Chris writes: “A couple of months ago I got my first ever cold sore and since then I’ve had several. A blood test confirms that I have HSV-1, the oral herpes virus. Do you have any suggestions on healthy ways to eat and the best foods to avoid while living with herpes?”
As a carrier of the HSV-1 virus, Chris is not certainly alone. It’s estimated that between 50% to 85% of the population is walking around with this virus in their blood stream. Many of them never develop the tell-tale cold sore or fever blister. Others might have one or two over their entire lifetime. And some are plagued with regular outbreaks.
HSV-1 stands for herpes simplex virus, and it belongs to the same family of viruses that cause chicken pox and shingles. There’s no getting rid of a herpes virus; it remains in your body for your entire life. Most of the time, if you’re lucky, the virus lies dormant and causes no symptoms. But there’s always the potential for a herpes virus to be re-activated, especially if your immune system is weakened by stress, fatigue, or illness.
Can Diet and Nutrition Prevent Cold Sores?
What role does diet play in keeping HSV from flaring up? Given how many people this virus affects, it’s a little surprising how little research has been done. Of course, that doesn’t stop folks from spouting off all kinds of advice. But much of the advice you might encounter on the Internet is anecdotal or speculative … or even just mistaken. For example, you might see recommendations for nutrients or herbs that supposedly strengthen the immune system—but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these nutrients will help suppress herpes outbreaks.
We often talk about “the immune system” as if it’s a single piece of equipment, like a hammer or a saw. In reality, the immune system is more like a toolbox, full of all kinds of different tools for different jobs. The sharpest saw in the world isn’t going to be much use if what you need is a Philips head screwdriver.
So when it comes to suppressing herpes, we’re not looking for things that affect any aspect of the immune system. We’re looking for things that specifically impact the immune response to viruses … and not just in test tubes but in actual human beings.
But can your nutritional choices help prevent cold sores?
Get your Vitamin D: Although no studies have specifically looked at vitamin D for the prevention of herpes outbreaks, this nutrient is critical to the activation of T cells, which is one of your primary defense mechanisms against viruses. School kids who took vitamin D supplements during cold and flu season were significantly less likely to get the flu. Cold and flu season is in the wintertime, when vitamin D levels tend to be at their lowest.
If you know you have HSV, you might want to take a vitamin D supplement in the winter—and be sure to look for a supplement containing vitamin D3, which is the active form of the vitamin. You can also get active vitamin D from oily fish such as herring and mackerel. Click here to learn a very cool trick for enhancing the vitamin D content of mushrooms.
Eat your fruits and vegetables: If you’re looking around online, you’ll probably see recommendations for taking vitamin C, or zinc to prevent herpes outbreaks. To see whether this advice is any good, researchers set out to see whether the intake of various nutrients seemed to offer any protection against herpes zoster, which is the member of the herpes family responsible for shingles, a painful condition that often afflicts older people.
This is not the virus that causes cold sores, but zoster and HSV-1 are both herpes viruses that lie dormant in the bloodstream until something triggers an outbreak. When the researchers looked at individual nutrients, such as vitamin C or zinc, it didn’t seem getting more of these nutrients offered any protection. However, those who ate the most fruits and vegetables did have fewer outbreaks.
The researchers concluded that, rather than any one vitamin, the cocktail of nutrients that you get when you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables every day might be the winning ticket in this particular lottery. I certainly don’t see any downside to this strategy and lots of collateral benefits!
Limit sugar and refined carbs. These foods may suppress various aspects of immune function. You’ll see a lot of anecdotal evidence from herpes sufferers who find that avoiding these foods seems to reduce outbreaks. Because I think this is really good advice anyway, I’m willing to include it in my list of things that may help with herpes, despite the lack of hard evidence.
I’m sorry that I don’t have more to offer in the way of nutritional therapy for cold sores and herpes. We all love to quote Hippocrates (“Let food by thy medicine”) and I hate to see people turning to medications to solve problems that are caused by poor diet and lifestyle choices. But as valuable and important as a healthy diet is, some medical conditions can’t be entirely prevented or cured by good nutrition alone. Fortunately, there are some prescription medications that can help treat and prevent herpes outbreaks in those who are particularly prone to them.