Dealing with Shingles - Naturopathic Approaches
by Dr. Krysten DeSouza, ND
Collaborative Healthcare Network
5–3405 South Millway
Mississauga, ON L5L 3R1
Shingles is often touted as an infection of the elderly. We see commercials on TV for the shingles vaccine, and everyone pictured is over the age of 60. Perhaps the pain of shingles can be much more debilitating at that age, but the reality is that anyone who has had chickenpox is susceptible to shingles—no matter how old you are.
What Is Shingles?
Shingles is one of the many strains of the herpes virus that can reside in a dormant state in the human body. If you recall, other strains of the herpes virus can cause cold sores and blisters around the face and mouth, genital herpes, and chickenpox. A child that has been infected with chickenpox will develop immune cells in response to the virus and it will go into its dormant state within the nervous system.[ 1 ] This virus can be reactivated later in life by a number of events that cause a weakened immune system or significant psychological stress.
Progression of Shingles
The period in which the virus is reactivated within the nervous system and travels along the nerve is called the incubation period. Shingles generally infects just one nerve and only on one side of the body. During this time, you might feel a numbness, tingling, burning, or itching sensation along the pathway of that nerve. Depending on the strength of the immune system, this could take 1–2 weeks and can also come with some low-grade flu-like symptoms.
Gradually, the itching and burning becomes stronger and can even become sharp and knife-like. Bumps will form along the nerve, which will eventually become fluid-filled. Depending on the nerve involved, movement can be painful, finding a decent sleep position can be difficult, and even clothing can trigger a sharp nerve response.
Eventually the fluid-filled bumps will rupture and ooze—this is the most contagious part of the infection. Individuals who have never had the chickenpox virus are most at risk of infection, and it is best to stay away from these individuals for 1–3 days. Then, the healing process begins, the pain will decrease, and you’re on the mend!
This entire infectious process can take around 3–5 weeks if nothing is done to speed up the process or kill the virus. It will heal on its own, but there is always a risk that the nerve pain can linger in the area for months in a process called postherpetic neuralgia.
So, How Can We Treat it?
Immediate pharmacological treatment with antivirals from a medical doctor can help to reduce the pain and length of the infection. Research suggests that antiviral medication can also reduce the risk of postherpetic neuralgia if implemented within the first 72 hours of infection.[ 2 ] For elderly individuals with a greater risk of postherpetic neuralgia or any immune-suppressed individual undergoing chemotherapy or HIV/AIDS therapy, this may be a suitable option.
However, for the other percentage of university students, young professionals, first-time home owners, new moms, or anyone with significant psychological stress, several natural options can reduce the length of infection and speed up recovery.
In my experience as a naturopathic doctor, the following are some of my most effective tools for treating shingles.
This is probably the most important part of the treatment plan, and it will vary depending on the person and their stressors. Of course, stress is listed above as a trigger for the shingles outbreak, which is often enough to convince people to lower their stress levels. For individuals in which the stressor cannot be eliminated (e.g. job, loved one), providing other outlets for energy can prove very helpful. Exercise plans, dance classes, art, and music can be a key part of stress management, as well as acupuncture treatments, counselling, and meditation classes.
Strict Elimination of Refined Sugars
We all know that sugar isn’t good for us, but most of us only consider how sugar affects our waistline. On a different level, sugar directly impairs the immune system, by reducing the number of cells that clean up and remove waste (phagocytes) from an infection site. During a shingles outbreak, the immune system has been weakened, and the addition of sugar will only prolong the outbreak and leave you feeling worse. Not all forms of sugar are bad, however, and fruit sources consumed within reason are acceptable.
The gym is often the last place people consider going when they are under the weather, and it definitely should not be the first place to consider going when you are contagious! However, going for a walk outside, climbing stairs, riding a bike, or any way you keep the body moving are all important for stimulating the lymphatic system to clear the infection. Energy levels can often be low, and moderate levels of activity can help to provide a boost and a good night of sleep.
Localized Vitamin B12 injections
Not every naturopathic doctor considers this an important part of shingles management, but in my clinical and personal experience, localized vitamin B12 injections have provided pain relief within a matter of hours. Of course, this depends where the shingles outbreak is located, but localized injections on the trunk and face can be uncomfortable, yet effective. Vitamin B12 plays an important role in nerve health and formation of myelin, a protective layer around nerves that insulates and allows them to fire quickly. This makes it an important nutrient in the management of all nerve-related disorders.
For anyone suffering from chronic cold sores, lysine is an important amino acid with antiviral properties targeted directly at the herpes virus. Research shows that a high ratio of lysine to arginine is favourable for slowing the replication of the herpes virus and accelerating recovery. The best part about lysine is that it doesn’t need to be consumed in large doses, and even a small dose can be taken every day to boost immunity and prevent future outbreaks.[ 3 ]
We all know vitamin D is essential for all of us living in the Northern Hemisphere. Our sun isn’t as strong, our daylight hours are reduced, and we often spend most of our days indoors at work. Vitamin D has implications in bone health, mood balance, and immune support, and it plays an important role in brain health and cognitive function. A systematic review published in 2017 demonstrated that low levels of vitamin D throughout life increase the risk of dementia and the rate of cognitive decline later in life.[ 4 ] In the management of short-term shingles, vitamin D may not create noticeable changes, but is overall an important part of strengthening the immune system and preventing recurrence.
Antioxidants are nutrients found in certain foods, which are known to be protective against damage anywhere in the body. Antioxidants can protect blood vessels in people with high blood pressure, the gastrointestinal tract for people exposed to harmful bacteria, and the brain for those with a tendency towards depression. They are found in berries, green tea, and certain vegetables, and they are rarely consumed in high-enough quantities in the typical North American diet.[ 5 ] For someone with shingles, antioxidants must be consumed in supplement form to reach the recommended dose most effective for healing the skin, reducing scarring, and protecting nerves.
Antiviral herbs can be used in many ways; most commonly as a tea, but more potently as a liquid tincture. Ideally, a herbal formula is initiated as early as possible and carried out for the duration of the outbreak, but the ideal dosing schedule will depend on the severity of the outbreak. Several professional companies will sell antiviral formulas, but here are a few of my favourite herbs for managing shingles:
- a. Hydrastis canadensis (goldenseal)
- b. Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice)
- c. Achillea millefolium (yarrow)
- d. Echinacea angustifolia (echinacea)
As with all things, the treatment of shingles is different for every individual, and it requires the time and effort of an experienced practitioner to determine the proper dosing and frequency of these treatments. It is also important to consider potential interactions with conventional medications, which may be more prevalent in an elderly population. No matter what the age or immune status of the person, natural treatments are a highly effective option, alone or in conjunction with antiviral pharmaceuticals.