Once, maybe long ago, you came down with variation of mono, what your doctor called infectious mononucleosis. You have the antibodies in your blood to prove it. These are antibodies to a specific human herpesvirus (called human herpesvirus 4), better known as Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
Back then, you may have felt a sudden onset of spookily severe fatigue, fever, a terribly sore throat, painful glands in your neck, and maybe even pain in your abdomen from a swollen spleen. Your doctor tested to make sure it wasn’t strep throat (whose symptoms are virtually identical to those of mono) and likely ordered a screening test for mono called Monospot.
This test may or may not have returned positive results because it sometimes takes two to three weeks for EBV antibodies to appear. If your Monospot test was negative, your doc relied on her clinical judgement to decide whether or not you had mono. It’s certainly possible to have both strep and mono, in which case you received an antibiotic for the former. If no strep, only mono, you were told to rest up until you felt better.
With both mono and strep, virtually everyone gets better and forgets they ever had it. But now, years or maybe decades later, you’ve developed some persistent and worrisome symptoms, like chronic fatigue, muscle aches, and brain fog.
Your doctor runs a battery of diagnostic tests related to fatigue, including tests for EBV. If you have antibodies you might hear her say “Ah, I see you once had mono.” Sometimes patients remember this (“Oh yes, I’d just arrived at college”), sometimes not.
EBV reactivation linked to wide range of other conditions
Let’s say that after this diagnostic test panel all your tests are negative (no anemia, no thyroid problem, everything is fine) except for the EBV antibody evidence of your old mono. At this point, you should get checked for the possibility of Epstein-Barr reactivation.
Interestingly, although you yourself may suggest it, your doctor may be less than enthusiastic. After all, since there’s no known treatment in conventional medicine for EBV, she just might say “Go rest up.”
An important takeaway: if you’re seeing your doctor for persistent fatigue symptoms, getting tested for EBV reactivation is important. Not only can reactivation of EBV cause lots of symptoms, but it’s also now associated with numerous other conditions. These include neurological diseases, like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, certain cancers (lymphoma, nasopharyngeal), digestive issues (ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s), and autoimmune disease (lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, celiac disease, and Sjogren’s). See last week’s Health Tip for links to these and other associated conditions.
When you take the EBV questionnaire I suggest below, you may be surprised at the risks of having unchecked EBV in your body. However, if you’re feeling well you don’t have to worry about it being there. Just take care of yourself and it will stay asleep and harmless. All the usual recommendations apply. Eat a nutritious diet, move/exercise regularly, get good restful sleep.
Testing for EBV reactivation
Complete testing for EBV includes five separate tests on a single blood draw: VCA IgM, VCAIgG, EA-D, EBNA IgG, and EBNA IgM. I won’t bother you with what each of these means, but will say that a doctor looking at all five together can determine where you are on the EBV spectrum.
Most of the 98% of all people who test positive for EBV have two or three positives out of five. This pattern indicates past infection, but no current problem.
If a person is ill and tests positive for the last four, then the likely diagnosis is reactivated EBV. The first of the group, VCA IgM, tests for acute, not chronic EBV.
At this point, your doctor might say, “You were right! Looks like EBV reactivation,” adding that there’s really nothing for you to do but take care of yourself and let your immune system do the rest.
To a certain extent, she’s right. But you can make the situation a lot better, and quite quickly.
Understanding and treating EBV reactivation
Treatment is presented here in four parts, to make it easier for the DIYers:
1–Give careful thought to what reactivated your EBV (the trigger). Usually, it’s a period of physical or emotional stress (an illness or death of a loved one, a health scare, a painful breakup, the job from hell, exposure to environmental toxins, or just not taking care of yourself). You’ll very likely identify something. For future reference, now that you know your EBV reactivation requires a trigger, when confronted with potentially stressful situations you’ll remember how you became ill and learn to control the situation.
Maybe it just means saying no to one more request for your time or cutting way back on after-work drinks with colleagues. It’s worth noting that the concept of reactivation is not limited to EBV. The rules for preventing reactivation also apply to cold sores, shingles, chronic Lyme disease, Bartonella, Mycoplasma, Cytomegalovirus, and even HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.
2–Whether or not you’re in a reactivation phase, your new lifetime hobby will be using different strategies to support your immune system. This will benefit you in numerous ways: fewer infections, reduced cancer risk, and better odds for a healthy longevity. Immune support means eating a healthful whole-foods diet (consider all processed foods as working directly against good health), regular exercise (go slow if you’re feeling ill, e.g., a nice walk, yoga, tai chi), sound sleep, and regular total body detoxification (twice a year is plenty, many products are available–here’s ours).
3–Immune support supplements: N-Acetyl L-Cysteine, Selenium, and Five Defenders Chinese mushroom blend, available in our Apothecary. Use them together during a reactivation; use them in monthly rotation for prevention.
4–During a reactivation period, the following herbs and supplements are EBV-specific (meaning they target EBV) as shown in testing labs: turmeric (Theracumin HP), berberine, boswellia, selenium, and vitamins A, C, and E. Interestingly, since conventional medicine seems to have thrown in the towel regarding antiviral medicines for EBV, other physicians have become quite skilled at working with reactivated EBV. They include homeopaths, naturopaths, functional physicians, and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners.
For more reading, a very useful resource is the website of Dr. Kasia Kines, author of The Epstein-Barr Virus Solution. When you visit her site, I urge you to take the EBV quiz, if for no other reason than to learn all the ways chronic EBV has been shown to manifest itself.
However, don’t be too worried if your score says you likely have EBV. After all, at least 98% of us show EBV antibodies and fortunately most of us are just fine, living a balanced life in peaceful coexistence with these and many other fellow travelers.
David Edelberg, MD