Epstein Barr Virus
Back in late 2014/early 2015, I suffered from bone crushing, mind numbing fatigue and was diagnosed with a reactivated Epstein Barr viral (EBV) infection and adrenal fatigue. I have been feeling pretty great since then...that is, until a couple of weeks ago. After running my second 50K race in two months and then getting a cold, I have started to feel the bone crushing fatigue creep back in. Multiple hour naps are required after minimal exercise, my skin is horrible, I'm sleeping terribly, and I can't focus on anything to save my life. The cold I got after my race is lingering. It's gone from a stuffy nose, to a cough, to a sore throat, to a plugged ear, and currently (over 2 weeks later) a weird combination of all of those things. You can read more about my initial symptoms and diagnosis in my post about adrenal fatigue.
I don't get sick that often, and when I do it doesn't usually last very long, but this time it feels different. This time also got me thinking about why I wasn't treating this knowledge of knowing I have EBV more like a chronic illness and less like something I can just ignore and hope it doesn't bother me anymore. You might wonder why that even matters. Well, to me it matters in the context of decisions I make. I do, occasionally, eat gluten and other inflammatory foods, but if I frame my health in the context of living with a chronic illness, would I make that same decision? Probably not.
What is Epstein Barr Virus?
Epstein-Barr virus a common virus, it is estimated that 90% of Americans have it, but it lies dormant in most cases and only causes an issue when something causes it to reactivate. It belongs to the herpes family, and most of us are exposed to this virus at some point in our lives. EBV causes mononucleosis which is also called the kissing disease because the virus is passed mainly through saliva.
Even though EBV is common, we don't know much about its effects on our health. While most of the conventional medical community agree that EBV plays a role in the development of diseases like Multiple Sclerosis, the majority also believe we all have the Epstein-Barr virus in our systems and it isn’t a problem for most of us. There are many conditions where EBV is a trigger, but extreme fatigue is a symptom that occurs in most cases and can cause a reactivation of the EBV.
Symptoms of an active Epstein-Barr virus, include:
Swollen lymph nodes
Enlarged spleen and/or liver
Emotional disturbances and stressors
Autoimmune diseases, like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
The Link Between Epstein Barr Virus and Autoimmune Disease
The cause of autoimmune disease is a betrayal of your own body by your immune system. In autoimmune disease an overactive immune system attacks your own healthy tissues. The factors that contribute to this betrayal are a complex mix of environment and genetics. Newer research suggests that viral infections, including EBV can also set your immune system down this path.
There is a type of white blood cells called CD8 cells that are used by your body to keep EBV in check. When these cells do not keep up with their job, EBV gets free range to do whatever it wants. The number of CD8 cells you have is affected by age, estrogen levels, vitamin D status, certain medications, and poor immune system function. This is important to note because autoimmune disease is becoming more and more common and we need to better understand what causes these diseases.
Treating Epstein Barr Virus
Unfortunately, there is no cure for Epstein Barr virus, but that doesn't mean that there's nothing you can do. Your treatment should focus on returning the virus back to its sleeping state so it stops causing symptoms. This means that in order to "treat" EBV, you need to focus on the conditions of your body so it can control the virus rather than the traditional approach to a viral or bacterial illness where the focus is on killing the offending organism.
If you have Epstein-Barr virus, here are some steps to take towards healing:
Proper nutrition: A "clean" or anti-inflammatory diet will reduce inflammation in your body and allow your immune system to focus on other important things, like getting EBV under control. Eliminate gluten, dairy, and any foods you may be sensitive too. I suggest a strict Paleo diet in this situation (and really even consider doing a Whole30). You must also eliminate sugar as it is inflammatory and does not help your body heal. If you need help dialing in the diet piece of the puzzle, check out my Find Your Perfect Diet course.
Heal your gut: Gut healing is an absolute priority for anyone who has EBV. Toxins and other substances that distract your immune system can leak through your damaged gastrointestinal lining and cause your immune system to overreact.
Eliminate any concurrent infections: Be sure to check for coexisting infections and get them treated. You want to do everything in your power to decrease the burden and workload of your immune system.
Reduce your toxic load: We are exposed to thousands of chemicals on a daily basis. You can reduce your toxin exposure by choosing safer personal care products and replacing your other household products with safer options.
Optimize your detoxification pathways: No, I do not mean starting a trendy cleanse. I mean supporting your kidney, liver, and digestive system with proper nutrients, plenty of fiber, and staying hydrated. Listen to Episode #5 of the Paleo NP Podcast which is all about how to properly support your natural detoxification processes.
Improve your sleep: Aim for no less than 8 hours of sleep each night, or as much sleep as is necessary to wake up feeling well-rested (and preferably without an alarm clock if that's possible).
Decrease your stress: Stress contributes to the dysfunction of your immune system and could possibly be what caused your EBV to be reactivated. Meditation, yoga, and spending time in nature are all great stress reduction techniques. You must prioritize self-care during this phase of your recovery.
Herbs & supplements: Ashwagandha, licorice, lemon balm, and holy basil are all good for immune support and for their antiviral and adaptogenic properties. Monolauren, zinc, L-lysine, and a probiotic are also helpful. Remember that supplements are not a replacement for healthy diet and lifestyle practices. Supplements alone will not help you heal. Please consult your healthcare provider before starting any supplements.
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Find someone to help you navigate treatment options
EBV is a significant health condition that is likely under-diagnosed and under-treated. As someone who has lived with this for many years, I wish that there was more mainstream knowledge around it because getting to the bottom of my symptoms was no easy task.
If you think you might have a condition that is related to EBV infection, it's important to find someone who is experienced in conditions related to the reactivation of this virus. As someone who suffers from this condition, as well as being a functional medicine nurse practitioner, I know the importance of working with someone who looks at this from all aspects.