by Jennifer Crystal
Our society’s focus on living naturally has created a stigma around the “dangers” of pharmaceutical medications. But for patients with complex illnesses, like Lyme, it’s not that simple.
One of the most challenging symptoms of neurological Lyme disease is insomnia. I’ve wrestled with it on and off throughout my two-decade battle with tick-borne illness. During my very worst point, I was literally awake for weeks. In extreme distress, I cried that I didn’t want to die but couldn’t live another second if I didn’t sleep. My doctor prescribed a short course of a heavy-duty sleep medication to knock me out.
“Don’t take it,” a friend cautioned. “It’s such strong medication. Your body has the natural resources to get the sleep it needs. Try some lavender oil or breathing exercises.”
I was way past the point of being helped by natural remedies, yet I shared my friend’s concern. We’d both fallen under the common belief that natural is better. In a society where people are focused more and more on living naturally, a stigma has grown around the “dangers” of pharmaceutical medicine. The message seems to be that “natural is good, medicine is bad.”
But for patients with complex illnesses, it’s not that simple.
Sure, there are benefits to living naturally. It’s healthy to put organic food into our bodies and environmentally-friendly fuel into our cars. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices are great ways to naturally center ourselves. In Lyme treatment, natural supplements often complement our medication regimes.
But natural methods are not always better. For example, some people use the mineral colloidal silver to combat infection. Just because it is a mineral doesn’t mean it’s safe, though. High levels of colloidal silver can permanently turn the skin blue, or cause liver damage. I know one patient who wound up hospitalized in renal failure. Another friend took colloidal silver for bronchitis, which turned into a severe case of pneumonia that required stronger antibiotic treatment than she would have needed if she’d taken conventional medicine.
When you’re fighting a multi-system bacterial infection, pharmaceutical medication is life-saving. Antibiotics kill spirochetes, plain and simple. Some Lyme patients are eventually able to wean off antibiotics once their infections are cleared up, and continue with homeopathic or naturopathic treatments. No one wants to be on medications any longer than their body needs them.
To avoid them when your body does need them, however, is dangerous. A new study by psychiatrist Dr. Robert Bransfield, published in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, found that there were over 1,200 suicides per year1 related to tick-borne illness. Had I not taken the heavy duty sleep aid to get through the worst of my insomnia, I might have become part of that disheartening statistic.
I didn’t stay on the medication forever. In fact, I only used it for a few days. Then my doctor slowly moved me to a less potent medication, which worked in tandem with my neurofeedback therapy, a non-invasive treatment that relied on my body’s own internal signals to help me heal. My sleep doctor wisely reminded me that Western medicine helps you get through crisis, while Eastern medicine gets at the root of a problem and deals with more long-term effects. Both, he said, are necessary for proper healing.
This can be a hard pill to swallow for people intent on only going the natural route. Take the case of Luitha K. Tamaya, a shamanic practitioner who shunned conventional medical treatments—until she suffered post-partum depression. Her traditional techniques were not enough to see her through this condition. Reluctantly, Tamaya turned to pharmaceutical medication, “a decision that has since had surprising and beautiful results.” The medication helped her heal and, moreover, led her to a new understanding of her more natural beliefs: “I now understand that shamanism can encompass and enrich all of our modern sciences, instead of standing apart from them.”
I have come to the same opinion. What’s needed is a balance of Western and Eastern medical philosophies. I have been on a non-narcotic sleep aid for years. I’ve never had to increase the dose, and it has not caused any adverse side effects. “That’s effective use of medication,” my doctor told me, when I worried I’d been on the medication too long. I continue to complement this conventional treatment with neurofeedback therapy. Similarly, I continue to battle spirochetes and other tick-borne infections with a mix of pharmaceutical, naturopathic and homeopathic remedies.
Only you and your Lyme Literate Medical Doctor (LLMD) can decide what course of action is best for treating your one or more tick-borne illnesses. Your doctor should monitor your reaction to all treatments, whether they are pharmaceutical or naturopathic. As you decide together what’s best for you, just remember, natural is not always better.
1 Bransfield RC. Suicide and Lyme and Associated Diseases. Neuropsychiatric Diseases and Treatment. 2017 Jun; Volume 2017(13):1575—1587
Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.
Jennifer Crystal is a writer and educator in Boston. She is working on a memoir about her journey with chronic tick-borne illness. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org