Shingles is caused by the same virus as causes chickenpox, the herpes varicella-zoster virus; often called simply, the Zoster virus.
Although most people develop and get over chickenpox when children, the virus stays in the body, managed by the immune system, and in a dormant state.
It is not known why it reactivates, although there are a number of credible theories. Like other forms of herpes virus (for example, as in cold sores), the zoster virus attacks nerve endings and the skin around them.
When it does reappear, the virus causes infection and acute inflammation along a nerve, and this may result in dis-figurement and acute pain.
Where does it attack?
Most frequently, the attack is in the abdomen or chest region, but shingles may occur anywhere – face, arms, legs and around the eyes.
A bout of shingles will normally last from 2 to 4 weeks. First signs are a tingling sensation, followed by any or all of swelling, pain, rash and/or skin eruption. The rash is somewhat like chicken pox in that it can involve itchy blisters. Long-term nerve damage may occur even after the rash has gone, as can scarring and other tissue damage.
Immune system and Inflammation
A strong immune system starts in the gut and from an early age. The past few years have seen a large amount of research on the gut microbiome. Basically, the bacteria in your gut outnumber your body cells almost 10:1. They are a source of 75,000 genes compared with your own 25,000. After periods of drugs and especially antibiotics, poor diet (too much sugar, not enough fibre), stress, smoking, and infection, the diversity of the flora in the gut suffers.
Several findings are important:
- Your bacteria in your gut become ill before you do; you cannot become well until they become well.
- Many illnesses have now been linked to a loss of diversity of the 800 or so different bacteria in the gut.
- With a loss of good bacteria, bad bacteria dominate. They can produce toxic chemicals, inflammation and result in immune response.
- This can affect your physical well being and your psychological well being (changing moods and even linking to dementia/Alzheimer’s)
You can strengthen your immune system in a number of ways:
- Do not smoke
- Do not drink alcohol excessively.
- Ensure you eat a colourful ‘Mediterranean Diet’, full of vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds and olive oil.
- Avoid yeast excesses (see our section on Candida albicans)
- Exercise – do 30 minutes light exercise daily – this might include brisk walking, yoga or Tai chi.
- Supplement using immune boosting vitamins and herbs such as grape seed extract, turmeric (curcumin), astragalus and enjoy at least 60 minutes in the sunshine per day (or supplement with up to 5,000IUs of vitamin D)
- Take multi-strain probiotics.
- Do not be more than 7 kgs overweight (16 lbs)
Shingles is most common in people over 50 years of age, and who have suffered a recent illness. This may be short or long-term (even cancer). The debilitating effect on the immune system, and the negative effects of the drugs on the diversity of the gut bacteria can be causal.
Vaccines are available and there are anti-viral medications, but these need to be employed within the first three days of the symptoms appearing.