HIV not equal to death

Mahatma Gandhi in 1944 remarked: “I submit to you that scientists have not yet explored the hidden possibilities of the numerous seeds, leaves and fruits for giving the fullest possible nutrition to humanity”. Sixty-two years later, we know that food does not cure HIV but it helps keep the immune system strong.

The immune system is the most intelligent self-automated clockwork in the body. Although we can not see it on an anatomy chart, it produces billions of new cells each day. The immune system rallies its soldiers everywhere in the body, from deep inside the bone marrow to the brain, to the adrenal glands, the thymus gland and the skin.

Immune cells and molecules move through the blood and the intestines; its wastes are dumped into the lymphatic system, the kidneys and the liver for detoxification; and it relies on an intricate identification system to discriminate between the good guys and the bad guys.

Considering the vast number of “foreign invaders” that threaten our bodies, it makes sense to keep our immune systems strong. But how do we make sure the good guys outnumber the bad? Some of the best suggestions are natural. A meeting on “Nutrition and AIDS” was held on November 28 and 29, 2002, in Johannesburg.

This was against the background that, in the SADC region, more than 40% of the population has protein energy malnutrition, 40% has iron anaemia, and 78% of the population is deficient in Vitamin A.

Although pro-ARV advocates labeled this meeting “dissident”, experts discussed various immune boosters such as garlic, micronutrients, anti-oxidants, African potato, and other products that are used by people to improve their health. Nutritional therapy is now an important aspect in the treatment and prevention of AIDS.

Some of the traditional herbs widely used in SADC countries as immune boosters and available over the counter are Ngoka from Tanzania, Aloe vera, African potato (Hypoxis sp.), and cancer bush (Sutherlandia frutensis). Although these plants may not be as effective as modern ARVs, some have shown promise in clinical trials, for example the Sondashi formula in Zambia increases CD4 counts and lowers the viral load. Others like the African potato have been said to lower the efficacy of ARVs, and caution must be exercised if taken together with ARVs.

Traditional healers have long used plants to prevent or cure disease; western medicine is trying to duplicate their successes. The use of and search for drugs and dietary supplements derived from plants have accelerated in recent years. Ethno-pharmacologists, botanists, microbiologists, and natural-products chemists are combing the earth for plants and “leads” which could be developed for treatment of infectious diseases.

In most African societies, medicinal plants are known by aging grandparents, the living libraries of indigenous knowledge we should preserve. The plants have different names in different local languages. Preserving the identity of these plants entails preserving the identity of these local languages. There is, therefore, a clear link between linguistics and medicine in Africa.

Plants are rich in a wide variety of secondary metabolites, such as tannins, terpenoids, alkaloids, and flavonoids; these substances kill germs including viruses and bacteria. Many studies have been done to determine the extent of antiviral activity present in a number of plant extracts. Extracts were prepared from plants such as Rheum officinale, Aloe barbadensis, Rhamnus frangula, Rhamnus purshianus, and Cassia angustifolia, and their virucidal effects were tested against herpes simplex virus type 1.

All the plant extracts inactivated the virus. The active components in these plants were identified as anthraquinones. Aloe emodin extracts inactivated herpes simplex virus type 1 and type 2, varicella-zoster virus, pseudorabies virus, and influenza virus.

Natural foods have amazing immune-boosting powers as well. For millennia the world has recognized the healing qualities of certain vegetables, seeds, fermented foods, beans and fruit.

Cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, broccoli and turnips are high in cancer-fighting indoles, substances that can deactivate carcinogens, allowing them to be removed harmlessly from the body. In fact, researchers have acknowledged that eating cabbage on a weekly basis can lessen the risk of colon cancer by 50 percent. For centuries, cabbage has been used as a natural bactericide and anti-viral agent.

Leafy, green vegetables, particularly spinach, kale and the leaves of barley and wheat, are potent immune system activators. Spinach and kale are some of the richest plant sources of folic acid, a nutrient recognized for its immune-enhancing properties. All green foods are rich sources of beta carotene and chlorophyll, two HIV fighters.

Celery is a top immune-supporting green food because of its naturally high content of organic sodium. It acts as a first-line defense mineral because it aids in forming hydrochloric acid, which helps to kill the invading bacteria and parasites that can cause immune overload and set the stage for disease. Greens are powerful sources of minerals such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, vitamin B and C.

Flaxseed oil enhances the immune system, bone mineralization, and cholesterol metabolism. These tiny seeds are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, the fish oils that have received so much acclaim. Flaxseed is also the highest natural source-along with mother’s milk-of the combined omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids.

African mushrooms are good immune boosters. They contain good amounts of selenium. Selenium reduces oxidative stress by removing harmful oxygen radicals from the body, thereby preventing the destruction of CD4 helper T cells.

Soy products such as soybeans contain a special group of phytochemicals called isoflavones which block new virus production. Well processed garlic, nuts, apples, bananas, oranges, grapefruit, lemons and limes contain a pectin fiber that may help fight viruses. Eating the whole citrus fruit can be more effective than drinking the juice. Glutathione and vitamin C, powerful antioxidants, may be destroyed when extracted during juicing.

Eat less sugar, do not exercise to excess, avoid aspirin and similar drugs, avoid exposure to pesticides and heavy metals, and avoid foods that induce allergies. Avoid stress. Keep smiling. Laughter is the biggest immune booster. Keep healthy. Remember HIV is not equal to death.

l KC is a lecturer at the University of Namibia. Email comments to: kchinsembu@unam.na

August 2006
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