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Ask the Naturopathic Doctor


Acupuncture, a low-arginine diet, and key supplements can relieve pain and speed recovery

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Expert Tip

Try using astragalus as a daily immune tonic, particularly during cold and flu season. “It increases the body’s resistance to disease and improves the vitality of the immune system,” says Christopher Hobbs, LAc, AHG, who formulated Rainbow Light’s Deep Defense with astragalus and other herbs for strong immunity.

Q: I’ve had shingles several times in the past few years. It is so very painful! What causes this, and how can I prevent recurrences? -Pamela S., Riverside, Calif.

A: Shingles is indeed painful. It shows up as a line of blisters, usually somewhere on the back. This nerve disease is the reactivation of the chicken pox virus. This virus is part of the broader family of herpes viruses, called herpes zoster. As with all herpes infections, the virus lives in the nervous system and can be brought on by various factors, including heat, stress, a diet high in arginine, drugs, alcohol, and lack of sleep.

A new shingles vaccine (Zostavax) for adults age 60 and older promises to render adults less likely to manifest shingles in their older years. Because the crop of blistering skin lesions can be very painful, the adult vaccine may be a worthwhile gambit if you are older than 60 and have had more than one episode of shingles. It remains to be seen whether the shingles vaccine really does reduce adult recurrences; as of yet, there exist no conclusive studies.

However, a large study suggested that recurrences were reduced by 51 percent with the vaccine in immuno-compromised adults, who are most at risk for pain lasting up to a year and possible complications (such as blindness). In an otherwise healthy adult, however, shingles generally resolves without special measures within a few weeks.

There are a number of natural things you can do to reduce or prevent recurrences of shingles. First, beware of going into a very warm climate suddenly (for example, a tropical vacation), especially if you live most of the year in a cool climate. Sudden exposure to heat and sunshine can bring the nerve infection to the surface. If you are prone to shingles and planning a sunny getaway, make sure you are well rested, not indulging in drugs or alcohol before or during your trip, and try to avoid (or reduce your intake of) foods high arginine.

Foods high in arginine include chocolate, cola, beer, grain cereals, chicken soup, gelatin, seeds, nuts (especially peanuts), and peas. The herpes family viruses, as with all viruses, are tiny creatures that are a unit of DNA or RNA surrounded by a protein outer shell, which happens, in this case, to be arginine. Arginine and lysine are two structurally similar amino acids that compete for uptake into human cells through the same “keyhole.” While avoiding high-arginine foods, take supplemental lysine (500 mg, four times daily) for 10 days at the onset of a shingles episode, or preventively if you are under a lot of stress.

All nuts are high in arginine, compared to lysine, as are certain grains such as corn and buckwheat. If you are prone to shingles, avoid foods that are significantly higher in arginine than lysine. This doesn’t mean you should avoid eating foods containing arginine; you just need to choose foods that have relatively more lysine than arginine. Chocolate, unfortunately, also has a high arginine-to-lysine ratio.

You might also try acupuncture. There is a technique called “cutting off the head and tail of the dragon.” Acupuncture needles are inserted in a circle around the tail end of the string of blistery lesions, and also at the head, which is near the spine.

Some naturopaths or holistically oriented MDs inject B12 and lidocaine either intravenously or subcutaneously under the blisters. Naturopathic doctors also recommend topical capsaicin-containing creams. Capsaicin (a compound in cayenne pepper) contains substance P, which temporarily blocks pain receptors. Cool compresses over the blisters can also be very soothing. Calamine lotion can also soothe the fiery pain of shingles blisters.

Effective plant-based antiviral medicines that can help include licorice, lomatium (also known as osha), and astragalus. A tincture with equal parts of these three readily available herbs can be mixed. To shorten the course of the viral activation, take 1 teaspoon twice daily for 10 days as soon as shingles appears.