Effects of vitamins, including vitamin A, on HIV/AIDS patients

Vitam Horm. 2007;75:355-83. doi: 10.1016/S0083-6729(06)75013-0.


An estimated 25 million lives have been lost to acquired immune-deficiency syndrome (AIDS) since the immunodeficiency syndrome was first described in 1981. The progress made in the field of treatment in the form of antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV disease/AIDS has prolonged as well as improved the quality of life of HIV-infected individuals. However, access to such treatment remains a major concern in most parts of the world, especially in the developing countries. Hence, there is a constant need to find low-cost interventions to complement the role of ART in prevention of HIV infection and slowing clinical disease progression. Nutritional interventions, particularly vitamin supplementation, have the potential to be a low-cost method for being such an intervention by virtue of their modulation of the immune system. Among all the vitamins, the role of vitamin A has been studied most extensively; most observational studies have found that low vitamin A levels are associated with increased risk of transmission of HIV from mother to child. This finding has not been supported by large randomized trials of vitamin A supplementation; on the contrary, these trials have found that vitamin A supplementation increases the risk of mother-to-child transmission (MTCT). There are a number of potential mechanisms that might explain these contradictory findings. One is the issue of reverse causality in observational studies-for instance, advanced HIV disease may suppress release of vitamin A from the liver. This would lead to low levels of vitamin A in the plasma despite the body having enough vitamin A liver stores. Further, advanced HIV disease is likely to increase the risk of MTCT, and hence it would appear that low serum vitamin A levels are associated with increased MTCT. The HIV genome also has a retinoic acid receptor element-hence, vitamin A may increase HIV replication via interacting with this element, thus increasing risk of MTCT. Finally, vitamin A is known to increase lymphoid cell differentiation, which leads to an increase in CCR5 receptors. These receptors are essential for attachment of HIV to the lymphocytes and therefore, an increase in their number is likely to increase HIV replication. Vitamin A supplementation in HIV-infected children, on the other hand, has been associated with protective effects against mortality and morbidity, similar to that seen in HIV-negative children. The risk for lower respiratory tract infection and severe watery diarrhea has been shown to be lower in HIV-infected children supplemented with vitamin A. All-cause mortality and AIDS-related deaths have also been found to be lower in vitamin A-supplemented HIV-infected children. The benefits of multivitamin supplementation, particularly vitamins B, C, and E, have been more consistent across studies. Multivitamin supplementation in HIV-infected pregnant mothers has been shown to reduce the incidence of adverse pregnancy outcomes such as fetal loss and low birth weight. It also has been shown to decrease rates of MTCT among women who have poor nutritional or immunologic status. Further, multivitamin supplementation reduces the rate of HIV disease progression among patients in early stage of disease, thus delaying the need for ART by prolonging the pre-ART stage. In brief, there is no evidence to recommend vitamin A supplementation of HIV-infected pregnant women; however, periodic vitamin A supplementation of HIV-infected infants and children is beneficial in reducing all-cause mortality and morbidity and is recommended. Similarly, multivitamin supplementation of people infected with HIV, particularly pregnant women, is strongly suggested.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / drug therapy
  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / immunology
  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / transmission
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Disease Progression
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / drug therapy*
  • HIV Infections / immunology
  • HIV Infections / transmission
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infectious Disease Transmission, Vertical
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications, Infectious / drug therapy
  • Pregnancy Complications, Infectious / immunology
  • Vitamin A / adverse effects
  • Vitamin A / immunology
  • Vitamin A / therapeutic use*
  • Vitamins / adverse effects
  • Vitamins / immunology
  • Vitamins / therapeutic use*


  • Vitamins
  • Vitamin A