Living With HIV: Do You Need Supplements?

Side view of a man taking a vitaminStaying healthy when you’re HIV positive is about so much more than taking antiretrovirals. Yes, HIV medications are the most important part of the equation for most people.

However, they’re not the whole story…

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For instance, ensuring that your body maintains optimal levels of key nutrients can be critical in maintaining your health.

Much of the time, people with HIV can maintain good nutrient levels simply through a balanced diet, regularexercise and a healthy overall approach to the way they take care of their body. But it’s not always easy to do this — and sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it’s still not enough to ensure that you get all the nutrients you need. When this happens, taking supplements can help fill the gaps.

Please note that this information is not meant to be a comprehensive review of everything a person with HIV needs to know about supplements. It’s the beginning of the conversation that you should continue with your medical team.

Why Bother With Supplements?

The word “nutrients” refers to a group of chemicals that aid in all of the body’s natural functions, whether it’s cognition, digestion or immunity. Nutrients include vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

You get most of your nutrients by eating food. But if you’re living with HIV, food might not always be enough, since the virus can impair your immune system or force it to work in overdrive.

This is when supplements can come in handy.

Supplements are substances you can take to make up for not getting enough nutrients through your everyday life. Although supplements are usually taken in pill, capsule or tablet form, they can also potentially be in powder or liquid form, and sometimes are required to be injected.

Supplements can control or improve many aspects of your health, including:

• bone health
• brain function
• dehydration
• depression
• diarrhea
• fatigue
• focus
• lipids (such as cholesterol and triglycerides)
• muscle mass
• nausea
• neuropathy
• sleep disorders

Many supplements also have antioxidant qualities, which relieve a condition called “oxidative stress.” Oxidative stress occurs in our bodies because every metabolic process produces chemicals that can damage healthy cells.

Although oxidative stress happens naturally through illness, aging and other triggers, that stress can perpetuate the activity of HIV within the body. Antioxidants are the shields that protect the body from some of this oxidative stress.

That being said, bear in mind that supplements cannot replace HIV medications. There is no substitute for antiretrovirals when it comes to keeping HIV at bay.

What If You Can’t Afford Supplements?

Just because you’re strapped for cash doesn’t mean you have to write off any hope of getting access to important supplements. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Though it’s not terribly common, some health insurance plans will cover at least part of the cost of supplements, or may let you take part in special programs that allow you to set aside money from your pre-tax paycheck to buy supplements. Check with your health insurance company to see if that’s an option for you. Note that in certain cases (if you’re pregnant, for instance), it may be easier to get insurance to cover the costs of a supplement.

If you’re eligible to take part in an AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), keep in mind that some state ADAPs cover supplements, although you may need a prescription for them and may need to buy them from specific ADAP-approved pharmacies.

There are almost always cheaper alternatives to buying supplements from a nearby vitamin shop or supermarket. For instance, organizations known as buyers’ clubs, which include the New York Buyers’ Club and the Houston Buyers Club, specifically exist to help people with HIV/AIDS and other conditions group together to get the supplements they need as inexpensively as possible.

As mentioned, few studies have been done on supplements in HIV-positive people. But there are studies out there — and participating in one may be a handy way to get access to free supplements, at least while the study is ongoing. Talk to your doctor, nutritionist and local HIV/AIDS service organization about any studies they may know of, or conduct your own search: For example, ClinicalTrials.gov, an official U.S. government site, has a searchable listing of open studies involving supplements and HIV.

Does Age Matter?

Whether or not you have HIV, as you grow older, you’re more prone to experience certain health problems, such as bone or lipid issues. To that extent, the older you are, the more important it can become to take supplements that help prevent these aging-related health problems.

However, in a broader sense, age isn’t an issue when it comes to deciding whether to take supplements. If you eat healthy all the time (a well-balanced meal three times a day, with plenty of fruits and vegetables), don’t smoke or drink alcohol, exercise regularly, and if your body is able to absorb food into your bloodstream properly, then it’s likely you don’t have to take anything beyond your HIV meds.

But not many HIV-positive individuals are able to maintain an ideal diet or lifestyle, and both the physical and emotional effects of HIV can hurt their ability to get all the nutrients they need without a little extra help. That’s one reason why researchers are starting to see vitamin deficiencies more and more in HIV-positive individuals at any age.

As anyone who’s been keeping up with the latest developments in HIV probably knows, there are a range of health issues that we traditionally associate with aging that appear to be occurring at younger ages in people with HIV. Some of these health issues, such as bone problems (which may be associated with calcium and vitamin D deficiency), can be related to a loss of nutrients. If anything, however, these findings speak to the importance of taking supplements at any age if you need them. Even if some of the health problems that result from vitamin deficiencies occur in people as they get older, the deficiencies themselves may well have been present for a long time — and filling in those nutrient gaps now may mean fewer problems in the future.

There are definitely side effects and other downsides to taking HIV medications, but overall, the long-term side effects of untreated HIV are far more dangerous. And no supplement has yet been found that, conclusively, reliably fights HIV itself — although there are several supplements that people over the years have claimed can do so.

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