Post-Viral (Retrovirus) Support Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
This article is about the retrovirus – a serious virus that can linger in the body for years and can mutate itself constantly so the immune system cannot recognise it. These include Ross River fever, Dengue fever, HIV/Aids, Barmah Forest, Malaria, and similar retroviruses.
By the time people find out they have a serious virus it is usually too late to treat it in the acute stage, so most treatment is post-viral (after infection).
Most of those who have suffered from a retrovirus can attest to the terrible pain in their joints that is caused by the virus destroying cartilage and creating inflammation. Cartilage is a very flexible substance that supports certain structures like the outer ear, nose, and joints such as knees, hips, elbows, ankles, shoulders and between our spinal discs.
We get natural deterioration of cartilage as we age, but infections such as these strong viruses can have a huge impact on our joints, cartilage, and connective tissue in our bodies. But it’s not all bad news as there is current research showing that cartilage can be regenerated by eating the right foods. See the Cartilage Regeneration Diet.
Apart from the degradation of cartilage after a virus has attacked, we can also have on-going low or high grade inflammation that doesn’t switch off after the initial immune system activation attack on the virus. An anti-inflammatory way of eating, that is removing foods that increase inflammation in the body, is an important step to take towards healing.
Another factor is that sometimes the body just can’t seem to shake off the virus, so it remains in the body, perhaps at a weaker level than initially, but still lurking and waiting until we are ‘run down’ enough for the virus to raise its levels and attack our bodies again. Some see this as an ‘anniversary infection’ or a relapse of sorts. Malaria is well known for this recurrence.
Some people with a run-down immune system may not get a relapse, but they seem to catch everything going around, from the common cold or flu to random tummy bugs. Another issue is that with prolonged inflammation from the immune system attacking the virus, you can develop an auto-immune con dition.
As you can see, a retrovirus can create extensive damage to the body and our immune system. Did you know that 70-80% of our immune system is in our gut? And that’s why it is so important to heal the gut and the immune system.
Post viral fatigue
Post-viral fatigue is one of the most common symptoms during or after a viral infection. That dragging feeling of not having the energy to do things the way you used to be able to. Many people drink cola drinks, coffee or other stimulating beverages, or eat foods with sugar to keep going – or ‘soldier on’ as some would say.
This means that your body and immune system is still working ever so hard to keep the bug levels down, destroy and re-build damaged tissue, and work on inflammation in your body. Even if fatigue is the only symptom that you have with your retrovirus, you may also have leaky gut.
With the guidance of your practitioner and the support of foods to support post-viral conditions, you will be in the best position to regain your healthy self.
Inflammation in post viral infections
Inflammation is the body’s way of healing things. It sends extra blood cells, especially the white blood cells, to destroy the invading pathogen and also red blood cells to increase circulation. The blood vessels carry this fluid to various areas of the body (such as joints) where the fluid is pooled to act as a protective buffer to facilitate healing. We notice this healing process as puffiness and soreness.
Inflammation itself doesn’t mean we have an infection; it is the body’s response to an infection or trauma.
When we get a virus or bacteria, the inflammation and pain we get is a direct response from the body saying, ‘rest, stay as still as possible and let me do the work to fix this for you’. But usually we don’t listen to what our body tells us, and instead we push on and make things worse which creates more inflammation in the body.
In most cases, eventually the immune system wins, the inflammation settles down and we are healthy again. But this is not always the case, especially with the harder to deal with retroviruses. A retrovirus is one that keeps changing form so the immune system can’t recognise it.
As the immune system builds antibodies against the retrovirus, the virus changes form again and again, making it really difficult to completely eradicate it – hence why so many people suffer from the long-term effects of these retroviruses.
We can help our body to be strong and healthy with a diet that supports the immune system, reduce inflammation and the drivers of inflammation, as well as re-build the lost cartilage.
Auto-immune triggers from viral load
There is a different antibody for the repair of damaged tissue for each organ and body part. These are called auto-antibodies where the immune system literally attacks the body part, but for a good cause in most cases.
When a virus attacks our body it can damage different tissues including the cartilage and just about any organ or body part. Our immune system has special anti-bodies that are designed to break down this damage, so fresh new healthy cells can be made to replace the damaged ones.
Normally most infections are short-lived, but because a retrovirus can constantly change, the damage to the body from the virus continues. At the same time, the immune system continues to break down the damaged tissue and a self-destruction situation occurs because the immune system actually attacks the body.
Apart from viruses, there can also be different triggers to make the immune system attack itself. Normally once a damaged area of the body has been repaired, the auto-antibodies switch off as their job is complete and all is well.
But with continued damage from chronic inflammation or viral attack, the immune auto-antibodies can stay switched on for so long that auto-immunity becomes the new ‘normal’ for your body as the immune system continues to attack itself.
The virus can be a potential trigger to auto-immune diseases of our joints, muscles, organs, and tissues.
The good news is that you can help your body switch off this mechanism by removing some of the drivers such as inflammation, and by supporting the immune system via the gut.
Avoiding pro-inflammatory foods is possibly more important than eating anti-inflammatory foods – combining the two is ideal. Foods that increase inflammation are going to increase any pain you have in your body.
Inflammation will also cause more tissue destruction, which creates more antibodies that can create even more damage (a vicious cycle). If you avoid foods that create inflammation, you will take away some of the drivers that keep the virus active.
The worst of the pro-inflammatory foods is sugar. Every teaspoon of sugar can kill 1000 white blood cells (which are part of your immune system). Sugar is not only what you add to your coffee or tea, it’s in all sorts of foods and drinks under many disguises. Sugar is a component of, or broken down from, starchy carbs and grain products like breads, pastas, and cereals. Best avoided to reduce inflammation.
If you are inflamed, fruit can further increase inflammation, although some low sugar fruits like berries are fine. It doesn’t mean never eating fruit or anything sweet again, but if you avoid sweet foods until you have no more painful joints or muscles, you will really help your immune system.
Gluten and grains in general
Gluten is difficult to fully digest and makes the immune system work extra hard. Even if you don’t have an intolerance to gluten, by eliminating it from your diet your immune system can have a break and put its energy into dealing with the virus. Grains are very acidic, hard to digest, ferment, break down to sugar, and feed the virus or bad bacteria, so are best avoided.
Dairy is naturally quite high in sugar, and like gluten, can make the immune system work extra hard to break down the lactose and casein in milk because we don’t have the digestive capacity beyond the age of two to do so. Even if you don’t have an intolerance to dairy, a break from it in all forms will support your immune system.
By reducing and eliminating your intake and exposure to toxins, your body has far more energy to heal rather than lose energy while detoxifying. Give your body a break and a better chance to heal by avoiding chemicals which can be found in: foods such as additives, preservatives, colours and flavours; personal care products like shampoos and cosmetics; household cleaners; gardening products etc.
Processed, smoked, cured meats
Hot dogs, sausages (unless grain free/paleo), bacon, ham and luncheon meats, all add extra toxic burden onto the body and increase inflammation.
Chips/fries, deep fried anything, and any foods cooked with trans fats all increase inflammation in the body
Margarines and processed vegetable spreads
Heating vegetable oils and the hydrogenation of liquid fats in solids like margarines and other table spreads are basically chemically altered products that make the body work harder to digest and detoxify. By not having these, you can take the workload off the body to facilitate healing. Note: pure oils are fine if not heated.
Histamine can be a trigger to the inflammation response and is something that can be easily overlooked as a cause of inflammation, particularly if you don’t have any obvious ‘allergy’ type symptoms. A small number of people with inflammation also have histamine intolerance, so a low to moderate histamine diet can help. For more information go to the Low Histamine Diet.
Alcohol & other toxins
Some say that drinking alcohol in moderation benefits health, with red wine often cited because it contains antioxidants (although in very small amounts). However, the risks of drinking alcohol may certainly outweigh the benefits.
Indeed, what are the true benefits of drinking alcohol? I remember someone telling me that alcohol helps people to be themselves. My questions: “What’s stopping them from being themselves? Why do they need alcohol to do that?” Some people use alcohol to escape. But what are they escaping from…the joy of life?
Consuming 100% alcohol can cause blindness and/or death. So we dilute it. The problem is that even if alcohol is diluted, any amount kills brain cells, even for those who ‘drink in moderation’. Just one solitary hangover should be enough to convince us that alcohol is bad for us. When our body tells us something, do we really listen?
There isn’t really anything good that I can say about alcohol (apart from its use as a cleaner and a fuel additive). Alcohol changes behaviours and has been the catalyst for massive social problems, damage, and destruction to people’s lives.
Even small amounts of alcohol have been associated with a higher risk of certain cancers. According to a special report by the NHS, there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol regarding cancer risk. The report says: “Alcohol should not be seen as an option for improving health, and it’s best not to pay too much attention to studies or stories that highlight its ‘benefits’ without also mentioning the risks.”
We know alcohol is toxic to our liver, and because the liver needs to work hard to detoxify, if it’s busy with that job then the liver can’t be as pro-active at removing the dead bacteria and viruses from our body (also called endotoxins). Alcohol also contains sugar. Alcohol is unhealthy – enough said.
This stands true for all toxins in our food, drinks, personal care items etc. If your liver is unnecessarily overworked to detoxify these substances, then there is little time left for its other important job…to help you to heal.
Some can handle caffeine in their body quite well, many can’t. Without genetic testing, it is hard to evaluate if you can handle caffeine or not. Caffeine is toxic, particularly for the liver, so it’s best to avoid while fighting a retrovirus.
Great alternatives to caffeinated drinks are Rooibos tea, herbal teas or hot water and lemon. If you feel tired or drained, a quick walk, short nap or a healthy snack may help.
It’s advisable to consider other things that may increase inflammation such as smoking, excess weight, and ensure that any medication you take best suits your body. Most importantly get good advice from a qualified health care practitioner.
Our genes, toxins, and caffeine
There’s a gene that we all have called CYP1A2 that helps us break down toxic chemicals we are exposed to. It comes in two types, 1A and 1F and we all inherit one of the versions of these genes from our parents. If you have the 1A version, then your ability to clear toxins such as caffeine is quite good.
But if you have the 1F version, one cup of coffee a day increases your risk of heart attack before the age of 50 by 100%, two to three cups – 200%, four cups – 307%. For those with the IF version, by not having the coffee (or other toxins) then your epigenetic expression (the switch) won’t be activated, which means that you won’t be affected by this gene.
Heart attacks are just one example of disorder that can happen depending on other genetic weaknesses. Noteworthy is that the CYP1A2 gene is also responsible for estrogen metabolism.
Lysine to the rescue for post viral support
One of the most important nutrients for the rapid regeneration of cartilage is an amino acid called lysine. It is responsible for absorbing calcium and producing collagen that rebuilds damaged tissue. Lysine is also really good for improving the appearance of your skin as well as supporting tendon and other connective tissue strength.
Foods that contain high levels of lysine are:
- Legumes, especially lentils and beans
- Cod and other fish (not shellfish*)
- Turkey, chicken, pork (not red meat**)
- Eggs from any poultry
- Soy products (but not good if you also have hormone imbalances)
- Nuts and seeds (also high in silica, another good nutrient for cartilage)
- Gelatine from bone broth or pure gelatine not only contains lysine but also contains other aminos such as glycine (which helps you to sleep and decrease anxiety) and proline that helps to build cartilage and collagen.
Take care with cold sores (herpes 1) as gelatine has a higher ratio of arginine (another amino acid) to lysine, so it’s not recommended to consume during cold sore outbreaks. If you have a histamine intolerance then gelatine may not be appropriate for you.
Note: Although shellfish* and red meat** are high in lysine, these foods are NOT recommended for post viral support due to the high levels of purines. See the Low Purine Diet for more information.
Vitamin C for post viral support
Another special nutrient for regeneration of cartilage, collagen and connective tissue is Vitamin C. Vitamin C rich foods are very supportive for your immune system and important for tissue repair. Vitamin C also helps to lower uric acid and purine levels, which can be beneficial.
Anti-oxidant foods for post viral support
By their nature, anti-oxidant foods are also anti-inflammatory. Deeply colourful fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, acai berries, spinach, beetroot, rainbow chard, red cabbage, pumpkin/squash and beans are rich in antioxidants, which can help protect our cells from damage, support our immune system to fight off viruses, and are fun to eat.
Anti-inflammatory foods for post viral support
Tomatoes include compounds such as licopenes which are considered anti-inflammatory. Tomatoes are high in histamine, so may not suit some people.
Their flavanoid content helps them to be anti-inflammatory. However, peppers and tomatoes (nightshade family) are not so good for histamine intolerance and for inflammation associated with arthritis.
Best raw and use extra virgin olive oil to get the best effects.
Green leafy vegetables
Green leafy vegetables excellent for retrovirus support include spinach, kale, bok choy and collards. Other great anti-inflammatory greens include asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, avocadoes (healthy fats and alkaline) and broccoli (organic is important). Kale and spinach are often referred to as two of the most nutrient dense foods you can eat. Kale has high levels of vitamin A and C providing a big boost of antioxidants, in addition to fibre.
These vegies are high in oxalates, an acidic food chemical that is not suitable for those with gout. Cooking reduces the oxalate content of these foods. These vegies can also have moderate levels of histamine, so if your pain gets worse on these foods, consider the Low Histamine diet.
Other great vegetables
These include carrots, cauliflower, celery and cucumber. Fennel has a strong phytonutrient and antioxidant count which can help treat inflammation in the body.
Include almonds, walnuts and pecans. Nuts can contain moderate to high levels of histamine. So if your inflammation seems to get worse, consider the low histamine diet.
Use seeds such as flaxseed. The lignans, alpha-linolenic acids and the omega-3 content in flaxseed provides anti-inflammatory effects. Other seeds such as quinoa have protein and fibre and lots of vitamins and minerals as well as being a great anti-inflammatory food.
Salmon, anchovies and sardines have copious amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, verified to have a strong anti-inflammatory effect. An improper balance of omega-6s to omega-3s can lead to inflammation. Consumption of salmon and other fish that are high in omega-3s can help combat over-consumption of foods containing omega-6 fatty acids.
Salmon and white fish are the lowest in purines and therefore excellent anti-inflammatory foods for post viral support to reduce inflammation.
Try to buy fish that has been wild caught, as fish that are fed pellets in fish farms don’t have the same beneficial levels of the important Omega 3’s. Ensure your fish is fresh or snap frozen to avoid potential histamine levels that increase when food ages.
Strawberries, blueberries and cherries contain phyto-nutrients that are anti-inflammatory. Lemons and Limes contain antioxidants that help the body combat free radical damage, which can lead to inflammation. Also, pawpaw (papaya) and pineapple have anti-inflammatory effects.
Blueberries are anti-histamine so are particularly good. Papaya and pineapple are best when slightly under-ripe to increase the anti-inflammatory effects, increase digestive enzymes, and to keep histamine levels lower. Green mango and papaya are great in salads.
Herbs and spices
Basil, parsley, rosemary, in fact most herbs and spices have some anti-inflammatory attributes. Take care with chilli style spices with arthritis type pains from a virus or where there’s sensitivity to nightshades or salicylates. To keep histamine levels down, fresh herbs and spices are best.
Note: Turmeric is a super spice that helps reduce inflammation and histamine.
Most health advocates agree that garlic is a great food to battle inflammation and is also low in histamine.
Chicken (and other white meats)
Chicken is not the most anti-inflammatory food you can eat, but it’s included because many will not be able to cut meat entirely out of their diet. Chicken is a good compromise, rather than eat red and other inflammatory meats.
Choose chicken that contains the least amount of antibiotics and other additives – so go for organic and pasture raised chicken whenever possible.
Free range, grass fed organic eggs are higher in Omega 3 essential fatty acid. While not so much an anti-inflammatory food, eggs can be useful to replace other pro-inflammatory proteins such as some meats. Egg white is high in histamine, so if you suspect histamine is an issue keep eggs to a minimum. Duck eggs have lower levels of histamine.
Kelp helps to keep the body on the alkaline side of the acid/alkaline equation by providing plenty of iodine, and it’s high in fibre. The fucoidan in kelp is credited for its anti-inflammatory effects.
This is a great source of energy that is naturally anti-inflammatory due to special fats called medium chain fatty acids or MCFAs. MCFAs help to stimulate your body’s metabolism, leading to weight loss and reduced inflammation.
Coconut also contains another great substance called Lauric Acid. Your body converts lauric acid into monolaurin, which has anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-protozoa properties, which is part of the reason why it is anti-inflammatory.
Enzymes to the rescue for post viral support
Enzymes from fresh fruits and vegetables can help the body to break down damaged tissue in the body, which can then lessen the load on the immune system to do it all. Enzymes are used primarily for digestive processes, but they are also there for many other amazing jobs, including repair.
The idea is to have more enzyme rich foods in the diet rather than foods that need enzymes to break them down. To do this you need an 80% plant-based diet with the remaining 20% a combination of fats and proteins. Use good fats to help reduce inflammation, and proteins from plants (nuts and seeds) and grass-fed animals – rather than the harder to digest grain fed animals.
If your symptoms from a virus are on-going after many months or years since you first contracted the virus, then there’s a good chance that you have intestinal permeability, also known as ‘leaky gut’.
To find out more about leaky gut, testing and repairing it, please go to the Leaky Gut Diet article. Because 70-80% of your immune system is in your gut, a healthy ‘sealed’ gut wall is very important for your immune system.
One of the most powerful gut healing agents for leaky gut or just general support for the immune system is bone broth, which is jam packed with anti-inflammatory, amino rich, gelatine and collagen to help heal and seal your leaky gut.
If you have FODMAP sensitivity, you may want to omit onions from your brews as they can cause more wind and further leaky gut. It’s the fermentation and dysbiosis which causes the leaky gut, not onion itself.
At least a cup a day of bone broth is important and if you can manage three to four cups a day, even better. You can buy it ready made as a liquid or even a powder, but it can be quite expensive and you don’t have control over what goes into it, so it’s best to make your own.
Talk to your practitioner about how much bone broth you need, which will depend on how bad your leaky gut is. You can get a test done with your natural health practitioner to see if leaky gut is part of the reason why your body is suffering post-virally.
While a Post Viral Diet is not considered a cure, the idea is to include foods that support your body and eliminate foods considered detrimental in order to help your body to do its natural job of healing. For this reason, meals should be free of gluten, dairy and additives, and rich in valuable nutrients to support inflammation, oxidation, tissue damage, anti-inflammatory, and cartilage regenerating.
Low oxalate foods may help to reduce the pain in joints often felt by those suffering from retroviruses. For more, see the Low Oxalates Diet.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client name and identifying information changed
Jasmine had been diagnosed with Ross River Virus (RRV) about eight years prior to seeing me and although most of the symptoms of the virus were gone, she still suffered from on-going fatigue, low grade aches in her joints and recurrent headaches every few days.
Jasmine was most concerned that whenever she tried to get fit at the gym, or even from walking, she would really ache for a week and her knees were too sore to take any pressure when she wanted to do floor mat exercises such as push-ups.
Initially when she first got the virus, her joints and muscles ached so much that she was prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s) and cortisone, but these made things worse by giving her added tummy discomfort without relieving the pain. She couldn’t sleep well and stopped taking them after a week.
On the advice of another naturopath she was put onto some supplements like fish oil, vitamin C in large doses and magnesium, which seemed to help in a small way, but the cost was too high for her to continue considering that the pain relief was minimal.
Jasmine had read many blogs on how hard it was to treat RRV, so she resigned herself to ride through without treatment it until it went away. Eight years later, she was fed up with it and came to see me for help.
Having had a bad dose of Ross River Virus myself about 11 years previously, I knew how she felt and it was very unpleasant, to the point that I had to crawl up stairs because it was too painful to walk. I couldn’t take anything to help and the damage to my cartilage from the virus was not good. But loads of research drew me to several conclusions.
In particular, you really need to be gentle with your body and let go of your expectations. You can read all about this in another case study – Ross River Virus. There are more than 100 comments on this article from fellow sufferers of this horrible virus.
Apart from recommending Jasmine to be gentle with herself, I had her digestive system checked and sure enough, she had ‘leaky gut syndrome’ so we set-up a gut repair program. The gut repair and anti-inflammatory foods were also useful to help her cartilage to regenerate (which I continue to do today).
Within three months of commencing the diet, Jasmine’s symptoms dropped by about 50%, after suffering for the previous eight years! We continued the cartilage regeneration for another 12 months before her joints were completely free of pain, but there were still issues to resolve along the way.
Jasmine had previously been consuming loads of coffee and lollies to try to be alert, but this was driving her inflammation and pain even more without her realising it. Once we removed these pro-inflammatory foods, the fatigue and headaches quickly departed.
I also suggested that she introduce more gentle activities at the gym and allow plenty of recovery time between sessions. Jasmine found that she actually got fitter faster and had more energy this way, compared to how she previously tried to push through it all.