The Epstein-Barr virus received a lot of publicity in the 1980s. It seemed like every time I looked in a magazine or turned on the TV, another celebrity was relaying their tale of woe about this strange new malady that was robbing them of their energy and attacking their bodies with aches and pains. According to the media, it was assaulting “yuppies” in epidemic proportions. Researchers have learned a lot about this virus in the last 20 plus years and have found that it is associated with much more than just fatigue-related illnesses. One of the most commonly found viruses in all of humankind, Epstein-Barr, is responsible for conditions ranging from mononucleosis to several types of cancer. What do we know about this prolific virus, and how can we protect ourselves from its attacks? First, let’s get some background and then look at some of the natural strategies for the Epstein-Barr virus.
What is the Epstein-Barr Virus?
The Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) was named after British researchers who discovered it in 1964 – Michael Epstein and Yvonne Barr – with assistance from Bert Achong. EBV is technically known as human herpesvirus 4 (HHV-4) and is a member of the herpes virus family, including the herpes simplex virus. It is found worldwide, and most of the world’s population is infected with it at some point in their lives. It is estimated that up to 90% of the population is infected. Infants are susceptible to infection shortly after birth, as soon as maternal antibodies disappear. In developed countries such as the United States and the European Union, infection usually does not occur until adolescence or young adulthood. In other parts of the world, it is more common for infected children to be found. Often these infections show no symptoms or are hard to distinguish from normal childhood illnesses such as a cold or flu. 35-50% of the time, infected adults will develop mononucleosis, which is the most common manifestation of EBV.
What is Mononucleosis?
Mononucleosis (mon-oh-noo-Klee-OH-sis) is known by a variety of names, including mono, infectious mononucleosis, glandular fever, “the kissing disease,” and “Pfeiffer’s Disease.” Mononucleosis is caused by EBV and is a contagious viral disease found mostly in teens and young adults. It is also most common in developed nations. The primary symptoms are fever, sore throat, and swollen glands, especially in the neck. Some patients may also experience nausea and vomiting, skin rash, headaches, and joint pain. Tonsils may also become swollen.
From the onset of infection to the appearance of symptoms, the standard incubation period is about 4 to 6 weeks. During this time, the patient is contagious, but mono can only be spread by intimate contact with another person’s saliva. This usually occurs by kissing, coughing, sneezing, or the sharing of drinking or eating utensils. Once symptoms have appeared, the illness usually runs its course within several weeks to a month. However, some people will experience fatigue and not feel back to normal for several months. Infected individuals will keep the EBV in their systems for life, but most people only develop mono once.
Mono cannot be cured. During the course of the illness, one should get plenty of rest and drink large amounts of purified water and fresh fruit juices if desired. Some folks choose to take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for sore throat and fever, but make sure you never give aspirin to children. Aspirin can cause a condition called “Reye’s Syndrome” in children. Reye’s Syndrome is an upper respiratory tract infection that can lead to brain and liver damage. It is fatal in some cases.
Most of the time, mono is not a serious illness. Occasionally, certain complications may develop:
- A sore throat may progress into a streptococcal infection (strep throat), which is caused by bacteria and not a virus/
- The severely swollen throat may rarely cause the patient to have difficulty breathing due to obstruction of the airway/
- Enlargement of the spleen is something to watch out for. It is recommended that patients don’t rush the recovery process, which may increase the risk of spleen complications. It may take up to a month or more to safely return to normal activities. In rare cases, the spleen may even rupture, a serious medical condition needing immediate care.
Symptoms of a ruptured spleen may include:
- Sharp pain on the left side of the abdomen
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Difficulty breathing
- Rapid heartbeat
- Inflamed liver
- Heart or brain complications. While extremely rare, these may be life-threatening.
- Any subject with a compromised immune system, such as AIDS patients or organ transplant recipients, is at greater risk of complications.
Epstein-Barr’s Number One CoFactor
EBV has a best friend – bacterium called Streptococcus. In these cases, the body is dealing with not only a virus, but also bacteria that further confuse the immune system and produce their own group of symptoms. Streptococcus is Epstein-Barr’s number one cofactor. Streptococcus can create strep throat and/or spread to the sinuses, nose, or mouth. It can also create infections in the urinary tract, vagina, kidneys, or bladder — eventually causing cystitis.
How Do I Know If I Have Mononucleosis?
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell because the symptoms of mono also may accompany many other illnesses. Generally, if cold symptoms persist for longer than two weeks, mono may be suspected. A simple blood test can be performed to determine the absence or presence of antibodies to EBV. It is called a “mono spot test.” However, this is not always a precise indicator of a current case of mono. Most people have at least minimal levels of EBV antibodies in their blood unless they have never been exposed to it, which is the exception rather than the rule.
EBV in a person’s body normally goes through cycles of activity and dormancy. During the active cycles, the antibody counts will be higher. During dormancy, they will drop. There is always some presence of EBV antibodies, no matter how minimal. Researchers have discovered they like to hide in the bone marrow. In some bone marrow transplants, patients who previously tested positive for EBV showed negative results after a transplant from a negative donor.
What Other Health Conditions Can EBV Cause?
These other conditions are most commonly found in people whose immune systems are already compromised by another issue:
- Burkitt’s lymphoma and nasopharyngeal carcinoma are two forms of rare cancer seldom found in the United States. Burkitt’s is a non-Hodgkins type of lymphoma that usually affects the jaw. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma affects the respiratory tract and is commonly found in North Africa, Southern China, and the Arctic. It is thought to be related to the high consumption of smoked fish in these cultures. The exact role EBV plays in these cancers is unclear, but the cause is thought to be from multiple factors, EBV being one.
- Hodgkins Disease. There is not a lot known about the role of EBV in Hodgkins, a form of cancer, but it certainly is a factor.
- Herpes simplex virus (same family as EBV)
- Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. This is an upper respiratory tract illness. Not much is known at this point about EBV’s role, only that there appears to be a link.
- Multiple Sclerosis. A study (April 2006) indicates that EBV may in some way alter the immune system and put a person at greater risk of developing MS. Some believe that infection with EBV may actually double the risk of getting MS 15-20 years later. Considering most of us have been infected, this may be something we want to watch as researchers learn more.
Natural Strategies for the Epstein-Barr Virus – Diet
EBV-related illnesses, most commonly mononucleosis, are primarily immune system disorders. There are many natural ways to boost the immune system:
A healthy diet is foundational. Eat a diet rich in real foods, including ample amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables. Choose organic and locally grown if you can find them. These foods are high in antioxidants. They attack free radicals and help to keep our immune systems strong and efficient.
The following foods are highly recommended: Wild blueberries, apricots, sweet potatoes, kale, cilantro, celery juice, sprouts, cucumbers, garlic, ginger, spinach, and asparagus.
Drink 8-10 glasses a day of purified water every day. All of your body’s systems need water to operate at their best, especially the immune system. Water flushes the body of waste and helps keep the blood healthy, which is the heart of the immune system.
Vitamins and Supplements
Vitamins A, C, and B-complex are excellent for the immune system, and they help increase energy levels. Load up on vitamin A in yellow vegetables and fruits and leafy green veggies like carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, broccoli, spinach, apricots, and mangoes. Fish oil is a good source too. B-complex is found in eggs, cheese, fish, kidneys, and liver.
Vitamin C High dose (7.5 to 50 grams) intravenous vitamin C therapy may positively affect disease duration and reduce viral antibody levels. EBV antibody expression correlated with plasma ascorbic acid concentrations and confirmed the depletion of vitamin C during EBV infection. Vitamin C sources include citrus fruits, berries, cherries, and guavas. Vitamin C is lost easily from foods that sit on the shelf too long or are overcooked, so think fresh and raw.
Vitamin B12 strengthens the central nervous system.
Zeolite has antiviral properties due to its potential ability to absorb viral particles.
Plant-Based Selenium: strengthens and protects the central nervous system.
L-lysine lowers EBV load and acts as a central nervous system anti-inflammatory.
Zinc boosts the immune system and protects the thyroid from EBV inflammation.
Natural Strategies for the Epstein-Barr Virus – Herbs
- Astragalus: Good for overcoming weakness. Rich in amino acids and trace minerals.
- Ashwagandha: May help to relieve stress, reduce cortisol, and improve fatigue. Considered a helpful option for managing the main symptoms of Epstein-Barr Virus and potentially helping to prevent viral reactivation.
- Organic Oregano oil: Acts as a natural antibiotic.
- Lemon balm: Antiviral and antibacterial. It kills EBV cells and strengthens the immune system.
- Echinacea: Immune system fighter. Boosts white blood cell production.
- Garlic: Combats viral infections.
- Goldenseal: Good for sinus congestion. Antibiotic properties. Caution: poisonous in large amounts; do not use if pregnant (stimulates uterus).
- Elderflower: Fever reducer.
- Holy Basil (Tulsi): Adaptogenic herb that resets and restores the immune system and stress response regulation.
- Yarrow: Fever reducer.
- Cat’s claw: Reduces EBV and cofactors such as strep A and strep B.
- Cleavers: Lymphatic system cleanser.
- Wild Indigo: Lymphatic system cleanser.
- St John’s Wart: Treats depression and anxiety.
- Valerian: Treats depression, anxiety and helps with jaundice.
- Slippery Elm Bark and Licorice: Gargling with these soothe sore throats.
- Aromatherapies: Use oils of bergamot, eucalyptus, and lavender to relieve fatigue, headaches, congestion and boost the immune system.
Natural Strategies for the Epstein-Barr Virus – Lifestyle
Exercise is a common-sense remedy, like eating right and drinking plenty of high-quality water, which helps the immune system fight its battles more effectively. Regular, consistent exercise 4-5 times a week (for 20-30 minutes each time) will keep energy levels up, and when we do come down with a bug, it will help us recover faster. Exercise also encourages us to breathe more deeply and delivers more oxygen and nutrients to our organs. I highly suggest rebounding because of its ability to help with lymphatic drainage. I once heard someone say that if a person were to simply walk, drink ample amounts of purified water, and learn to breathe properly, that just about any health condition could be improved or eliminated.
Massage can also be a useful tool to help the body cleanse itself of impurities and will help with muscle aches and pains associated with many conditions, including mononucleosis.
Daily Probiotic and Prebiotic
Take a daily probiotic and prebiotic that includes a blend of live and active cultures from 25 probiotic strains containing Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains.
Get Plenty of Restful Sleep
Getting sufficient and restful sleep is crucial. Restful sleep allows your body to heal and repair from illness and maintain its optimal function. When you don’t get enough restful sleep, it puts unwanted stress on your adrenals, raising cortisol and adrenaline levels, which will interfere with your sleep, resulting in an overall lack of energy.
Sleep hygiene habits include avoiding anything that will interrupt your sleep. This includes too much screen time and caffeine. Electronic screens (on computers, phones, televisions, etc.) emit high levels of blue light, which can skew your sleep-wake cycle, signaling to your body that it’s not yet bedtime. So, if you like watching Netflix or live on your laptop or tablet, you can install an app that changes and dims the light on your computer. Here is what I use on mine: https://justgetflux.com Many newer operating systems (for both desktop and mobile) have night shift modes. Look for it on your device and use it.
Caffeine stimulates your central nervous system and can stay in the bloodstream for several hours. Try to limit caffeine to the early part of the day. This includes coffee, tea, soft drinks, chocolate, and pain relievers that contain caffeine.
Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF)
Daily Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF) treatments are helpful with microcirculation and healing. PEMF promotes healing by increasing circulation, nutrient absorption, and reducing inflammation – all of which are very important for EBV. It can also be a great way to remove all the EMF smog we experience from our day-to-day lives. Most people notice that their body feels calmer after a treatment.
Currently, no vaccine exists for the Epstein-Barr virus, nor is there any cure once someone is infected. Treatment involves supporting your immune system while you recover over a four to six-week period.
Natural strategies for the Epstein-Barr virus include supporting your immune system while you recover from EBV. Other natural strategies for the Epstein-Barr virus are restful sleep and daily rest, a healthy diet, supporting vitamins and supplements, staying hydrated, herbs, and soothing sore throat pain.
The good news is that people with mono recover fully and can usually go back to normal activities in about three weeks. There is a small number of people may notice fatigue for several months after recovery from the virus. Severe health complications are uncommon but may include anemia, central nervous system or liver concerns, ruptured spleen, or heart inflammation. People who have had mononucleosis may have an increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS).
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV). https://www.cdc.gov/epstein-barr/about-ebv.html. Published 2018. Accessed 4/27/2021.
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