I’m happy to report that I’m doing really well in the “I don’t have shingles” department! Here’s an update. In this post I write about what led to my shingles case, and then cover what I’ve been doing since then to keep it at bay.
About a year ago, I got a really bad case of shingles while on a climbing trip. I embarked on a 2-month illness that saw me literally laying in bed jacked up on painkillers and antivirals for the first 5 weeks, then slowly regaining my vitality over the summer. I lost 10 pounds over 5 weeks, just laying in bed. Brutal doesn’t even begin… when someone says shingles is the most painful thing they’ve ever experienced, do believe them.
I used a combination of conventional and non-conventional medicine to manage my case. Once on my feet again, I wrote an informational post about shingles based on what I’d learned. In case you don’t feel like reading that, here’s a one-liner: Shingles is a recurrence of the chicken pox virus, that manifests in the form of an extremely painful, weepy, blistered rash over a dermatome (nerve area) on one side of the body, characterized by intense, shooting nerve pain. Now go read the article 😉
I got a lot of feedback that the article was helpful resource, and readers asked me to keep them posted about my progress, so I decided to do some updates over time.
Shingles can recur if your immune system gets tired enough. I desperately wanted to prevent that. Having shingles is a living hell, especially when it’s less than an inch from your brain. In addition, it can take some time for residual shingles symptoms to recede.
My intention was to give periodic updates over the next year about my “shingles recurrence prevention program”. However, late last year provided some really stressful periods, and while the shingles never returned, I didn’t want to report “All Good” until I’d had time to see how it panned out after things calmed down.
Last spring, I got the shingles after a very stressful months-long period of overwork and overtraining that happened right before a big climbing trip. This spring, I also had a long climbing trip coming up that I was training really hard for… so I waited to see how that went before giving this update.
Last year’s shingles and why it happened
I got shingles in April of 2016. Three main factors caused it to happen.
>> Work Stress: First, for a few months prior to a big spring climbing trip, I’d been under tremendous stress with work. I wasn’t managing my time well, allowing deadlines to pile up on each other right before a big product launch. It was the kind of stress where you feel your body buzzing 24/7, and you feel like a tightly-stretched rubber band that will explode if touched.
>> Overtraining Stress: Secondly, while this work stress was happening, I was training really hard all winter. I was working out intensely at the gym about 5 days a week, and climbing hard about 4 day a week.
I not only had the work and overtraining stress, I also had whole lot to do to prepare for the trip; a ton of AIP food prep, organizing gear, trip planning, errands, etc.
>> Failure to listen to my body: My body got really run down from the combined stress. I failed to listen to clear signals that I needed to slow down and recharge: I had increasing exhaustion, and felt weaker instead of stronger when training and climbing. I’m stubborn. I had my eyes on the upcoming climbing trip, and I wanted to be ready physically for it. I paid so hard for that!
BOOM: The day I arrived in Utah to climb, my head erupted with shingles, and it proved to be a really bad case. To read a bleary “stream of consciousness” post about what it’s like to have shingles, go here.
NUTSHELL: Shingles can happen when the immune system gets really tired. My extreme stress and refusal to listen to my body’s signals for rest allowed my immune system to get just that weak.
Keep your immune system strong, and if you get shingles run like hell for the antivirals, STAT (more below).
One year later: how I’m managing
I’m happy to report that my big spring climbing trip just happened. Three weeks in the desert! I trained like a monster since September, and I managed my work stress really well. I listened to my body, rested when I needed to. Early on, I set these priorities in order to keep the shingles virus at bay:
I get 9 to 11 hours every night. Plenty of quality sleep is one of the best ways to support balanced immune system function. When I get less, I pay.
I take rest days when I need them, no questions asked. Sometimes resting is exactly how you get stronger. Training this last year has really cemented that for me.
Many things register as stress to the body. I could write at length about this, but for now I’ll say that whether it’s heavy traffic, a crying baby, a jerk of a boss, an argument, blood sugar swings, too much working out, or worry, the body reacts to stress in the same way internally. And too much stress drives down your immune system.
Minimizing stress has become a priority for me. The stress factors I can remove, I do: friendships that drain me; behaviors that stress me out; unnecessary commitments; learning to say no and be okay with it; overspending, etc.
Stress factors I can’t remove, I try to minimize.
This takes ongoing mindfulness, because as life cruises along, those things that bring us stress tend to sneak up on us.
This past year I’ve periodically tracked my macronutrients: protein, fat and carbs. I don’t really care about calories. It’s been interesting to see how my macro consumption plays into my energy level and stress.
Namely, I’m making sure to maximize my protein and healthy fats, and minimize sugar intake. Though paleo, I’m not super low-carb. I need a fair amount of carbs for my brain to function well, and I let my body rule that number.
An important factor is keeping my blood sugar balanced. Blood sugar swings are bad for various reasons, especially because they cause inflammation that can affect brain function. In addition, blood sugar swings mess with your adrenal glands, which ties into stress response and immune function.
If you read my Shingles Information post, you’ll see a list of supplements I took while I was sick. Of those, these are the ones I’ve continued to take and will take ongoing. I’ve reduced my dose from what I took while I was sick with shingles.
To fight the virus ongoing: It never leaves your body, but hides out in the nervous system
• L-lysine (used by many doctors for shingles): This amino acid, like vitamin C, inhibits the replication of the herpes zoster virus.
• Monolaurin: Sourced from coconut, it’s an effective antiviral and antimicrobial that breaks down the cell wall of the virus so the immune system can get to it more easily.
To support immune function
• Vitamin C in high doses: Vit C is water-soluble, so the body will release any amount it does not need. It is a powerful immune system booster.
(NOTE: Most Vit C is sourced from corn. If the bottle does not say corn free, it’s not corn free. Here’s a corn free powdered Vit. C).
• Omega 3 fish oils 6,000mg/day.
• Methylated Vit B12.
• Methylfolate (5-methyltetrahydrofolate) to help my liver with methylation. NOTE: I provide an affiliate link here to methylfolate, but I recommend checking with your healthcare practitioner before starting on it. Not everyone should take extra methylfolate, and for those who should, adding methylfolate can cause uncomfortable symptoms in someone with the MTHFR genetic defect. Ask your practitioner about testing for MTHFR and how to titrate onto methylfolate properly. Hint: You need enough Vitamin B3 in your system, and to build it slowly.
• Apex X-viromin for fighting viral load.
• Apex Adaptocrine to support adrenal function.
(Apex products are a practitioner brand. If your practitioner doesn’t have an account, you can access them via Acupuncture Atlanta after having done an online consult.)
My symptoms one year later
A year later, I still have Post-Herpetic Neuralgia (PHN), the residual tingling, numbness, and sensitivity on the parts of my scalp that were most affected. PHN doesn’t occur in everyone who has had shingles. For some, it lasts years or a lifetime.
You may have noticed my comment above about running for the antivirals, STAT. That’s because reportedly, getting the antivirals on board in the first 72 hours can reduce your chances of PHN, as well as help reduce the severity and length of your shingles case. I did not get on them until 6 days after my shingles erupted, and I believe that’s part of why I got such a bad case. Also why I still have PHN.
This PHN may last my entire life; no way to know. One particular thing I’ve noticed is that when I stop taking the high doses of Vitamin C, the PHN gets worse. As soon as I go back on the Vit C, the PHN recedes dramatically. I don’t know if it’s affecting how my nervous system is working (benefitting the damaged nerves on my scalp), or if it’s affecting my immune function in some way. If I ever find out, I’ll write about it on the blog. Either way, I take any increase in the PHN as a sign to watch my stress and take care of my immune function.
I feel fortunate to be shingles-free right now. I believe it has been key to take care of my body and keep my stress level down so my immune system doesn’t give way again. Awareness, mindfulness, respecting my body, and remembering that my long-term goals will be impossible if I don’t take care of my body.