Herpes viruses are known to cause cold sores, genital herpes, herpes zoster (shingles), post-herpetic neuralgia and, in many cases, canker sores (aphthous ulcers). One type, known as herpes simplex virus type one (HSV-1), commonly affects the mouth and throat.Herpes simplex virus type two (HSV-2) usually affects the genital areas. The herpes virus that causes shingles is the same herpes virus that causes chicken pox in younger individuals. Once a person is infected through skin contact, the herpes virus travels up the nerve until it reaches the ganglion in the spinal cord. It remains there in a dormant state, but on occasion, the virus starts replicating again and produces skin eruptions on the areas of the skin innervated by the affected nerve.
The number of outbreaks can vary widely from one individual to the next, but the virus is thought to be a permanent fixture that resides within the ganglion for a lifetime, even though it might remain dormant for long periods. In the case of canker sores, not all problems are due to herpes infections. However, some of the nutrition and lifestyle information that appears in this article is useful for all canker-sore sufferers, regardless of the cause.
Prevention and Management
There are a number of antiviral drugs that physicians prescribe to prevent and/or manage herpes outbreaks. However, these drugs often do not suppress herpes outbreaks to a satisfactory degree. Thus, many afflicted individuals look to lifestyle, nutrition and supplementation practices to further reduce the number and severity of herpes outbreaks. The following considerations involve known trigger factors and natural remedies to help manage herpes conditions.
Factors That Cause Outbreaks
Fever, cold, flu, a weakened immune system, stress - Herpes attacks often occur when a person is run down, sleep-deprived or experiencing excessive stress, all of which weaken the immune system. This enables the virus to replicate more easily.
Ultraviolet light exposure (sun and tanning beds) - Ultraviolet light is a known trigger factor for herpes viruses. Encourage patients not to overexpose themselves to UV light.
Trauma to the skin - Cold sores and canker sores often are triggered by trauma or abrasion to the lips or inside of the mouth, including the tongue.
Avoid foods rich in arginine - Arginine is required for the herpes virus to replicate. As such, eating foods high in arginine, especially peanuts, chocolate and almonds, is associated with more frequent herpes outbreaks. The same holds true for dietary supplements containing arginine. These often include oral growth-hormone secretagogues and supplements designed to correct erectile dysfunction or enhance sexual potency.
Consume foods rich in the amino acid lysine - Studies indicate that herpes viruses extract lysine from the bloodstream, thinking it is arginine, as both have very similar chemical structures. Once inside, the virus attempts to use lysine to make protein VII (an arginine-rich protein that is at the viral core), but the attempt fails. Thus, the virus is unable to replicate. As such, lysine acts like an arginine substitute, which fools the virus and prevents it from replicating and causing outbreaks. Foods that contain high levels of lysine include most vegetables, legumes, fish, turkey and chicken.
Avoid alcohol - Alcohol weakens the immune system and is a known trigger for herpes outbreaks.
Reduce intake of refined sugars and aspartame - Anecdotal reports suggest consuming refined sugar increases the frequency of herpes outbreaks. Other reports suggest the same holds true for aspartame-sweetened soft drinks.
Vegan diet - Some individuals report success controlling herpes outbreaks by avoiding the consumption of all animal-based foods. Overall, it certainly makes sense to eat a largely plant-based diet and only eat fish, chicken, turkey and low-fat plain yogurt, if animal foods are to be consumed at all.
Consume broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables daily - Broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and bok choy contain an active ingredient known as the indole-3-carbinol, which has been shown to inhibit replication of herpes viruses. Individuals consuming these foods daily and supplementing with indole-3-carbinol have reported decreased frequency of herpes outbreaks.
High-potency multivitamins - The levels of vitamin C, selenium, zinc, vitamin A, beta-carotene and vitamin E in a high-potency multivitamin can enhance immune function, which has been reported to suppress herpes outbreaks.
Detoxifiers and immune support - A specific protein-bound polysaccharide component of reishi mushroom extract known as GLhw-02 has been shown to possess potent antiviral properties against HSV-1 and HSV-2 under experimental conditions. A small human trial demonstrated that reishi mushroom extract reduced pain dramatically in two patients with post-herpetic neuralgia and in two other patients with severe pain due to herpes zoster. Anecdotal evidence suggests daily ingestion of 60 mg of reishi mushroom extract can reduce the frequency of canker-sore and cold-sore outbreaks. Indole-3-carbinol also has been shown to inhibit replication of herpes viruses. Astragalus can help to strengthen the immune system, and milk thistle raises levels of glutathione, an important antioxidant and detoxifying agent associated with optimal health. Individuals have reported fewer canker sores and other herpes outbreaks with supplementation of these nutrients.
Additional reishi mushroom extract - To help stop a pending herpes outbreak of any kind, use additional reishi mushroom extract supplementation totaling 250 mg, four times per day (standardized to 10-12.5 percent polysaccharide content) at the first sign of a recurrence.
L-lysine - Taking L-lysine supplements each day has been shown to reduce herpes outbreaks and decrease the duration and severity of outbreaks, according to human clinical trials. The amount of lysine required to control herpes varied from case to case, but a typical dose to maintain remission was 500-1,000 mg daily. Active herpes required 1-6 g, in divided doses, between meals to induce healing and reduce the severity of the outbreak.1-3
DGL (deglycyrrhizinated licorice) - The use of DGL has been effective in speeding the healing of canker sores. A mixture of DGL and warm water applied to the inside of the mouth has been shown to shorten the healing time for canker sores. This DGL mixture is made by combining 200 mg of powdered DGL and 200 ml of warm water. It then can be swished in the mouth for two to three minutes and spit out. This procedure may be repeated each morning and evening for one week. Chewable DGL tablets might be an acceptable substitute.
Probiotics (acidophilus) - Anecdotal reports suggest supplementing with probiotics (acidophilus) might help to reduce outbreaks of canker sores and cold sores.
Other anecdotal reports - The interventions listed above have the strongest research support and should be used as the first line of natural management for herpes. The following interventions represent additional effective treatments for herpes, as reported by herpes sufferers who have posted their advice on various Internet sites.
- Gigartina red marine algae - 1,000 mg capsules, taken four times daily. Several individuals have reported good success with this supplement in reducing the number of outbreaks.
- Virgin coconut oil - One tablespoon per day. A number of reports suggest this can reduce frequency of outbreaks. It also can be topically applied to the lips after exposure to ultraviolet light to inhibit development of cold sores.
- Witch hazel oil - Using a cotton ball to dab witch hazel on to lesions at the first sign of tingling has been reported to block herpes outbreaks from advancing. Apply several times per day.
- Hydrogen peroxide and L-lysine - Crush some lysine into hydrogen peroxide and apply to lesions at the first sign of tingling. This also has been reported to block herpes outbreaks from advancing.
- DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide) - Topical application of DMSO to lesions at the first sign of tingling has been reported to block herpes outbreak from advancing.
- Neem oil - Derived from an evergreen tree native to India, neem oil is used for many purposes, including antiseptic use. Some herpes sufferers report good success by topically applying neem oil to lesions at the first sign of tingling. Some people also report good success with blocking a herpes outbreak by ingesting up to 10 neem-leaf capsules (400 mg per capsule) at the first sign of tingling.
- Apple cider vinegar - Using a cotton ball to dab apple cider vinegar on lesions at the first sign of tingling has been reported to block herpes outbreaks from advancing.
- Ear wax - Believe it or not, some people report that applying ear wax to herpes lesions (lips or genitalia) at the first sign of tingling blocks the herpes outbreak from advancing.
About 80 percent of American adults have oral herpes (cold sores) and an estimated 25 percent of American adults have genital herpes. Since the late 1970s, the number of Americans with genital herpes infection has increased 30 percent. Many patients report that pharmaceutical drugs to control herpes outbreaks are not completely effective. Thus, afflicted patients often seek additional advice from alternative-health practitioners to help further reduce herpes outbreaks and/or reduce the severity and duration of outbreaks.
This article contains the best-studied, evidence-based natural interventions shown to be useful in this regard, as well as interventions with the strongest anecdotal support. This should serve as a guideline from which to counsel patients about this common health challenge.
- Kagan C. Lysine therapy for herpes simplex. Lancet, Jan. 1974;1:137.
- Griffith RS. A multicentered study of lysine therapy in herpes simplex infection. Dermatologica, 1978;156:257-67.
- Griffith RS. Success of L-lysine therapy in frequently recurrent herpes simplex infection. Dermatologica, 1987;175:183-90.
Resources on Herpes Statistics
- American Social Health Association. Sexually Transmitted Diseases in America: How Many Cases and at What Cost? Menlo Park, Calif: Kaiser Family Foundation, 1998.
- Fleming DT, et al. Herpes simplex virus type 2 in the United States, 1976 to 1994. N Engl J Med, 1997;337:1105-11.
- Institute of Medicine. Committee on Prevention and Control of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. The Hidden Epidemic: Confronting Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Eng TR, Butler WT, eds. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997.
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