The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly 1 million Americans are affected by shingles each year. Anyone who’s had chickenpox can develop shingles -- it occurs when the virus that causes chickenpox reactivates, often after lying dormant for many years. Also known as herpes zoster, shingles usually starts as a painful burning or tingling sensation and typically progresses into a blister-filled rash. Although shingles is best prevented through vaccination, certain foods may boost your body’s ability to suppress the virus.
Eating a diet centered on nutrient-dense foods may decrease your risk of developing shingles, according to a case-controlled study published in the “International Journal of Epidemiology” in 2006. The study found that people who ate more fruits and vegetables and consumed plenty of micronutrients -- particularly vitamins A, B-6, C and E, folate, iron and zinc -- were less likely to develop shingles than those whose diets supplied fewer vitamins and minerals. Specifically, people who rarely ate fruit were more than three times as likely to come down with shingles than those who ate more than three servings of fruit per day. Eating a nutrient-dense diet appears to be especially beneficial for high-risk individuals, or those past the age of 60.
Making anti-inflammatory foods a regular part of your diet may also help protect against shingles. Although inflammation is a normal part of your body’s response to illness and injury, chronic inflammation -- the low-grade kind brought on by stress, lack of exercise and eating too many processed foods -- can undermine your body’s ability to fight infection. A diet that’s low in sugar and rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fish, nuts and seeds is generally considered anti-inflammatory. Certain foods -- including salmon and other fish high in omega-3 fatty acids -- are strongly anti-inflammatory. Ginger, garlic, turmeric, basil and a few other herbs and spices have anti-inflammatory effects, too, as does dark chocolate.
Choosing foods that are rich in lysine -- while generally avoiding those that are high in arginine -- may also boost your body’s ability to prevent a shingles infection. While both of these amino acids are important to your overall health, arginine helps fuel the replication of herpes zoster and other viruses in the herpes family. Lysine helps suppress the growth of these viruses by counteracting or blocking the effects of arginine. Although lysine and arginine often occur together in foods, fish -- including salmon, tuna, mackerel and trout -- is significantly higher in lysine than arginine. Low-fat dairy cheese, yogurt and milk is also high in lysine, as is most poultry.
Although diet can help, the single best way to reduce your risk of a shingles infection is to get vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises all individuals past the age of 59 to get a single-dose shingles vaccination because about half of all shingles cases occur in adults aged 60 or older. There are no shingles vaccination recommendations for people under the age of 60, however, and the vaccine itself hasn’t been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for people under the age of 50. If you have questions about shingles, talk with your doctor.