Note : None of these treatments has been proven effective as yet for the uses cited above.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus responsible for AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). This virus progressively destroys or damages cells in the immune system, making its host vulnerable to certain cancers and infections. Opportunistic infections—caused by microorganisms that do not ordinarily cause illness in healthy people—can have serious or even fatal effects in people with AIDS.
Within a month or two of exposure, infection with HIV may cause short-term flu-like symptoms, followed by a symptom-free period lasting months to years during which the virus continues to multiply. After this stage, people with HIV may develop swollen lymph nodes, recurrent herpes sores, diarrhea, weight loss, and/or chronic yeast infections (oral or vaginal)—a state previously called AIDS-related complex (or ARC). Children may experience delayed development or fail to thrive. The infection is called AIDS when the number of immune cells known as CD4+, or helper T-cells, drops below a certain level, or when opportunistic diseases such as Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia develop. Today, both ARC and AIDS are collectively called symptomatic HIV infection. This condition is increasingly rare in the developed world due to the success of pharmaceutical treatments, and, for many people, HIV infection is a manageable, if challenging, chronic illness.
HIV is spread most commonly through unsafe sexual practices or by intravenous drug abuse. Mothers can infect their babies before or during birth, or later through breastfeeding.
Proposed Natural Treatments for HIV
Among the many proposed natural treatments for HIV, none has more than preliminary supporting evidence.
Inhibiting Viral Replication
double-blind, placebo-controlledBuxus sempervirens
When participants started the study, they had no symptoms of HIV and had never taken antiretroviral drugs. They were kept off anti-HIV drugs during the study. (This was before the use of anti-HIV drugs became widespread.) At the end, researchers found that among those taking the lower dose, fewer people developed AIDS, symptomatic HIV, or CD4+ counts below 200 compared with those taking the higher dose or placebo. Additionally, by the end of their treatment period, fewer people in the low-dose group had a large increase in the amount of HIV virus they carried compared to the other two groups.
The researchers had originally planned the study to continue for 18 months (78 weeks). However, as the study progressed, a review committee decided to halt the study early when the average participant had taken boxwood or placebo for only 37 weeks. The review committee felt it was unethical to continue to have some people take placebo, given the positive results among those taking the extract. Nonetheless, further research is necessary to confirm the effectiveness of boxwood extract for HIV, particularly in combination with proven antiviral drugs, which have now become the standard of care for HIV infection.
Note : Only a special boxwood extract has been studied as a treatment for HIV infection. Do not try to use raw boxwood leaf, as it might not be safe.
Other substances that have been investigated for possible HIV suppression include bacailin (Chinese skullcap), curcumin , elderberry , schisandra , spirulina , and reishi . However, as with aloe, the evidence that they work is primarily limited to test tube and animal studies; whether these results translate into real improvement among people with HIV has yet to be determined.
Enhancing the Immune System
In test tube studies, a number of substances have been found to improve measures of immunity in HIV infection, for example, by elevating CD4+ counts, changing the ratio between CD4+ cells and other immune cells, increasing amounts of other immune chemicals, or enhancing the body's ability to attack invading substances. However, there is relatively little information on whether they can actually help people with HIV infection.
One of the natural substances most widely used by people with HIV in hopes of enhancing immune system function is the antioxidant N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), but evidence that it helps is somewhat conflicting.
Other natural treatments that are sometimes recommended to boost immunity in HIV include:
- Trichosanthin (compound Q)
- Lipoic acid
- Coenzyme Q 10
- Component of licorice known as glycyrrhizin
- Momordica charantia (an herb also called bitter melon)
- Omega-6 fatty acids
- Proteolytic enzymes
Immune support for people with HIV is also discussed in the Homeopathy Database , under the HIV support chapter.
Treating Other Symptoms of HIV and Opportunistic Infections
Besides the treatments mentioned earlier, a number of natural remedies have been proposed for symptoms of HIV or common opportunistic infections.
Fighting Weight Loss
Undesired weight loss is a frequent symptom of HIV and AIDS. Sometimes weight loss is so extreme that the person seems to "waste away"—hence the name "AIDS wasting syndrome," which is technically defined as the loss of more than 10% of body weight combined with either chronic diarrhea or weakness and fever. Many factors can contribute to this weight loss, including loss of appetite, nausea, malabsorption of nutrients, and mouth sores.
Supplemental medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a particular type of fat, and glutamine may be helpful for this symptom, although there is no definitive evidence as yet that they work.
In both of the studies described above, participants consumed nothing but a special nutritional formula containing MCTs. Taking MCTs in this way requires medical supervision to determine the dose.
People with HIV or diabetes should not use MCTs (or any other supplement) without a doctor's supervision. For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the full MCTs article.
Treating Medication Side Effects
Several natural treatments have been proposed to treat side effects from various medications used in the treatment of HIV.
The herb milk thistle is sometimes recommended for preventing liver problems related to use of HIV medications. While there is no direct evidence that it is helpful for this purpose, there is fairly good evidence, at least, that use of milk thistle does not adversely affect blood levels of indinavir.
General Nutrition Support
Vitamin A and beta-carotene are described together here because the body uses beta-carotene to produce vitamin A. Substances called carotenoids are closely related to vitamin A; this family includes lutein and lycopene .
Note : Keep in mind also that excessive dosages of vitamin A can be toxic to the liver. Consult with your physician on the right dose for you. For other dosage and safety issues, see the full articles on Beta-carotene and Vitamin A .
Vitamin B 1212 12
Note : Excessive intake of vitamin B 6 can cause neurologic problems. Consult with your physician on the right dose for you. For other dosage and safety issues, see the full Vitamin B 6 article.
Note : Do not take iron supplements unless you know that you are iron-deficient.
Because so many nutrients are affected by HIV infection and treatments, multivitamin supplements are a logical choice.
However, as noted above, one study evaluated whether use of a multivitamin tablet might reduce infectivity of African women with HIV, and unexpectedly found the opposite: multivitamin tablets increase the levels of HIV virus present in the genital area.
Natural Treatments to Avoid
Other possible harmful effects discussed elsewhere in this article include worsening of peripheral neuropathy symptoms by CoQ 10 and increase of infectivity attributable to use of multivitamins. If you have HIV, talk with your doctor before using any herb or supplement, no matter how harmless it may seem. Given the large numbers of drugs, herbs, and supplements taken by many people with HIV, the possibility of interactions is high.
- Reviewer: EBSCO CAM Review Board
- Review Date: 08/2013 -
- Update Date: 08/22/2013 -