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By Julene Tripp Weaver
Take a Tylenol? How safe is it really?
Every time I hear someone living with HIV/AIDS say they are taking Tylenol
or ibuprofen I wonder if they are aware of the dangers they are subjecting
themselves to, or if they have talked to their doctor about their use of
this over-the-counter medication. There is much information to support
that people living with HIV/AIDS refrain from the use of Tylenol and other
Taking seemingly harmless over-the-counter drugs such as Tylenol can have
a disastrous effect. Any of the commonly available pain relievers, such
as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen, have been shown to suppress the immune
system, and thereby assist in the development of a more serious infection.(1)
In the simple case of a cold the use of any of these drugs only extends
the cold further for they have been shown to increase nasal congestion and
other cold symptoms.
I have been sensitized to the dangers of Tylenol because of a suicide attempt
of someone close to me. This person survived an overdose of aspirin; after
the hospitalization I learned that if Tylenol had been used, instead of
aspirin, she would have succeeded in killing herself. I had read that people
with HIV are advised not to use Tylenol, but it took this personal experience
to really study what makes Tylenol so toxic that an overdose will cause
Tylenol, one of the brand names for Acetaminophen, is an analgesic (pain
reliever) that is used to reduce fever, and ease minor aches and pains.
Acetaminophen is a potent oxidant; in massive doses it can cause severe
liver toxicity that can result in death; in low doses (as low as two grams
per day) it can cause liver damage. Long term use of this drug can cause
both liver and kidney damage.
The over-the-counter dosage of Tylenol Extra Strength is 500 mg to 650 mg.
Ibuprofen sold over-the-counter is 200 mg, prescription doses can be as
high as 800 mg. It takes 1000 mg to equal one gram, for someone in pain
it might be easy to take up to two grams in a day. And if one is on additional
drugs the toxic cocktail the liver has to process is greater to start with.
Oxidant substances steal electrons from other molecules, this is known as
the oxidation process. We are surrounded by oxidants; a partial list of
the oxidants, or substances that will cause oxidation, and assault our immune
system, include: chemicals, pollution (in air and water), chlorine, pesticides,
antibiotics in food, food allergies, stress (physical and emotional), radiation,
ultraviolet radiation from the sun, tobacco smoke, drugs, electro magnetic
frequencies (EMF's), bovine growth hormone, and free radicals which are
among the most highly reactive oxidants.
Oxidation refers to a chemical reaction where electrons (electrically-charged
particles) split off and are transferred from one molecule to another.
This oxidation process is produced by the body to overcome invading pathogenic
microbial organisms such as bacteria, viruses, other invading microbial
organisms, as well as deactivating toxic substances. An example of this
process is when hydrogen peroxide is placed on a wound and it fizzles, it
is killing any bacteria in the wound through the process of oxidation, it
is also damaging the cells it contacts. When one has an ongoing oxidation
process going on in the body it becomes an assault on the immune system.
Hence the reason many antioxidants are so popular.
An Antioxidant is a substance that inhibits oxidation or reactions promoted
by oxygen or peroxides. Antioxidants support homeostasis, boost immune
system function, are essential for cell and tissue renewal, protect against
the adverse effects of many drugs and pollutants, and help restore tissues
depleted by either injury, inflammation, or stressors.
As a drug that is an oxidant, Acetaminophen (Tylenol, and any of its other
brand names), depletes a key antioxidant substance, glutathione, from cells
in the liver, this makes the liver more vulnerable to toxic damage. The
problem is people who have HIV are already losing the glutathione they have.
A low level of glutathione makes cells vulnerable to apoptosis, a process
by which the body eliminates cells marked as no longer useful. Research
done by the Herzenbergs at Stanford University found the more glutathione
a cell has the more resistant that cell will be to infection with HIV-1.(2)
Glutathione peroxidase (GSH) is an enzyme that acts as a free radical scavenger.
Glutathione acts in the liver to clear out the prescription drug toxicities.
As medicine is broken down in the liver they become toxic and can be very
harmful to the body.(3)
Since glutathione levels decrease in people who are HIV positive, what can
be done about it? And, if you use Tylenol, what can you do to keep your
glutathione levels up? There are several alternatives. One common supplement
that works to keep glutathione levels from depleting, and to raise its levels,
is N-acetyl cysteine (NAC). This is a variant of an amino acid called cysteine.
Cysteine is a sulfur-bearing amino acid that is a precursor of glutathione.
NAC is frequently used to stop Tylenol overdoses. (It is used in other
countries for bronchitis treatment.) NAC can help slow down HIV replication.
This supplement can be purchased in most health food stores or through
Another supplement that can be used is Superoxide Dismutase (SOD). This
is an enzyme that helps drive the antioxidant reactions of glutathione.
It has been widely used to combat oxidative stress in the aging process
and is marketed to the elderly. Since one of the theories of HIV is that
it is an accelerated aging process this supplement may have much to offer.
Milk Thistle, or its Latin name Silymarin, is a plant with a flavonoid complex
that stimulates the production of glutathione. It has been shown to increase
red blood cell glutathione as well as glutathione in the liver and GI tract.(4)
See my article on the liver and the use of Milk Thistle, this plant is
an important liver protectant.
In addition, there are several vitamin supplements such as vitamin E, beta-carotene,
vitamin C, Selenium, and flavonoids such as quercetin that can be added
to your regular diet. They each have the ability to lower oxidative stress.
So the next time you go to pop an over-the-counter pill in your mouth, think
twice, and make sure you talk to your doctor about all the medications you
(1) Murray, MT, Natural Alternatives to Over-the-Counter and Prescription
Drugs, Morrow, 1994, p. 144.
(2) Kidd, PM, Huber W, Living With the AIDS Virus: A Strategy For Long-Term
Survival, HK Biomedical, Inc, 1990, p. 128.
(3) Romeyn, M, Nutrition and HIV: A New Model for Treatment, Jossey-Bass,
1995, pp. 64-65.
(4) Valenzuela A, Aspillaga M, et al: Selevctivity of silymarin on
the increase of glutathione content in different tissue of the rat.
Planta Medica 55: 420-422, 1989.
Disclaimer: Please be advised this is a sharing of information that is
not meant to be used to replace medical treatment and your own intuitive
sense of your body and what it needs. Please see your medical provider
(Dr., Naturopath, Acupuncturist, etc.) to follow up on suggestions.