Herbs and other natural approaches for easing herpes symptoms.
It’s ugly, embarrassing, and we’re uncomfortable talking about it with others. What is it? Well, if you’ve ever had to explain, or try to cover up, the telltale clusters of blisters that appear due to exposure to the herpes virus, you’re a member of this not-so-elite club. But, you can take solace in the fact that, even though your body will be a lifelong host to herpes, it doesn’t mean you have to endure a life sentence of distressing and painful symptoms.
According to the American Social Health Association (ASHA), genital herpes infects an estimated one in five people age 12 or older in the United States, and an estimated 500,000 Americans contract genital herpes each year. The New England Journal of Medicine estimates that the occurrence of sexually transmitted herpes has increased 30 percent since the 1970s. With more than 70 viruses making up the herpes family, you may not think these statistics very surprising; fortunately, of the known virus culprits, only four of these directly affect humans — herpes simplex (HSV), varicella-zoster (VZV) [also known as the “chicken pox virus”], Epstein-Barr (EBV), and cytomegalovirus (CMV). Of these, perhaps the most common and detectable is the herpes simplex virus, which has two distinct varieties — types I and II.
Type I (HSV-1) is symptomatically characterized by cold sores, or fever blisters, occurring on the lips, around the mouth and, sometimes, near the eyes.
Type II (HSV-2) commonly leads to uncomfortable and embarrassing fluid-containing genital ulcers. Of course, these are only a sampling of the most commonly reported outbreak sites associated with HSV. Herpes blisters can also appear on the buttocks, abdomen, or elsewhere. (One woman reported discovering herpes blisters on her thumb!) The sores, called prodomes, begin with a tingling, itchy sensation of the skin, which later develop into red, painful blisters. The virus is most contagious during both the onset of blisters and their maturity into fluid-filled lesions.
The herpes virus is spread by direct contact with infected skin or body fluids, including saliva, discharge from lesions, and sexual fluids. Since prevention is worth a pound of cure, keep in mind that the risk of developing clinical infection after sexual contact with an infected person is near 75 percent, according to Michael T. Murray, N.D., and Joseph Pizzorno, N.D., in their second edition of the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine.
Once infected, the virus remains dormant in nerve cells (where the immune system apparently cannot locate it) and recurs at or near the primary infection site when triggered by certain stimuli. A host of things can cause an outbreak, such as illness, trauma, stress, sunburn, menses, some medications, sexual activity, and allergies to certain foods.
While there is currently no cure, or immunization, to defeat herpes, there are natural measures that can ease, and possibly prevent, future outbreaks. One such recourse is to monitor the ratio of the amino acids L-lysine and arginine in the diet. Several double-blind, placebo-controlled studies suggest that increased levels of L-lysine inhibit the synthesis of arginine proteins necessary for viral growth.
In one study, 80 percent of L-lysine-supplemented subjects reported significantly fewer outbreaks of HSV-1. Those suffering from HSV-2 did not fare as well, unfortunately. Since chronic herpes outbreaks can possibly indicate a compromised immune system, and excessive doses of L-lysine can increase serum cholesterol levels, supplementation should only be administered, and monitored, by a qualified health-care practitioner.
Certain herbs have also been shown to be effective as part of a treatment plan for herpes sufferers.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis L.) has provided relief for some when applied as a topical ointment. A 1993 study involving 115 people afflicted by fever blisters or genital ulcers applied a cream containing lemon balm extract to their affected areas, five times a day. Eight days later, the subjects were examined and it was determined that healing of the infected lesions took place in 96 percent of the group. It is believed that the presence of caffeic, rosmarinic, and ferulic acids present in lemon balm lends the herb its antiviral properties.
In a separate study from the same year, the antiviral efficacy of lemon balm extract was evaluated and its action found to be detectable within a few hours of application, ranging from three to 24 hours, depending on the strength of the extract used. Without treatment, recovery from an outbreak typically takes from one to two weeks.
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), given as glycyrrhizic acid, has also shown therapeutic benefit in the treatment of herpes. High levels of glycyrrhizic acid have actually affected irreversible deactivation of the herpes simplex virus in vitro. It should be noted, however, that prolonged use of licorice may result in the retention of sodium and a loss of potassium. Therefore, anyone being treated for high blood pressure should seek professional advice and care.
Other herbs to consider, according to the book, Managing Herpes, published by the American Social Health Association (ASHA), are goldenseal, taken in capsules or teas, which has antiviral properties, and garlic, an ancient folk remedy for colds that has been shown to inhibit a number of viruses, including herpes, and bacteria in vitro. In addition, the book states, “practitioners of homeopathic medicine, naturopathic medicine, and Chinese herbal medicine also have treatments for people with herpes.” The book also notes that a healthy lifestyle is important in the management of herpes. They remind us to: eat a balanced diet, get the proper amount of sleep and exercise, avoid excesses of caffeine and alcohol, stay away from tobacco, and be careful to manage chronic stress.
The natural treatments described above are effective, safe, and without the unpleasant side effects often experienced with synthetic medications. The standard allopathic treatment for herpes simplex is, most often, topical applications of the drug, acyclovir (Zovirax), but the rate of healing is often the same, or even less accelerated, than is experienced with the herbal therapies discussed above.
If you think you may have herpes
If you think you may have herpes, or have been exposed to the virus, you should seek evaluation from a physician. Unless definitively diagnosed, you shouldn’t presume that an outbreak of sores is the result of a herpes virus. Other factors could be at work, including the onset of venereal disease, or even the presence of the HIV virus. If it is known that you, in fact, harbor the herpes virus, you should avoid sexual activity while the blisters are present. If you are a woman, you should have regular Pap smears, since some studies suggest that persistent herpes infections may be associated with cervical cancer.
For a free information packet on herpes and other sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), or to order Managing Herpes: How to Live and Love with a Chronic STD, contact the American Social Health Association (ASHA): 1-800-230-6039. Also available is the National Herpes Hotline, which offers confidential counseling: 1-919-361-8488, or the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) National STD Hotline: 1-800-227-8922.
|Increase L-lysine-rich foods||Limit arginine-rich foods|