Cortisol. The stress hormone. You’ve probably even said in a stressful moment or in the heat of an argument, “I can feel my cortisol levels rising.” This stress hormone is, yes, indeed stressful. Continuing in this month’s theme of Better in Health, Better in Bed – we want to make the connection between cortisol, chronic infections, and how it can affect your sex life, sex hormones, and relationship with your significant other.
In particular, we want to address a well-known chronic infection–Lyme disease. Although, “well-known” might be the wrong way to describe Lyme disease as, sure, a lot people have probably heard of Lyme disease and know that it has something to do with ticks, but usually that is about as deep as the information tends to go.
At The American Center for Biological Medicine, we consulted with Dr. Shaun Riddle–a Naturopathic Doctor who completed the International Lyme and Associated Disease Society (ILADS) Physician’s Training Program. Dr. Riddle specializes in chronic illnesses with a focus in chronic infections and how they relate to autoimmune disease, digestive disease, neurologic disorders as well as chronic pain. Dr. Riddle is our expert to the north in Canada, but works with clients in sunny Scottsdale via virtual consultations.
Below we will take a look at Lyme disease, symptoms of Lyme disease and what are called its “co-infections,” the perils and pitfalls of Lyme disease testing, and how Lyme disease can affect your sex life.
An Introduction to Lyme Disease
Lyme disease is an infection with one or more species of Borrelia bacteria, however other infections are often present too. These additional bugs are called “co-infections” and can be bacterial, viral, or parasitic. Lyme disease and its co-infections are carried by ticks. In addition to ticks, there is mounting evidence that these infections can be passed by a variety of other biting insects as well.
Dr. Riddle says Bartonella and Babesia are both common co-infections that can be present in a person with Lyme disease. It is not unusual for these co-infections to be driving the majority of a person’s symptoms.
Dr. Riddle continues saying Lyme disease has been called “The Great Imitator,” in that it can cause different types of symptoms in different people. Unfortunately, this means the infection is usually not identified in its early stages when it’s easiest to treat.
Lyme Disease Symptoms and its Co-Infections
Lyme disease was first recognized in the mid-1970s when a group of children and adults from Lyme, Connecticut began experiencing inflammatory arthritis. Because of this, most people think of Lyme disease as a disease primarily involving the joints.
Dr. Riddle says that we now know that the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia, is also a nervous system infection. Doctors have been misdiagnosing or missing altogether a larger group of people who have symptoms that involve the brain and nervous system.
Dr. Richard Horowitz, a pioneer in the field of Lyme disease identification and treatment, has proposed a new name for the illnesses that are associated with Lyme and its co-infections called Multiple Systemic Infection Disease Syndrome (MSIDS). He has also developed a questionnaire that is purported to be correlated to the presence of Lyme disease and its co-infections by 88%. Click the following link to view the Horowitz MSIDS Questionnaire.
The Perils and Pitfalls of Lyme Testing
Like all other aspects of this illness, the topic of testing is complicated. There are essentially two ways (with some individual variations) to test for Lyme disease and its co-infections:
- Specifically test for the presence of the bug in the blood
- Polymerase chain reactions (PCR) test – PCR blood tests identify the DNA of a bug in the bloodstream; however, Borrelia doesn’t like to live in the bloodstream and prefers to live inside cells and tissues
- PCR test with urine – A newer test that checks for the presence of Borrelia in the patient’s urine; since urine is essentially filtered blood, the test has the same issues as the PCR blood test
- Test for immune system markers that indicate the body has seen the bug
- Looking for antibodies to the infections in the blood often using one or both of the most common lab procedures: ELISA test, Western Blot test
Dr. Riddle says that it’s important to understand that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) developed the 2-tiered guidelines (surveillance criteria) for testing to help them track the movement of the infection through the United States population. This requires a more stringent testing process than doctors use clinically when dealing with patients. In this case, the CDC is interested in how the disease is moving across the United States, not in whether an individual is positive.
He continues saying that maybe the biggest issue that encompasses all the testing methods is that they do not account for all the possible species of these infections.
So how does this all relate back to stress hormones and your sex life? The cortisol connection.
Lyme Disease and Cortisol
Chronic infections, such as Lyme disease, are an often overlooked source of stress on the body. They operate in the background and often go unnoticed initially. Even though a person may not be experiencing any conscious stress–the body is being stressed by a chronic infection. This will initiate what is called the “cortisol steal” and eventually drive the stressed individual into a state of adrenal insufficiency.
The Cortisol Steal
To explain how the process works–in an acute stress, adrenaline and noradrenaline are released quickly. As these levels peak and then begin to decline, cortisol levels then rise. If stress becomes chronic, cortisol stays elevated and provides energy while buffering inflammation. If the stressor is intense enough, lasts long enough, or adds to other stressors that are already present, a person’s cortisol levels with eventually crash. This is called adrenal insufficiency. Symptoms consist of low energy, increased inflammation, and pain.
The ultimate building block of cortisol is cholesterol. Cholesterol is also the building block of testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. Cortisol can be thought of as a “survival” hormone because it is the stress hormone. Testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone can be thought of as “sex” hormones. In the presence of stress, the body will sacrifice “sex” for “survival” first. Cholesterol is diverted into producing cortisol and the sex hormones are sacrificed–this is the “cortisol steal.”
Low sex hormone production results in fatigue, lack of motivation, depression, low libido, and reduced exercise tolerance. Symptoms also cross over into the mental and emotional realm and negatively impact a individual’s relationship with himself or herself and with others, including the individual’s significant other. The relationship dynamic can shift as the significant other slowly takes on the caregiver role, whose support can often go overlooked by the individual suffering from a chronic infection.
It is helpful to identify upfront both short-term and long-term strategies with patients suffering with chronic illnesses or infections, such as Lyme disease, for buffering the mental and emotional symptoms that can disrupt relationships with family members and significant others while addressing the root cause behind the illness at the same time.
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About Dr. Shaun Riddle, ND
Dr. Shaun Riddle completed his naturopathic medical training at Bastyr University in Seattle, Washington. He has been practicing naturopathic medicine since 2004. While Dr. Riddle sees patients with a variety of chronic illnesses, he has a special interest in chronic infections and how they relate to autoimmune disease, digestive disease, neurologic disorders as well as chronic pain. He completed the International Lyme and Associated Disease Society (ILADS) Physician’s Training Program to learn the leading-edge assessment and treatment strategies being employed for chronic infections. Dr. Riddle works with patients to knock out infections while simultaneously correcting the underlying terrain issues that are preventing the body from recovering from illness. Prior to attending naturopathic medical school, Dr. Riddle completed a master’s degree in teaching in addition to an undergraduate degree in biology.