By: Rachel Gorman, MAOM, Lic.Ac.
Have you seen the shingles vaccine commercial? As animated nerve cells light up across the screen in what you have to assume is terrible pain, an ominous-voiced narrator says “If you’ve ever had chickenpox, the shingles virus is already inside you.” Every time I see it, I shudder. Hopefully you haven’t had shingles, and if you have then I’m sorry you had to go through it! But most people know at least one person who’s had shingles and have heard how painful the rash is. At best, the vaccine only reduces the risk of getting shingles by 50%, and it’s only available to certain demographics (for instance, I was told I was too young to get it). But did you know that acupuncture and herbal medicine is amazingly effective at treating shingles? It’s true!
First, a quick lesson on shingles: Shingles is the common name of the virus Herpes Zoster. It is due to a reactivation of the Varicella Zoster virus, aka chicken pox. Most people have had chicken pox and as that commercial described, if you’ve ever had chicken pox then the shingles virus is already inside you. After your body fights off chicken pox, the virus lays dormant in your nerve cells. When your body’s immune system is weak (often due to periods of high stress, and/or poor eating habits, and/or other illnesses), the virus can take advantage and shows up as shingles. It is usually felt as tingling pain 1-5 days before the rash appears. The rash itself is usually unilateral, affecting one side of a person’s flanks or trunk, although occasionally it will affect the head or other areas of the body. It can range from mild to severe, and generally lasts around 3-5 weeks, even with antiviral medications. Most doctors only prescribe the antivirals if you catch it within the first few days, as after that window they are considered ineffective. Some people are left with nerve pain that lasts months or even years after the rash disappears.
I can serve as a case study for you—I’ve actually had shingles twice. Both instances followed periods of extended stress (the more recent was during my acupuncture licensing board exams). The first time I had shingles was before I had ever experienced acupuncture. The second, I was about to graduate after studying and practicing TCM for 3.5 years. There’s some amazing differences in my two experiences:
- First Experience: It hurt for a few days before I got the rash, like something was biting me, then the rash popped up. I saw my doctor after a week and was given something to apply topically for the pain. I had the rash on my right rib cage area for the next 5 weeks. Despite being a “mild” case, it was extremely painful.
- Second Experience: I felt the burning/biting sensation, but ignored it because I was studying, and because from time to time since the first shingles experience I would feel the “nerve-y” sensation on my ribs where the rash had been so I assumed it was just that. After a day though, the rash popped up. I skipped the doctor and opted instead to load up on a traditional herbal formula and a particular supplement I will discuss below, did acupuncture every other day, and changed my diet. The result? Within 4 days the rash was no longer painful, and within 10 days it was gone entirely.
That’s a pretty significant difference! In TCM, rashes like shingles (burning, stinging, painful, red, raised, blistered, etc.) fall into the category of Damp Heat Invasion. Interestingly, shingles almost always affects one of the two Shao Yang meridians along the sides of the body. So the TCM diagnosis is (almost always) Damp Heat Invading the Shao Yang Channels. The treatment principle for acupuncture, herbs and diet then becomes to Clear Heat, Drain Dampness, and Regulate the Channels. In addition to acupuncture and herbal medicine, I have added two western/biomedical elements to what I call my Shingles Treatment Protocol. The first is the supplement L-Lysine, and the second is dietary changes to increase lysine in the body. Lysine is an amino acid and it has a partner, Arginine. Lysine inhibits the replication of the virus, while arginine promotes it. So loading up on lysine and lysine-rich foods, while minimizing arginine-rich foods, can also make an enormous difference in your experience with shingles. Not only have I learned this myself through my own experience, but I’ve been able to treat several patients with shingles who saw their symptoms resolve within 1-2 weeks.
The Shingles Treatment Protocol
- Acupuncture as often as possible, as early as possible. The earlier we catch it, the quicker it will clear up. Twice a week or more is ideal.
- Herbal medicine. There is a particular traditional formula that is very effective at treating this type of rash. Again, the earlier you start it, the better. You take it in tablet or powder form until symptoms resolve.
- L-Lysine. Available in CVS, Target, Whole Foods, Price Chopper, etc. The standard dose for Lysine is 1-3 grams daily. However, in the midst of a shingles outbreak, I suggest taking 9-15 grams daily while the rash is painful. As the rash fades, you can taper the dose back down until it is entirely gone, then discontinue use.
- Diet: the balance of Lysine and Arginine in the body is critical in the treatment of shingles.
- Until symptoms totally resolve, it is important to completely avoid: chocolate, coffee, nuts, alcohol, spicy food, beans/lentils/peas.
- Until symptoms totally resolve, you can add these into your diet (this is very specific to shingles and generally not foods we advise patients to consume on a regular basis J): dairy, meat, fish.
- Topicals: Apply directly to the affected area.
- Yin-Care. Can be ordered on Amazon.com. Can be used diluted or full-strength (I recommend full strength). Apply to cotton swab and dab onto rash. Can be used several times/day.
- Anti-Viral Cream from Aroma Medica, sold here.
And there you have it! I sincerely hope no one reading this EVER has shingles, but if you or a loved on do end up with shingles, come in for treatment as soon as possible to minimize the duration and severity of the virus.