Herpes virus under a high-powered microscope

Herpes virus under a high-powered microscope.

The title says “shingles, cold sores, mono, chicken pox, and herpes,” but that’s a little misleading. Actually, shingles, cold sores, mono, and chicken pox are all different types of herpes.  But since most people hear “herpes,” and think only of sexually transmitted diseases, I’m giving this article a title that hopefully won’t scare too many people off.

How herpes works: Viruses — all viruses, not just herpes — don’t really “do” much as they float around the bloodstream or in the tissue fluids. They don’t eat. They don’t generate energy. They don’t move under their own power. They don’t attack anything. They just… float. That is, they float until they manage to stick to a host cell and get inside. Inside the cell is where they reproduce, and do their damage.

Viruses – all viruses, not just herpes — are unable to reproduce on their own. Instead, they trick their host into doing it for them. Once inside a host cell, the virus splices its DNA into the host’s DNA. So when the machinery of the host cell does its normal job and transcribes its own DNA, the viral DNA gets transcribed along with it. (It’s sort of like sneaking couple of pages into a stack of papers someone is about to run through a Xerox machine).

Once the virus is replicated, the copies can leave the host cell and move on to spread and infect another cell.

When herpes viruses are actively replicating, they are said to be lytic. “Lytic” means “splitting cells open.”  The countless viral copies crowd the cell and produce enzymes to break down the cell membrane. Eventually, the cell bursts open, spilling out viral particles that can then move on to infect countless other cells. If you’ve ever experienced a cold sore blister or a chickenpox rash, you’ve felt the damage a lytic herpes infection can cause.

When herpes is lytic, it causes enough havoc to draw the attention of the immune system, which eventually contains and eliminates the active outbreak. However, the immune system never completely eliminates the virus. Some of the virus remains, sort of hibernating inside host cells. In this phase, the virus is said to be latent. It isn’t replicating, but it still produces proteins to protect itself, largely by suppressing or tricking the immune system into not destroying it.

A latent herpes infection can become lytic again at any time, and when it does, it’s called an outbreak. Triggers for reactivation are poorly understood, but we know that getting a lot of sunlight or being under a lot of stress can be triggers. Some believe that the arginine:lysine ratio in the diet (see below) can be a primary trigger. Ultimately, it’s hard to say. Many outbreaks just appear to be inexplicable.

Types of Herpes Infections:

Cold sores and genital herpes are caused by the same herpes virus, which is spread by close contact. It infects the mucoepithelial tissues (basically, skin areas that tend to stay moist), when it’s active and lytic. The virus then retreats to local nerves, where it can lay dormant for months or years, until another outbreak. It’s only contagious when it’s lytic.

Shingles and Chicken Pox are caused by another herpes virus. It affects cells in the skin. Like cold sores and herpes, it too will retreat to nerve cells after an active outbreak. Unlike the cold sore and genital herpes virus, however, it doesn’t just retreat to a local nerve and come back in roughly the same place. Since chickenpox affects large areas of the body, it retreats back into nerve ganglia (bundles of nerves) along the entire spinal cord. When it reactivates, it tends to do so in just one ganglion, from where it migrates down the associated nerves to the skin. Since each ganglion only enervates a certain area of the body, shingles will manifest as a chickenpox-type rash covering only a certain area, usually a horizontal band on one side of the body or the other.

Shingles usually manifests in middle age or later. The later it pops up, the worse it tends to hurt — burning, itching pain: very distracting — and the more likely you’re to be stuck with post-herpetic neuralgia, nerve pain that lasts long after the outbreak goes away.

Cytomegalovirus (CMV) and Epstein-Barr viruses are the viruses behind what we call “mono” or mono-like symptoms — infectious herpes mononucleosis, a.k.a. glandular fever or the “kissing disease.” It can infect skin mucoepithelial cells (which is how you can pass it by kissing), but also immune cells. It manifests with flu-like symptoms, almost always with sore throat and swollen lymph nodes, and deep fatigue that can last for weeks or even months after the active disease. While there’s still plenty of debate on this point, it’s likely that lingering CMV and Epstein-Barr may be behind at least some cases of what we call “chronic fatigue.”

What to do?

Treating internally vs. topically? If you have a single cold sore or other herpes blister, there’s little need to treat it internally. Topical products containing Lysine, Lemon Balm, Red Marine Algae, or other antivirals (see below) work nicely. For mono, you definitely want to treat it internally. For larger rashes (shingles or even chicken pox), you might want to do both.

Antiviral herbs (not the same as immune-stimulating herbs!) usually interfere with a virus’ ability to bind to a host cell. Meaning, they control the spread of an infection and contain and outbreak. But they will not eliminate a latent infection. I like to use antiviral herbs during the early, very active phase of mono, or in shingles.

What herbs are antiviral? There’s a long list here. Names like Isatis, Andrographis, Hyssop, and Lomatium would top my personal list. Usually, formulas work better than individual herbs.

Monolaurin is a special fat. In supplement form, it’s usually a derivative of coconut oil. Outside of supplements, probably the richest source is human breast milk, where it functions as an important antiviral before an infant’s immune system can establish itself. So it’s safe for infants and children, and it appears to be safe during pregnancy. It’s a lot more limited than most antiviral herbs in that it only works against what are called enveloped viruses. So, cold viruses? No so much. But herpes viruses? Absolutely. (Flu as well). A standard dose is 3-4,000 mg a day. This is another one to use during the early, very active phase of mono, or in shingles.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is an herb in the mint family. It isn’t a great broad-spectrum antiviral, but it works nicely against viruses in the herpes family. I’d rank it as “alright” taken internally, and “great” used topically.

Taken internally, Lemon Balm is also slightly calming. It’s sometimes used as a mild calmative, especially for children and for people with hyperthyroid anxiety. Don’t worry too much about this aspect of the herb: you’d have to take a pretty hefty dose for it to actually sedate you. A standard dose would be 4-8 500-mg capsules daily, or 3-4 cups of tea.

Topically, however, is where Lemon Balm really shines. Lemon Balm is nice because it not only inhibits the virus, but also promotes healing in its own right. There was one good clinical trial (in genital herpes) where it worked every bit as well as the first-line medication, acyclovir. In this trial, they were using an aqueous (water-based) extract of the plant. What hasn’t been formally researched, to my knowledge, is the highly-concentrated essential oil of the plant. In my experience, however, it has been tremendous. Used in a formula, it can start shrinking a cold sore in a number of hours, with almost complete clearance in 24 hours.

If you get a lot of cold sores throughout the winter, you might want to try the Lemon Balm Lip Salve from Avena Botanicals. It’s basically a Chap Stick-type product, only with small amounts of Lemon Balm in it. Not enough to suppress a strong outbreak, perhaps, but enough to keep them away in the first place. Use it daily, like any other lip balm.

Lysine vs. Arginine: Lysine and arginine are both amino acids, which is to say, they’re components of protein. Herpes viruses thrive when there are high levels of arginine in the blood. On the other hand, lots of lysine can push arginine levels down. So, during an outbreak, arginine should be avoided, and lysine should be sought out.

Easier said than done, of course, since all protein-containing foods contain at least some arginine (and some lysine). The actual trick is to avoid foods that are disproportionately high in arginine. Basically, we’re looking at nuts and seeds (including peanuts), most grains, and chocolate. Which isn’t to say you can’t have a few peanuts, or a square or two of chocolate. But if you do, try to have them as part of a larger meal with other protein, where all the other amino acids can balance them out.

Foods higher in lysine, on the other hand, include dairy, eggs, and meats. Dairy products consistently top the list. (So is a cheeseburger with an egg on top the best food for a herpes outbreak? Perhaps. Just ask for it without the bun).

Lysine can also be taken as a supplement, which is the best way to do it. Bear in mind again that we’re most concerned with lysine:arginine ratio. So for example, while an egg may provide over 400 mg of lysine (a little less than a standard capsule), it also contains over 300 mg of arginine. The capsule, on the other hand, will provide no arginine. A standard daily dose of lysine is 1-2 grams as a daily preventative; 3-6 grams to suppress an outbreak. Take it in divided doses, and away from food. Some of the other items on this list can be more effective than lysine. But lysine is nice and inexpensive. A gram daily, for example, will cost you about $5 a month.

Lysine can also be used topically. There are salves and creams and lip balms that contain it.

Micronized or Colloidal Silver is just what it sounds like: silver, dispersed into little super-microscopic particles, usually in water.

Micronized silver is one of our very best broad-spectrum antimicrobials. It is quite effective against most bacteria, moderately effective against yeasts, and good against viruses. One of the nicest things about silver solutions is that they taste like water. They’re easy to take, and easy to give to children.

It’s important that you buy a high-quality product, with a very small particle size. The tiny particle size is important, not just because it makes the silver work better (you get more bang for the buck — important when you’re dealing with a precious metal!), but it also reduces the possibility of a rare and (forgive me for saying this) somewhat comical side effect. Because when you consume vast amounts of

silver, for vastly extended periods of time, and that silver isn’t in a small enough particle size, you can turn a dark-mauve-silver (and the color doesn’t go away). It’s medically harmless, but socially awkward.

To my knowledge, this has never, ever happened with anyone buying a commercially produced silver product. It only happens when somebody consumes poorly-made home-made silver solutions, what I call “moonshine silver.”

Anyways, the dose you’re looking for in shingles or mono is relatively high. Try a teaspoon of 500 ppm silver, every 3-4 hours. (Debra’s hung an email in the store from someone she knows who relates how she used silver successfully for shingles.)

Immune-Strengthening Herbs: Most of our immune-strengthening herbs work primarily by increasing immune activity vs. virally infected cells. This doesn’t happen overnight, and you’re going to want to consume these herbs consistently for a number of weeks to really have them build you up. Here, when I say “herbs,” I’m referring not just to well-known plants like Astragalus and Echinacea leaf, but most of the medicinal mushrooms, aloe vera juice, and even goji berries. (Try eating two dozen little raisin-sized berries a day). Again, these herbs are better in prevention than in treatment. So consider them especially when you’re subject to frequent outbreaks — and not just of herpes viruses, but colds, flus, etc.

Red Marine Algae (Gigartina spp.): These seaweed species contain both immune-strengthening compounds as well as compounds that block herpes viruses from binding to host cells. This double-whammy makes Gigartina among our best interventions for an active herpes outbreak. I like to use Gigartina in people with stubborn, recalcitrant outbreaks.

Fatigue Following Mono: Well, this could be a whole dissertation, but let me keep it simple. Look for an herbal formula that combines ginseng-type stress response herbs (what herbalists call adaptogens) with immune-strengthening herbs. There are a lot of them out there. A personal favorite, which I’ve gotten tremendous results with, is a formula called Astragalus 10+ put out by the Seven Forests company.

Swollen Glands Associated with Mono: There’s an herb called Red Root, which is wonderful for shrinking and toning swollen lymphatic tissue. Combine that with other herbs that stir up the lymph itself (Red Clover, Wild Indigo, Figwort, Violet, etc.), and you’ve got a great little formula. Luckily, there are companies that already put those formulas together for you. I’m also a big fan of another Seven Forests product called Viola 12, which combines the fatigue/rebuilding actions of Astragalus 10+ (see above) with some lymph-clearing herbs.

Post-Herpetic Neuralgia: In a perfect world, everyone would go after the active shingles outbreak as soon as possible, with all guns blazing. The more quickly and aggressively you push back the outbreak, the less likely you are to have complications afterwards.

Having said that, there’s a lot to be said for cayenne pepper, both in pills (or piled on your food if you can handle it); and in ointments and creams. Cayenne depletes a major pain neurotransmitter called Substance P. (Here, P stands for “pain” — for once, the scientific name is easy to remember!)

Beyond that, I’d explore the herb Saint John’s Wort. Yes, Saint John’s Wort is known as “the antidepressant herb.” (It’s reasonably effective, too, although you can normally do better). Of relevance to us here, is the fact that it’s a decent antiviral. It is also for nerve pain. So it’s a nice double-whammy to address the pain that herpes can leave behind. You can take it internally. And you can use the infused oil topically. It doesn’t work quickly, but it works deeply, and well.

For nerve pain that’s lingering on and on, I’d look at the antioxidant alpha-lipoid acid and a version of vitamin B1 called benfotiamine, both of which can often address chronic neuralgias. Look for 600-1,200 mg of the alpha-lipoic acid, and 300-600 mg of benfotiamine.

Adam Stark