by Harold D. Foster PhD

University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

(Reprinted with permission of the author)


You may also wish to download, free of charge, Dr. Foster’s 2006 paper, The Successful Orthomolecular Treatment of AIDS: Accumulating Evidence from Africa:



AIDS is a deficiency disease caused by HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). HIV-1 contains a gene that is virtually identical to that which allows humans to produce the enzyme, glutathione peroxidase. As the virus is replicated, it begins to seriously compete with its host for the four nutrients needed to make this enzyme, specifically the trace element selenium and the three amino acids, glutamine, cysteine and tryptophan. As infection increases, serious deficiencies of these nutrients develop. Inadequate selenium causes the immune system to collapse, the thyroid to malfunction and depression to develop. Glutamine deficiency leads to muscle wasting and diarrhea. Shortages of cysteine result in skin problems such as psoriasis and greater susceptibility to infection. A lack of tryptophan causes diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia and ultimately death. It becomes easy for other pathogens to infect the patient. In short, the infected person has developed the disorder we call AIDS. The treatment of HIV/AIDS, therefore, should always include diets elevated in these four nutrients to reverse such deficiencies. Details of how this might be done are available in the more detailed discussion that follows and in the book "What Really Causes AIDS" that is freely available as a download at (Editor's note: I urge all readers to read Dr. Foster's important book.)


If HIV-1 causes AIDS by depressing body selenium, cysteine, glutamine and tryptophan then the way to treat this disorder is obviously diets enriched in these nutrients1-2. But how much of each is required? What are the ideal levels of selenium, cysteine, glutamine, and tryptophan in the human body?



A study by Shamberger and Willis3 discovered that healthy US individuals, between 50 and 71 years old, averaged 21.7 micrograms of selenium per 100 millilitres of blood. This compared with cancer patients of the same age range who were found to have only 16.2 micrograms per 100 millilitres. Furthermore, in a subsequent paper, the same authors4 described a comparison of selenium levels in the blood of people from 19 US cities. These were highest in Rapid City, South Dakota and lowest in Lima, Ohio; 25.6 and 15.7 micrograms per 100 millilitres respectively. Interestingly, Shamberger and Willis found a clear inverse relationship between cancer death rates in these cities and blood selenium levels. The higher the selenium, the lower the cancer mortality. To illustrate, in Rapid City, where blood selenium levels were highest, the annual cancer death rate per 100,000 people, during the period 1962 to 1966, was 94.0. In contrast, in Lima, Ohio the cancer mortality rate for this time period was exactly double this at 188.0. This strongly suggests that it is far better to have a blood selenium level of 25.6 micrograms per 100 millilitres than one of 15.7. Such US regional differences in blood selenium levels were almost certainly a reflection of variations in the local soil content of this mineral.



Braverman and Pfeiffer5 have published data on various blood amino acid levels in both healthy adult males and females. For cysteine such levels range from 6 to 14 micromoles per 100 millilitres for men and 5 to 13 for women. Blood levels for glutamine given by these authors vary from 45 to 105 micromoles per 100 millilitres for adult males and from 40 to 90 for adult females. Similarly, the figures quoted for tryptophan in blood for both men and women vary from 4 to 25 micromoles per 100 millilitres. It would seem logical to attempt to achieve the higher ends of these ranges.



Naturally, one way to elevate body levels of selenium and the three amino acids is to eat foods in which they most commonly occur. "What Really Causes AIDS" contains appendices ranking foods according to their selenium and amino acid content. (Selenium content depends largely on the soil where the food was grown.) Below are some examples of foods that are normally elevated in at least one of the key nutrients: Selenium, Cysteine, Glutamine, and Tryptophan.


Selenium: Brazil nuts, garlic, mushrooms, liver, whole wheat, barley, egg noodles, fish and shellfish, soybean meal, brewers' yeast.


Cysteine: Brazil nuts, garlic, onions, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, poultry, egg yolks, yogurt, wheat germ.


Glutamine: Brazil nuts, wild game, wheat germ, oats, granola, cottage cheese, ricotta.


Tryptophan: Almonds, cashews, poultry, anchovies, eggs, cottage cheese and other unripened cheeses, oats, granola, brewers' yeast, bananas, pineapple, yogurt.


(Editor's note: see also:





 There has been considerable debate over which form of selenium should be taken as a supplement. Organically-bound selenium, for example, in brewer’s yeast, is considerably more effective in raising blood concentrations of this trace element than is sodium-selenite. (Passwater RA (1980). Selenium as food and medicine. New Canaan,CT:Keats Publishing.pp 183-196.) How much selenium should be taken daily by HIV-positive individuals is subject to discussion. Perhaps the most logical comments have come from Dr. Will Taylor6


"(R)esearch has shown that there are problems in nutrient absorption even in asymptomatic HIV+ individuals, the suggestion has been made that HIV patients need to take larger amounts of vitamins than uninfected individuals to attain the same blood levels. Since the USDA states that nutritional supplementation in the range of 50-200 micrograms (mcg) of Selenium (Se) daily is safe and effective for healthy individuals, a dose of 400 mcg seems reasonable for HIV-infected individuals, if they do have impaired absorption. For an AIDS patient who is demonstrably deficient in Se, an even higher daily dose (up to 800 mcg) for a brief period of time (say several weeks) to get their blood levels up, followed by a decrease to 400 mcg is an effective strategy that was used in one published clinical study involving AIDS patients. This question of dose level naturally arouses concerns, because in the past so much has been made of the potential toxicity of Se. I believe that the danger of serious toxicity with Se supplementation has been exaggerated. The threat of serious acute toxicity with supplementation is in my opinion nonexistent at doses less than 1000 mcg per day in some individuals. Thus, doses in the 400 mcg range are undoubtedly safe. In any case, the signs of chronic Se toxicity - garlic odour of breath and sweat, metallic taste in mouth, brittle hair and fingernails - are very distinctive, and easily reversed by lowering the dose."


I have nothing to add. Dr. Taylor seems to be correct as usual.



Glutamine supplements, normally in the form of 500 milligram tablets, are readily available in health food stores. AIDS patients are known to be very deficient in glutamine. In a Harvard study7 of HIV-seropositive individuals who were largely asymptomatic, glutamine serum levels were found to be very depressed, even though they showed no sign of AIDS. Despite the fact that a subgroup was given 20 grams (20,000 milligrams, that is 5 teaspoons) of glutamine daily in small doses over 24 hours for one month, glutamine blood levels remained depressed. Patients8 were then given 40 grams of glutamine per day, an amount usually reserved for bone-marrow transplant patients fighting off infection.


Pressman and Buff9 probably provided the best advice on the therapeutic use of glutamine as a supplement when they wrote:


"Glutamine may also help treat serious diarrhea caused by AIDS or by other intestinal problems such as ulcerative colitis. Fairly large doses of glutamine, as high as 40,000 milligrams, may be

needed. The glutamine improves the absorption of water through the colon, which helps relieve the diarrhea. Dosages that high should be taken under supervision, and only by those with diarrhea caused by a serious medical problem. Don’t treat minor diarrhea from indigestion or a 24-hour stomach virus with glutamine."


As Shabert and Ehrlich10 point out:


"There are very specific instances in which giving glutamine to a sick individual would not be indicated. Individuals who have severe cirrhosis of the liver, Reye’s syndrome, or another metabolic disorder that can lead to an accumulation of ammonia in the blood are at an increased risk for encephalopathy or coma. The basic problem is an inability to clear the body of excess nitrogen, which is converted to ammonia and ultimately causes brain swelling and brain-cell death. When the liver is severely damaged or when hepatic coma is imminent, glutamine is not effective and would cause only      further damage to the brain."



 Cysteine supplements have been used for many years by orthomolecular physicians to treat diseases as diverse as stroke, manic depression, asthma, and schizophrenic psychosis. Cysteine, however, is a poorly absorbed amino acid and has to be given in fairly large doses. To quote Braverman and Pfeiffer5:


"When we determine that cysteine supplementation is necessary, we usually begin with a dose of 500 mg/day. (Starting with a larger amount can lead to indigestion). Gradually, we may increase the dose to 3 or 4 g per day. Meanwhile, we keep an eye on serum cystine values. We find that, as cystine levels return to normal, low plasma levels of zinc, folic acid and taurine also return to normal. Some researchers have used as much as 7 g per day of cysteine. It should be noted that extremely high doses of cysteine, probably greater than 7 g daily, can be harmful. Patients with cystinuria, an hereditary disorder characterized by excretion of large amounts of cystine and other amino acids in the urine, are at increased risk of forming cystine gallstones. We would suggest a limit of 500 mg of cysteine twice per day except under medical supervision. Vitamin C may prevent cysteine toxicity."


Indeed cysteine should always be taken with high dose vitamin C and vitamins B1, B6, and E which improve its efficacy9. Other recommended supplements are magnesium and zinc, deficiencies of which are detrimental to glutathione metabolism. In magnesium deficiency, for example, one of the enzymes that is required in glutatione synthesis, gamma glutamyl transpeptidase, is lowered. Zinc and magnesium supplements, therefore, may enhance glutathione synthesis under specific conditions5. However, it is known that diabetics should avoid cysteine supplementation because it can block the effects of insulin by altering its chemical structure. That is, cysteine breaks some S-S cross-link bonds, changing insulin’s molecular shape. Some orthomolecular physicians prefer to describe N-acetyl-cysteine for the treatment of AIDS. This is because AIDS patients usually have digestive absorption problems. It is easier for them to take N-acetyl-cysteine than either cysteine or glutathione. Physicians treating AIDS patients generally recommend fairly high daily doses of N-acetyl-cysteine, in the range of 1,800 to 2,400 milligrams, taken at regular intervals, in three or four divided doses9.



 Tryptophan is the least abundant essential amino acid in foods. Deficiencies of it are known to be linked with a wide range of health problems including Hartnup’s disease, pellagra, depression, hypertension, anorexia, insomnia, and overly aggressive behaviour. Tryptophan supplements of up to 3 grams daily have been used also to control intractable pain. This amino acid is used by the body for the biosynthesis of niacin, serotonin, and various proteins. As a result, deficiencies of tryptophan, seen in individuals who are HIV-seropositive, seem to result in a variety of symptoms including those associated with pellagra; namely dermatitis, diarrhea, and dementia5,11


L-tryptophan is the most desirable supplement form since all other metabolites of tryptophan, with the exception of niacin, have significant side effects. Braverman and Pfeiffer5 explain that:


"Infusions of tryptophan can raise serum tryptophan six to ten times in normal persons without apparent side effects. Oral loading (4 grams) to normal controls can increase plasma levels up to four times normal within two hours. Twelve grams daily to manic patients can maintain plasma levels at three times normal."


They further describe giving seven patients 2 grams of tryptophan daily for 6 weeks. Their plasma tryptophan levels were by then nearly double those of a control group of 96 patients.


Unlike selenium, cysteine, and glutamine, tryptophan is not readily available in health food stores. In the fall of 1989, the FDA recalled all L-tryptophan, stating it caused the rare and deadly condition Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome (EMS)12. On March 22, 1990 the FDA completely banned the public sale of L-tryptophan.


The truth appears to be that one faulty batch of tryptophan probably caused the death of 37 people, and permanently disabled 1,500 more. It is clear, however, that this was due not to the amino acid itself but to a contaminant in it, produced as a result of the use of genetically engineered bacteria in its production13. Banning the sale of tryptophan, because of the world’s first genetic engineering disaster, was like banning the sale of whiskey because of deaths due to a bad batch of moonshine. However, it is still possible to buy 5-Hydroxy Tryptophan (5-HTP), derived from the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia, a medicinal plant traditionally used in Ghana, Cameroon, and Côte d’Ivoire14. This supplement should not be taken by anyone using SSRI (serotonin reuptake) or MAO (monoamine oxidase) inhibitor prescription medications15. 5-Hydroxy Tryptophan is formed by the addition of a hydroxyl group (OH) to tryptophan, by the enzyme tryptophan hydroxylase and is the intermediate in the natural synthesis of tryptophan to serotonin16. In addition, another tryptophan metabolite, niacin, is available in any health food store. It should also be recalled that there are 400 milligrams of tryptophan in a cup of wheat germ, while low fat cottage cheese contains 300 milligrams per cup. There are also some 600 milligrams of tryptophan in a pound of turkey or chicken. In most countries, if not available in health food stores, tryptophan can be prescribed by a physician. Indeed, it is strongly suggested that anyone attempting to reverse selenium, cysteine, glutamine, and tryptophan deficiencies caused by HIV infection should do so under the supervision of an orthomolecular (nutritional) physician. (Editor's note: I do not maintain a database of such physicians. I recommend an internet search.)


More information, including cited references, is available at:




1. Foster, H.D. (2002). What Really Causes AIDS. Victoria: Trafford Publishing. Free .pdf download at


2. Foster, H.D. (2004). How HIV-1 causes AIDS: Implications for prevention and treatment. Medical Hypotheses, 62, 549-553.


3. Shamberger, R., and Willis, C. (1980). Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 44, 931. Cited by Passwater, R.A. (1980). Selenium as food and medicine. New Canaan, CT: Keats, p.18.


4. Shamberger, R. and Willis, C. (1971). CRC critical reviews in clinical laboratory sciences, 211-221. Cited by Passwater, op.cit., pp.21-22.


5. Braverman, E.R. (with Pfeiffer, C.C.)(1987). The healing nutrients within: Facts, findings and new research on amino acids. New Canaan: Keats Publishing.


6. Taylor, E.W. (1997). Selenium and viral diseases: Facts and hypotheses. Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, 12(4), 227-239.


7. Young, L.C., Gatzen, C., Wilmore, K., and Wilmore, D.W. (1992). Glutamine (Gln) supplementation fails to increase plasma Gln levels in asymptomatic HIV+ individuals. Journal of the American Medical Association, 92 (Suppl), A-88.


8. Robinson, M.K., Hong, R.W., and Wilmore, D.W. (1992). Glutathione deficiency and HIV infection. Letter to the editor, The Lancet, 339, 1603-1604.


9. Pressman, A.H. (with Buff, S.)(1997). The GSH phenomenon: Nature’s most powerful oxidant and healing agent glutathione. New York: St. Martin’s Press, p. 135.


10. Shabert, J., and Ehrlich, N. (1994). The ultimate nutrient glutamine: The essential nonessential amino acid. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group, p.46.


11. Fuchs, D., Moller, A.A., Reibnegger, G., Stockle, E., Werner, E.R., and Wachter, H. (1990). Decreased serum tryptophan in patients with HIV-1 infection correlates with increased serum neopterin with neurologic/psychiatric symptoms. Journal of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, 3(9), 873-876.


12. Manders, D.W. (1995). The FDA ban of L-tryptophan: Politics, profits and Prozac. Science Policy, 26(2). Reprinted on Cognitive Enhancement Research Institute website: .


13. Boyens, I. (1999). The skeleton in the GMO closet: Did genetic engineering cause the tryptophan-EMS disaster of 1989? From Unnatural harvest: How corporate science is secretly altering our food. Toronto: Doubleday Canada. (See


14. People and Plants Online. Medicinal Plant Use in Africa. (http://www/


15. http://www/ .


16. .


Andrew Saul is the author of the books FIRE YOUR DOCTOR! How to be Independently Healthy (reader reviews at ) and DOCTOR YOURSELF: Natural Healing that Works. (reviewed at )

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