My colleagues and I have noticed a rash of patients with shingles in the office recently. Pun intended, sorry. To be clear…shingles is no joke, so now that I got my silly pun out of the way, we can dig into the story of what shingles is and what you can do to prevent and treat it.
I’d like to tell the first part of the shingles story through not through my eyes as a physician, and not through the eyes of my many shingles patients…but through the eyes of a playwright named Alice Lipowicz.
What is shingles?
Alice Lipowicz woke up with a splitting headache and a strange tingling sensation in her face. She wasn’t able to get in to see her regular doctor so she went to the ER. The docs in the ER missed the diagnosis because she didn’t have a rash…yet. What was happening to Alice was that the chickenpox virus (Varicella zoster) that she had when she was a child was resurfacing, this time along the course of one of the nerves in her head and face.
A shingles outbreak occurs when the Varicella virus re-emerges along the course of a spinal nerve, after having been dormant in the dorsal root ganglion of the spine for years or even decades. As the virus reproduces along the nerve, the patient usually experiences a numb or tingling feeling first for several days, and then a blistering belt-like rash on one side of the body. In fact, the name “shingles” is derived from the Latin word for belt because of the sash-like pattern of the typical shingles rash.
In about 10 to 20 percent of shingle patients, the virus infects the cranial nerves near the eyes. That’s exactly what happened with Ms. Lipowicz, who had a serious infection that left her massively sensitive to light. For several months, as she battled the virus, she was confined to dark rooms while wearing sunglasses indoors. During that time, she was inspired to write her opus, “My Beautiful Darkened World.”
That brings us to the second act of our story about shingles which has also made headlines recently. Researchers have finally uncovered the biological mechanisms that make the condition so excruciatingly painful.
In a nutshell, scientists believe that specialized white blood cells migrate to the nerves which have been invaded by the virus where they release anti-inflammatory compounds called cytokines in an attempt to neutralize and eliminate the intruder. An unfortunate consequence of these particular cytokines is that they make pain neurons more excitable. As one researcher put it, “The neuron[s] becomes more sensitive to any stimulus, and spontaneous pain may even occur.” Anyone who has ever experienced the pain of shingles (and anyone who has ever treated it) should be hopeful that these new finding may help lead to new treatment options shingles.
Conventional shingles treatment
Traditional treatment for shingles involves antiviral medications like Valtrex, which is highly effective if administered within 72 hours of symptoms. Because Ms. Lipowicz (and her doctors) missed that window, her recovery was a long uphill slog. Thankfully, most people don’t have serious or lasting damage after a shingles infection, but the condition can be extremely painful. In addition to antiviral medications, conventional physicians might use anti-inflammatory drugs or painkillers…but that’s about all that mainstream medicine has to offer.
The naturopathic medical toolbox contains a variety of options that are safe and effective and effective tools for the treatment of shingles.
Naturopathic approaches for shingles
My most common prescriptions for people who have recently been diagnosed with shingles include:
- L-Lysine: Lysine is a naturally occurring amino acid. Some studies suggest that it can help heal cold sores caused by the herpes virus and halt the replication of the Varicella zoster virus. At the first sign of shingles, I recommend 1000 mg three times per day.
- Omega-3: These anti-inflammatory oils also have immune modulating properties and can be beneficial when used in high doses during an outbreak. Consider taking 3-5 grams per day (that’s 3000-5000mg). Numerous studies have found that fish oils (which are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids) have anti-inflammatory properties and can promote healing in nerve cells.
- Turmeric: The famous Indian curry spice is also a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. I find that it works best when combined with three other herbal allies: bromelain, boswellia, and quercetin which is why I included all four of these ingredients in my formula AI-4X.
- Alpha-Lipoic Acid: This nutritional supplement has antioxidant properties that are particularly useful in cases where nerve fibers are irritated or inflamed. I have found it to be useful in terms of reducing the severity and duration of shingles outbreaks. I usually recommend 300-500 mg twice daily.
- Avoid foods high in arginine: Arginine is a naturally occurring amino acid that is found in poultry (especially turkey), red meat, dairy, nuts and chocolate. Studies show that eating excessive arginine can promote the growth of herpes-type viruses.
Shingles is most common in patients over 60, but as I said earlier…it seems like we are seeing it in younger and younger patients every year. Shingles occurs when the chickenpox virus, which has been lying dormant for decades, makes a comeback. This usually occurs when the immune system has been compromised due to advanced age, recent surgery or trauma, cancer treatments, the use of steroids or other stressful factors.
Treating shingles with a naturopathic approach involves supporting immune function with supplements that:
- Combat the Varicella zoster virus
- Support nerve health
- Reduce inflammation.
If you’ve had chickenpox as a kid, then you are at risk. 1 in 3 adults will get shingles during their lifetime. Currently, there is no cure for the condition, but naturopathic remedies can help reduce discomfort and shorten the course of the disease.
Shingles is so painful…so I hope that you never need to use the information that I covered here.
Take good care,
Dr. Joshua Levitt