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How Does Lyme Disease Evade the Immune System?

Mary Shomon

If Lyme disease is not diagnosed and treated early, the Lyme spirochete can evade the immune system and spread in the body, causing health problems months or even years after the infection occurs. Perhaps this is why there is so much confusion and difficulty in getting proper treatment for Lyme disease.

It Starts With an Unusual Bacterium

Lyme disease can affect any organ or system within the body, including the brain, nervous system, muscles, joints, and heart. Most cases of Lyme disease in the U.S. are caused by a corkscrew-shaped spirochete called Borrelia burgdorferi. This organism has a unique way of evading the human immune system starting as early as when the tick bite occurs and has learned to survive in the human body even when aggressive treatment attacks are mounted against it.

A Sneaky Assault

When a tick punctures the skin, factors in its saliva coat the spirochete to protect them as they enter the body, hiding them from the human immune system. Even weeks after a tick bite occurs, our immune system may not produce antibodies against the bacterium. This means that a patient who finds a tick attached to their skin can go to the doctor, get a test such as a Western blot, and receive negative results because the immune system still hasn’t become alerted to start fighting the infection.

An Evasive Structure

Not only can the Borrelia burgdorferi spirochete cloak itself when it enters the body, but it also has a unique inner structure, called a flagellum, that propels the organism through body tissues and thick mucus that typically would stop a bacteria from moving. The flagellum also excites the body’s immune system. But while the body can now see the bacterium, it is unable to effectively attack it, and instead launches a massive inflammatory response that causes damage to the body’s tissues rather than killing the organism.

Shape Shifter

Once the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium is in the body, it starts to change its form by altering the proteins on its outer cell wall, effectively hiding itself from the immune system. Typically, when a foreign invader assaults the body, the immune system detects it by its cell-wall proteins, developing specific antibodies to launch an immune attack. But with the ability to change its outer-cell-wall proteins, the Lyme bacteria becomes hidden from the immune system, almost like an invader who suddenly dons a disguise. The immune system is looking for a specific cell-wall protein, but the Lyme no longer wears that protein, and thus cannot be found.

The Immune System Attack Backfires

As the body continues its assault on the Lyme bacteria – sending immune cells to fight the now-disguised organism – this immune response wreaks havoc in places throughout the body such as the skin, brain, nerves, and joints. Because the bacterium continues to shift its “appearance” by changing its outer-cell-wall proteins, it continues to evade the immune system. Yet the attack has already begun, as the immune system continues to send neutrophils, monocytes, dendritic cells, and macrophages to fight the invader. Unfortunately, these immune cells aren’t successful at killing the infection. Instead, the toxic compounds they release in the fight cause inflammation everywhere in the body and damage tissues in essentially every organ in the body.

Lyme in the Brain

While the immune system is attacking the body with toxin-releasing immune cells, the brain also can be under attack. The immune system in the brain is different from the rest of the body and consists of cells such as astrocytes and microglia, cells that are not very effective at recognizing and eliminating infections. And, like the toxic compounds released throughout the rest of the body, the brain’s unique “immune system” releases substances that can do damage. But in the brain, rather than causing inflammation, these substances are directly or indirectly toxic to nerves. And, like the attack going on in the rest of the body, these cells continue to ineffectively fight a cloaked organism, damaging the brain while allowing the infection to continue.

Hiding Under Biofilms

The bacterium that causes Lyme disease has yet another way of hiding from the immune system. It forms a slimy substance called a biofilm. This biofilm, consisting of bacteria and other microorganisms, allows the Lyme spirochete to hide and resist harsh environmental conditions such as antibiotic treatments. Biofilms allow the Lyme bacteria to remain dormant for periods of time until the environment is favorable again, after which it can come out of hiding and relaunch and attack the body.

These unique abilities of the Lyme bacteria to hide from the body’s immune system create a need for a multisystem, integrated treatment approach. Using a combination of synergistic antibiotics that are effective against Lyme-related bacteria in all of its forms, combined with immune modulators, anti-Lyme supplements, anticoagulants, hormonal therapies, and medications that can increase the penetration of medications and other compounds, full recovery is achievable.

Getting Effective Treatment

Spotting the symptoms of Lyme disease and receiving a proper diagnosis is often an uphill battle that can take years. Patients treated at Holtorf Medical Group have seen an average of 7.2 different physicians prior to their visit to our center, without experiencing significant improvement.

At Holtorf Medical Group, our physicians are trained to utilize cutting-edge testing and innovative treatments to uncover the root cause of your symptoms and treat the source. If you are experiencing symptoms of Lyme disease or if you have been previously diagnosed, but aren’t getting the treatment you need, contact us to see how we can help you!


Mary ShomonMary Shomon is a patient advocate and New York Times bestselling author of 13 books on health. Mary has been researching, writing and teaching about thyroid disease, hormonal health, weight loss, and autoimmune disease for two decades. In addition to her books, you can find her writing at www.Verywell.com and www.HealthCentral.com.


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