The Herxheimer Reaction – Feeling Worse Before Feeling Better
The first time I heard about a Herxheimer reaction it was while I was studying classical homeopathy in South Africa a long time ago. Lots of things that the teachers spoke about then were very foreign to us, very different from an allopathic way of thinking. I was very new to alternative methods of treating the body at that time. It took me quite a while to understand that it was possible that feeling worse for any length of time was actually a sign of getting better. It was only through repeated experience of giving people the ‘right’ homeopathic remedy, that I came to know first hand that is was possible. And in fact, was a true healing experience.
How is it possible to feel worse before feeling better?
The first time I heard about a Herxheimer Reaction it was while I was studying classical homeopathy in South Africa a long time ago. Our instructors spent a lot of time educating us about what the homeopaths refer to as ‘the vital force’ and how important it is in the understanding of the human body. This vital force maintains and directs life. It is a form of energy that underlies biophysical and biochemical processes, and separates the living from the non-living, enabling all living things to self-heal or to preserve life by adapting to environmental changes.
Lots of things that the teachers spoke about then were very foreign to us, very different from anything we had heard before. We were all very new to alternative methods of treating the body at that time. It took us quite a while to add to this understanding of the ‘vital force’ the concept of the ‘Herxheimer Reaction’ In other words, when you gave the patient the ‘right’ remedy, there was a good chance that they could be feeling a lot worse before they actually got better, and to add to that, it was a good sign. Fortunately, it was through repeated experience during our training of prescribing the ‘right’ homeopathic remedy for our patients, that we came to know first- hand that is was possible. And, in fact, that it was a true healing experience.
It is a reaction that happens when the body is detoxifying and the released toxins either make the symptoms that are being treated worse or they create their own symptoms. The most important thing to remember is that worsening of symptoms does not indicate failure of the treatment in question, its just the opposite.
Why is it called a Herxheimer reaction?
Technically speaking, it’s actually known as the Jarisch-Herxheimer Reaction. However, it goes by many names, like the Herxheimer Effect, the Herxheimer Response, a Herx Reaction, Herx, Herks or even JHR. But most common terminology used today is ‘the Herxheimer Reaction’. People also often refer to it as ‘die-off reaction’, a ‘healing crisis’ or even a ‘detox reaction’. It’s important to realize that the symptoms of a Herxheimer Reaction are not actually side effects of the treatment, but rather known to be part of the elimination of the disease process. Additionally, I came to find out much later that the Herxheimer Reaction is well recognized in medical circles and is definitely not only seen in the world of natural medicine or taking supplements.
Dr Karl Herxheimer
Adolf Jarisch MD (1860-1902) was from Vienna, Austria and Dr Karl Herxheimer MD (1861-1942) was from Frankfort, Germany. They were both dermatologists and at the time they were predominantly treating syphilitic lesions of the skin with mercury. This was the accepted method of treatment at the time. They both documented that in response to treatment, many of their patients’ skin lesions became much larger and more inflamed first before they noticed that they got better. As well as that, they found that their patients also developed symptoms like fever, perspiration, night sweats, nausea and vomiting at the same time.
Then, afterwards, the skin lesions would settle down and heal and the associated symptoms would go away. The person may have been sick for a couple of days but then they would feel better and the skin lesions were better. Interestingly enough, they both noted that those patients who had the most extreme reactions, were the ones to heal faster and more effectively. This tied in with our homeopathic experience as well. The more accurate we were with prescribing the ‘right’ remedy, the more severe the Herxheimer Reaction was.
What we understand today is that ‘Herxing’ happens when injured or dead bacteria release their endotoxins into the blood and tissues faster than the body can comfortably handle it. This causes a sudden and extreme inflammatory response. These are endotoxins that are suddenly released when the harmful organisms in the body start to die. This can be an on-going process of healing when dealing with more severe conditions, and it may take time and patience to continue dealing with the symptoms, but its worth it.
Common Symptoms of the Herxheimer Reaction.
There is always the possibility of each person’s reaction to be different, depending on their individual reaction to their disease process as well as their state of health and other environmental influence. The reaction usually lasts for a few days. In more severe cases, reactions may last a week or even more.
Certain symptoms are very common but they do vary from person to person.
Flu-like signs and symptoms are the most common. Then next on the list are painful joint and muscle, sometimes the whole body will ache. I’ve seen people show symptoms of sore throat, swollen glands, and general malaise. Sweating, chills and nausea occur as well. Itchiness and rashes ie pruritis, is another common symptom. Another biggie, headaches, especially migraines.
Other symptoms I’ve come across are general fatigue, sensitivity to light, even sleep disturbances, hypertension or hypotension. The mental emotional state of the patient may also be taxed. Intracellular bacteria can influence thinking and so cause psychological symptoms. Then there are signs of irritability and even dizziness.
Sometimes, the reaction can be so mild that the person hardly notices it. But in the case of severe infection, the reaction is much more noticeable. There are many factors to take into account, like, what the condition is that’s being treated, also the degree of toxicity associated with that condition, the general health of the person, and very importantly, the amount of support the body is given to help eliminate the toxins as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems associated with the HerxHeimer reaction is that people stop taking the supplement or medication that is causing the reaction, and so stop the very treatment that is helping to make them better. They don’t realize that even though they’re not feeling particularly well, the Herxheimer Reaction is actually a sign that healing is taking place and a necessary result of reducing inflammation in the body.
When does it happen?
There’s a lot of different data out there on the timing of a Herxheimer reaction. My experience has been that it may occur as soon as four hours after starting treatment, but can be any time within 24 hours, usually. Sometimes, it can be days, like 3- 5 days, before the reaction is noticed. As I mentioned before, it really depends on the vital force of the individual being treated as well as the support therapy that is being used at the time. The reaction may last from just a few hours to sometimes for as long as a week.
What it the best way to ‘treat’ a Herxheimer Reaction?
If the reaction is mild enough to be able to ride through it, that’s the best approach. Just continue with the treatment plan and help eliminate the toxins as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.
However, when the reaction is really too severe to handle, it is sometimes very helpful, not to stop completely, but rather to cut back on the frequency of the treatment. This will often lessen the symptoms but at least allow to healing process to continue. Sometimes it’s necessary to stop completely for a day or so to get some relief and then start up again as before.
By far the best treatment is to increase the amount of water that you’re drinking. Lots and lots and lots of water. You can even at some lemon to the water. Also make sure that you have regular bowel movements so you are eliminating the toxins you’re getting rid of on a daily basis. You can consider taking cold press olive oil first thing in the morning, but do stay away from any ‘additional’ herbal supplements.
Of course, its vitally important to watch what you’re eating during this time. Keeping the diet as ‘pure’ as possible is a good idea. Don’t load your body up with additional chemicals, additives and other toxins that need elimination as well.
Massage will help the lymph system eliminate as well. Also think about taking sea salt baths, steam baths and saunas as ways to enhance the ‘detox’ elimination.
It may be a good idea to stop or at least minimize the amount of exercise you are doing during this healing period. Get lots of rest and do get plenty of sunshine if you can.
The most important advice I can give you in relation to the Herxheimer Reaction is to “bear with it”. As stated before, the Herx is usually over within a few days and it is well worth it to benefit from the cleansing and healing results. It is reinforcement to you that the treatment is actually working and doing its job.
In conclusion, there are just a few very important words of warning. If you experience ANY serious symptoms like difficulty breathing or suffer with constriction in your lungs or chest of even your throat, if you have cardiac irregularities, significant swelling or edema anywhere in your body or any other severe symptoms for that matter, please seek immediate medical attention. Regardless of whether these symptoms seem to be related to the condition you are treating, it may be pointing to something totally unrelated treatment, and may be associated with a much more serious condition. It is very important to act on it immediately.