Why Vitamin B12 and Folic Acid (Folate) are important to people with HIV

We’ve adapted this piece from the NYBC Info Sheet on Vitamin B12.

NYBC members often supplement with B-right B complex or with Methylcobalamin, a form of B12 that is better absorbed by the body than other forms of B12.


B-12 may play a very critical role in preventing HIV disease progression: a large Johns Hopkins University study found that people with HIV who are deficient in B-12 have a two-fold increased risk of progression to AIDS. In this study, those who were B-12 deficient progressed to AIDS four years faster than those who were not. The exact mechanism by which adequate B-12 in the body may slow progression is not known, but the finding is not surprising, given all the roles B-12 is known to play in healthy human function.

B12 and another B vitamin, folic acid, are critical to prevent or eliminate the often-overwhelming fatigue that so often accompanies HIV disease, as well as to help prevent some forms of neuropathy and brain and spinal cord changes. Maintaining adequate B12 levels also supports the bone marrow’s production of blood cells (crucial to prevent white and red blood cell decreases), and helps protect the heart.

There are countless anecdotal reports from people with HIV that using B-12 supplementation has dramatically improved their lives by its ability to reverse fatigue, often restoring normal energy to people who had previously been so exhausted that their daily functioning had been greatly affected. Many people have also reported significant improvements in memory and mental functioning, improvements that have made a huge difference in daily life. The possibility that B-12 supplementation might also help prevent or reverse the spinal cord changes that can have such devastating effects on some people is also very encouraging.

B-12 and folic acid should always be given together. Doses of B-12 (1000 mcg given daily via pills, or one to several times weekly via prescribable nasal gel or injections) and folic acid (800 mcg daily via pills) may be useful for restoring energy, treating neuropathy, protecting the heart, increasing overall feelings of well being, and boosting mental function (especially when combined with thiamin, niacin, and folic acid, since all four of these B vitamins are needed for normal neurological function) even when tests don’t indicate obvious deficiencies.

Deficiencies of B-12 can result in deterioration of mental function and neurologic damage that will yield such symptoms as memory loss, decreased reflexes, weakness, fatigue, disorientation, impaired pain perception, tinnitus (chronic ringing in the ears), neuropathy, burning tongue, and various psychiatric disorders. B-12 deficiency can also cause canker sores in the mouth, impaired bone marrow function, loss of appetite, and loss of weight, as well as impaired antibody responses to vaccines.

Folic acid deficiency can also cause fatigue and weakness, along with irritability, cramps, anemia, nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhea, hair loss, mouth and tongue pain, and neurological problems. In addition, folic acid deficiency is believed to play a role in the development of numerous and varied types of human cancers.

A combination of B-12 and folic acid deficiency can allow increases in blood levels of homocysteine, a chemical that can damage artery walls and contribute to heart disease.

One of the known causes of B12 deficiency is chronic viral illness with resulting poor gastrointestinal absorption. AZT use may contribute to deficiencies of both B-12 and folic acid. Many other drugs may worsen folate status in the body including TMP/SMX (Bactrim, Septra), pyrimethamine, and methotrexate (all three of which are folate antagonists), as well as phenytoin (Dilantin), various barbiturates, and alcohol (all of which block folate absorption). B-12 deficiency can also worsen folate levels in the body because B-12 is required to change folate into its active form.

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One thought on “Why Vitamin B12 and Folic Acid (Folate) are important to people with HIV

  1. We recommend this web page for a recent study of folate and REDUCED colorectal cancer risk:

    http://www.michaelmooney.net/FolateReducesCancerWillet.html

    The 2011 article cited, by a well-known nutrtion scientist, finds folate from diet and folate from supplements both associated with reduced colorectal cancer incidence–when taken over a long period (we’re talking about 15-20-30 years). This fits with what is generally understood about the value of vegetables in reducing cancer risk. Not surprising to us is the other finding of the study: that short-term folate intake, around the time of the development of pre-cancers, is not going to help reduce cancerincidence! Indeed, many supplements do not necessarily produce pronounced short-term effects, but rather show health benefits over the long term.

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