While doctors use multiple medications to treat shingles and the associated pain, L-lysine is a natural alternative for people who want to manage their shingles symptoms at home. This amino acid is essential to your body's ability to build protein and maintain a balanced state of health.
L-lysine has shown some success in reducing the recurrence rates and length of outbreaks for herpes simplex virus (HSV). This is the virus that causes cold sores and genital herpes.¹
HSV is part of the same group as the varicella-zoster virus that causes shingles. To understand how L-lysine works, let's take a look at common triggers of shingle outbreaks and how L-lysine may help you manage them.
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Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk of shingles, as the varicella-zoster virus causes both conditions. This virus never leaves your body after infection. Instead, it lies dormant, often taking up 'residence' at the base of nerve cell clusters that extend out from your spine. It reactivates when you experience a trigger, manifesting as shingles.
A few key triggers can activate the virus. One of the biggest triggers is lowered immunity, which may come from a variety of factors:
Certain health conditions might negatively impact your immune system
Prior to the successful chickenpox vaccine program that started in the mid-1990s, the CDC estimates that about 4 million people had the condition every year.²
More than 99% of adults born before 1980 had chickenpox, which is partly why people over 50 are particularly susceptible to shingles. The CDC recommends the Shingrix vaccine to people over 50 to reduce the risk of developing shingles and its complications.³
The vaccination program for children has reduced the number of chickenpox cases by over 95% since the early 1990s. Still, around 1 million people a year are diagnosed with shingles in the U.S., and about 10-18% of patients with herpes zoster develop a condition called 'postherpetic neuralgia' (PHN). This condition causes long-term pain and may make it difficult to function. PHN may last up to a year or longer after a shingles outbreak has healed.
L-lysine may be one solution to manage the symptoms of shingles. Research has found it can reduce the stress and anxiety that can lead to suppressed immunity, reducing the risk of a shingles outbreak. It can also regulate inflammatory responses.⁴
In animal studies, lysine displayed some 'neuroprotectant’ properties. This means it may protect nerves from damage and pressure, possibly helping people better manage and heal shingles-related pain. Lysine raises zinc levels in the blood, which has neuroprotectant benefits.
There's evidence that L-lysine may have multiple wellness benefits, including:
Immune system enhancing capabilities
Wound healing abilities
Potential protection against herpes simplex virus infections and cold sores
Stress and anxiety-reducing properties
Emerging evidence suggests L-lysine may control viral infections by interfering with their ability to form certain proteins, although we need more clinical trials to confirm this research.⁵
While our bodies don’t naturally produce L-lysine, most people get enough lysine from their diet. If you want to supplement lysine, you can find it in various forms, including pills, powders, capsules, creams, liquids, and tablets.
According to one review of studies, lysine doses of less than 1,000mg per day were not very effective against cold sores. Doses above 3,000mg per day may reduce recurrence rates and improve self-reported symptoms.⁶
Studies conducted on the herpes simplex virus indicated that people with active outbreaks benefited from doses closer to 3,000mg per day, while 500–1,000mg per day helped prevent an outbreak.⁷
In a study that showed enhanced immunity among participants eating lysine-fortified wheat, the average dose per day was 4,238mg for men, 3,235mg for women, and 2,166mg for children. However, we still need studies specific to lysine effectiveness and dosing for shingles.
Some of the best lysine-rich foods for shingles include:
Fish such as cod and sardines
Red meat, poultry, and pork
According to a recent consumer review, people who reviewed shingles products chose an L-lysine supplement as a top ten most reviewed product, and it tied for the top average rating in that category.⁸
Popular lysine supplements include capsules and tablets, and some are fortified with vitamin B12. This vitamin can be useful for managing shingles because B12 improves the quality of life in those with postherpetic neuralgia.
Research into supplementation with lysine shows that side effects are uncommon but may include:
Gastrointestinal issues are the most common side effect.
Certain drugs can negatively impact your kidneys when taken with lysine. These include a group of antibiotics called aminoglycoside antibiotics. Since lysine helps absorb calcium, it may also be best to avoid calcium supplementation when taking lysine or discuss a plan with your doctor.
Lab studies indicate that the documented antiviral effects of lysine may come from its ability to block another amino acid called l-arginine. High levels of l-arginine may lower levels of l-lysine in your body. If you have a shingles outbreak, avoid excess l-arginine in your diet.⁹
Foods to avoid include:
Whole grain wheat flour
Doctors treat shingles with a combination of antiviral medications including acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir. They may also prescribe pain medications, such as tricyclic antidepressants and gabapentinoids. For example, Neurontin is a common pain medication that doctors use for shingles.
In addition to eating foods rich in lysine and taking lysine supplements, treating your shingles at home can include painkilling creams and patches like lidocaine cream.
Capsaicin, an ingredient found in chili peppers and many over-the-counter pain creams, can manage PHN pain.¹⁰
Eating a balanced diet, getting plenty of rest, and reducing your stress can boost your immunity and speed up your recovery.
Antiviral medications have the best outcomes for healing shingles and reducing your risk of developing PHN within 72 hours after the outbreak. For this reason, it's recommended to visit your doctor as soon as you notice shingles symptoms.
Lowered immunity often triggers shingles outbreaks, marked by nerve pain that can be debilitating. L-lysine is a natural amino acid in foods and supplements. Some evidence has demonstrated immune-enhancing abilities, potentially reducing your risk of developing shingles. It may also have nerve-protecting and anti-inflammatory properties to help you better manage the pain, although we need further studies to confirm this hypothesis.
Yes, lysine is a natural supplement found in certain foods and supplements that may control viral infections like the one that causes herpes. Some research reveals that it may have neuroprotectant, anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, and immune-boosting properties to better manage your shingles symptoms.
Research has revealed that amounts under 1,000mg per day may not be very effective for treating the herpes simplex virus (which is in the same virus group as the shingles virus), while amounts over 3,000mg per day helped patients feel better. However, while both viruses are in the same family, no evidence states that lysine works for shingles.
One study showed enhanced immunity among participants eating lysine-fortified wheat. The average dose per day for this group was 4,238mg for men, 3,235mg for women, and 2,166mg for children. However, we still need studies specific to lysine dosing and its effectiveness for shingles.
Because it may increase calcium absorption, avoid taking lysine if you have conditions such as gallstones. Those with kidney issues should also consult their doctor before supplementing with lysine, as it interferes with renal functioning. In addition, a group of drugs called aminoglycoside antibiotics may harm your kidneys when taken with lysine.
Yes. Since lysine is effective in reducing stress and anxiety, it may help you relax and get a good night's rest, which is important for healing a shingles outbreak.
U.S. chickenpox vaccination program | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Get the shingrix vaccine if you are 50 or older | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Shingles: Hope through research | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Shingles | National Institute on Aging
Shingles burden and trends | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Herpes zoster (2022)
Lysine: Is it worth more? (2001)