Gandalf has herpes.
No, not that Gandalf – this one.
Gandalf, my cat, has been sneezing on and off for years. At first we thought it was allergies – he’d sneeze for a few weeks and then he wouldn’t. But, a few months ago his sneezing got really bad and we brought him to the vet. During that appointment a lump was discovered on his side that required immediate surgery to remove. As it turns out the lump was not cancer, but an extreme reaction to a rabies vaccine he had received a few weeks before. Crisis averted we thought. But his surgery did nothing for his sneezing, and in the weeks following his recovery his sneezing got even worse.
So we went back to the vet. Upper respiratory infection? Try antibiotics. Still sneezing? Back to the vet. Try another antibiotic. Still sneezing? Back to the vet. If it isn’t allergies, and it isn’t a bacterial infection, what is causing all this sneezing? As it turns out Gandalf has Feline Herpes Virus 1, a viral infection very similar to the Human Herpes Simplex Virus – what we commonly call cold sores or fever blisters.
It is estimated that 90% of both the human and cat populations are infected with the herpes virus. Once a cat or human is infected, the virus resides in the body for life and will remain dormant for much of the time. That is until stress and a compromised immune system allows the virus to rear its ugly head. In Gandalf’s case a bad rabies vaccine followed by major surgery allowed his herpes virus to make a major outbreak. This has lead to a secondary infection, more trips to the vet, and more antibiotics. In short a generally miserable, and incredibly stressful time for my cat which, incidentally, has made this fight an uphill battle. In humans – lets just say a herpes outbreak wasn’t nicknamed cold sores or fever blisters coincidentally.
Stress and the Immune System
The herpes simplex viruses (1- cold sores, 2 – genital herpes) and their relative the herpes zoster virus (shingles) are designed to infect your nerve cells. During the viruses latent or resting phase, they reside in the nerve cells of your skin and are held in check by your immune system. The viruses do not replicate, they are not contagious, and you show absolutely no symptoms of being infected. The latent phase can last days, months, or even years. So what conditions allow a virus to transition from latent phase to active infection? In one word…STRESS.
Stress can come in many different shapes and sizes, but yields the same outcome when we experience too much. Our stress response (fight or flight) developed as a method of survival. During times of stress, either acute (car accident, illness, injury) or chronic (sitting in 2 hours of traffic, an unhealthy relationship) the same cascade of hormones surge through our system causing, among other things, a down regulation in our immune system. See, our bodies can’t tell the difference between the guy that gave you the finger and a hungry grizzly bear. All your body knows is that all energy (available or stored) must be diverted to deal with a stressful event. This diversion of energy and down regulation of your immune system leaves you vulnerable to new infections, and also provides the opportunity for latent infections, like the herpes viruses, to become active.
In Gandalf’s case a bad vaccine over taxed his immune system allowing the herpes virus to become active. Surgery put further stress on his system and the viral infection got worse. In humans something as simple as a cold on top of an already stress filled lifestyle can leave you with a brand new herpes outbreak or even shingles.
When most of us hear the word stress we can conjure up a thousand images of people, places, and circumstances that create stress. But what few people realize is many lifestyle habits create systemic and cumulative stress. Some of the biggest stress causing lifestyle habits include:
- Poor nutrition – a diet that lacks the macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals available from whole foods creates stress
- Lack of exercise – a sedentary lifestyle creates stress like high blood sugar, excess body fat, and lack of muscle in the body
- Lack of sleep – inadequate sleep disturbs the functions of the metabolism, immune system, memory, etc. creating stress
When faced with these cumulative daily lifestyle stresses, your body is constantly diverting energy away from your immune system. It can no longer keep latent infections in check while protecting you from the viruses and bacteria present in your environment. Eventually a virus or bacteria from the environmental takes hold and you get sick. Fighting this new invader becomes your immune systems primary function, and your latent virus is free to become an active infection – thus the name cold sore, fever blister. This is also how I got shingles – a disease common among the elderly population – at the age of 26.
Lower Your Stress/ Boost Your Immune System
When you lower your load of chronic daily stress, you free up the necessary energy to keep your immune system operating in tip top shape. This means less time spent sick and more time doing what you need/want/love to do. Try these tips to help you lower your over all stress load:
- Recognize that stress is an inevitable part of life. And plan. Stress and life in general is much easier to deal with when you know what to expect. Learn to always expect stress, make plans, and be flexible when life throws you a curveball.
- Practice a healthy lifestyle. Being healthier, stronger, fitter, and less metabolically deranged will prepare your body for any coming stress. EAT WELL – ditch the grains, legumes, and sugar in your diet. Eat plenty of leafy greens, lean proteins, and healthy fats. EXERCISE – Lift heavy things, sprint, move your body daily. SLEEP – Get at least 8 hours per night.
- Add Fish Oil to your daily diet. Giving your body enough Omega-3’s goes a long way in helping your body deal with the physical effects of stress. Help your body reduce over all inflammation and maintain a healthy inflammatory response with a daily dose of Omega-3s.
- Smile. It really does make you happier. During times of stress force a smile, even though you may not feel like it.
- Find time for exercise. I cannot stress this enough. Control the type of stress you experience. We’re built to handle acute intense stress – like a hard, fast, intense workout and is actually beneficial to our overall health. Choose this type of stress instead of submitting to the mind-numbing chronic stress that drives you insane and ruins your health. Sprint a flight of stairs, do 20 burpees, 40 squats, or just take a quick walk outside. Bonus: exercise releases endorphins and makes you feel GOOD!
- Have a cup (or 2) of tea. Black tea has been shown to reduce stress, lower stress-induced cortisol, and increase relaxation. Be sure to have your tea before 3pm to keep caffeine from disturbing your sleep.
- Manage expectations. Be honest about your limits. Don’t over commit. IT IS OK TO SAY NO!
- Unhook/ disconnect daily. Reflect, relax, restore. Remove yourself from stressful situations. Getting out of your head and into the moment is vital to managing the stress of constant stimuli and energy demands.
- Connect often. Engage in healthy mental and social stimulation – the kind that feeds you and recharges your batteries. We often forget how important strong social connections and a sense of belonging are to our health. Whether they are friends, family, or best case scenario both, connect with the people you love often.
- Stop multitasking. I know, easier said than done. Our society demands we multitask, however this behavior never truly allows us to devote our full attention to any one thing. When multitasking becomes our norm behavior we are left feeling scattered, frazzled and more than a bit crazy.