnosed by two specific things: the blood-test and the bullseye rash. And in your book you talk about the bullseye rash only showing up on about 37%, is that right? Did I get that right?

Yes, it's about a third. Thirty-seven percent, somewhere around in there. And these supposed new guidelines you're discussing, they're aren't new. That's pretty much what the CDC's been saying all along. I mean, they've extended it a little bit, I think their original thing was a ten-day course of antibiotics, so they've extended it to 28 days. But this is one of the things that I was talking about that I find so tremendously frustrating, is that the peer-reviewed journal articles themselves that looked at long-term Lyme infection.

These studies are old and there are scores of them. And they basically found that, yeah, you can get up to maybe, with some antibiotics what they look at is a 95% cure rate. And that sounds really good on the surface. But then you look at it and they're showing a 35% relapse rate in those groups. So, what they're looking at is only about a 60%, at the best, a 60% cure rate with antibiotics.

Now, I think that's good. Lyme is a, can be a tremendously debilitating disease, and it's one of the few diseases I really think an alternative protocol and an antibiotic protocol work really well together because their going to maximize the outcomes, alright? But their failure to recognize that they're only going to get about a 60% cure rate with antibiotics, based on exhaustive studies that their own community has themselves produced, is unbelievable.

And, so the bullseye rash is only in one third of cases, and so the Western Blot is an okay test. The ELISA test is terrible. And the 28-day antibiotic regiment – it just doesn't work. They've even looked at people who've been on antibiotics, some of these studies, people have been on antibiotics for years, and then they do extensive biopsies and they still find spirochetes. So, you know, why they won't look at their own material, I just don't understand, frankly, I just don't.

And the best explanation I've seen for it is two researchers that said, they think that these kind of protocols are insurance driven, because the insurance companies do not want to become responsible for   years of treatment for people with a disease that's difficult to work with. And the financial explanation is the only one I can find that makes any sense.

Well, there's a lot of fear going around for people who are depending on antibiotics and for physicians as well, who are depending on helping their patients with Lyme through antibiotics and so, now with the guidelines being posted and you're right, they're not new, but they were just re-established in October. I've been in that place before, too. It's a terrifying thing to think that you need a certain medicine to get better, and you're very sick, and yet you can't get it.

What would you say to people who are not aware of the alternatives, and yet, they should be, because they've come to a place where it's really necessary to start looking into that.

Well, the one thing that happens, and there isn't any way to make this truth or the transition that it necessitates easier for any human being.

We're raised in this culture with certain beliefs about our country and our culture, and the medical profession, and why they do what they do, and what we deserve as human beings. And unfortunately, many of these things turn out to be untrue. There isn't any way around that, and it's a difficult part of maturity for every human being when they basically find that they're expendable. Okay? That their culture doesn't really care, that the medical profession is really more interested in making money than healing people.

I mean, Chris Rock is really funny, he says, “Look, the money's not in the cure, the money's in the medicine.” He's got a great comedic routine about it. He goes, “When's the last time they cured a disease? Polio? That was before I was born, you know? It's been a long time. The money is in the medicine.”

What happens, is, people are raised with a certain kind of belief and expectation, and so, everything is fine until something unsettles that, and they go to a doctor, and then they start finding themselves in the same place you found yourself in, and they end up with some chronic disease that the doctors can't really cure. And they actually don't have the time to sit down and talk with you and really talk about this stuff, to really be a healer. They're more a dispenser of medicine. The medicines work fine, if they don't work, you're pretty much on your own.

At that moment, every human being has to face a decision, and many people, at that moment, begin struggling with taking responsibility for their own health. Again, for the first time maybe in their whole life. And they have to directly encounter the fear that brings up about them dying or being disabled, and this tremendous feeling of being alone, like there's nobody out there that really cares or can help them.  

But that moment begins a journey back to a kind of self-determination of their own health. And that is one of the greatest gifts a chronic disease like Lyme can offer any human being. The journey is a difficult one, and often frightening, but on the other side of it there's this experience of tremendous empowerment and self-determination that I can't emphasize enough how empowering and how much well-being comes from that shift in orientation.  

Plus, I found, I haven't been to a physician really for anything maybe in twenty years, and my health care costs are extremely low. I've had some fairly significant illnesses from time to time, but yet they respond so well to these alternative protocols, that I'm much better than I would have been if I'd gone through pharmaceutical courses.

So, the thing that's well known within many of the alternative practitioner communities is that nothing will make you better in the long run, more well as a human being, than a good chronic illness. Because it forces you, it forces a tremendous shift in your personal awareness of yourself, and what life is about, and what you're doing with your life, and how to take care of yourself.

And on the other side of it, it is incredibly, most people, not most, I think everybody I know that's gone through this process, they're really glad that they got sick by the time they get well. It forces a kind of self-awareness that just can't come from anything else, and the gifts from that are really wonderful. Too many to enumerate.

That's true, Well, Thank you, it's been such a pleasure talking with you, and I'm going to wrap it up there even though I'd like to go on and on, because I just want your last remarks to ring for awhile. You just really hit a very deep core. And I just want to thank you, also, for all the help you're bringing to the Lyme community with the book Healing Lyme. Also, you're aware, aren't you that you have a lot of fans online?

Yes, I know there's a couple of web sites that are focused on the protocol. One of them, Planetthrive, I answer periodic questions from Lyme patients about the protocol and different aspects of the disease and what they can do about it. The Lyme patients are some of the most sophisticated people I've ever had interactions with, and so they've really challenged me to be a great deal better at my work than almost any other group has.

We're wonderful people.


What is the name of that web site again, Planetthrive.com?

Actually, I don't know. If you want to look on my web site, I've got links to the two web sites I'm aware of, including planetthrive.

And your web site is gaianstudies.org, right?

Well, thank you, thank you very much for speaking with me today.

Thank you.

Suzanne Arthur/ LDRD/ copywrite/ 2006