Shingles – Causes and Treatments

Shingles (herpes zoster) arises from the chicken pox virus. It is a member of the herpes virus family but not the same one that causes other herpes infections (herpes simplex). Both forms of herpes remain dormant in the nervous system after initial infection and can reactivate following minor infections, stress and weakened immunity. Despite their differences, the nutritional treatments for both are essentially the same.

A tell-tale sign of shingles is a characteristic itching, tingling or pain followed by a skin rash, indicating inflammation and nerves set off by the underlying virus.

Foods which starve the virus

Lysine and arginine
The herpes virus feeds off an amino acid called arginine. Replication of the virus requires the manufacture of proteins rich in arginine and it is thought that arginine itself stimulates herpes replication. Lysine is an amino acid that looks like arginine; high intakes of lysine can fool the virus and effectively starve it. Foods high in lysine include most vegetables, legumes, fish, turkey and chicken. However I also recommend supplementing 1,000mg of lysine every day, away from food, to keep the virus at bay. When you have an active infection increase this to 3,000mg of lysine, split throughout the day. The goal is to keep lysine levels high and arginine low. To do this you also need to cut right back on foods rich in arginine, such as chocolate, nuts, seeds, beans and soya. Following this dietary advice as soon as you feel a cold sore developing can shorten the duration and severity – doing this on an ongoing basis helps lower the likelihood of an outbreak.

Supplements to inhibit virus replication

Vitamin C – The more stressed you are, the weaker your immune system becomes, allowing the virus to become active – which is why many people succumb to cold sores when they’re run down. A good way to boost your immune system is to supplement 3 grams of vitamin C every day. When you feel symptoms developing, up your intake quickly – studies show the effects are most beneficial when initiated at the beginning of the disease. The ideal is one gram (that’s 20 oranges worth) an hour. The amount needed depends very much on the person. Some experience loose bowels on high doses, but that is all: there’s no harm from taking large amounts of vitamin C for a few days.

Caution: Vitamin C, in high doses, can cause loose bowels or even diarrhoea. This is not dangerous as long as you keep hydrated. However, it is ideal to consume less than the amount that gives you loose bowels.

Combining supplements with topical application increases the rate of healing herpes ulcers and shingles blisters. As vitamin C needs to reach the target tissue to be effective this approach raises levels directly in the lesions. Research shows that blisters and sores are smaller, less painful, and heal more quickly using topical vitamin C. Cosmetic serums are available but not all are equal in terms of quality. You’re looking at products that contain at least 10 percent or more ascorbic acid (which appears on labels as L-ascorbic acid, ascorbyl palmitate or ascorbyl phosphate). I recommend Environ C-boost. Apply the cream as soon as symptoms begin and continue at least three times daily until symptoms are gone. To make your own Vitamin C paste, mix one teaspoon ascorbic acid (5 grams) in 5 teaspoons warm water and stir until dissolved. You can apply this with cotton wool to the lesions. This dries out quickly on the skin, so you need to apply it more frequently.

Zinc – Although zinc directly inhibits herpes virus replication, its main action is probably due to its role in enhancing cell-mediated immunity. Zinc is an essential mineral found in the ‘seeds’ of things – from eggs to nuts, seeds and beans. It is also high in meat and fish. The ideal intake is about 15mg a day but most people only achieve half this amount from diet. In times of illness much higher doses (50-100mg a day) have been shown to make the body’s T cells much more effective, hence boosting immunity.

Supplementing 50mg of zinc a day has been shown to be effective in reducing frequency, duration and severity of herpes and shingles in clinical studies. But taking zinc lozenges (containing 15-20mg zinc) every three hours for up to three days while suffering an outbreak may work even better. Discontinue after this time as long-term use can cause an imbalance of other nutrients in the body. Topical zinc can also be used to prevent the virus from spreading and inhibit recurrences. A study using 4 percent zinc sulphate in water stopped the pain, tingling and burning completely in all participants within the first 24 hours. You can buy zinc creams or make a paste by mixing zinc gluconate or sulphate powder with water.

Another reason zinc may be helpful when you’ve got an infection is because it helps vitamin A, stored in the liver, to be used. To fight infections, you need to have sufficient Vitamin A in your body. Although you should eat lightly when you have any infection, foods rich in vitamin A such as dark green vegetables and yellow/orange fruit and vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, apricots, peaches) help give your immune system a boost. To find out more read my book How to Boost Your Immune System.

Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) is an old Native American remedy for purifying the blood, and that is quite literally what it does. This root of the plant Echinacea purpurea is probably the most widely used immune-boosting herb. It possesses interferon-like properties and is an effective anti-viral agent against herpes. It contains special kinds of polysaccharides, such as inulin, which increase macrophage production. Echinacea also enhances the movement of immune cells to infected areas. One study on a group of healthy men found that, after five days of taking 30 drops of Echinacea extract three times a day, their white blood cells had doubled their ‘phagocytic’ power, allowing them to better destroy viruses. Echinacea is best taken either as capsules of the powdered herb (2000mg a day), or as drops of a concentrated extract (usually 20 drops three times a day).

Natural remedies to relieve irritation

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) can effectively treat herpes-family viruses; including those responsible for shingles. Topically it is one of the most widely used tools and has been shown to heal lesions and blisters much faster than normal, whilst also reducing discomfort. Lemon balm has various mechanisms by which it is antiviral, including preventing the virus getting into the cells where it can multiply. Research demonstrates it can prevent recurrences altogether.
Several studies have shown impressive results using a cream containing one percent of a standardized 70:1 extract four to five times a day. The cream used in most studies is called Lomaherpan (formally LomaBrit) and is available in chemists or online. Alternatively you can use Melissa oil or extract, mixed with a carrier oil and apply to the affected area to obtain relief from irritation and pain resulting from shingles.

How to control the pain from shingles

Many people find, and research suggests, that bathing in chamomile and oatmeal can be particularly soothing to the pain associated with shingles. Colloidal oatmeal is the form to use which is essentially oats ground to a fine powder. It has been shown to relieve the itching, burning and skin inflammation. The compounds in oats can also speed healing time and reduce scarring. Adding chamomile essential oil or tea bags to the bath further helps soothe pain and inflammation.

Some people find that the pain persists after the acute phase of shingles has past. In these cases a topical ointment containing capsaicin (a component of cayenne pepper) is recommended because capsaicin disrupts pain signals in the body. When rubbed in regularly, it can reduce chronic pain from shingles. Capsaicin creams are available over the counter or on prescription.

General advice

When your immune system is fighting off an infection it takes energy so you want to rest and avoid stress – controlling stress is vital to prevent recurrences. Do eat well but don’t eat too much. Conserve your energy for fighting the infection.

Act fast. Viruses survive by breaking into your body’s cells and reprogramming those cells to make more viruses. You want to stop that happening as fast as possible so what you do in the first 24 hours makes all the difference. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Foods to reduce virus replication

Eat Lysine-rich foods (vegetables, legumes, fish, turkey and chicken), carrots and carrot juice, water (drink lots) and Montmorency cherry juice.

It’s best to avoid arginine-rich foods (chocolate, nuts, seeds, beans and soya), sugar, refined foods and alcohol.

Supplementary Benefit

A good high potency multivitamin and mineral with 15mcg of vitamin D and at least 1,500 mcg of vitamin A
3 x 1,000mg lysine
1 gram vitamin C (ideally pick one with zinc and berry extracts) every hour
Zinc lozenges (15-20mg) dissolved in the mouth every three waking hours for up to 3 days
10 drops of Echinacea every two hours

For further advice on how to boost your immunity read Boost Your Immune System