Ask The Doctor: Mononucleosis

I have mononucleosis, and my doctor gave me antibiotics. Do I really need them? Is there anything natural I can do to get better faster?
By Taryn Forrelli, ND

You no doubt know mono as “the kissing disease,” but few people recognize it as a member of the Epstein–Barr virus (EBV) family. Although the virus itself is not serious, it comes with some pretty debilitating symptoms: sore throat, fever, abdominal pain, skin rash, headache, sore muscles, and constant fatigue. Your doctor most likely gave you antibiotics because 20 to 30 percent of mono patients get secondary infections like strep throat on top of mono. Since strep is a bacterial infection, a course of antibiotics may nip it in the bud, but these drugs will do nothing to shorten the duration or lessen the severity of mono. You can certainly ask your doc to give you a strep test before filling that prescription. When it comes to mono, most doctors will tell you to simply rest, drink lots of fluids, and wait it out. Sound advice. But there is a whole medicine chest full of natural remedies that can help fight the virus and make you feel better faster. You may return to your normal routine once your fever disappears, but remember that you may be contagious for several months after you feel better. So don’t share cups, utensils, or smooches with anyone until your symptoms completely disappear.

Stock your arsenal.
Add a probiotic supplement to replenish the beneficial flora in your gut that will be depleted if you take an antibiotic for strep throat. Take probiotics first thing in the morning on an empty stomach and continue for two months after finishing the antibiotics to ensure complete rebalancing of microflora.
Relieve a fever naturally by drinking a cup of yarrow and elderflower tea. A lukewarm bath also helps bring down body temperature.
Proven antiviral herbs like elderberry and garlic will help reduce your body’s viral load. It’s the smelly, sulfur-derived nutrients in garlic that kill viruses, so don’t bother with deodorized garlic supplements. Try to get one clove of fresh garlic (or supplement) each day. Elderberry has been shown to reduce the duration and severity of the flu and inhibit the replication of the herpes simplex virus—a close relative of EBV. Take two to four teaspoons of elderberry syrup or one to two lozenges a day.

Be good to your body.
Mono can also cause swelling of the lymph nodes and spleen and, in some cases, inflammation of the liver. So keep your diet simple and focus on foods that are gentle on the digestive tract while supporting the liver like carrots, beets, ginger and miso. Reducing inflammation not only helps relieve aches and pains. It also protects the liver. But before reaching for the ibuprofen or acetaminophen, which may add further strain on the liver, try turmeric, a well-researched herb that reduces inflammation and detoxifies the liver. Turmeric contains a phytonutrient called curcumin that has been shown to more powerfully inhibit inflammation than ibuprofen. Take 3 grams of turmeric each day.
Caffeine may be tempting to fight the fatigue associated with mono, but avoid it if you can. Caffeine—even from healthy sources like green tea—stimulates the release of the stress hormone cortisol, an immune-system suppressant. Instead, take 100 to 300 mg per day of the herb rhodiola, which actually modulates cortisol release and supports immune function while helping your body produce more cellular energy. Research has demonstrated that stress-reduction exercises like meditation and restorative yoga can stimulate the immune system’s natural killer cells that attack viruses and other pathogens. Make time for at least 10 or 15 minutes of each every day.

Soothe symptoms.
You may be able to reduce the hard swollen glands associated with mono with twice daily skin brushing. The soft bristles of a dry brush gently stimulate and move the lymph system, helping to clear destroyed virus particles and immune cells from the nodes.
Relieve a raw, painful throat with tea or lozenges that contain slippery elm. Made from the bark of the tree, this herb contains compounds that help soothe inflamed mucous membranes.
For achy muscles, soak for 15 to 20 minutes in a hot bath containing one cup of Epsom salts and a few drops of lavender, eucalyptus, or peppermint essential oils.

Taryn Forrelli, ND, naturopath in North Andover, Massachusetts