Dr. Bill Rawls was a practicing OB/GYN when a personal health crisis completely transformed the trajectory of his life and career. Today, he’s still a physician, but his specialty has shifted. He’s now a foremost expert on chronic Lyme disease treatment options and natural therapies for treating other conditions, as well as the author of the book Unlocking Lyme. Read on to get Dr. Rawls’ take on the different types of Lyme disease, what happens to those with untreated Lyme disease, the science behind herbal treatment for Lyme disease, and more.
Facing a Flare-up of Untreated Lyme Disease
Dr. Rawls had been an OB/GYN for decades when his health began to deteriorate. He was eating poorly, under a lot of stress, and getting no sleep, and as he approached 50, his systems started to collapse. His health got so bad that he had to leave his practice because he was too physically depleted to be on-call anymore. He didn’t have any diagnosis to allow him to declare disability, so he started his own practice while also working overtime to figure out what was going on with his health.
Ultimately, Dr. Rawls was able to discover that the microbes in his system were carrying Lyme. But it wasn’t anything new — he believes he’d had untreated Lyme disease for a long time. “I probably had it my whole life because I spent so much time in the woods when I was a kid,” he says. “It wasn’t the microbes that made me ill. It was all these other things coming together.”
But even once Dr. Rawls had his diagnosis, the next steps weren’t clear. “I was stuck with my own practice so I couldn’t really leave town. It was a big financial burden,” he says. “I couldn’t go and see integrative doctors, because there weren’t any in my area.”
At the time, herbal treatment for Lyme disease was beginning to get a bit of buzz, which Dr. Rawls attributes in part to a protocol published by Stephen Buhner. Thousands of people had used it and were getting results, and so Dr. Rawls decided to try it out. It was something he could do in a safe and inexpensive way, right from his home. He ended up taking herbal therapy and intense antimicrobial herbs for more than five years, and he refers to this treatment as “my salvation in my recovery.”
Understanding the Different Types of Lyme Disease: Acute vs. Chronic
Because of Dr. Rawls’ experience with untreated Lyme disease flaring up after decades of dormancy, he views chronic Lyme disease — and all chronic conditions — differently than many other physicians and patients. He sees chronic disease as largely a result of immune dysfunction, which can be triggered by a number of different factors. “There are thousands upon thousands of chronic illnesses, but when you look at the symptoms, they all bunch together, so the concept of a diagnosis is often a little artificial.”
To understand how this works, Dr. Rawls says you must also understand that there are two types of Lyme disease, acute and chronic. Acute Lyme disease occurs when the Lyme microbe first comes into your body: “You get a tick bite, the microbe enters your system, and there’s an acute tug-of-war between your immune system and the microbe because you’ve never seen it before,” he explains. This internal tug-of-war happens within weeks of getting a tick bite and is accompanied by symptoms like fatigue, stiff neck, mild fever, and aches and pains. Eventually, either the microbe wins or the immune system wins, and your body reaches a place of resolution.
But even if your immune system wins the battle, that’s not necessarily the end. Lyme microbes are very stealthy. “They’re not like COVID, which has that break-down-the-door, front-entry approach,” says Dr. Rawls. “They slide into your system and they can be there for years and years.” So chronic Lyme disease occurs when someone who has been bitten by a Lyme-carrying tick experiences a disruption to their immune system that allows the dormant Lyme microbes to wake up. This can be a traumatic event of injury or illness, or merely the cumulative effect of years of stress, bad eating habits, and poor sleep, all of which create an environment in which these harmful microbes thrive. The result is the condition known as chronic Lyme disease, or Post-Lyme Disease Syndrome (PLDS).
“I see it like I see most chronic illnesses,” says Dr. Rawls. “When you look at fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, any of these illnesses, all of the symptoms are the same. But when you look at any chronic illness, that fundamental feature of chronic immune dysfunction is present.” He’s seen this play out in his patients, where those suffering from a chronic condition have all experienced a “perfect storm of factors” that led to a disrupted immune system, and thus chronic disease.
Chronic Lyme Disease Treatment Options: Antibiotics vs Herbal Treatment for Lyme Disease
For Dr. Rawls, herbal therapy was the key to resolving his untreated Lyme and restoring his health. Because of his own personal experience and the research and science behind herbal treatment for Lyme disease, he believes that it is one of the most effective ways to treat chronic Lyme and other chronic conditions. Still, he’s careful to point out that there is a time and place for herbal therapy and a time and place for antibiotics.
“Sometimes people look at herbs and drugs as things that we can substitute one for another, but they really act totally differently,” he says. Each one serves a different role, and what it ultimately comes down to is the different types of Lyme disease. For acute Lyme, Dr. Rawls says that antibiotics are often a better choice than herbal therapy. “What we’re doing there is knocking down the microbes enough that it helps the immune system get a better grasp of that situation,” he says. “So I do advocate antibiotics for acute Lyme disease.”
But things are different with chronic Lyme disease. Dr. Rawls says that many conventional physicians believe that the answer to chronic Lyme disease is a long-term course of powerful antibiotics — we’re talking six months to a year — and while this can sometimes work, it usually doesn’t, and can come with some serious health consequences. Enter herbal treatment for Lyme disease.
“When you’re talking about herbs, you’re talking about a full spectrum of the chemicals being produced by the plants,” Dr. Rawls says. He explains that, while humans have a cellular immune system, plants have a biochemical immune system, which means they produce a wide range of chemical substances that protect against the full range of harmful microbes: bacteria, viruses, yeast, protozoa.
What’s more, because herbal therapies are derived from living things, they can’t contain substances that are harmful to your good bacteria. “It’s one of those things that works out in nature,” says Dr. Rawls. “The plant can’t produce things that are going to kill off the things that are favorable, that are helping it, it wants to kill off potential pathogens.” Because of this, you can take herbal therapy for months or years without them having a negative impact on your gut flora.
This is important because herbal treatment for Lyme disease (or any condition) isn’t as potent or as quick as an antibiotic. Dr. Rawls explains that herbal therapies don’t take days or weeks, but rather months or years. “It’s hard for physicians to wrap their heads around that because we’re used to fast-acting antibiotics,” he says. “But the herbs act differently.”
This is why herbal therapy is better used for those with chronic, rather than acute, conditions. “If somebody comes in with acute pneumonia, they’ll need to be treated with an antibiotic. Herbs won’t get them healthy fast enough,” says Dr. Rawls. “But with someone who has a chronic illness that their immune system isn’t beating. These people have not just one microbe in their body — like acute pneumonia — all the harmful microbes in their tissues are startling to thrive because the immune system just can’t keep a lid on it anymore.” To treat this kind of chronic dysfunction, you need a chronic suppressive therapy, one that will knock down the attack on all fronts but won’t wreak havoc on your system when you use it for a long time.
“It’s quickly becoming apparent that chronic herbal therapy for chronic Lyme is probably the best thing that you can do for it,” says Dr. Rawls. This belief is supported anecdotally, by thousands of people who have healed their chronic Lyme with herbs, but also by research.
As for the specifics of herbal treatment for Lyme disease, the herbs used are those with strong antimicrobial properties, like garlic, thyme, cinnamon, and myrrh. In a recent study out of Johns Hopkins, researchers tested the essential oils of 35 herbs and found that 10 of them — which include the herbs listed above and those that Dr. Rawls prescribes to his patients — were more effective at killing the Lyme-causing bacteria Borrelia than antibiotics were. Another study identified seven herbal compounds that were effective at killing the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in those who were resistant to antibiotic treatment.
What Does Herbal Treatment for Lyme Disease Look Like?
When Adrienne was going through treatment for her chronic Lyme disease, herbal therapy was one of the methods she used, by drinking Chinese herbal teas and taking herbal supplements. But, just as there are many different types of healing herbs, there are also many different ways to go about taking herbal treatment for Lyme disease.
Dr. Rawls explains that there are many different methods and preparations out there for taking herbal therapies, but it all comes down to phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are bioactive plant compounds that can be used as antimicrobial, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer agents, and they are the compounds within herbs that do the healing. So when you’re taking herbal treatment for Lyme disease, your main concern is to have as high a concentration of phytonutrients as possible.
There are three primary ways to take herbal therapy: teas, tinctures, and capsules. Teas will pull out all of the water-soluble chemicals in herbs, which is a good amount; however, they won’t let you get any of the fat-soluble phytonutrients. A water-alcohol tincture will pull out the water soluble phytochemicals as well as some of the fat-soluble ones, so you get a bit of a broader spectrum of nutrients as well as a higher concentration.
So teas and tinctures are good, nutrient-wise — but, as Dr. Rawls explains, they don’t taste so good. “Many of these phytochemicals are really bitter and they’re just not something that most people would find palatable,” he says. Because of this, he tends to favor the third method of taking herbal therapy, capsules. Capsules, he says, offer a person the opportunity to get intense phytochemistry without having to drink large amounts of unpleasant-tasting tinctures or teas.
When it comes to capsules, there are two different types to choose from:
- Whole herb: In these capsules, the whole herb is simply just dried, crushed up, and put into a capsule. These capsules are less expensive, but also less potent. “Basically you’re getting a bunch of fiber, not much else,” says Dr. Rawls. “Not a ton of phytochemicals in there.”
- Standardized extract: In this method of creating a capsule, a water-alcohol tincture with really concentrated phytochemicals is sprayed onto a surface, and then the water and alcohol are dried off, leaving only the powder (which is now pure phytochemicals). “You can imagine how concentrated that is,” says Dr. Rawls. “It’s got a lot of power to it.”
In Dr. Rawls’ practice, he uses and prescribes standardized extract capsules, and has actually created his own line of phytochemical-containing capsules, called Vital Plan. “I found over time that standardized extract capsules are a thing that I can consistently use to get people the amount of phytochemistry they need to actually do them some good,” he says.
Conclusion: The Takeaways About Lyme and Chronic Lyme Disease Treatment Options
Lyme disease is a complex condition, and this is even more true for chronic Lyme. Protect the health of yourself and your loved ones by remembering these key takeaways from our interview with Dr. Bill Rawls:
- Lyme disease is an inflammatory disease caused by tick bites. There are two types of Lyme disease, chronic and acute, and both manifest differently.
- Acute Lyme disease occurs within weeks or days of a person getting bit by a Lyme-carrying tick. With acute Lyme, your immune system is fighting off the newly introduced microbe, and you may experience symptoms such as fatigue and stiff muscles.
- Chronic Lyme occurs when external factors (like poor diet, stress, or impaired gut health) cause a disruption in your immune function, and the Lyme-causing microbes that are still present in your body are able to flare up again.
- Antibiotics are the most common treatment for Lyme disease, and while these are effective for acute Lyme, they don’t work as well for chronic Lyme disease.
- There are several chronic Lyme disease treatment options, but the one that has been shown to be most promising, both anecdotally and in studies, is herbal therapy.
- There are various ways to use herbal treatment for Lyme disease, including teas, tinctures, and capsules. All of these methods have varying concentrations of phytochemicals, which are the powerful chemical compounds in the herbs that help the healing begin.
- Capsules contain the highest concentration of phytochemicals but avoid the sometimes unpleasant taste of teas and tinctures. Dr. Rawls recommends standardized extract capsules, which are more concentrated and potent than whole herb capsules.
- Whether you have Lyme disease or not, your best bet to protect yourself against chronic conditions is to invest in a healthy lifestyle that supports healthy immune function. This means eating well, prioritizing good sleep, reducing stress, and maintaining good gut health. Get started on creating good gut health with the WellBe Gut Health Guide.
Do you or a loved one struggle with chronic Lyme disease? What has worked for you and what hasn’t? Share your story in the comments below!
Watch our full interview with Dr. Bill Rawls to learn why some people react more severely to bites from Lyme-carrying ticks than others, which other chronic illnesses are linked with Lyme disease, the biggest misconceptions about Lyme disease and why they exist, what antibiotics do and don’t do to harmful microbes, the three variables he considers when deciding what course of treatment to use for patients and himself, the other natural Lyme disease treatments he recommends in addition to herbal therapy, what he recommends you do if you get a tick bite tomorrow, and much more.
- Ścieszka, Joanna et al. “Post-Lyme disease syndrome.” Reumatologia vol. 53,1 (2015): 46-8.
- Feng, J. et al. Identification of Essential Oils with Strong Activity against Stationary Phase Borrelia burgdorferi. Antibiotics 2018, 7(4), 89.
- Guldiken, B. et al. Phytochemicals of herbs and spices: Health versus toxicological effects. Food Chem Toxicol. 2018 Sep;119:37-49.
- Feng, J. et al. Evaluation of Natural and Botanical Medicines for Activity Against Growing and Non-growing Forms of B. burgdorferi. Front. Med., 21 February 2020.
The information contained in this article comes from our interview with Dr. Bill Rawls, MD, author, and Medical Director for Vital Plan, an herbal supplement and wellness company. His qualifications and training include graduating from the Bowman Gray School of Medicine at Wake Forest University. You can read more about Dr. Rawls here.