Many people living with HIV take extra vitamins and minerals in an effort to strengthen their immunity or improve their overall health. On the whole, research has produced mixed results concerning the benefits of using specific vitamins, minerals or other supplements.
Vitamins and minerals in small amounts (i.e. micronutrients) are essential for the proper functioning of our body processes. They protect against opportunistic infection by ensuring that the lining of skin, lungs and gut remain healthy and that the immune system functions properly.
Of special importance are vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, certain B-group vitamins and minerals such as selenium, zinc and iron. We normally get these from eating a well-balanced healthy diet.
Certain medical conditions may require doctors to recommend supplements, pills, which contain either a combination of or a specific vitamin(s) and or mineral(s). Unfortunately, scientific evidence on the effects of micronutrient supplements among people living with HIV is still rather mixed.
This is partly because results these kinds of studies are difficult to interpret. When scientists compare people who have chosen to take a supplement versus people who haven’t, they cannot be sure that the supplement is making the difference; for example, it could be that those taking the supplement tend to lead generally healthier lifestyles. Also, it is possible for a supplement that benefits one group of people to be ineffective or even harmful in another group.
The Cochrane Collaboration is a well recognised international network which provides rigorous reviews of medical studies. In a 2010 review on micronutrient supplementation in children and adults with HIV, the authors conclude after analysing 30 studies that “multiple micronutrient supplements offer some benefits and are safe in HI-infected pregnant women and their offspring.
Vitamin A and zinc supplements are beneficial and safe in HIVexposed or infected children. But further research is needed to build the evidence base for single supplements in adults and children in diverse settings.”
While such results suggest that nutritional status may affect the course of HIV disease, it is not known whether nutrient supplements delay HIV disease progression among people who already are well nourished and have normal vitamin and mineral levels.
While nutritional supplements may contribute to the overall health of HIV positive people, experts agree that vitamins, mineral and other supplements should not be regarded as a substitute for effective anti-HIV medications.