It seems that there’s no truly safe place to live: California has earthquakes and wildfires, the Rockies have epic blizzards, the Midwest has tornados, Florida has hurricanes. By comparison, we have it easy here in the Northeast. Once we’ve learned how to drive on snow, we can cope with most of what Nature throws our way. Or at least that was true until the scourge that is Lyme disease worked its way over the Connecticut border circa 1980 and began to entrench itself in our region.
Nowadays, the lower Hudson Valley is regarded as part of the epicenter of the Lyme epidemic. In 2016, 351 new cases of the disease were reported in Ulster County, affecting an average of 195 individuals per 100,000 population. Our resident deer ticks test out with a high rate of infection with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi: a staggering 82 percent of adult ticks in Orange County, as measured in 2018. While adult ticks are twice as likely to be infected, the nymphs are tinier and much more difficult to spot, and believed by epidemiologists to be responsible for most infections in humans. The telltale “bullseye rash” associated with Lyme actually occurs in a minority of victims, so it’s not uncommon for the disease to go undetected for long periods of time, its symptoms dismissed because the patient doesn’t remember getting a bite.
New Paltz resident Jennifer Deering knows all about the dangers of undiagnosed Lyme disease; in 2011, it left her effectively crippled for about six months with extreme joint pain and a raft of neurological symptoms triggered by her autoimmune response. Deering has written and self-published a book about her experiences, Stronger than Lyme: My Battle and Blueprint for Overcoming This Strange Disease, and will be giving a presentation about it from 4 to 6 p.m. this Saturday, July 13 at Roost Studios.
Currently working as a credentialed personal trainer and wellness coach following her harrowing health crisis, Deering was working in the real estate field at the time that the disease struck, but she was already much more physically fit than the average person. Her generally strong state of health might, ironically, have masked Lyme symptoms as ordinary aches and pains from overexertion during a workout. “Being fit, sometimes you are just sore. You pass it off,” she says.
That was certainly the assumption made by an urgent care physician whom she consulted the day after she awakened in the middle of the night with sudden, excruciating pain in her hip joint and found herself unable to drive a stick shift, or indeed to move except from a crouching position. The doctor dismissively advised Deering to “decrease your activity level,” but she insisted on having her blood tested immediately. Less than two hours later, the skeptical doctor called her back to say that her levels of Borrelia were “some of the highest I’ve ever seen,” and that she needed to start taking doxycycline without any delay.
Agonizing as her joint pain was – inflammation so extreme that she will likely live with arthritis in that hip for the rest of her life – the onset was merely the beginning of Deering’s woes. Because the levels of the spirochetes in her blood were so high, they released large quantities of endotoxins as her antibiotic treatment killed them off and they fragmented. Her immune system went into overdrive, triggering a rare phenomenon called a Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction. It’s a systemic inflammatory response that in Deering’s case caused more pain, exhaustion, immobility, forgetfulness and mental confusion. “I thought I was having an allergic reaction to the medicine,” she writes.
Eventually the “Herx” wore off, and she made it her mission to educate herself about Lyme disease and how to support the body’s recovery via diet, meditation and gentle exercise. She had to give up running, but taught herself to swim. One thing Deering quickly noticed was that her illness had given her a craving for sugar; she was drinking liters of soda daily, which she had avoided before. Her researches pointed to a direct cause: “Simply put, the Borrelia burgdorferi, the spiral-shaped Lyme bacteria, thrive on glucose. You are the host to the parasite, and it wants sugar. Do not feed it!” she writes.
This correlation, along with the existence of the Herx reaction and the fact that the bullseye rash can show up (if it does at all) quite far from the site of the initial tick bite, are among many surprising revelations that Deering shares with her readers. Inspired to a career change as well as a “mindset change” by her ordeal, she’s now devoting her time to educating people about how to prevent and cope with Lyme disease, and on a broader scale, get and stay healthy, through her business Destinfit. She gives structured group fitness classes – including high-intensity interval training that provides aerobic cardiovascular benefits without having to go for a run – at her home, at Ignite Fitness and at the spa at Mohonk Mountain House. But her specialty is what she calls a Concierge Training Program, designed to “bring exercise to you.” She also advises her clients on how to support their training by modifying their diets, especially with regard to sugar intake. “You can tune it back, let your palate readjust,” she says.
That doesn’t mean that Deering is what anyone would call a health Nazi, however. The blog page of her website, https://destinfit.org, includes regular entries debunking fitness myths, “inspiration bullies” and people who obsess so much over their appearance that they will, for instance, simulate “six-pack abs” via implants. Hers is a far more moderate, rational and achievable approach to wellness, healthy diet and active lifestyle. Potential clients can inquire about her services at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When it comes to Lyme disease, though, Deering advocates a strict tick control regimen to keep the beasties out of your bloodstream in the first place. “Be paranoid,” she advises bluntly. And if you do come down with Lyme, you need to be ready to advocate for yourself, because our medical response systems haven’t evolved as fast as the ticks are spreading. To learn more, come to her free talk this Saturday afternoon at Roost Studios, located at 69 Main Street in downtown New Paltz, or order Stronger than Lyme through Amazon at https://amzn.to/2VirrKh. The book – a quick, lively and eye-opening read – costs $12.95 in paperback and $4.49 on Kindle.