Nutrition for Cold Sores: Triggers & Prevention

Cold sores. Signs of stress. Signs of excess.

Are you looking for a solution? Are you looking for the underlying problem?

If you haven't yet considered your nutrition yet as a potential aid in preventing cold sores, you will after this post! What we put in - we get out.

In every symptom that the body shows, there is an underlying cause.


Cold sores as you probably have read are a dormant virus that live in the nerves of our spinal column and are "triggered" to come out at certain times. Highly contagious when they are out. There are quite a few "triggers" and finding out what yours are is crucial to lessening the severity of the sores. Common triggers include too much chocolate, a fever or infection, stress, menstruation and low immunity. Some people have the virus but rarely get the sores, and some people get the sores all the time, so whats the difference?

Nutrition is a huge factor, but stress is just as huge.

There is no "cure" for cold sores - however, there are lots of things you can do that will help to prevent as many breakouts, and to lessen the severity of the outbreaks. I have found that the following steps can make a big impact in the severity and regularity of their appearances.

People have different opinions of them ranging from "it's just a cold sore" to "i'm desperate to solve this hideous problem!"

Let's dive into food first. Known triggers for cold sores are refined sugar as well as foods high in arginine. Lysine is sold as a capsule supplement as well as a lip balm for the sores.  Foods that contain high amounts of the amino acid lysine "fight" the virus to go back down to its hiding spot, and foods high in arginine can encourage it to come out.

Lysine foods include most dairy, most meat, sprouts and vegetables. (Making it harder for vegetarians to consume a high-lysine diet) Now, Arginine foods (remember: cold sore encouragers) include chocolate, refined sugar, oats, flour, peanuts, soybeans.

Some people have tried acupuncture or herbal remedies for increasing their immune system and attempting to fight the sores. You'll have fun experimenting and find what works for your body. You'll get to a point where you'll know your body so well that you will "know" why you got the cold sore - and there is usually a food component additional to the stress as well.

If you have a cold sore or are trying to prevent, eat more of these:

Fish, chicken, beef, lamb, cheese, beans, nutritional/brewers yeast, mung bean sprouts, seafood, eggs, whole yogurt, and most fruits and raw vegetables have higher lysine than arginine content. Eat lots of these to prevent or fight cold sores. Highest quality is best as we trying to improve and help our immune system so we can tackle this blip in our immune system functioning. Highest quality means organic when possible and fresh/local is best!

My personal favourites:

Plain Jerseyland Organics yogurt and/or gouda cheese

Canned sardines

Local, farm fresh eggs

Popcorn with butter, coconut oil + nutritional yeast

and avoid these:

refined sugar, peanut butter, all nuts and seeds, flour, rice, oatmeal, raisins

You really need to avoid refined sugar during an outbreak, and the less of it you have in between outbreaks, the higher your chance of going a longer time without a new cold sore popping up! Here's the irony.... We want to avoid sugar at all costs so as to not stress further our immunity (sugar slightly *paralyzes* our immune system) and some fruits do contain more lysine than arginine... so the question is whether to be avoiding fruits or not during an outbreak? If it is summer I will still eat fruit - just smaller amounts than normal.

In the book "Healing with Whole Foods" by Paul Pitchford as per Traditional Chinese Medicine they put a person on a 6-month no sugar diet - completely avoiding not only fruit but also ALL treats/sweets, packaged foods with added sugar, and alcohol - and it was not known whether or not that actually 'removed' the virus from the system, but it seemed to abolish future outbreaks.

You can check out a chart like this during outbreaks to see if it will help you feel secure in your food choices. All foods have both of the amino acids in them, we just want to "tip the charts" towards the lysine end whenever possible.

Check Yourself. So, as for nutrition, the next time you get a cold sore make sure to evaluate "have I been eating too much sugar?" and if you have a sore currently, make sure to avoid all forms of refined sugar until its gone. This includes packaged foods such as ketchup or granola bars that have sugar added - READ ingredient labels. Read: [What You Never Want To Read on Food Labels]

Foods that are beneficial to the liver are also very helpful (but notice how some of them are on our Avoid list? This is where the game gets fun!) and here are some more key nutrients & foods to include in your diet during an outbreak:

  • raw or lightly cooked garlic (antibacterial properties)

  • raw vegetables (immunity)

  • essential fatty acids from wild fish (omega 3's)

  • shiitake mushrooms (immunity)

  • fermented foods (probiotics)

  • antioxidant foods + a good quality multivitamin supplement

Stress and Immunity. We know that when we get too stressed out, our body goes into "flight or fight" mode and the more we stay in this state, the worse it is - not only for our moods (and the people around us!) but also for our waistlines and our immune system. Read: [5 Basic Ways to Stronger Immunity]

Our fight or flight response starts in the brain. Many different areas operate in concert to detect, sense, decode, and respond to the stimulus. Our hypothalamus (a hormone controller - thermostat) is really the one in charge here though, and once the hypothalamus goes to work, our survival systems are also called. Mainly, the nervous system and the adrenals.

Enter physical symptoms: tight, furrowed brows, sweating, heart palpitations, muscles tensing..... you are now super alert, but only on the issue at hand: awareness of anything else is gone. The nervous system has pumped your body with adrenaline and noradrenaline so you can RUN. (or fight) Meanwhile, the adrenal-cortical system (which produces these hormones) becomes activated, and the pituitary gland secretes a hormone known as ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) which signifies our adrenal cortex to pump out as many as 30 different hormones to address the stressful situation at hand. Read: [7 Ways to Combat Stress: Your Biggest Issue]

Maintaining a stress-relief program daily (or minimum = weekly) is imperative for your healthy + happy lifestyle!

Long story short

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Your immune system temporarily shuts down so your body can utilize all its resources to deal with the perceived threat. Key word = perceived. The lesson in your cold sores will always be stress related - we know that stress weakens the immune system and anytime we weaken for too long the virus will rear its head, so figuring out beyond the physical and into the mental/emotional is where most of the work lies for cold sores.

Find a practitioner you trust and begin your journey on finding what relaxes you. Are you a barefoot flower child? Perhaps joining a Yoga studio or a float tank session, or spending time in your garden with some meditation needs to be part of your routine. Or perhaps you enjoy simpler ways of relaxing like reading or a nice Massage.

Picking up that old paintbrush.... or guitar. Start experimenting. It's just got to be fun and enjoyable.

Check Yourself. What did I do to think myself into this? Did I stress about a "perceived stress" or do I really have something to freak out about (and therefore what can I do to help that situation?)


What stressed me out that didn't have to be that big of a deal? What could I have done for some self-care today? Have I been taking time to relax for myself each day? On the other hand, it may be as simple as a cold or flu, or something else that knocks your immunity down so the virus pops up. Remember when we lower our defenses it gives the virus time to pop in for a visit.

There is LOTS to evaluate and think about.

After all of this - we also want to keep in mind that nutrition, while highly important, isn't the "be all end all" of life. It is one part. When trying to balance out symptoms you should evaluate everything else in your life too - exercise regime? stress levels? anything in excess?

Getting very upset about the look and feel of cold sores is very common, but once we start learning to recognize what event, food, thoughts or actions stemmed the tingle of that cold sore, we take more power and control over our body, and can learn to work with the messages we are given, instead of being angry about them.

Remember that physical symptoms that we get on our body are just signals from the body. It is talking to us.

Are you listening?