Lyme Disease: A Modern Disease with Ancient Origins

Once you understand the origins of the Lyme disease bacteria it becomes immediately clear why it is so difficult to treat.

You can’t understand Lyme disease without understanding the complexity of the Borrelia bacteria that cause it. Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb) is the most common strain in the United States and Borrelia afzelii and Borrelia garinii are the most common in Europe. 

Let’s start with a quick look into the Tree of Life. Specifically, The History of Existing Life from Fairhopes Graphics. This tree represents the evolutionary relationships of all living organisms. Each branch represents their lineage and as you trace down the trunk of the tree each split represents the development of certain unique traits that identify all descendants on that branch.

At the top, you’ll find us, primates.  We are a relatively recent evolutionary phenomenon on the planet.

And near the bottom, at the beginning of all life more than 4 billion years ago, you will find spirochetes connected to the Bacterium branch. Spirochetes are known for their unique corkscrew shape and twisting propulsion, and this is where Borrelia originated. Spirochetes, and subsequently, Lyme disease have been around long before we evolved. They have watched us evolve over time and it is thus no surprise that they are so adept at evading and persisting in our bodies despite attempts by our immune system to eradicate them.

If this seems unbelievable, there are numerous historical examples that illustrate this bacterias historical presence. In 2012, a team of researchers claimed that the 5,300-year-old mummy known as Ötzi the Iceman, discovered along the Austria-Italy border, had contracted Lyme. In 2014, another team of researchers at Oregon State University studied 15-20 million-year-old amber from the Dominican Republic and found the oldest fossil evidence ever found of Borrelia.

You may also have heard of syphilis, another well-known and widely studied spirochete bacteria. Sir William Osler, known as the father of modern medicine, coined syphilis “the Great Imitator” and famously said, “He who knows syphilis knows medicine”. He said this because these bacteria can cause a myriad of symptoms across almost any system in your body.  As a result, these infections can be incredibly difficult to both diagnose and treat. Lyme disease is the same way.

So what makes Lyme bacteria unique?

  • Spirochete structure: Thomas Grier writes that the structure of the Lyme spirochete is unlike any other bacteria that has ever been studied before. It is one of the largest of the spirochetes and what makes this bacteria different from other species, is that it also has a clear gel-like coat of glycoproteins which surround it called the Slime Layer. The Slime Layer acts as a coat of armor that protects and hides the bacteria from the immune system.

  • Persistence: Recent studies have shown that popular antibiotics used in treating Lyme disease, such as doxycycline and amoxicillin, leave behind persister cells that survive lethal antibiotics or stresses but can regrow under appropriate conditions. Researchers have tried dozens of antibiotics, in combinations or in repeated rounds, and still had difficulty eradicating the pathogen in test tubes. The ability of the Lyme bacteria to alter its function and form persister colonies make treatments like antibiotics much less effective.

  • Evasion of immune surveillance: The Lyme bacteria is known for its ability to further hide from the immune system by favoring body sites that have poor blood flow and immune surveillance. These include connective tissue, joint spaces, nerves, the brain, and even the heart.

We believe in building technology that supports a full person, holistic approach to treating and managing Lyme disease as a way to deal with these complexities. Functional medicine looks at the root cause of illness. In cases of chronic infections like Lyme, we focus on any and all interventions that can help the immune system function better, decrease inflammation and autoimmune triggering, boost the bodies ability to eliminate toxins and more.

We enlist the patient as a partner in the healing process and ask them to participate fully and adopt lifestyle habits that promote optimal health such as eating a clean diet, exercising, building in good sleep habits, and retraining their stress response with meditation, yoga, biofeedback, and numerous other strategies.

Stay in touch with us to learn more.


Sunjya Schweig, MD and Shannon Herline are co-founders of Clymb Health, dedicated to improving the lives of patients with tick-borne diseases. Read more about Clymb Health and join our mailing list to stay up to date on when our products will be available!