Nutrition and your immune system

We have known for decades that nutrition plays a major role in immunity and the ability of the immune system to respond to infection. The nutrients our bodies derive from food keep the immune system strong in countless ways. For example, the skin and linings of the lungs and gut provide the first line of defence by acting as physical barriers to invaders such as viruses and bacteria. These barriers are very sensitive to nutrition, especially vitamin A, and deteriorate when people don’t get proper nutrition. When this happens, viruses and bacteria have easier access into the body.As another example, the body mounts a defense against invaders by using different types of immune cells and chemicals. This defense requires energy, proteins, vitamins and minerals—all of which are supplied by food. A lack of any of the key nutrients can weaken the body’s ability to fight infection.

How HIV affects nutrition

Nutritional issues are common in HIV disease. At some point, almost everyone living with HIV will face challenges in maintaining good nutrition. Problems can be related to HIV infection itself and to the effects of anti-HIV therapy, also called HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy). For example, the virus can infect some of the immune cells in the intestines, causing local inflammation and making it more difficult to absorb nutrients and medicines. This can result in weight loss or vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Also, the nutritional needs of people with HIV are greater because the body has to work overtime to deal with a chronic viral infection and to fight off opportunistic infections. People co-infected with hepatitis C,which attacks the liver, are even more at risk of nutritional problems because the liver has a central role in processing all nutrients and most drugs. Finally, poor appetite, fatigue, nausea and other side effects of medications can make it hard to eat well.

Nutrition as part of your HIV care plan

Although there is still no cure for HIV, HAART has given many people with HIV hope and renewed health. While nutritional strategies cannot replace HAART, good nutrition can be an important part of your overall HIV care plan. In the time before you start HAART—which might last from a few weeks to many years after your diagnosis—good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle are two important strategies to maintain good health and quality of life. And once you start HAART, nutrition is still an important component of your plan to keep yourself healthy and your body’s immune system strong.

Nutrition’s role in other chronic diseases

In recent years a great deal of attention has been paid to the role of nutrition in preventing illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers—conditions that are thought to be influenced by nutrition and lifestyle. People with HIV are at increased risk of developing these conditions due to the virus itself or to the side effects of HAART. People with HIV are also living longer and getting older, which incursa whole range of health concerns that can be influenced by nutrition and lifestyle. All this to say that by reading this book you are taking care of much more than just HIV.