When a person becomes infected with chicken pox, the body never completely clears the virus. The result, for about 25 percent of Americans, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, is herpes zoster. People with herpes zoster develop the same blistering skin rash seen in chicken pox, except, with zoster, the blisters occur on just one side of the body and cause pain, rather than itching. In the April 2006 edition of the “International Journal of Epidemiology,” a team of researchers led by infectious disease specialist Sara L. Thomas, Ph.D. describe the results of their study on diet for herpes zoster.
The risk of developing herpes zoster increases with age and conditions that impair the function of the immune system, such as AIDS and cancer. The purpose of Thomas’ study was to discover whether diets rich in nutrients that support the health of the immune system could ward off herpes zoster. The results, obtained from a sample of more than 700 people, indicate that they can. Specifically, Thomas found that diets rich in vitamins A, B-6, C, E, folic acid, zinc and iron decreased the risk of developing herpes zoster in a dose-dependent manner. That means that the more nutrients a person consumed, the lower her risk of herpes zoster. Interestingly, only nutrients from foods—not supplements—conferred these benefits.
Foods to Enjoy
Vegetables and fruits emerged as the most influential dietary components for herpes zoster in Thomas’ study, so she recommends consuming at least five servings per day. Good fruit choices include citrus, melon, berries, grapes, mangoes and papaya. Good vegetable choices include spinach and other greens, broccoli, avocado, bell peppers and carrots. A healthy diet also contains protein. Lean cuts of meat, poultry and seafood supply protein, as well as nutrients such as zinc and iron that help to fight herpes zoster.
Foods to Limit
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming 40 to 65 percent of daily calories in the form of carbohydrates. However, refined carbohydrates such as white flour and sugar inhibit the function of the immune system, an important consideration for people seeking to prevent or treat herpes zoster. Specific foods to limit include white bread, white rice, refined cereals and pasta. Good alternative sources of carbohydrate calories include foods made with whole grains such as whole wheat, whole corn, brown rice, oatmeal, and barley. In addition, Thomas' study also found that consuming large amounts of potatoes contributed to herpes zoster risk.
Foods to Avoid
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises avoiding fats, oils and sweets because these foods contain many calories, but few of the nutrients that contribute to general health. The same principle applies to people seeking to prevent or treat herpes zoster. Fats, oils and sweets contain very low levels of the vitamins and minerals that promote the health of the immune system and, in the case of sweets, high levels of refined carbohydrates that detract from the health of the immune system. The University of Michigan Health System also says that some doctors recommend avoiding nuts, seeds and chocolate, although no studies support this recommendation.
Diet does not replace conventional medical care for the treatment or prevention of herpes zoster or any other condition. In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration approved a vaccine, Zostavax, that prevents herpes zoster in more than 50 percent of people over 60. For those who still develop the disease, vaccination reduces the risk of complications by about two-thirds. People who develop herpes zoster at any age should see a doctor. People over 60 who have not already had herpes zoster should ask their doctors about Zostavax.