Bannana Boat, Pucallpa, Peruvian Amazon. Photo by: Zoe Helene © 2009

How Bananas and Herbs May Prevent the Transmission of HIV

“According to UN AIDS Epidemic Update statistics, approximately 2.6 million people became infected with HIV in 2009. The end of this is nowhere in sight.” - Chris Kilham, Fox News Health

How Bananas and Herbs May Prevent the Transmission of HIV

There has been some buzz lately in the medical/science community about an article published in last year's issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, which announced findings that novel lectins found in bananas may help to prevent the transmission and spread of HIV.

The study, originating from the University of Michigan, suggests that eventually many lives may be saved as a result of the development of Ban Lec, a concentrated extract of banana lectins. Lectins are proteins that bind to sugars. The HIV virus is contained in an “envelope” containing the sugar mannose. In laboratory studies, Ban Lec attached itself to the envelope of HIV, prohibiting its replication. Does this mean that eating bananas can help to prevent the transmission of HIV? Absolutely not. There is no evidence of any kind to suggest that eating bananas is any sort of a preventive factor in HIV infection. What this suggests is that Ban Lec, a highly concentrated lectin agent, may eventually prove beneficial in inhibiting HIV transmission.

According to UN AIDS Epidemic Update statistics, approximately 2.6 million people became infected with HIV in 2009. Among them, approximately 375,000 were children. HIV spreads through sexual transmission and through the use of shared needles, as well as by being born to infected parents, and is controlled by avoiding IV needle use, engaging in sex with partners tested free of HIV and wearing a condom. Even then, there is risk. HIV is considered a pandemic, claiming millions of lives globally. Sub-Saharan Africa has been especially hard hit by HIV, with an estimated 22.5 million people infected. In 2009 alone, an estimated 1.3 million Africans died of AIDS-related illnesses. The end of this is nowhere in sight.

Against this backdrop of horror and fatality, many thousands of researchers are investigating possible anti-HIV agents. Some of these are herbal. In one reported HIV study, a polysaccharide from the common herb hyssop inhibited the replication of the virus. The same compound also demonstrated significant protective activity on infected cells. While these findings are encouraging, they do not mean that hyssop prevents HIV.

In another study, a high lignin extract of pine cone seeds demonstrated anti-HIV activity, and helped to reverse the cellular destruction caused by HIV-infected white blood cells. Still other research shows that plant sterols, which are similar to cholesterol, may help to inhibit the invasion of cells by HIV. In mice and monkeys, an extract of pokeweed inhibited HIV significantly. At least three North American prairie plants have demonstrated significant enough anti-HIV activity that they are being studied further.

Does this science mean that a cure for HIV is close at hand? No, it does not. Does this mean that herbs can prevent or cure HIV? At this point we have no reason to believe that this is so. HIV remains a scourge that is ripping its way through the human population with no end in sight.

Of the various botanicals used in cases of HIV, cannabis appears to be the most beneficial. Though cannabis does not inhibit HIV infection or stop the virus from replicating, it does prove highly valuable in cases of HIV wasting syndrome and in cases of HIV-related neuropathy. In HIV wasting syndrome, infected people can experience tremendous difficulty eating or maintaining weight. The use of cannabis stimulates appetite in this population, enabling HIV infected people to eat, and to maintain weight. In cases of HIV-related neuropathy, infected persons experience pain in the longer nerves of the body, especially pain in the soles of the feet. But by smoking or eating cannabis, this pain can be managed enough to greatly reduce or even eliminate this pain. The virus remains, but the pain is managed.

Additionally, HIV infected people often use extracts of immune-enhancing mushrooms, especially the mushroom Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) to bolster overall immune function. Many mushrooms contain polysacchardies that enhance immune function, and some of these funguses may prove helpful in long-term strategies to maintain better health in case of HIV infection. This form of treatment is popular among proponents of traditional Chinese medicine.

Despite encouraging science and the occasional positive news story, there is no known cure for HIV. And even though various studies of herbs suggest that some may eventually prove useful as complementary therapies for managing HIV, that day is down the road. And bananas? Don’t hold out too much hope there. Bananas are good foods, and their lectins may demonstrate anti-HIV properties, but there is a great deal of science yet to be performed to determine the actual worth of this approach in a human population.

While nature often holds a cure for life-threatening diseases, in the case of HIV, we have yet to find such a cure. In the meantime, all the basics apply. Be responsible in your sexual activity, avoid high-risk behaviors such as having sex with strangers and prostitutes and sharing needles, use a condom to reduce the risk of infection, and do not assume that eating any particular thing gives you protection against the virus. It doesn’t.

January 2011