Herxheimer Die-Off Reaction: Inflammation Run Amok

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Herxheimer reaction in a Lyme disease treatment Image from Marty Ross MD

"If you feel worse after herbal anti-microbials or prescriptive antibiotics to treat Lyme are started it is likely you are having a Herxheimer die-off reaction."  Marty Ross MD

About Herxheimer Reactions in Lyme

A die-off reaction, also called a Herxheimer reaction, can occur when treating the Lyme germ, some co-infections, and yeast. It occurs as bacteria or yeast die during antibiotic treatment. It is common to have Herxheimer die-off reactions when starting herbal antimicrobials or antibiotics when treating Lyme. These reactions can also occur when new antibiotics are introduced into a treatment.

Is It a Lyme Disease Herx?

See my article, Is It a Lyme Disease Herx Reaction?, to figure out if a decline in health is due to a Herxheimer reaction.

Marty Ross MD Discusses Lyme Herxheimer Reactions

 
 
 
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What This Lyme Disease Herxheimer Article is About

Fortunately, you can take a number of good natural medicines to stop or limit Herxheimer reactions. In this article I review

  • how these reactions occur,
  • the various nutritional support supplements that successfully limit the reactions, and
  • dosing of each supplement.

In a die-off reaction, there is a release of endotoxins, proteins, and oxidizing agents that results in an increase in inflammatory cytokines, such as tumor necrosis factor alpha, interleukin-6, and interleukin-8.

The symptoms of a die-off reaction are generally a worsening of the underlying symptoms of Lyme disease and its associated infections. Likewise, Most Lyme disease symptoms are actually excess inflammatory cytokine symptoms. Therefore, a die-off reaction consists of a worsening of many Lyme disease symptoms including: fatigue, brain fog, muscle and nerve pain, chills and sweats, and/or memory and thinking.

Cytokines: The Good and The Bad

Good: Cytokines are proteins made by various types of white blood cells to fight infections. They perform a number of functions that include:

  • making antibodies work more effectively,
  • increasing active white blood cells to fight infections,
  • recruiting white blood cells to the location of an infection,
  • turning on white blood cells to fight infections, and
  • decreasing viral and bacterial replication.

Bad: Too many cytokines:

  • suppress the immune system,
  • cause pain,
  • decrease hormone production from organs like the thyroid and the adrenal glands,
  • disturb sleep,
  • decrease brain function,
  • increase fatigue and tiredness,
  • waste muscles,
  • cause depression, and
  • decrease the function of various organs throughout the body resulting in many other symptoms and medical problems.

Cytokines: How They are Made and Regulated

Cytokines are made when immune cells are stimulated by germs, toxins, oxidizing agents, other cytokines, other agents, and insomnia.

NF-kB Signals for Cytokine Production

Once the immune cells are stimulated, an intracellular messenger called NF-kB (nuclear factor kappa beta) causes genetic programming for the production of cytokines and the turning on of white blood cells. Antioxidants like glutathione, quercetin, and curcumin could lower oxidation triggers for NF-kB. Supplements, like curcumin also may block the function NF-kB.

Kinase Enzymes

Within the white blood cells, the production of cytokines require enzymes called kinases. Herbs that may block kinase enzymes, like quercetin, can help lower cytokines.

Nrf2 Signals Production of Antioxidants.

Cells also have a genetic messenger that increases cell production of antioxidants like glutathione. This messenger is called Nrf2 (nuclear factor 2). There are some nutritional support supplements like resveratrol and curcumin that may turn on Nrf2. Antioxidants can decrease oxidizing agents that trigger cytokine production, so turning on Nrf2 creates antioxidants that could decrease cytokine production.

Sleep Lowers Cytokine Inflammation in Lyme Disease

Sleep also has a big impact on cytokines. Lack of sleep triggers more cytokines, and high cytokines can cause insomnia.

How to Lower Cytokines

Get Sleep.

First it is important to get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Sleep lowers cytokines.

Use Supplements.

To lower cytokines there are a number of nutritional support interventions that may:

  • increase antioxidants,
  • decrease NF-kB genetic programming of cells,
  • increase Nrf2,
  • block kinase enzymes and,
  • detox.

Antioxidants.

Based on the work of Martin Pall, PhD, it is critical to lower oxidizing agents that trigger cytokine production. Glutathione, which is made in every cell, and its building blocks, alpha lipoic acid (ALA) and n-acetyl cysteine (NAC), are helpful. Curcumin, which is a component of turmeric and quercetin, are also good antioxidants. Ecklonia Cava (brown seaweed extract) is another good antioxidant.

Detox.

Glutathione and its precursor building blocks, ALA and NAC, also may help remove toxins.

NF-kB.

Curcumin, quercetin, and resveratrol can decrease NF-kB genetic signals to produce cytokines.

Nrf2.

Curcumin, resveratrol, and black tea extracts containing the polyphenol EGCG could increase Nrf2, which increases cell level production of glutathione and other antioxidants.

Kinase Enzymes.

Quercetin also blocks kinase enzymes required in the production of cytokines. Blocking kinases with quercetin interferes with the cytokine production line.

Treatment Steps

Step 1: The Beginning of Treatment to Prevent Herxheimer Die-off Reactions.

Use a good multivitamin that includes alpha-lipoic acid and N-Acetyl Cysteine, antioxidants, and other micronutrients that decreases oxidizing agents and supports liver detoxification. Multivitamin products in powder form made by Thorne or Integrative Therapeutics are good products.

  • Curcumin 500 mg 1 pill 3 times a day OR
  • Anticytokine Combination (find a combination product that contains curcumin, resveratrol, black tea extract, and NAC. For instance Cytoquel by Researched Nutritionals contains these herbs) 1-2 pills 3 times a day.
  • Multivitamin. Use multivitamin powders by Thorne or Integrative Therapeutics. Use as directed on the product label.

Step 2: Moderate Herxheimer Die-off Reactions.

For more severe cases, add oral glutathione and double the Curcumin to 1000 mg 3 times a day (or increase the anticytokine combination to 2 pills 3 times a day.

Glutathione is also a great choice if nerve pain or numbness is present. If the addition of glutathione is not effective, then add Ecklonia Cava and consider adding quercetin. You can use all four. This combination seems to block the cytokine production line and decreases oxidizing agents that trigger production. These treatments can take 1-2 weeks for maximum effect.

  • Glutathione (as oral liposomal glutathione) 400-500 mg 1 or 2 times a day.
  • Quercetin 250 mg 2 pills 3 times a day.
  • Ecklonia Cava 400 mg 2 pills 2 to 3 times a day

If glutathione is not tolerated, then work with one or a combination of the following antioxidants that are used to make glutathione.

  • Alpha-Lipoic Acid 350 mg 1 pill 2 times a day.
  • N-Acetyl Cysteine 500 mg 1 pill 3 times a day.

Step 3: Severe Herxheimer Die-off Reactions.

For severe die-off reactions, use IV glutathione as a potent antioxidant and to support liver detoxification. This is administered in an integrative medicine physician's office. Another option is to use glutathione in a nebulizer. Glutathione IV is stronger than glutathione by nebulizer in my experience. Using a nebulizer, you breath in a fine mist of the glutathione, which is absorbed into the blood through the blood vessels in the lungs. Sometimes start with four IV glutathione treatments and then change to glutathione by nebulizer to continue the treatment.

  • Glutathione IV 1200 mg to 2500 mg 2 times a week for a minimum of four treatments. If it helps but there are still improvements with the last treatment, consider weekly treatments until improvements plateau. You will likely feel more tired after the first treatment.
  • Glutathione by nebulizer 200 mg/ml 2 ml 2 times a day for adults. Children can take 100 mg/ml 1ml to 2ml 2 times a day.

Disclaimer

The ideas and recommendations on this website and in this article are for informational purposes only. For more information about this, see the sitewide Terms & Conditions.

References

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About the Author

Marty Ross, MD is a passionate Lyme disease educator and clinical expert. He helps Lyme sufferers and their physicians see what really works based on his review of the science and extensive real-world experience. Dr. Ross is licensed to practice medicine in Washington State where he has treated thousands of Lyme disease patients in his Seattle practice. 

Marty Ross, MD is a graduate of Indiana University School of Medicine and Georgetown University Family Medicine Residency. He is a member of the International Lyme and Associated Disease Society (ILADS) and The Institute for Functional Medicine.

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