What comes to mind when you think of a bug bite? Chances are a disrupted digestive system isn’t the first thing that pops into your head.
But certain bug bites (like those that come from ticks) can have some serious consequences for your health – triggering a slew of differing infections known as tick-borne diseases or tick-borne illnesses. And one such consequence that these tick-borne diseases can cause, is a dramatically negative impact on the health of your gut.
Today we’re going to explore exactly what tick-borne diseases are, the gut-related (and non-gut-related) symptoms they can cause, zoom in on exactly how these microbes harm your digestive tract, and most importantly – review what you can do if you suspect you’ve been exposed to any of these gut-damaging pathogens. Let’s dive in.
What Is A Tick-Borne Disease?
A tick-borne disease is exactly what it sounds like – any disease or illness that originates from tiny insects known as ticks. Ticks are tiny, spider-like parasites that are naturally found in a wide variety of environments across the globe. These little bugs survive by feeding on the blood of warm-blooded animals – humans included.
When these creepy crawlers sink their teeth into you, any pathogens that it might contain can be transmitted directly into your bloodstream. Ticks certainly aren’t the only pests that can potentially spread harmful microbes – various disease-causing germs can be spread by other vectors or carriers like mosquitoes, lice, fleas, and bed bugs. But because ticks are one of the biggest culprits when it comes to spreading potentially harmful bacteria and viruses to their human food sources, many of the diseases and illnesses caused by a bug-bite are referred to as tick-borne illnesses.1
Now let’s explore some of the most common pathogens and diseases these blood-sucking creatures may be harboring.
The Most Common Tick-Borne Diseases?
Some of the most common tick-borne diseases – particularly in the United States include:2
- Lyme disease (more formally known as Borrelia burgdorferi)
- Anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis
- Tick-Borne Relapsing Fever
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
What makes these tick-borne diseases so tricky, is that oftentimes, ticks are carrying multiple infectious microorganisms. Meaning if a tick bites you, there’s a high likelihood that you may be exposed to and/or potentially infected with more than one pathogen. When this occurs and more than one disease-causing microbe is contracted from a single bite, they’re referred to as co-infections.
And each of these pathogens on their own can cause a constellation of difficult to pinpoint symptoms. So when you contract multiple microbes and have co-infections, it can make it especially challenging to pinpoint the source of your symptoms.
Let’s explore some of the symptoms that have been linked to these various tick-borne illnesses.
Tick-Borne Disease Symptoms
Just some of the symptoms that have been linked to these various tick-borne diseases include:3,4,5,6,7
- Confusion, disorientation and/or other neurological changes
- Extreme and unrelenting fatigue
- Fever and chills
- Headaches and sensitivity to light
- Muscle and/or joint aches and pains
- Loss of appetite and/or acute weight loss
- Persistent high fever
- Rashes and other skin issues
In severe cases, these tick-borne infections can spiral into much more serious conditions such as:8,9,10,11
- A dangerously low drop in blood pressure
- Acute respiratory distress
- Blood-related conditions like hemolytic anemia (caused by a breakdown of your red blood cells) or thrombocytopenia (a very low platelet count)
- Disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) – causing abnormal clotting and bleeding throughout the body
- Encephalitis or meningitis
- Hepatomegaly or splenomegaly
- Inflammatory syndromes
- Permanent nerve damage resulting in hearing or vision loss
- Skin ulcerations
- Vital organ failure (heart, liver, kidneys)
Needless to say, these tick-borne illnesses can have life-altering and even life-threatening effects – making it of vital importance to identify and address co-infections as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. But that’s often easier said than done due to the often vague, seemingly unrelated symptoms that typically present. So let’s dive into another subset of tick-borne disease-related symptoms that often go overlooked.
Can Lyme Disease and Other Tick-Borne Illnesses Affect Your Digestive System?
The answer to this question is – absolutely. In fact, a multitude of symptoms may manifest within the digestive tract in just about any tick-borne illness – including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. But the damage these microscopic invaders can cause doesn’t end there. You see, tick-borne illnesses can disrupt your digestive tract in several distinct ways including:12,13,14
Impaired Liver Function
Your liver’s primary jobs when it comes to digestion include:
- Making and secreting bile to break down nutrients
- And processing and purifying blood that contains newly absorbed nutrients from your small intestine
Tick-borne pathogens can not only inflame and irritate your liver, but in some cases, they can even invade your liver – burrowing into your liver cells and making themselves at home. This can dramatically hinder your liver’s ability to function properly and lead to things like elevated liver enzymes, an enlarged liver, and abnormal liver function.
Gastroparesis and Impaired Digestion
The microbes that cause Lyme disease and other tick-borne co-infections can impair the function of the nerves that innervate your gut – causing a decrease in the muscular wave-like contractions that usually move the contents of your digestive tract downstream. This can lead to things like difficulty swallowing, delayed gastric emptying (gastroparesis), and constipation.
Leaky Gut Syndrome
When tick-borne microbes make their way into your bloodstream, they spread far and wide – making themselves at home in the tissues throughout your body. When these pathogens come into contact with your gut, they can wreak havoc by triggering the following:
- Dysbiosis: These microbes begin mingling with the microorganisms that make up your microbiome – the ecosystem of microbes that reside within your gut and work in harmony with your own cells. This can create a shift that throws this delicate balance out of whack, causing what’s known as gut dysbiosis.
- Inflammation: As these pathogens disrupt you guts balance, they also set off the alarm – alerting your immune system that there is a foreign invader. This triggers your body to begin deploying immune cells and inflammation-promoting chemicals directly to your gut.
- Increased intestinal permeability: This combination of inflammation and dysbiosis begins impairing the integrity of your gut lining – essentially causing tiny “gaps” to begin forming in your intestinal walls.
- A vicious cycle: As these gaps develop within your intestinal lining, the tick-borne pathogens along with other harmful microbes, toxins, and waste material begin leaking into your bloodstream. This furthers the cycle of dysbiosis, inflammation, and increased intestinal permeability – creating a vicious cycle that further degrades your guts ability to function properly.
The effects of leaky gut syndrome can extend from your head to your toes and may in fact be one of the primary underlying culprits causing at least some of the symptoms seen in tick-borne illnesses.
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
Because tick-borne pathogens can slow down your digestion while simultaneously spiking inflammation and disrupting your gut microbiome, they can sometimes cause a condition known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or SIBO. In SIBO, microbes migrate into your small intestines (an environment that is designed to contain minimal microbial life) and begin overpopulating this fragile ecosystem. This can lead to a slew of digestive issues that are not only uncomfortable but impair your health. Click here to learn more about SIBO and how it can affect your health.
Your gut is, in many ways, “the gateway to health” due to how intricately interconnected it is to just about every facet of your well-being. Meaning the disruption in your digestive tract caused by tick-borne pathogens can have serious consequences and have a ripple effect that can significantly exacerbate other symptoms you may be experiencing.
So how do we go about addressing these stealthy microbes? And can these complex illnesses go away on their own?
Do Tick-Borne Illnesses Go Away On Their Own? Tick-Borne Diseases Treatment
The answer to this question is – it depends. In some cases, people may be exposed to a tick-borne pathogen, experience little to no symptoms, and be able to clear the infection on their own. But others may be slammed with a barrage of symptoms that seem to persist no matter how much time has passed. It all depends on how robust your immune system is. If you’re one of the unlucky ones who’s been diagnosed with a tick-borne illness or suspect that one of these sneaky pathogens could be the root cause of your symptoms, you may require a little more intensive treatment.
Exactly what your treatment regimen might look like will vary depending on exactly which microorganisms you are infected with. Because proper treatment of any tick-borne infection often requires a big-picture, whole-lifestyle approach, I cannot overemphasize the importance of working with an Integrative and Functional Medicine Practitioner who is well-versed in treating these complex infections. While any treatment plan would be entirely unique to you, it’s likely that a functional medicine practitioner would employ at least some of the following healing strategies:
- Medications like antibiotics or antivirals may be indicated
- Botanical blends designed to boost your immune system, soothe inflammation, and combat harmful pathogens.When it comes to tick-borne pathogens, I recommend the following blends:
- Antimicrobial herbs like Cryptolepis and Japanese Knotweed to curb pathogen growth and promote healing
- Dietary and supplementation recommendations to minimize inflammation, support your immune system, and provide plenty of healing nutrients
- A gut protocol to help restore and rebalance your gut
- Lifestyle modifications like sleep promotion and stress management
Another crucial component of healing from a tick-borne illness, is preventing the contraction of future tick bites. To learn more about the steps you can take to protect yourself from tick bites and the nasty germs these creepy crawlers can carry, be sure to read my article Preventing Lyme Disease: Simple Steps to Keep You Safe.
Are You Concerned You May Have Digestive Issues Related to A Tick-Borne Illness?
Tick-borne illnesses are not something to be taken lightly. If you’ve been diagnosed with a tick-borne illness, have been struggling with unexplained symptoms (digestive or otherwise), or worse – have been searching for answers but have been dismissed by doctors – I encourage you to seek out the guidance of an Integrative and Functional Medicine Doctor. They are often much more educated and experienced in identifying and addressing tick-borne diseases than conventional medical doctors.
I also encourage you to continue educating yourself on tick-borne diseases and how to optimize your well-being. Because knowledge is power, and at the end of the day, you are always your own best advocate when it comes to your health. If you’re ready to arm yourself with science-backed, easy-to-understand, and easy-to-implement knowledge, be sure to start with the resources linked throughout this article.
Then head over and browse through the hundreds of resources I have available on my blog, on my YouTube Channel, and in my weekly newsletter (all you have to do is enter your name and email address in the form below to subscribe). And if you’re in the trenches dealing with any kind of health obstacle or life has thrown you a curveball, I also recommend picking up a copy of my brand-new book Unexpected: Finding Resilience Through Functional Medicine, Science, and Faith to inspire you to continue overcoming and help remind you that life is full of unexpected miracles.
- Diseases transmitted by insects and ticks (cmete.com)
- Tick-Borne Diseases | NIOSH | CDC
- Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis Subcommittee Report to the TBDWG | HHS.gov
- Anaplasmosis Information for Health Professionals – Minnesota Dept. of Health (state.mn.us)
- Impact of Co-Infections in Lyme Disease (opendermatologyjournal.com)
- Clinicians | Tick-borne Relapsing Fever (TBRF) | CDC
- Signs and Symptoms | Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) | CDC
- CDC – Babesiosis – Disease
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) – Infectious Diseases – Merck Manuals Professional Edition
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever | Johns Hopkins Medicine
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever | Lyme Disease (columbia-lyme.org)
- cover_frnt.eps (lymedisease.org)
- Gastrointestinal and Hepatic Manifestations of Tickborne Diseases in the United States | Clinical Infectious Diseases | Oxford Academic (oup.com)
- Association of Presenting Symptoms With Abnormal Laboratory Values for Vector-Borne Illness – Experience in an Urban Gastroenterology Practice – PubMed (nih.gov)
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.