Managing Shingles Naturally
Shingles (also called herpes zoster) is a disease caused by a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes chicken pox. The virus doesn’t leave the body, even after a person has recovered from chicken pox. Therefore, anyone who has had chicken pox is at risk for developing shingles at some point in their lives. In Canada, the risk of developing shingles is estimated to be as high as 30% in the general population. Shingles is most common in individuals over the age of 60, and especially those with weakened immune systems, HIV infection, radiation treatment, certain medications (including steroids and chemotherapy), and high levels of or chronic stress.
People with shingles often experience a burning, tingling or itching sensation and then a painful rash. The rash can occur anywhere on the body, although it is usually in one strip on the right or left side of the body. The rash consists of groups of small, fluid-filled blisters that dry, scab over, and heal (like chickenpox) in a few weeks. Healing is usually complete without any issues, but some people may be left with scars. In rare cases, shingles may lead to eye complications (including blindness), pneumonia, hearing problems, encephalitis (brain inflammation), or death.
After the rash has healed, some individuals may continue to feel pain in the affected area such as an aching, throbbing, stabbing, sharp, electrical, or piercing sensations. This condition is termed postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). Stress may intensify the severity of the pain.
Integrative Medical Therapies for Shingles
The integrative medical approach and treatment goals for shingles include reducing pain and discomfort, speeding up the healing time of blisters, and preventing the disease from spreading.
The elderly are especially at an increased risk from several nutrient deficiencies because of the physiological changes related to aging or pre-existing health issues. Approximately 35% of people age 50 or older are reported to have at least 1 micronutrient deficiency, which can lead to a decreased immune system functioning. Proper immune system functioning is important to prevent the Varacella Zoster Virus from reactiving and presenting as shingles. The elderly have been shown to be deficient in nutrients such as vitamins C, D, B6, B12, folic acid, and zinc. Deficiencies of zinc and vitamin C have even been suggested as risk factors for developing postherpetic neuralgia and is associated with diminished immune system function. Therefore, it would be important to address these nutritional deficiencies, through diet or supplementation, in order to ensure that the immune system has all the resources it needs to function properly.
Echinacea is a popular herb used in traditional herbal medicine to support immune system functioning, as it has shown to have antiviral, antimicrobial, and immune system supporting activity. It has also has specific antiviral activity against viruses of the herpes family, with HSV-1 and HSV-2 being the most studied. For example, in a study that included a combination product containing an extract of the echinacea, 80-93% of the patients studied reported reduced itchiness, tension, and pain associated with HSV. While studies involving the use of echinacea specifically for shingles are lacking, its use remains as a cornerstone for the treatment of shingles due to its antiviral and immune system supporting effects against the virus.
Professional-grade extractions of the root of Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea purpurea with standardized amounts of alkylamides (the part of the plant with immune system supporting effects) are considered to be the most valuable and effective species.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)
St John’s Wort has an antiviral effect against the herpes virus due to its constituents hypericin and pseudohypericin. In traditional herbal medicine, this herb can also be used for the treatment of neuralgia (nerve pain) as a nervous system tonic, and can be especially helpful for those experiencing post-herpetic neuralgia. St. John’s wort is heavily studied and known for its anti-depressant effects, improving mood, decreasing anxiety and insomnia related to mild to severe depression. It has also been shown to have antiviral effects in a number of cell studies. When combined with a form of copper, St. John’s wort has been shown to reduce symptoms such as stinging and burning, redness, and pain in in patients with herpes simplex virus (HSV-1, HSV-2).
Professional-grade extractions of the plant Hypericum perforatum with standardized doses of hypericin is most effective to ensure that the therapeutic effects of this medicinal herb are achieved.
Acupuncture can be helpful in managing the severe pain associated with Shingles. In a recent randomized controlled trial, acupuncture sessions at twice a week for four weeks was shown to have a similar pain relieving affect when compared to conventional pharmacological therapy (pregabalin, local anesthesia, or opiods).
- Natural Medicines (2015). Echinacea. https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com/databases/food,-herbs-supplements/professional.aspx?productid=981
- Natural Medicines (2015). St. John’s wort. https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com/databases/food,-herbs-supplements/professional.aspx?productid=329
- Natural Medicines (2015). Herpes Viruses. https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com/databases/medical-conditions/h/herpes-viruses.aspx
- Public Health Agency of Canada (2013). Fact Sheet – Shingles (Herpes Zoster). http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/id-mi/shingles-zona-fs-eng.php
- Devi M R et al. (2013). Review on: Shingles, its complications & management. The Pharma Innovation,2(4)
- Chen et al. (2012). Nutritional Factors in Herpes Zoster, Postherpetic Neuralgia, and Zoster Vaccination. Population health management 15(6): 391-397
- Ursini et al. (2011). Review – acupuncture for the treatment of severe acute pain in Herpes Zoster: results of a nested, open-label, randomized trial in the VZV pain study. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 11:46