Vitamins: Alternative Treatment or Necessary Therapy?
Vitamins and minerals are necessary for everybody. They play an even bigger role in the nutritional status and health of individuals with HIV/AIDS. Vitamin/mineral supplements often become an important component of treatment, whether self-prescribed or recommended by your physician or dietitian. Figuring out whether to take supplements and in which amounts, can be as important a decision as which medications to take.
Vitamins are essential, organic nutrients needed in tiny amounts by the body in order to survive. Vitamins do not provide calories (energy), but they do help the body to digest and use other energy-containing nutrients: fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Although we don't need very many vitamins, nor do we need large amounts, the vitamins accomplish mighty tasks, many of which are still being discovered, especially in HIV disease.
Fat soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E and K which are stored by the body to meet any future requirements. This means there is an increased risk of harmful side effects due to buildups. In particular, vitamin A has been shown to be harmful (toxic) when consumed in large amounts.
On the other hand, water-soluble vitamins, such as B-vitamins and vitamin C, are absorbed and the excess is carried out of the body in urine. Unlike fat-soluble vitamins which are stored, water-soluble vitamins need to be consumed every day in small amounts.
Minerals are natural elements that are needed by the body to perform various functions and keep the immune system healthy. Several minerals, including zinc, selenium and iron are receiving a lot of attention as having various roles in fighting HIV. Researchers are finding low levels of selenium in people with HIV/AIDS. Selenium works with vitamin E and appears to improve immune function and possibly slows progression of HIV. The recommended daily intake (RDA) for women is 55 mcg. with toxic effects at 1000 mcg.
Iron is another mineral commonly prescribed for those with HIV. The role of iron in the function of the immune system is debated. Evidence suggests that both an excess of iron or a deficiency (not enough) can increase the risk of infectious diseases. Iron deficiency negatively affects the immune system yet, deficiency may also serve to prevent infections because invading organisms (germs) require iron to thrive.
Anemia is common among women. If you suspect you are anemic, find out the cause. Iron deficiency isn't the only cause of anemia. Infections and inflammation, kidney disease, side effects of drug therapy (AZT), misuse of nutrients, lack of iron, vitamin B12, folate, copper, vitamin C and protein can all cause various types of anemia. Be sure to consult with your physician.
Antioxidants are also getting a lot of press lately for their beneficial role in preventing and fighting HIV disease. Antioxidants disarm what are called "free radicals" or body cells that have gone haywire. The body produces free radicals in response to infections, pollution, smoke, and even sunlight. Free radicals stress the immune system by damaging DNA, killing cells and changing various chemicals in the body. By neutralizing the free radicals, the body successfully prevents damage to cells. Growing evidence indicates that antioxidants may also slow progression of HIV. (On the other hand, too many antioxidants can cause harm.)
Growing research is reporting low serum levels and/or deficiencies of several nutrients among people with HIV. These include many of the B vitamins(riboflavin, folate, B6 and B12), and the minerals zinc and selenium. Unfortunately, data specific to HIV+ women is sorely lacking. However, it is safe to say that when it comes to getting enough vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, women with HIV face a big challenge.
Vitamin and/or mineral supplements should not be used to replace food. Intake through better eating is preferable. That's because vitamins and minerals work together with other nutrients found in protein, carbohydrates, fat and water.
Food Sources of Antioxidants
Beta-Carotene (Vitamin A)
Pumpkin, sweet potato, mustard greens, carrots, winter squash, kale, apricots, carrot juice, spinach, cantaloupe, broccoli, and mango.
Citrus Fruits, red/green peppers, cantaloupe, cabbage, strawberries, brussels sprouts, mango, potato, kiwi fruit, broccoli, cauliflower, and fortified cereals.
Wheat germ oil, safflower oil, mayonnaise, wheat germ, cottonseed oil, fortified cereals and breads, almonds, avocado, and whole grains.
Brazil nuts, seafood, eggs, organ meats, chicken, cereals & breads, lean meats, beans, and whole grains.
Designing A Program
One Final Caution
If you are experiencing a lot of diarrhea, you may want to back off of any large amounts of nutrients like vitamin C or beta-carotene.
Lisa A. Ploss, RD, MPH is a nutritionist in the San Francisco Bay Area who focuses on HIV and women's health issues. She can be reached at (510) 337-0479
This article was provided by Women Alive. It is a part of the publication Women Alive Newsletter.