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Foods That Can Trigger Cold Sores


It’s well known that the viruses responsible for cold sore outbreaks (the herpes simplex type 1 virus, or HSV-1) and genital herpes outbreaks (the herpes simplex type 2 virus, or HSV-2) are life-long infections.  Once the herpes virus is in your body, it’s there for life.  Fortunately for about half of those infected, the virus remains ‘dormant’, or in an active

Many people see that after a first outbreak, the herpes virus goes dormant, ‘hiding’ in specific nerve tissues in the facial area (for HSV-1), or in the sacral regions (in the case of HSV-2) until it is ‘re-awakened’ by a trigger event.  The virus may remain dormant for weeks, months or even years, although as many as half of the people who have the herpes virus experience outbreaks much more frequently – sometimes monthly or during certain periods even more frequently.

It’s also well documented science that there are a number of things that can trigger the virus to ‘re-awaken’ from dormancy and start to reproduce in high numbers.  It’s this reproduction that leads to cold sore and herpes outbreaks.  The objective is thus to try and avoid these triggers as much as possible.

Avoiding triggers that may re-awaken dormant viruses is an important part of maintaining proper normal health for those infected with various viruses, and specifically for those infected with HSV-1 and / or HSV-2.

Often, the rate of viral replication leading to an outbreak level, (sometimes referred to as a ‘high viral load’) can be triggered by a wide range of events, including, but not limited to:

  • Exposure to the sun, extreme heat or overexposure to UV rays, such as from tanning
  • Fever from another cause or disease
  • Physical or emotional stress and fatigue – one of the most common causes of outbreaks
  • General irritation of the affected area from vigorous sexual activity or an injury
  • Menstruation or changes in hormone levels
  • A weakened immune system, or an immune system occupied with fighting some other infection or disease
  • Friction, rubbing or trauma to the infected area
  • Exposure to cold or wind which could irritate an infected area of the skin
  • Diets rich in specific trigger ingredients (keep reading)
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol, which can weaken the immune system

The above list is widely recognized as including events or actions that have been shown to trigger viral shedding, re-awakening of the dormant virus, sudden accelerated virus reproduction and outbreaks of HSV-1 or HSV-2, but there may be others, and not all of these will apply to every person with the herpes virus.  The above list is not all encompassing, and the exact cause of herpes outbreaks will vary from person to person.  Any event or action that re-awakens the dormant virus and leads to visible outbreaks of HSV-1 or HSV-2 should be avoided if possible.

Foods and Herpes Virus Outbreaks

One of the easiest ways to avoid a common trigger is to be aware of the foods and beverages you eat and drink.  The herpes virus requires a specific nutrient – the amino acid L-arginine – in order to reproduce, so reducing the virus’s access to available L-arginine can help.

L-arginine (often just called ‘arginine’) is an amino acid that is necessary for the human body to function properly.  It is also a critical nutrient the herpes virus requires to reproduce and to cause outbreaks or symptoms.  And although L-arginine is good for us, it is also essentially the most important ‘food source’ for the herpes virus and HSV needs this food to reproduce.

The good news is that there is another amino acid called L-lysine that can counter the effects of L-arginine.  What science has found is that diets that are rich in L-arginine and low in L-lysine can sometimes trigger the virus to re-awaken from dormancy and start to reproduce.  If the virus is already active, high levels of L-arginine can stimulate even faster virus reproduction.  Cutting back or avoiding those particular foods (such as chocolate and nuts) that are higher in L-arginine than in L-lysine may be helpful for some people.

Both L-arginine and L-lysine have their own health benefits (both are amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – and both are essential in our diets), but for people with the herpes virus, it has been shown that diets richer in L-arginine than in L-lysine levels have been linked to accelerating herpes virus reproduction.

L-lysine does not eliminate L-arginine from the body and there have never been any studies which have shown a link between taking an L-lysine supplement and having an L-arginine deficiency.  The objective is to balance and regulate the L-arginine level, not to deplete it entirely.

The human body makes plenty of L-arginine to function perfectly.  L-arginine is NOT an ‘essential’ amino acid, which means it is manufactured by the body and we don’t need to source it from our diet or supplements to increase L-arginine levels.  We also obtain extra amounts of this amino acid through certain common foods.

L-lysine however IS an ‘essential’ amino acid, which means the body does NOT manufacture it naturally, and we can only obtain it through diet and / or taking L-lysine supplements.


How Balancing Amino Acids Can Reduce Herpes Outbreaks

Again, the idea is to properly balance the ratio of L-arginine in your body to that of L-lysine, so that your body has more L-lysine than L-arginine at any time.

How does L-lysine help?

Here is where L-lysine supplements come in.  L-lysine is an essential amino acid which means that is can only be obtained through the diet or by taking supplements.  It is essential to many of life’s processes and is found naturally in many foods, but not in high-enough levels to have the L-arginine counterbalancing effect required to help regulate virus reproduction.

How L-lysine helps with the herpes virus is that it has the potential to counteract some of the body’s production of L-arginine.  This is a natural process that happens when you eat foods that contain L-lysine.  You can take advantage of this chemistry by taking an L-lysine supplement which can help counteract the quantity of L-arginine in your body.  It only makes a mild difference by delicately balancing out foods that can tip the scale in favor of L-arginine, which have the potential to provoke high levels of virus reproduction and cold sore outbreaks or genital herpes outbreaks for some people.

Some Facts About L-lysine Supplementation and the Immune System

L-lysine has many immune system benefits in addition to its ability to suppress herpes virus reproductive activity.  L-lysine plays an important role in helping the immune system manufacture antibodies, for healthy functioning of the heart, lowering ‘bad’ cholesterol levels, assisting bone problems such as osteoporosis, and in maintaining the integrity of the skin.

Some people have been concerned about the safety of L-lysine due to the fact that it naturally counteracts the body’s production of L-arginine.  The good news is that balancing these amino acids doesn’t mean eliminating one or the other, even if you avoid foods that are rich in L-arginine and take an L-lysine supplement you will NOT be eliminating the L-arginine your body needs.  You are only helping to moderately reduce the ratio of L-arginine in your body to or below the level of L-lysine so that it has less potential to influence herpes virus reproduction.

Many years of experience and extensive research on this topic have never found any credible references to support a claim that L-lysine negatively affects the immune system.  To the contrary, there is a large amount of clinical data and literature demonstrating the safety of L-lysine as a natural method to help regulate HSV virus reproduction.

As with all supplements, please read the label and take only as directed. Excessive amounts of anything is never good for you. Please only take the recommended dose of any nutrient or supplement, and always follow the advice of your doctor, dermatologist or primary care physician.

Common Foods to Look For and to Avoid

The following table has been developed James M. Scutero, calculated from the Agricultural Handbook, 1-23, published by the US Department of Agriculture.   We credit and thank the website herpes.com, for publishing this table.

The way to read this table is as follows:  most diets and many foods contain BOTH L-arginine and L-lysine in differing levels.

A number in the column at the far right side of the table named ‘Ratio Lys/Arg’ that is OVER 1.0 shows that there is more L-lysine in that food item than there is L-arginine.  For those with a herpes virus infection who want to help regulate virus reproduction, these foods may be beneficial.  The higher this number, the higher the ratio of L-lysine is to L-arginine.

A number in the same column at the far right side of the table named ‘Ratio Lys/Arg’ that is UNDER 1.0 shows that there is more L-arginine in that food item than there is L-lysine.  For those with a herpes virus infection who want to help regulate virus reproduction, these foods may be beneficial to AVOID as much as possible.  The lower this number, the more L-arginine there is in that food than L-lysine.

Remember is it OK to ingest some amount of L-arginine (and even beneficial for maintaining proper health and bodily immune functions), but those who believe that a high-lysine / low-arginine diet or total intake may help reduce the rate of virus reproduction, recommend ingesting more L-lysine than L-arginine, so you’ll want to look for foods with a HIGHER ‘Ratio Lys/Arg’ number, and avoid those foods with a number lower than 1.0.

Common Foods That Have More L-arginine Than L-lysine (You’ll Want To Avoid These)

FOOD ITEM Weight (gm) Lysine (mg) Arginine (mg) Ratio Lys/Arg
Hazelnuts 135 459 2480 0.185
Walnuts 100 466 2520 0.185
Orange juice 248 22 117 0.188
Pine nuts 28 256 1330 0.192
Grape juice 253 25 119 0.21
Tahini 15 82 378 0.217
Brazil nuts 140 757 3350 0.226
Sesame seeds 150 1240 4990 0.248
Pecans 108 315 1190 0.265
Almonds 142 946 3540 0.267
Coconut, shredded 80 118 437 0.27
Peanuts 144 1450 5050 0.287
Peanut butter 15 176 613 0.287
Grapes 160 24 78 0.308
Onions, mature 160 90 262 0.344
Blackberries 145 17 49 0.347
Blueberries 145 17 49 0.347
Macadamia nuts 134 434 1200 0.362
Garlic 3 8 19 0.421
Pumpkin seeds & squash 140 2530 5570 0.454
Yams 200 89 191 0.466
Rice, puffed 14 38 73 0.521
Cashews 160 246 470 0.523
Oatmeal 234 78 147 0.531
Bran flakes 47 177 314 0.564
Wheat, puffed 12 49 85 0.576
Corn, puffed 28.4 65 112 0.58
Pistachios, shelled 128 1640 2790 0.588
Cream of wheat 251 98 166 0.59
Wheat flakes 33 101 171 0.591
Wheat, shredded 23.6 79 133 0.594
Cucumber 104 22 36 0.611
Onions, green 100 4 6 0.667
Mushrooms 70 48 72 0.667
Orange 180 62 85 0.729
Brussels sprouts 88 130 178 0.73
Peas, green 146 463 625 0.741
Wheat germ 180 1330 1790 0.743

There are many more foods that have high L-arginine to L-lysine ratios; the list above is again just a quick reference.

Common Foods That Have More L-lysine Than L-arginine (You’ll Want To Eat More Of These)

FOOD ITEM Weight (gm) Lysine (mg) Arginine (mg) Ratio Lys/Arg
Margarine 14.1 9 3 3.000
Plain Yogurt 227 706 237 2.979
Swiss Cheese 28 733 263 2.787
Gruyere Cheese 28 768 276 2.783
American Cheese Spread 28 427 155 2.755
Whey, dry, sweet 7.5 77 28 2.750
Blue Cheese 28 526 202 2.604
Papaya 454 76 30 2.533
Brie Cheese 28 525 208 2.524
Parmesan Cheese 28 937 373 2.512
Beets 136 72 30 2.400
Cream Cheese 28 192 81 2.370
Mozzarella Cheese 28 559 236 2.369
Butter 14.1 9 4 2.250
Skim Milk 245 663 302 2.195
Half and Half Cream 242 568 259 2.193
Sherbet 193 171 78 2.192
Chocolate Milk 250 629 287 2.192
Ice Cream 133 381 174 2.190
Whole Milk 244 637 291 2.189
Whole Milk, dry 128 2670 1220 2.189
Nonfat Milk, dry, instant 68 1890 864 2.188
Mango 300 85 39 2.179
Apricot 114 103 48 2.146
Coffee Cream 15 32 15 2.133
Apple 150 17 8 2.125
Ricotta Cheese 246 3290 1550 2.123
Pear 180 23 12 1.917
Fig 65 19 11 1.727
Avocado 272 189 119 1.588
Salmon 85 1550 1000 1.550
Swordfish 85 1550 1000 1.550
Haddock 85 1480 961 1.540
Whitefish 85 1490 971 1.535
Tuna, in water 165 4480 2920 1.534
Cod 85 1390 906 1.534
Halibut 85 1620 1060 1.528
Tomato 123 41 27 1.519
Tomato juice 243 54 36 1.500
Chicken 109 1860 1320 1.409
Pineapple 155 39 28 1.393
Potato 150 190 140 1.357
Chicken breast 181 2500 1870 1.337
Cream of Mushroom soup 244 127 95 1.337
Turkey noodle soup 244 212 159 1.333
Celery 120 32 24 1.333
Potato, baking 202 283 214 1.322
Chicken noodle soup 241 219 166 1.319
Porterhouse steak 454 6560 4980 1.317
Beef T-bone steak 454 6330 4810 1.316
Beef Sirloin steak 454 6880 5230 1.315
Knockwurst 68 634 482 1.315
Beef Rib roast 454 6050 4600 1.315
Beef Short ribs 454 5430 4130 1.315
Ham, boneless 454 6750 5170 1.306
Turkey, dark meat 152 2620 2020 1.297
Turkey, light meat 180 3540 2740 1.292
Italian sausage, cooked 67 1020 792 1.288
Pork sausage 28 252 196 1.286
Corned Beef, brisket 454 5100 4100 1.244
Pastrami 28 375 302 1.242
Frankfurter, beef 45 389 314 1.239
Ground beef, regular 113 1560 1260 1.238
Green beans 110 97 80 1.213
Pork Bacon 454 2900 2400 1.208

There are many more foods that have high L-lysine to L-arginine ratios; the list above is just a quick reference.

Knowing what you eat can have a significant effect on regulating the ability of the herpes virus to reproduce, by depriving it of its main essential nutrient.

Of course, it’s always highly recommended to talk with your doctor or professional healthcare provider for specific advice with any health concerns you may have.