Think about the last time you had a cold sore. Was it annoying, embarrassing, painful? Cold sores are not only uncomfortable, they’re also a clear indicator of a weakened immune system. As we head into the colder autumn months amidst the uncertainty of the global pandemic, supporting a healthy immune system has never been more important.
Viruses that cause cold sores and shingles are very common
It’s estimated that 50-60% of the population carry the virus for cold sores. This virus and the virus responsible for shingles are both members of the herpes family. A healthy immune system tends to keep these viruses dormant but in times of stress that put strain on the immune system the virus can flare up and present symptoms.
These viruses can cause pain and scarring and can resurface again and again. Antiviral medication can help to shorten the duration of flare ups but they don’t treat the underlying immune imbalance so flare ups can happen frequently. With the stress of new school and work schedules, your immune health may not be the first thing on your mind. For that reason, taking a moment to intentionally build some immune supporting habits into your daily routine can be the “ounce of prevention” you need to thrive during this challenging season.
Typical Symptoms & Risks
Most of the time, those infected with these viruses have no symptoms. When activated, both viruses have a distinct rash of fluid-filled vesicles on a backdrop of redness and swelling. Cold sores are typically on or near the lips whereas shingles emerge along a nerve distribution, mostly commonly on one side of the torso. Shingles is a reactivation of a dormant chickenpox virus residing in the nerves. Itching and painful shingles can cause uncomfortable temperature sensitivity as well.
Occasionally shingles can occur on your face. When close to the eyes or nose, shingles carries a risk of blindness so always see your doctor to assess shingles on the face even if you’ve had shingles before. Also it’s important to note that exposure to blisters increases the risk of infecting others.
Although shingles is more common in older adults, shingles can occur at any age. I experienced shingles for the first time as a teenager. The best way to reduce the risk of viral reactivation for both shingles and cold sores is to support overall immune system health.
Weaknesses that lead to viral reactivation
- Missing Nutrients
Your immune system needs protein, vitamins (like A, C, B12 and D), minerals (like Zinc) to do its job. These nutrients are often missing from processed foods.
- Lack of Sleep
The immune system does a lot of its important work while we sleep. Lack of quality sleep means the immune system will have more difficulty fighting viruses.
- Elevated Stress
Along with lack of sleep, stress also suppresses immune responses as our bodies need to be in a relaxed state to unleash the full power of the immune system.
- Other Infections
There is only so much your immune system can handle at once. Fighting infections on multiple fronts (viruses, yeast, bacteria) weakens the response to each of those infections.
Immune system supporting habits
- Instead of saving time, choose to conserve and build energy
Trying to “get as much done as possible” leads to feeling hectic and anxious. Instead, be intentional about ways you can build your energy on a daily basis. For example, here are some ideas for improving your sleep quality. With the cooler weather, eating warm/cooked foods may feel better for your digestion and can also give you more energy.
- Eat to support immune system function
With over 70% of your immune system being in your gut, great gut health is critical to great immune health. Avoid processed foods that lack essential nutrients to power your immune system. Instead eat whole foods including plenty of colourful vegetables to get a broad range of nutrients.
- Avoid foods high in arginine that prompt viral replication
It’s thought that the amino acid arginine promotes viral replication whereas lysine blocks it (1). Therefore avoid arginine rich foods like tomatoes, nuts, pumpkin seeds, chocolate and sugar and emphasize more lysine-rich foods like fish, eggs, meats, apples, pears and green beans.
- Supplementing for herpes immune system defence
L-lysine supplements taken preventatively or at the earliest sign may be helpful for reducing the occurrence, severity and healing time of cold sores (2).In our part of the world, Vitamin D deficiency is quite common and supplementing may be helpful in supporting immune function and energy levels.For those who suspect that you may be getting shingles (skin tingling, temperature sensitivity, feeling “run down”) consider additional vitamin B12. The most concerning complication of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia – chronic pain even after the skin rash has healed. A review found that Vitamin B12 improved the quality of life in people with postherpetic neuralgia and decreased the use of painkillers (3). Clinically I have found B12 injections as early as possible to be helpful in recovering from shingles with minimal complications.
Talk to your practitioner before introducing new supplements.
Cold sores and shingles are a response to a weakened immune system. Proactively improving our daily sleep, rest and nutrition can go a long way in preventing these uncomfortable conditions. In addition, if you do start to get a herpetic rash, I hope this gives you a few more tools to speed up healing of the skin and strengthen your whole immune system.