The Natural Health Way with Shingles
by Roger French
Shingles involves infection of nerves and is associated with severe, stinging pain in the skin followed by a rash. The disease can be very distressing and, in some cases, the pain can go on for months or even years.
As anyone who has had shingles knows, sufferers need effective help, and for the rest of us it would be well worth the effort to prevent the condition in the first place. Orthodox medicine treats shingles with anti-viral drugs and painkillers, but has no safe, effective treatment for the ongoing pain – post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) – should it occur.
In contrast, rather than focussing on treating the symptoms or the virus, Natural Health focuses on the whole person. By taking a wholistic approach, the possibilities for both preventing and overcoming the disease improve significantly.
A MISCHIEVOUS VIRUS
One of the herpes family of viruses, varicella-zoster virus, is associated with two clinically distinct diseases, chicken pox and shingles. The virus is commonly referred to as ‘herpes zoster’, the word ‘zoster’ meaning ‘belt’ in Greek. Most sufferers appreciate just how appropriately named is the disease, because the rash is often shaped like a belt around the chest, or at least one side of it, as it follows a major sensory nerve from the spine.
The varicella-zoster virus can be associated with chicken pox in childhood and can remain dormant for decades and eventually flare up and be associated with shingles. Virologists say that the virus has developed a complex strategy that allows it to remain latent in the body and avoid destruction by the immune system. When conditions are right for it, the virus is reactivated in the particular nerve root, and the result is shingles.
Contagious or not?
The virus is contagious, but shingles isn’t. Dr Mike Smith explains in his book, Skin Problems (Kyle Cathie Ltd. 1994) that if you do contract the virus from someone with shingles (by rubbing yourself against the rash), you will develop chicken pox. Antibodies then develop in the bloodstream, which prevent further bouts of chicken pox, but the virus is able to lie dormant in the ‘junction boxes’ of certain nerves. Usually it causes no further trouble, but if it does later in life, it’s shingles.
In short, a person with shingles may infect children with the virus who may then develop chicken pox, but it is very rare for a child with chicken pox to infect an adult who then develops shingles.
VERY STINGING SYMPTOMS
The first sign of trouble may be slight fever and feeling unwell, which could be mistaken for a mild dose of ‘flu, but the real cause of distress and apprehension is the onset of very severe, sharp, stabbing, stinging pain in the skin served by the particular nerve that is infected. The sufferer may be puzzled by the symptoms until the symptoms around the fourth day provide the diagnosis of shingles.
The rash may follow the nerve roots to the eye, face, legs, arms or around the trunk, the most common site being along the lines following a rib and almost always on one side of the body only. When the rash first appears, it is in the form of red blotches which soon form into blisters containing fluid. These tend to dry off and shrink during the following seven to 10 days. These crusty scabs tend to overlap and look like shingles on a roof, hence the name of the disease.
If shingles infects the nerve supplying the upper face and the eye, there may be danger of damage to vision and a special effort must be made to reduce this risk.
Some suffers can experience post-herpetic pain (pain persisting for longer than one month) long after an acute shingles attack.
The itching and pain experienced with the rash may be unbelievably severe. While the pain often subsides once the eruptions have faded, it may continue after the rash has disappeared. This post-herpetic neuralgia (neuralgia means nerve pain) is caused by scarring of the damaged nerve and can be very exhausting. The more frail or elderly the person, the more likely that PHN will occur. In sufferers over 60 years of age, between one-third and two-thirds will experience PHN. The pain usually eases with time. The consequences of chronic pain of this kind can include fatigue, sleep disturbance, lack of appetite, depression, social withdrawal and dampening of daily activities.
THE QUESTION REMAINS – WHAT DOES CAUSE SHINGLES?
It has been widely observed that shingles tends to be triggered by some form of stress in body or mind. A period of emotional stress or physical exhaustion or injury or an illness that has depleted the immune system are typical events that can be followed by the disease. The older the person, the more likely they are to develop shingles, simply because they will have had longer to accumulate the effects of such stresses.
These observations yield the clue to the view that:
- Shingles is not caused primarily by the mere presence of the virus; the virus is secondary;
- There is good reason why, among the many people who carry the herpes-zoster virus, some will develop shingles and many will not.
The key to developing shingles, as with virtually all ‘infectious’ diseases, is provided by many scientists, including Professor Rene Dubois of the Rockefeller Medical Center, New York. In his classic book, Man Adapting (Yale University Press, 1965) he explains that for latent microorganisms to become active and be associated with disease, the body must be in a state of physiological stress, meaning its biochemistry is out of balance. [Should the reader wonder if such a work is out of date, the answer is no, this prominent microbiologist has presented, in great detail, fundamental microbiological findings which are key to our understanding of germs. Unfortunately, Professor Dubois’ work has been largely overlooked.]
The fact is that we all carry within us a wide range of germs, viruses and other microorganisms capable of being associated with disease, but the logic is that as long as health and natural immunity are maintained at a good level, the illnesses will not develop. Our best safeguard against any form of disease, whether acute or degenerative, is high-level health.
As with most, if not all, forms of illness, the original underlying cause is toxaemia – a metabolic imbalance resulting from a combination of factors which typically include any or all of modern diet, emotional stress, synthetic chemicals and lack of exercise.
Toxaemia the Culprit
Overeating, eating when tense, eating when over-tired and eating refined foods that have lost their minerals, vitamins and hundreds of other nutrients all play a major role in putting the system out of balance. Without adequate antioxidant nutrients, the energy-producing components of every cell in the body are susceptible to free-radical attack, and without adequate minerals, vitamins and other nutrients, our immune systems will be weakened. All-in-all, when out of balance, our vitality to function is depressed and our defences to resist microorganisms are weakened.
Normally, metabolic wastes (from food) are eliminated via the liver, kidneys, bowel, skin and lungs, but when excessive wastes are produced and the nervous system tends towards exhaustion (enervation), the wastes accumulate within the tissues. Because these wastes are toxic, the condition is referred to as ‘toxaemia’.
Emotional and physical stress both lead to depletion of nerve energy, which first becomes apparent as over-tiredness. If the individual ignores nature’s warning to slow down and recharge the batteries, then digestion, assimilation and elimination are impeded and the toxaemia increases. The condition of toxaemia provides the conditions under which many diseases arise, especially inflammatory illnesses, because this is the condition of the body (or parts of it) in which microorganisms can become active.
Smoking, caffeine, salt, alcohol and other stimulants/irritants, along with medications that suppress symptoms, further deplete vital nerve energy and, in the long term, exacerbate the toxaemia and add to the underlying cause of disease.
An individual’s genetics and lifestyle determine where symptoms will manifest first, that is, which disease will occur. Because nerve tissue is the most specialised tissue in the body, it is especially sensitive to the irritation of toxaemia, so it is easy to understand how shingles can arise.
Shingles usually gets better in time and with few complications. In a small number of cases, the blisters develop bacterial infection and the area becomes red, warm and tender, known as cellulitis. Orthodox treatment for this is antibiotics.
The worst complication is loss of vision, which fortunately is rare. If the rash affects the forehead and nose, there can be damage to the eye and vision affected. If the eye is affected and there is any risk of blindness, it is important to see a doctor and have treatment. The risk of blindness is certainly not worth taking, especially as the side effects of drug treatment are probably much less damaging.
The most common complication of shingles is long-term post-herpetic neuralgia. If the nerve pain persists for more than a month, it is given this label. This simply means that the nerves continue to be irritated by the virus.
MEDICAL TREATMENT OF SHINGLES
There are several effective medical treatments for shingles, according to the medical website, medicinenet.com. Drugs that oppose viruses (antivirals) can reduce the severity and duration of the rash, provided they are started within two to three days after its appearance, when the blisters appear or just before they appear. Antivirals include acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex) or famciclovir (Famvir). To have the best chance of success, any treatment should be commenced early, preferably during the painful stage.
For pain relief, both non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) and narcotic pain control medications may be used. Anti-itching lotions, such as calamine lotion, may also provide relief. An aluminium acetate solution (Burow’s or Domeboro solution) can be used to help dry up the blisters and oozing.
The rash area should be kept clean by bathing with soap and water.
A vaccine, Zostavax, was released in 2006 to be used against adult shingles, but only for adults aged 60 and over who have previously had chickenpox. People with weakened immune systems should not receive this vaccine, meaning those having immune-suppressing medications, cancer treatment, HIV or organ transplant.
Unfortunately, the medical approach is anything but wholistic, as it treats the secondary cause (the virus) and the symptoms, rather than the condition of the body which enables shingles to develop in the first place.
In fact, drugs tend to add to the underlying toxaemia, producing ‘side effects’ and often setting the stage for other problems. A wholistic solution is much more rational, provided one can be found.
HEALING SHINGLES WHOLISTICALLY
The wholistic or Natural Health approach to shingles is at two levels – prevention in the first place and self-healing for a reasonably rapid recovery.
Preventing shingles depends on being healthy, the attainment of which is the primary objective of Natural Health. Dealing with shingles once it has arisen should be as prompt as possible. It depends on treating, not the virus, but the condition of the body so as to lower the toxaemia. A soft option to this advanced approach is to take measures which strengthen immunity and improve the circulation so as to relieve the symptoms without causing harm.
Lower Toxaemia and Pull the Rug from Under the Virus
Harry Clements, a prominent English naturopath and author in the field of self-healing, wrote that “Abstaining from food will give more relief from acute pain than almost any other measure”. This is because consuming no major nutrients for a short period allows the body to break down and eliminate wastes and chemicals, thereby removing the fertile ground in which viruses can thrive.
This approach facilitates the maximum level of self-healing of which the body is capable at the time. The process involves total rest for the purpose of conserving the maximum amount of energy for the healing process. Total rest involves not only complete physical rest but also rest of the metabolism (by not consuming any significant amount of fat, protein or carbohydrate), rest of the mind and rest of the senses.
Nature doesn’t know about important jobs at work that prevent us from taking a break from out busy daily routine, and demands that we take a period of complete rest if we are to enjoy the benefit of a comfortable and full recovery.
As soon as symptoms become evident, whether it turns out to be shingles or ‘flu, the person would consume only diluted fruit juices that are freshly home-made and unsweetened for three or four days. If there is no desire at all for food, consuming only water for a day or two will facilitate even more rapid healing.
The minimum necessary information for how to facilitate self-healing at home is explained in the Natural Health Society’s book, How a Man Lived in Three Centuries (written by yours truly), and in the Spring 2008 issue of Natural Health and Vegetarian Life, both of which are readily available from the Society.
The chapter/article spells out the safe limits of what can be done at home and advises that for longer periods of detoxification, professional supervision will be necessary. Supervision is available at Hopewood Health Retreat, Wallacia NSW, which is ultimately not-for-profit, closely affiliated with the Natural Health Society and has 50 years of experience in these perfectly natural methods.
The article also explains how to break the juice diet correctly.
It can be of great value to cleanse the bowels of toxic wastes and enhance detoxification by having warm water enemas, morning and evening, for a couple of days. However, be cautious about regular enemas over longer periods because the water tends to wash away important ‘friendly’ gut bacteria and this detrimental effect could eventually exceed the benefits. Either way, it would be useful to take supplements of acidophilous and bifidobacteria for a period of many weeks.
Once the toxaemia is lowered, whether it requires just a few days or a longer period under supervision, it is astonishing how the symptoms of illness normally fade away and vitality returns, whether it be colds, ‘flu, shingles or any other acute inflammatory condition in its early stages.
It is essential to understand that the opposite can happen briefly – after detox has commenced, symptoms can flare up. This is not a sign of harm, but a sign that detox is proceeding rapidly. If this effect persists for more than a couple of days, a wholistic practitioner should be consulted. Having guidance and reassurance as to what is occurring is one of the major reasons for detoxing at a health retreat.
The Soft Option for Healing
Where total rest is not practicable or a juice-only diet seems formidable, continue on the healthiest possible balanced natural diet and have extra nutritional support.
Have carrot-and-chlorophyll juice two or three times a day, an hour before meals. This consists of one-third to one-half glass of carrot and beetroot juice and the remainder the juices of celery, silverbeet and a small amount (about one tablespoon) of parsley juice. Broccoli and cabbage could also be included. As a mineral and vitamin cocktail to alkalise the system, this (or a similar juice) is par excellence.
Oats is a food that strengthens nerves and can be included in the daily meals in the form of porridge, muesli or oat muffins, all sugar-free of course.
To strengthen immunity and other systems, top up with supplements of vitamins B, C, E and possibly A and the carotenoids. According to manufacturers’ recommendations, take a B-complex daily, vitamin C with bioflavonoids at 500 to 1,000 mgs daily for a limited period, and vitamin E up to 800 IU daily. Take a carotenoid complex and, if the ophthalmic nerves to the eyes are involved, also take a moderate amount of vitamin A. Start with small doses of these vitamins and build up gradually.
One of the B-vitamins that is particularly connected with relieving shingles is vitamin B12. Having this by injection allows larger, though still safe, quantities to be given.
Two Los Angeles doctors found that a number of shingles sufferers who had experienced severe pain for more than six months obtained control of the pain by taking vitamin E at up to 1,200 IU or more. These levels are well above the usual upper limit of 800 IU that has been investigated and it might be wise to take the 1,200 IU level for only a very short time or else keep to the more modest 800 IU intake. Similarly with vitamin C, megadoses have been used successfully (under professional supervision), but at such levels side effects are possible, so it might be wise to keep to the lower doses mentioned above.
A herb that is anti-viral and nerve restoring is St John’s Wort. One authority recommends taking three tables daily. However, if pharmaceutical medications are also being taken, interference is possible and it is essential to consult a doctor before taking St John’s Wort.
Blackmores information service (www.blackmores.com.au/learning-centre) explains that weakened immunity is one the main risks for an acute attack of shingles and so immune support is vital in shingles prevention:
- Echinacea may help boost immune function
- Olive leaf extract may help immunity and has antioxidant properties.
- Zinc and vitamin D both help support normal immune function.
Pain Relief with Hydrotherapy
With both the ‘full-on’ detox option and the soft option for healing, hydrotherapy, or water treatment, can be used to stimulate the circulation, which usually brings substantial easing of pain, while promoting healing in the process.
Hydrotherapy has been successfully used in a number of ways by various practitioners. Here are some common ones:
- Bathing the inflamed area with cool water or warm water.
- Bathing the inflamed area with hot water for three minutes, then cold water for one minute, and repeating this cycle twice more.
- Using compresses – apply a hot compress for three minutes, then a cold compress for one minute, and repeat the cycle twice more.
- Immersing the body in a bath of very warm water or body-temperature water may be found to be helpful. The water may contain nothing or may have Epsom salts added at the level of 1 to 1½ kilos per bath. It is a good idea to have the bath just before retiring to bed and remain immersed for 10 to 20 minutes. But a warning – people with weak hearts should not take hot Epsom salts baths.
- A dry cottonwool compress usually brings relief by promoting sweating. Simply cover the affected areas with cottonwool, tape it in place, and wait for the local perspiration.
- If pain persists after the blisters have healed, put ice in a plastic bag, or use a bag of frozen peas, and stroke the skin vigorously with it.
Other forms of relatively natural pain relief
The following have been employed by various practitioners:
- Apply aloe vera gel (using Aloe barbadensis). Scrape the gel onto the inflamed area, cover with lint and hold in place with sticking plaster. Replenish the gel morning and evening.
- Dab apple cider vinegar onto the rash, either neat or diluted with water, according to what is tolerable. Repeat every couple of hours until relief is obtained. Follow the cider vinegar with aloe vera gel to dry out and heal the sores.
- Apply vitamin-E oil directly to the sores.
- If the blisters become infected, one doctor recommends dabbing them with neat hydrogen peroxide
Other Natural Therapies for Shingles
Olive leaf extract. Practitioners have had success in using this for shingles.
Homeopathy. See a homeopathic practitioner for the appropriate remedies.
Biochemic tissue salts. Take Kali Mur and Kali Phos alternately, 4 tablets of each every half-hour during the acute stages. Reduce the doses as symptoms ease.
Chinese herbs. Sometimes recommended are Oriental Wormwood and Chinese Gentian.
Aromatherapy. Dab the blisters with a solution made of one cup of water containing two drops each of the essential oils of lemon and geranium. Another very good oil to use is bergamot; it has antiviral and antiseptic properties and combines well with tea tree oil and lavender against shingles.
Acupuncture. Administered by a professional, this may be helpful. It has been shown to be of benefit in post-herpetic neuralgia.
Relaxation techniques. Meditation, relaxation audio tapes and similar techniques may be of considerable value to shingles sufferers in whom stress has triggered the illness.
Look inwards to attitudes. When the post herpetic pain is long-lasting, this may indicate that some deep emotional need is not being met. It may be a need for love or a need for attention or the pain may be diverting your attention from some other problem.