In many cases of ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis / chronic fatigue syndrome), patients wonder if the Epstein-Barr virus, or EBV, is playing a role in their symptoms, and preventing full healing. Most of the population (up to 95%) has been exposed to EBV at some point, and under stress or immune challenge the virus can reactivate. EBV infection can become chronic in immunocompromised patients. Researchers have also found links between EBV and certain autoimmune disorders and cancers.
It’s worth exploring EBV, asking your doctor if it is part of your symptom profile and if so, taking steps to silence the virus. Luckily, there are several herbal, anti-viral remedies that can help with this.
What Is the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV)?
The Epstein-Barr virus is a member of the human herpesvirus family and is known as herpesvirus 4. It’s a very common human virus found all over the world.
Nicknamed the kissing disease, EBV is spread through body fluids like saliva. For young children, the infection causes a brief, flu-like illness that will likely pass unrecognized. For teenagers and adults, EBV infections can cause infectious mononucleosis, which lasts two to four weeks.
Symptoms of EBV-related infectious mononucleosis may include:
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Extreme fatigue that may last up to several months
- Rash: flat, pinkish dots anywhere on the body that may or may not itch
- Enlarged spleen and liver
Epstein-Barr Virus in Immunocompromised Patients
Like many infectious microbes, after initial infection, EBV stays latent in the system and may reoccur later in life. If one’s immune system is compromised, any EBV infection (initial or recurrent) can further weaken the immune system. In severe cases, EBV can affect the brain and spinal cord, causing neurological symptoms. EBV infection can also increase your risk of developing certain autoimmune disorders and cancers.
EBV symptoms in immunocompromised patients may include:
- Excessive white blood cell production
- Bacterial infection of the sinuses or mastoid process
- Viral meningitis
- Swelling of the spinal cord
- Facial nerve palsies
- Swelling of the pancreas or heart
- Sleep disorders
EBV may increase the risk of developing these autoimmune disorders:
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Celiac disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Juvenile idiopathic arthritis
- Type 1 diabetes
EBV may increase risk of these cancers:
- Hodgkin’s lymphona
- Stomach cancer
- Naso-pharyngeal carcinoma
Diagnosis and Testing for Epstein-Barr Virus
Sometimes EBV is diagnosed clinically – meaning your doctor diagnoses you based on your symptoms. However, there are several different laboratory tests to detect antibodies to EBV. These tests will show whether you’ve had a past infection or if you have a current infection. Your doctor can help you choose between the several antibody tests available.
Natural Tools to Support Silencing EBV
In March, 2019, the journal Molecules published an article entitled “Novel Therapeutics for Epstein–Barr Virus.” The article discusses several medicinal plants and their ability to fight Epstein-Barr. Some are listed below.
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Andrographis paniculata is a very bitter herb, whose aerial parts and roots have been used by traditional herbalists to treat bacterial infections and many other ailments for centuries. According to the Molecules article, andrographis is also active against EBV and other viral infections. The article states that andrographis has been shown to inhibit EBV gene transcription, and the production of EBV virions (the complete, infective form of a virus outside a host cell). Additionally, the Molecules article says that andrographis is also anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-thrombotic and anti-immunostimulatory. All of these properties may contribute to its effectiveness against EBV.
Andrographis can be taken as a tincture, but it is extremely bitter and unpleasant! Taking it in tablet form may be easier to tolerate. Consult your doctor about appropriate formulas and dosage.
Japanese knotweed, Polygonum cuspidatum, has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a treatment for many ailments including asthma and hypertension. The Molecules article states that the roots of Japanese knotweed have been shown to inhibit the EBV lytic cycle (a cycle of viral reproduction that takes place inside host cells, and produces infective virions). According to herbalist Stephen Buhner, Japanese knotweed is also protective for endothelial cells – which EBV is known to infect.
Japanese knotweed can be taken as a tincture, in tablet form, or as a tea. Again, consult your doctor for formula and dosage information.
Green tea contains high levels of polyphenolic compounds, known as catechins. These compounds are responsible for the wealth of health benefits attributed to green tea. According to the Molecules article, Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), the major green tea catechin, appears to inhibit the EBV lytic cycle of reproduction.
It may be enough to drink green tea during the day, or you may want to try more potent green tea extracts. Either can be found decaffeinated. Again, discuss formula and dosage with your doctor.
If you feel your symptoms are consistent with EBV infection, it’s worth discussing the subject with your doctor. EBV can be dangerous enough that immunocompromised people should take it seriously. While there is no specific treatment for EBV other than resting, staying hydrated and taking OTC medications for pain and fever, supporting your system with herbs offers holistic health benefits beyond just inhibiting the virus. Discuss your symptoms with your doctor and choose treatment options that feel right to you both.
Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the studio Hasti Pilates, and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork and movement practices for healing Lyme disease, chronic illness and pain.
Mei-Ru Chen. Epstein–Barr Virus, the Immune System, and Associated Diseases. Molecules. 2011, Jan 26. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2011.00005
Graciela Andrei, Erika Trompet, and Robert Snoeck. Novel Therapeutics for Epstein–Barr Virus. Molecules. 2019, March 12. doi: 10.3390/molecules24050997
Epstein-Barr Virus and Infectious Mononucleosis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/epstein-barr/laboratory-testing.html
Miller, Nick. ‘Mono’ Virus Linked to Seven Serious Diseases: Epstein-Barr Virus Affects Health in More Ways Than Known. Cincinnati Children’s. 2018, April. https://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/news/release/2018/mono-virus