Natural Herpes Relief: While no cure exists for the herpes virus, the chances of controlling outbreaks increase dramatically when a combination of natural methods is used.
At a time when attention is focused on higher-profile illnesses involving impaired immunity -- HIV/AIDS, lupus, and chronic fatigue syndrome -- another member of this nefarious family of viruses continues to cause more human illnesses than any other vital group. Herpes, which surfaced more than 2,000 years ago, created quite a stir in the early- to mid-1980s when genital herpes became the most-feared sexually transmitted disease. Today millions experience painful recurrences of the virus.
Herpes, which comes from the Greek word herpein, meaning "to creep," may have taken a back seat in this age of maladies, but nearly every adult in the United States has been exposed to the highly contagious herpes viruses in one form or another, probably during childhood. Just how many people suffer from facial and genital eruptions is hard to estimate, but several researchers put the number at 55 million and counting. Standard medical treatment does not usually offer any significant relief during the course of an outbreak and may actually increase vital resistance to the one drug currently available. Acyclovir, prescribed by the medical establishment in both pill and ointment form, is currently the treatment of choice in the medical profession. While it clearly works for some sufferers to stem flare-ups, it does not provide any long-term relief.
It wasn't until the 1960s that medical researchers were able to shed any light on this mysterious virus. They discovered two separate strains: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV2). Varicella-zoster, the root vital cause of chicken pox and its recurrent form, shingles; Epstein Barr virus (linked to chronic fatigue syndrome); and cytomegalovirus (often associated with mononucleosis) were later discovered and classified as HSV3, HSV4, and HSV5, respectively. Just recently, new strains HSV6 and H? have been implicated as possible causes of chronic fatigue. The only good news about this insidious virus is that the different types of herpes do not cause the same symptoms, and being infected with one type does not make infection with the others more likely. Having one form of herpes, however, does not preclude contracting another type.
The common denominator of all of them is the ability of each virus to lie dormant in nerve tissue, often producing no symptoms at all until some triggering event reactivates it. Its latency -- or ability to hibernate following the initial exposure and infection -- makes a herpes virus especially difficult to eliminate. It is generally provoked from its dormant state in large part by a suppressed or weakened immune system.
The two types of herpes simplex that plague the majority of sufferers are HSV1, generally responsible for outbreaks appearing above the waist (although outbreaks can happen anywhere on the body), and HSV2, the virus said to attack below the waist, including genital herpes. According to researchers, HSV2 outbreaks seem to occur more frequently, although many more people are affected by HSV1.
In humans, the virus prefers to manifest on mucous membranes where the skin is thin, such as the lips of the mouth and vagina. However, just about any area of the body is likely territory for outbreaks that take the form of blisters or sores. Skin that is overly moist or whose natural protection has been compromised by injury or trauma is an ideal setting for herpes transmission.
The mouth is the most common site for herpes eruptions, with three to five times as many people getting cold sores than those who suffer from recurrent genital outbreaks. Because the skin around the facial lips is a bit drier than the genital skin, the blister stage appears to occur here more commonly. Cold sores typically emerge at the vermilion border of the lip -- the point where the thin mucous membrane of the mouth meets facial skin. For some, a tingling or itching sensation may signal an impending outbreak. Ulcerated sores that surface inside the mouth may be herpes, but more likely are apthous ulcers. The inflamed open cracks that appear in the corners of the mouth may be more a symptom of a vitamin B2 (riboflavin) deficiency than an outbreak of herpes.
The immune system provides the first line of defense against the herpes virus. Herpes-related illnesses are found to be the most common cause of serious infections in people whose immunity has been seriously impaired. Research, in fact, supports the theory that weak body defenses may be more responsible than the virus itself in activating eruptions, and that stress to the system is a major influence in recurring herpes infections.
Although herpes outbreaks themselves are stressful for everyone, factors that trigger the outbreaks vary from person to person. Emotional upheaval may be a strong factor for some, but for others it is unrelated. Many women will have eruptions only at certain times during their menstrual cycle, but the trigger day can vary from woman to woman. One study suggests that more women develop recurrences five to 12 days before the start of their next menstrual period than at any other time. Even though they stop the cycling hormones, birth control pills don't seem to diminish future outbreaks.
Some people become vulnerable when taking certain medications, at the onset of fever, or after being exposed to strong sunlight. For others, a long session in the dentist's chair can provoke or intensify an outbreak. Stress directly to the skin's surface through exposure to cold, windy, and dry weather conditions, extremely hot food, or biting or chewing lips with your teeth can leave skin tissue open to an attack. Fatigue from lack of sleep or anxiety and depression will also throw your body off course, leaving it vulnerable to another attack.
All of these examples of what can trigger herpes cause stress to the immune system -- taking medications, lack of sleep, skin problems, emotional distress. So the first order of business is to remove some of the stressful obstacles in your daily life. Sleep, for example, serves as the physical and mental body's daily tune-up. Getting the full amount of sleep your body requires can give you the edge you need in dealing with the issues and problems of the next day and reduce irritability and anxiety. Spending time meditating or just relaxing gives the body the chance to turn its energies inward to revitalize and restore itself. For many, just doing this much will help control recurrent herpes eruptions.
Dr. Wayne Diamond, a naturopath and psychotherapist from Philadelphia, has spent the last 10 years studying the skin condition of his patients. "It began when I noticed a high number of my patients had forms of chronic vital and bacterial infections," recalls Diamond. His research turned up a distinct correlation between stress, anxiety, nutrition, and the glandular processes acting in concert to stimulate herpes virus outbreaks. "Skin is a mirror of our overall health," explains Diamond, whose practice emphasizes a whole-person approach to healing, integrating psychotherapy with natural medicine. In dealing successfully with controlling herpes outbreaks, he takes a threefold approach: First, stimulate the immune system, then, thoroughly cleanse the skin's layers, and finally, balance the nervous system. "The immune system relies on the glandular system to stay strong, and stress can adversely affect both," he says.
"When people experience stress and anxiety, their bodies undergo tremendous changes. Body temperature increases and interferes with how nutrients are absorbed, and large amounts of acid pour into the stomach that then get absorbed into the bloodstream," Diamond explains. The acidic blood can become a very powerful irritant, especially in the soft tissue areas where the herpes virus lives. These factors can dramatically increase the likelihood of a herpes outbreak on the face, sexual organs, or, in the instance of herpes zoster, inflamed or irritated tissue anywhere on the body. The fulcrum of the balancing act, Diamond discovered, is maintaining an alkaline environment internally.
According to his research, two specific emotional states almost universally precede herpes outbreaks in those prone to them. One is internalizing feelings such as anger or fear; the other is ambivalence or fear of loss. Although these emotional states manifest outwardly in a variety of ways, they serve to diminish the function of the glandular system which governs the immune system. "If we understand how stress affects us," Diamond continues, "we can try to reduce its effects and maintain a healthy mind-body connection."
When a trial formula of vitamins, herbs, and amino adds showed positive results on a particular patient group, Diamond introduced the formula to the public in December 1990 under the brand name Herpanacine. He describes it as a synchronistic formula, stressing that it is the interaction of the 10 ingredients -- not one single herb or vitamin -- that achieves maximum absorption and thus provides relief. Lysine, for example, is one of the main ingredients in Herpanacine. While often the antidote holistic practitioners prescribe to stem flare-ups, its ability to quell outbreaks by itself remains controversial. Diamond's research argues that lysine use alone can be inconsistent as a prevention tool, and for some sufferers does not work at all. Other reports say that lysine is indeed helpful in mitigating the effects of other herpes-related diseases, including Bell's palsy (a type of facial paralysis) and Meniere's disease (a disorder of the inner ear).
The Herpanacine formula includes lysine to keep the herpes virus from multiplying; beta carotene to cleanse skin layers and flush the immune system of toxins; L-tyrosine to balance the nervous system; vitamin E to purify dermal tissue of toxins and to increase stamina; selenium to reduce viral cell growth; dandelion root to reduce excessive acidity in blood and skin and to support liver function; sarsaparilla to dispel toxins from the blood; astralagus, lingustrum, and echinacea to reduce vital and bacterial cells in blood and skin layers and to boost immunity. The purpose of such a combination is to balance the body's overall chemistry, cleanse the skin, and build up immunity so that the body is more able to minimize future outbreaks.
All holistic practitioners, whether Western, ayurvedic, or traditional Chinese, believe that good nutrition is essential to combatting herpes. Barbara Custer, an acupuncturist and doctor of oriental medicine in Mill Valley, California, agrees with Diamond that it is important to eliminate acid-producing foods from the body and replace them with foods that promote an alkaline state. High-acid foods to avoid include all members of the nightshade family -- tomatoes, eggplant, sweet peppers, and white potatoes; citrus fruits; sugar; white flour; fried foods, MSG; dairy products; and caffeinated drinks.
To promote alkalinity Custer and Diamond both recommend a diet with plenty of leafy green vegetables, grains, brown rice, and fish. For vegetable protein, try beans, tofu, and tempeh. To further lessen the chance of new herpes eruptions occurring, avoid foods high in the amino acid arginine -- nuts, peanuts, seeds, excessive cereal grains, and chocolate.
Rosemary Gladstar, in her book Herbal Healing for Women (Simon & Schuster, 1994), recommends a three-step program for treating genital herpes. Like Diamond, her treatment plan concentrates on strengthening the nervous and the immune systems and reevaluating the diet. Using several nervine adaptogenic herbs and foods, she aims to increase the body's ability to respond to environmental and emotional stresses and to calm the nerves. Her recipe for strengthening the immune system includes such herbs as pau d'arco, echinacea, and burdock root. Besides the dietary restrictions Diamond and Custer recommend, Gladstar includes zinc supplements (but only during periods of vulnerability, such as menstruation, illness, traveling, and acute stress) and plenty of fresh garlic.
With herpes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure -- maybe more if you're a chronic sufferer. But flare-ups, despite your best efforts to prevent them, can occur when you least expect them. When prevention doesn't work, natural remedies can again come to the rescue. There are several oral homeopathic remedies that allay herpes virus symptoms. Dana Ullman, coauthor of Everybody's Guide to Homeopathy Jeremy Tarcher, 1984), suggests several remedies, but cautions medical supervision during their use. The remedy should match the symptoms closely and should be stopped as soon as improvement occurs. Some of the remedies Ullman recommends for facial and genital outbreaks include sepia, graphites, rhus toxicodendron, and dulcamara. Hylands #27, a combination homeopathic remedy, alleviates the symptoms of cold sores, fever blisters, and cracked lips from overly acidic foods.
Topical remedies that usually contain a healing agent like allantoin or a base of herbal healers can help relieve cold sores and fever blisters. (See sidebar for recipes). A potential sunblock or zinc oxide applied to lips can protect tender skin from harmful effects of ultraviolet rays. Oils like geranium or eucalyptus and tinctures such as myrrh applied directly to cold sores every few hours can reduce pain and promote healing.
When searching for relief from painful episodes of herpes simplex outbreaks, one thing is obvious: the possibilities for long-term relief exist in natural remedies. Whether you change your diet or the way you deal with life or include more restorative asanas in your daily yoga practice, you are empowered to positively affect the course of a health pattern that has no known cure.
Yoga Journal L.L.C.
By Michele Picozzi