by Dr. Will Cole
You know that terrible tingle – the one that means a cold sore is imminent – but did you know that you could prevent them from ever rearing their red, scaly little heads again? There are over 3 million cases of cold sores every year in the United States alone, and 90 percent of us get at least one cold sore in our lifetimes, with 40 percent of us having recurring chronic cold sore infections. So what are they exactly, and more importantly, what can you do about them?
Cold sores, aka fever blisters, are painful infections that pop up, usually on the lips (they are different than canker sores, which only show up on the inside of your mouth) and are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1). For context, HSV-2 is what causes the STD genital herpes outbreaks, and sorry to say, a large percentage of the population has the HSV-1 virus lurking inside, ready to jump out and ruin your week at the slightest provocation. Cold sores are very contagious and can spread to other parts of the body such as the lips, cheeks, eyes, and, yes, the the genitals. So when you have a cold sore (or your sweetie does), it’s a no-contact zone. Cold sores come from the same group of viruses that cause mono, chronic fatigue (Epstein-Barr virus), chickenpox, and shingles, and so far, modern medicine has identified eight different types of the human herpes virus.
The name herpes come from the Greek word “herpein” which means “to creep,” and that’s exactly what these suckers do. They can stay dormant for years and then boom, there they are again, showing up on your doorstep like some distant relative who is always asking for money. Yep, herpes is one rough family. The great news is that you can kick herpes to the curb by following my 21 top tips for banishing those unsightly and painful sores.
1. De-Stress STAT.
To blast cold sores, you need your immune system to be in optimal working order, and being stressed out does just the opposite. Chronic stress lowers your immune system, giving those creepy herpes viruses the green light for a full-blown cold sore flare-up. When you sense you are getting stressed, remember that tingle and consciously cultivate consistent, meaningful practices of stillness in your life. Seriously, you can reverse the stress response and shore up your immune system just by cultivating a sense of calm. Try yoga, tai-chi, hiking in nature, float tanks, and/or mindfulness meditation, all of which are some of my favorite ways to unwind. Or just stop the madness throughout the day for a few minutes of slow, deep breathing.
2. Shield your lips.
3. Boost your immunity.
T-regulatory cells are immune-system-regulating powerhouses and you can pump them up by sipping on jasmine green tea and shaking cinnamon into your smoothie.
4. Increase your L-lysine.
This amino acid is a proverbial atomic bomb against viruses. Try taking 1,000 milligrams of lysine two to three times a day and eat lots of L-lysine-rich foods like wild-caught fish and organic poultry.
5. Decrease your L-arginine.
While you are upping the L-lysine, suppress another amino acid, L-arginine, which the herpes simplex virus specifically requires for replication. The best way to do this is to avoid L-arginine-rich foods, especially during cold sore season, like beer, chocolate, cola, chicken soup, grains, nuts, and seeds.
6. Get adaptogenic.
In case you haven’t noticed how often I talk about adaptogens, here’s my confession: I’m an adaptogen super fan. These botanical superheroes effectively modulate the brain-adrenal (HPA) axis, which helps manage immunity and stress levels. Some of my favorite adaptogens: holy basil (tulsi), maca, and schisandra.
7. Lemon balm your lips.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), a lemon-scented member of the mint family, is a cold-sore killer. In a randomized, double-blind trial of 116 patients with cold sores who used a 1% lemon balm extract cream on their cold sores five times per day, 96 percent showed complete clearing in eight days. Another study demonstrated a similar effect, but with lemon balm essential oil. Patients put the oil on their cold sores and within 72 hours, most cold sores were significantly smaller and healed faster than sores of people in the control group.
8. Slay ’em with ‘shrooms.
Medicinal mushrooms, especially chaga and Lion’s mane, are two of my favorite immune-boosting, cold-sore-slaughtering mushroom varieties.
9. Lay off the sugar.
It’s oh so sweet, but sugar also dulls your immune response and has been linked to cold sore flare-ups, so when you think you feel one coming on, lay off the sweet stuff. For a full guide to what sugars are the best and the worst, check out my guide to decoding sweeteners. The information might surprise you.
10. Raise your vitamin C.
Vitamin C sounds so been-there done-that, but don’t overlook this powerful antioxidant, potent immune-booster, and antiviral superstar. I like lypo-spheric vitamin C for best absorption, and/or eat more C-rich foods like kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kiwi, and citrus fruits.
11. Enjoy a berry delicious teat.
Organic blueberries are a yummy way to take your antiviral medicine. Eat them like candy, or add them to smoothies or even salads. Why not double up, with some fresh fennel in your salad? It contains high-powered antiviral compounds, too.
12. Sip on skullcap tea.
Skullcap manages to fight viruses with vigor while making you feel perfectly calm. Multitasking! I like this herb in tea form. Look for a brand that isn’t made in China, so it is less likely to be contaminated by industrial pollution.
13. Try awesome astragalus.
This powerful herb is one of my favorites for fighting off viral infections, including cold sores. It has been shown to inhibit the herpes simplex virus – and good riddance!
14. Think about zinc.
Zinc-oxide-based cream is an effective tool for cold sores, according to a randomized clinical trial showing that those who began treatment with zinc oxide within 24 hours after a cold sore appeared dramatically cut the duration of their cold sores. Increase the power of zinc by adding zinc-rich foods like wild-caught fish, mushrooms, grass-fed beef, organ meats like liver, turkey, and pasture-raised eggs.
15. Munch on some sprouts.
Sprouts, especially from broccoli, are all-around superfoods but their sulforaphane content boosts your immunity by helping optimize methylation pathways. Add sprouts to your salads, smoothies, or just much by themselves.
16. Sip pau d’arco tea.
Anybody you knows me knows I am a tea fanatic, and this is one of my favorites, not just for its great taste but because it is a potent antiviral. Try mixing it with the skullcap tea and pouring it over ice for a refreshing iced herbal tea option for the summer.
17. Choose coconut oil, in spite of what “they” say.
Coconut may have been vilified by the American Heart Association (and redeemed by functional medicine doctors everywhere), but there is no doubt that it has awesome antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. Mix a tablespoon in smoothies or use it directly on your lips.
18. Virus, meet peppermint.
A study published in the medical journal Phytomedicine demonstrated that peppermint essential oil could wallop the herpes virus. After a few hours in the presence of peppermint, 99 percent of cold sore viruses were history!
19. Apply tea tree oil.
Tea tree oil, or melaleuca, is a powerful antiseptic. Look for a nontoxic lip balm containing cold-sore killing tea tree oil. Or, make your own by mixing a few drops of tea tree essential oil into a little coconut oil. Heck, while you’re at it, you might as well add a little lemon balm and peppermint, for a DIY lip balm containing holy trinity of cold sore destruction.
20. Get enough sleep.
Just one lousy night of sleep can spike your inflammation levels and suppress your immune system. So quit thinking of sleep as a luxury and consider it a health necessity. Put down the smartphone, TV remote, or any other electronic device, and get yourself to bed, in the name of no more cold sores!
21. Heal your gut.
As a functional medicine practitioner, my job is to get to the root cause of health problems like cold sores. Why do you get them? Because chronic immune stress leaves your body open to viral infections, and that vulnerability can start in your gut, where 80 percent of your immune system resides. Heal your gut with lots of healthy food choices and quit feeding the bad bacteria. This may be the very best way to thwart cold sores before they can start.
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