Herpes, whether oral or genital, can be an annoying, frustrating virus. Whether you get frequent outbreaks or have asymptomatic herpes but worry about transmitting the virus to others, herpes can cause a variety of difficult physical and psychological symptoms. These days, the most common drugs used to treat herpes are oral antiviral medications, such as valacyclovir. We’ve covered these medications before—in general, they should be your first line of treatment in the event of a herpes outbreak. However, are there alternatives? We've all heard the stories about people using supplements and vitamins for herpes outbreaks, but is any of it true?
In this guide, we’ll look at some of the most widely used vitamins and supplements marketed as herpes treatments. We’ll look at the scientific data behind each supplement and the benefits (or lack thereof) of each product to help you make informed, effective buying decisions.
Before we get into the benefits of specific vitamins, minerals and supplements, let’s clear up a common misconception.
Currently, there is no cure for herpes. Boom. Period. Herpes is a lifelong infection that can only be treated, not cured. This means you can and should ignore any claims made by makers of supplements that their products can cure herpes. They can’t, and they won’t.
It’s also important to remember that vitamins, supplements and other natural products aren’t as effective at treating herpes as real antiviral drugs like valacyclovir (Valtrex). If you have herpes, the optimal approach is to use antiviral drugs as a first priority, with vitamins and supplements as a second defense.
However, some vitamins, minerals and other health supplements may have benefits for treating herpes. It’s important to remember this distinction, as there’s a big difference between treating a virus and curing it completely.
Scientific data shows that certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies can have a negative effect on your immune system. For example, deficiencies of micronutrients like zinc and selenium show a correlation with a weakened immune system in some studies.
This means that if you’re deficient in a certain vitamin or mineral, there’s a risk that your immune system could be weakened.
The herpes virus usually begins as an initial outbreak, which can last for several weeks. As your body launches its immune response, the virus retreats into the nerve ganglia, where it remains in a dormant state between outbreaks.
A weakened immune system makes the risk of the virus resurfacing greater, increasing your risk of experiencing an oral or genital herpes outbreak.
This makes it important to focus on maintaining a healthy immune system if you have HSV-1 or HSV-2, especially if you experience symptoms of the virus.
So, which vitamins should you focus on? The three vitamins that are most closely linked to an optimal, healthy immune system are vitamin C, B6 and E.
You can find these three vitamins in most multivitamin supplements, meaning there’s no need to purchase multiple products to reach your daily intake. Not sure if your multivitamin contains the three vitamins listed above? You can find nutritional information on the “supplement facts” label.
All three of these vitamins are also found in a variety of healthy foods, some of which are listed below:
Vitamin C is found in almost all fruits, from citrus fruits to berries, melon and more. You can also find large amounts of vitamin C in specific vegetables, like broccoli and dark leafy greens.
Vitamin B6 is found in most protein-rich foods, ranging from meats such as pork, poultry and fish, to wholegrain cereals, brown rice, eggs and soybeans.
Vitamin E is found in a variety of vegetables and nuts. Foods rich in vitamin E include almonds, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, sweet potato, avocado and spinach.
Other nutrients that play a role in strengthening and maintaining your immune system include garlic, which contains immune-strengthening organosulfur compounds like ajoene and allicin, and goldenseal, which is a natural herb that may have antiviral properties.
These are both available as inexpensive supplements, making them worth considering if you’re interested in immune health.
Another supplement that’s linked to immune health is zinc. Normal levels of zinc are important for maintaining immunity. In fact, one study shows that zinc deficiency is closely linked to major immune dysfunctions, as well as a variety of other negative health effects.
Zinc is also being studied as a topical treatment option for herpes. In a recent study from 2013, researchers found that topical application of zinc sulfate reduced the recurrence of herpes in a small test group.
While it’s too early to definitively state that zinc has specific benefits for treating herpes, the data is certainly promising. Zinc’s all-around immune system benefits also make it worth considering, if only as an immune syste booster.
Like garlic, goldenseal and most vitamins, zinc is widely available as an affordable supplement, making it an inexpensive addition to your immune system protocol.
Another popular reputed outbreak fighter is L-lysine. L-lysine, more commonly known as lysine, is an essential amino acid in the body that helps block arginine—an amino acid vital to catalyzing a herpes outbreak—from making its way into the intestines. It's found in most proteins like beef, chicken, pork and soybeans, but can also be found in supplement form.
While vitamins, minerals and other health supplements can play a role in strengthening your immune system and managing the symptoms of herpes, it’s important to keep their effects in perspective.
Right now, the evidence for substances such as zinc, garlic and goldenseal treating herpes is extremely limited. Most are linked to modest improvements in immune health—improvements that make them worth considering, but certainly not “sure thing” treatments.
Antiviral drugs like valacyclovir (Valtrex), acyclovir and famciclovir, on the other hand, are scientifically proven to treat herpes outbreaks and significantly lower your risk of spreading oral or genital herpes to other people.
As such, it’s best to think of supplements, minerals and vitamins for herpes as extra precautions, rather than as your main line of defense.
Interested in learning more about how you can treat herpes, manage the virus and reduce your risk of transmitting herpes to others? Our guide to Valacyclovir 101 guide explains how antiviral medication works to treat herpes outbreaks and limit the development of the virus within your body.