How Vitamin D deficiency affects individuals with HIV

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It kills or damages the body’s immune system cells.

AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. It is the most advanced stage of infection with HIV.

HIV virus passes from one person to another through certain body fluids, such as blood and semen. About 90% of new HIV infections occur during sex. Shared needles and injection drug use is the second most common route of infection. HIV can also spread from an infected mother to her newborn. HIV isn’t spread through casual contact, such as shaking hands, hugging, sneezing, sharing utensils, or using bathrooms. Women can give it to their babies during pregnancy or childbirth.

“If you get a diagnosis of HIV infection, and you begin anti-retroviral therapy in a timely fashion, before your immune system becomes substantially compromised, your prognosis is excellent,” says Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, NIH’s infectious disease chief, who first began treating AIDS patients in the early 1980s.

The first signs of HIV infection may be swollen glands and flu-like symptoms. These may be transitory, but severe symptoms may not appear until months or years later.

Most common signs of people with the virus are:

  • Fever
  • Persistent, unexplained fatigue
  • Skin rashes
  • Swollen glands/lymph nodes
  • Muscle aches
  • Sore throat
  • Night sweats
  • Sores or ulcers in your mouth
  • Chronic diarrhea

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In a detailed study by an established Vitamin D researcher, pregnant women in Tanzania with HIV were studied for about five years. The findings included advanced Vitamin D levels were associated with a slower progression of HIV to AIDS, women with Vitamin D levels above 32 ng/mL (80 nmol/L) had a 25% lower risk of disease development, women with higher Vitamin D levels had a lower risk of dying from any cause during the study.

Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency are common in people with HIV infection. Subjective reports from physicians caring for HIV-positive people and results from clinical trials suggest that getting Vitamin D levels in the blood into the optimal range (75 nmol/litre or greater) is not easy and may take several months or up to a year even when relatively high doses (such as 4,000 IU/day) are taken with over-the-counter oral supplements. Other researchers in US conducted a 12-week study of oral Vitamin D3 supplementation. Their results suggest that it is possible to considerably raise Vitamin D levels in the blood with over-the-counter supplements but very high doses are needed, particularly in cases of pre-existing deficiency. Problems such as higher-than-normal blood pressure and abnormal levels of cholesterol in the blood are common to HIV positive people.

In a research conducted to establish highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) it was found that an estimated 33 million people were infected with HIV worldwide.  But what was once a fatal diagnosis can now be managed as a chronic disease. For their study, Prof. Ezeamama and colleagues examined 18 months of data for 398 HIV-positive adults on HAART. The data included a measure of participants’ Vitamin D levels at the start of the trial (baseline) and their CD4 cell counts (the cells that fight infection by playing a major role in immune system) at months 0, 3, 6, 12 and 18. In their analysis, the researchers looked at how the changes in CD4 cell counts related to the baseline levels of Vitamin D over the study period. They found that participants with sufficient levels of Vitamin D at baseline recovered more of their immune function than participants with Vitamin D deficiency.

The virus attacks the body’s immune system and anti-retroviral therapy (ACT) is the treatment of choice to hinder viral proliferation and restore the body’s immune function. However, Vitamin D deficiency may limit the effectiveness of ACT. They concluded that Vitamin D supplementation may aid in restoring immune function and in the effectiveness of available HIV treatment.


Vitamin D sufficiency helps people with HIV by:

  • Moderating the chances of a person suffering from osteoporosis and loss of bone mineral
  • Increasing muscle strength
  • Developing the immune system by producing cathelicidin and defensins (proteins that help fight bacteria and viruses)
  • Reducing tenderness by shifting protein production
  • Controlling diabetes and maintains blood sugar level


People with HIV/AIDS would benefit by measuring their Vitamin D blood levels. Supplements could raise Vitamin D levels to at least 40 ng/mL (100 nmol/L). Bone damage is becoming a widespread concern for people with HIV. This is partly because researchers are finding that people with HIV have bone problems at a younger age and are more likely to experience fractures than their HIV-negative equivalents. Vitamin D is a critical part of bone health. Without it, the body cannot absorb calcium, which makes up the structure of all bones.

Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to higher cancer rates, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Vitamin D levels should be measured both before and after taking Vitamin D supplements or increasing ultraviolet-B (UVB). Keeping in mind cost effectiveness in developing nations where HIV cases are rampant, Vitamin D may be a simple and economical intervention to reduce HIV-1 risk and disease progression.

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