What Is Epstein-Barr Virus?

If you’ve ever had mononucleosis (“mono,” for short), you carry the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). It’s a virus in the herpes family, and it can cause diffuse, body-wide symptoms—even when it lies dormant in your system. So even though your mono may have cleared up decades ago, EBV is still hiding in your tissues, potentially turning up the dial on fatigue, joint and muscle pain, mood disorders, and thyroid issues.

But all readers should take heed: It’s estimated that 95 percent of the population carries the virus, whether we’ve had full-blown mono or not. Most of us just go through life as carriers, totally symptomless, never knowing we have it,” says midwife Aviva Romm, M.D., author of the new book The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution.

What’s more, we can be exposed to the virus at any time—and symptoms can wax and wane our whole lives. A strong immune system typically wrestles the virus into submission, keeping potential symptoms at bay. But periods of extended stress and major life change weaken the immune system and increase susceptibility to EBV infection and/or reactivation, as well as all the unpleasant symptoms that come with it, says Romm.

Exposure to EBV comes from intimate contact. Mono is best known as the virus of smooching teenagers, after all! But far less romantic acts also shuttle the virus from body to body, such as sharing a glass of water or taking a hit off of a shared cigarette or joint.

Once contracted, EBV can lay dormant and unnoticed, get dialed all the way up to full-blown mono, or get reactivated to any level in between. Specific symptoms can include:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Sore muscles
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Rash
  • Malaise
  • Depression

Conventional tests “are readily available and generally reliable for testing for EBV,” says Romm. If you want to know your EBV status, she recommends asking your doctor for (1) a complete EBV acute panel and (2) a chronic infection panel. Your doctor will be able to help you interpret the results.

While EBV may hang out in our tissues indefinitely, we can use natural lifestyle strategies to keep symptoms quiet, says Romm. Here are her top three strategies:

Repair your gut. Seventy to 80 percent of the immune system is housed in the gut, so one of the first best steps in boosting immune function is to repair and support gut function. Consider taking a probiotic to populate the gut with good bacteria, and feed that bacteria with fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kvass. Eliminating inflammatory processed foods and emphasizing phytonutrient-dense whole foods can also help.

Consider taking an immune-supportive herb.  Romm recommends zinc, echinacea, and St. John’s wort. Together they offer antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and immune-boosting support. Reishi mushroom is another powerful immune modulator.

Prioritize sleep and rest. Getting enough high-quality sleep is essential for healing the immune system and fighting infections. So is taking stress reduction seriously. A hollowed-out adrenal system—the result of too much stress for too long a period of time—will shoot your other healing efforts in the foot.

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