Why Vitamins B12 and D3 Are Especially Important to People with HIV

Our friends at the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange (CATIE), a Canadian government-supported education and prevention organization, recently published an excellent guide to managing HIV medication side effects. This online guide covers the territory from body shape changes, to gastrointestinal disorders, to neurological effects, to emotional wellness, to fatigue, to sexual difficulties.

The Appendix to this guide focuses on two vitamins, both of which have been highlighted as especially important for people with HIV: B12 and D3. Deficiency of these two vitamins appears to be common among people with HIV, and supplementing to correct the deficiency can bring about major improvements in health. So it’s definitely worthwhile to check your B12 and D3 status, and, if you’re deficient, find a good supplementation strategy. Note that NYBC stocks both of these inexpensive vitamins: the methylcobalamin form of Vitamin B12 recommended below; and several strengths of Vitamin D3, including the commonly recommended D3 – 2500IU format.

Below are the CATIE recommendations:

Vitamin B12

A number of studies have shown that vitamin B12 is deficient in a large percentage of people with HIV, and the deficiency can begin early in the disease. Vitamin B12 deficiency can result in neurologic symptoms — for example, numbness, tingling and loss of dexterity — and the deterioration of mental function, which causes symptoms such as foggy thinking, memory loss, confusion, disorientation, depression, irrational anger and paranoia. Deficiency can also cause anemia. (See the section on Fatigue for more discussion of anemia.) It has also been linked to lower production of the hormone melatonin, which can affect the wake-sleep cycle.

If you have developed any of the emotional or mental symptoms mentioned above, especially combined with chronic fatigue, vitamin B12 deficiency could be contributing. This is especially true if you also have other symptoms that this deficiency can cause, including neuropathy, weakness and difficulty with balance or walking. On the other hand, these symptoms can also be associated with HIV itself, with hypothyroidism or advanced cases of syphilis called neurosyphilis. A thorough workup for all potential diagnoses is key to determining the cause.

Research at Yale University has shown that the standard blood test for vitamin B12 deficiency is not always reliable. Some people who appear to have “normal” blood levels are actually deficient, and could potentially benefit from supplementation.

The dose of vitamin B12 required varies from individual to individual and working with a doctor or naturopathic doctor to determine the correct dose is recommended. Vitamin B12 can be taken orally, by nasal gel or by injection. The best way to take it depends on the underlying cause of the deficiency, so it’s important to be properly assessed before starting supplements. For oral therapy, a typical recommendation is 1,000 to 2,000 mcg daily.

One way to know if supplementation can help you is to do a trial run of vitamin B12 supplementation for at least six to eight weeks. If you are using pills or sublingual lozenges, the most useful form of vitamin B12 is methylcobalamin. Talk to your doctor before starting any new supplement to make sure it is safe for you.

Some people will see improvements after a few days of taking vitamin B12 and may do well taking it in a tablet or lozenge that goes under the tongue. Others will need several months to see results and may need nasal gel or injections for the best improvements. For many people, supplementation has been a very important part of an approach to resolving mental and emotional problems.

Vitamin D

Some studies show that vitamin D deficiency, and often quite severe deficiency, is a common problem in people with HIV. Vitamin D is intimately linked with calcium levels, and deficiency has been linked to a number of health problems, including bone problems, depression, sleep problems, peripheral neuropathy, joint and muscle pain and muscle weakness. It is worth noting that in many of these cases there is a link between vitamin D and the health condition, but it is not certain that a lack of vitamin D causes the health problem.

A blood test can determine whether or not you are deficient in vitamin D. If you are taking vitamin D, the test will show whether you are taking a proper dose for health, while avoiding any risk of taking an amount that could be toxic (although research has shown that toxicity is highly unlikely, even in doses up to 10,000 IU daily when done under medical supervision). The cost of the test may not be covered by all provincial or territorial healthcare plans or may be covered only in certain situations. Check with your doctor for availability in your region.

The best test for vitamin D is the 25-hydroxyvitamin D blood test. There is some debate about the best levels of vitamin D, but most experts believe that the minimum value for health is between 50 and 75 nmol/l. Many people use supplements to boost their levels to more than 100 nmol/l.

While sunlight and fortified foods are two possible sources of vitamin D, the surest way to get adequate levels of this vitamin is by taking a supplement. The best dose to take depends on the person. A daily dose of 1,000 to 2,000 IU is common, but your doctor may recommend a lower or higher dose for you, depending on the level of vitamin D in your blood and any health conditions you might have. People should not take more than 4,000 IU per day without letting their doctor know. Look for the D3 form of the vitamin rather than the D2 form. Vitamin D3 is the active form of the vitamin and there is some evidence that people with HIV have difficulty converting vitamin D2 to vitamin D3. Historically, vitamin D3 supplements are less commonly associated with reports of toxicity than the D2 form.

It is best to do a baseline test so you know your initial level of vitamin D. Then, have regular follow-up tests to see if supplementation has gotten you to an optimal level and that you are not taking too much. Regular testing is the only way to be sure you attain — and then maintain — the optimal level for health.

With proper supplementation, problems caused by vitamin D deficiency can usually be efficiently reversed.

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Neuropathy pain and HIV: supplement recommendations

You may have read reports in late February 2012 about the FDA’s skeptic ism about a patch called Qutenza, which had been tested for relief of neuropathy pain in people with HIV. Following a meeting to review the evidence, an FDA panel concluded that Qutenza, whose active ingredient is a synthetic form of capsaicin (the compound that makes chili peppers hot) was not effective for HIV-related neuropathy pain.

The FDA’s finding on Qutenza reminds us again that neuropathy (generally, pain or tingling in the extremities) continues to be one of the most troublesome effects of HIV/AIDS and/or its treatment—and one of the most difficult to manage. According to a survey report in 2010, for example, more than one third of those on combination antiretroviral therapy for HIV do experience neuropathy, leading to lower quality of life and often disability. So, it may be worthwhile to repeat some of NYBC’s recommendations on this topic:

Peripheral neuropathy: “nukes” (nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors) such mas ddI (Videx), and d4T (stavudine/ Zerit) – and Indinavir, T20, and even 3TC (Epivir)may all cause this feeling of pins and needles or numbness to toes and fingers. It can travel up the legs and become debilitating. HIV, diabetes, alcohol abuse, and vitamin deficiencies can all be causes of peripheral neuropathy. Supplements that are “good for your nerves” and that have the most robust data include acetylcarnitine (1-3 grams/ day, quite well studied for peripheral neuropathy) and alpha lipoic acid (200-600 mg/day). Other agents that can help are Vitamin B12, biotin, lecithin, magnesium, borage oil, evening primrose oil, choline and inositol.

See the NYBC website for more details about these supplements:
http://nybcsecure.org/

How often to check vitamin levels?

MedPage Today, an online medical information service that addresses current health care findings, recently conducted a readers’ poll on the question of how often vitamin levels should be checked. Most of those responding to the poll agreed that factors such as processed foods, mineral-depleted soil, overcooked vegetables and daily stress have combined to create widespread deficiencies in some vitamins and minerals. The majority also agreed that vitamin levels should be checked yearly. Here are some of the comments:

We asked readers if and when patients should be assessed for vitamin deficiencies. Of the more than 2,200 votes, 69% said that patients’ vitamin levels should be assessed at least annually.

“I cannot remember how many patients have been rescued from dementia and psychosis by B12, especially when I have a geriatric focus,” said one doctor, who also touted vitamin D, calcium, fish oil, and thyroid testing. “Everybody deserves a look about once a year.”
[…]
“I have just been rescued from severely low vitamin D levels, and my daughter has been found to have low vitamin levels as well. I wish my doctors had been checking levels all along,” noted another MedPage Today reader.

And another expressed similar exasperation. “It was not until I was diagnosed with osteoporosis that I had a vitamin D 25-OH test, and found out that despite being outside every day, my level was insufficient. By then it was too late. I am very disappointed that my physician did not order this inexpensive test years ago. Now, I have asked for a B12 test as well.”

See details at http://www.medpagetoday.com/

Low Vitamin B12 Linked to Cognitive Decline

We’ve seen much information in recent years about the relationship between the B vitamins, especially B12, and cognitive function. But a new study fills in details about the mechanisms connecting low B12 levels and declining cognitive health. And one of the study’s authors has suggested that, while there is already a general recommendation for older adults to supplement with B12, there may be cause to advise middle age adults to do the same.

The mechanisms of cognitive decline associated with low levels of B12 include brain atrophy and cerebral infarcts (=blood flow blockage leading to tissue death). Other recent research has suggested that supplementing with B12 may slow brain atrophy as we age, so the current study linking low B12 levels to greater degrees of brain atrophy is not a big surprise.

The Institute of Medicine, an organization that establishes recommended daily allowances for vitamins, currently advises older adults to supplement with Vitamin B12, since seniors frequently are deficient in the vitamin due to declining ability to absorb nutrients. But according to one of the current study’s authors, it may make sense to screen adults for B12 deficiency even before they reach senior status, and address early signs of deficiency with supplementation.

NYBC stocks Vitamin B12 as in a highly absorbable form:

Methylcobabalmin

Also available is the B-complex:
B-right (Jarrow)

For more information about the B12 research on cognitive decline, see: http://www.medpagetoday.com/Neurology/GeneralNeurology/28740

B vitamins and brain function: the latest studies

The evidence continues to pile up that levels of the B vitamins, in particular B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folate), and B12 (cyanocobalamin), are closely related to maintaining cognitive function and warding off brain-related disorders like Alzheimer’s as we age. Well-designed studies, including the Veterans Affairs (VA) Normative Aging Study, have pointed particularly to Vitamin B deficits being associated with buildup of homocysteine, which in turn may be responsible for impairment to cognitive function.

B Vitamins are central to the preservation of mental capacities as we age. At the same time, the aging digestive system may not absorb nutrients as effectively as it once did; so an obvious strategy is to consider B complex supplementation as well as good dietary habits as we get older.

Read more on the B vitamins on the NYBC site:

B-right (Jarrow) We selected this as a good comprehensive B vitamin supplement.

B-12 Methylcobalamin (Jarrow) Studies have suggested that this is a very effective way to supplement with B12, which may not always be well-absorbed by the body when taken in other formats.

Some References:

Kim JM, Stewart R, Kim SW Changes in folate, vitamin B12 and homocysteine associated with incident dementia. J Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatry 2008;79;864-868.

Tucker KL, Qiao N, Scott T, et al. High homocysteine and low B vitamins predict cognitive decline in aging men: the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Sep;82(3):627-35.

Wang HX, Wahlin A, Basun H, et al. Vitamin B12 and folate in relation to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Neurology 2001;56:1188-94.

Book Review: “Supplement Your Prescription — What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know About Nutrition,” by Hyla Cass, M.D.

This is an excellent guide to managing the side effects of prescription drugs through better nutrition and nutritional supplements. Published in 2007 by Basic Health Publications, it synthesizes much recent research on how the most frequently prescribed drugs for Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, and depression often cause nutrient deficiencies that can lead to additional health problems. Dr. Cass, who is a practicing physician and a specialist in integrative medicine, provides clear analyses of these damaging side effects and offers recommendations on how to address them.

The first condition discussed by the book is Type 2 Diabetes/insulin resistance/metabolic syndrome. For those who are taking the most commonly prescribed drug for Type 2 Diabetes, metformin, Dr. Cass stresses the importance of supplementing with Vitamin B12 (200-1000mg/day) folic acid (400-800mg/day) and CoQ 10 (30-200mg/day) to make up for the nutrient-depleting effects of the medication. Vitamin B12 and folic acid, together with Vitamin B6, are crucial for keeping levels of an amino acid called homocysteine in check in the body. Since elevated levels of homocysteine are associated with heart disease, stroke, hypertension, neuropathy, and Alzheimer’s, it’s a top priority to keep the body supplied with the B vitamins that can control it.

Dr. Cass also provides a “Diabetes Supplement Program” especially directed to pre-diabetics who may be able to address their condition with diet, exercise, and supplements (the B vitamins and CoQ 10 mentioned above, plus alpha lipoic acid, antioxidants, and the trace minerals chromium and vanadium, which are needed in blood sugar processing).

Much more to discuss in this very useful book, so we will come back to it again!

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.