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BHT and the silent epidemic...Herpes

A little over 25 years ago a paper got published in the journal Science showing that BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene), a common food preservative, could inactivate herpes simplex and other lipid-coated viruses in lab dishes. Two years later another paper in the same journal reported similar results, but this time in live animals—dietary BHT could prevent chickens from dying of Newcastle disease. Like herpes simplex, NDV (the virus that causes Newcastle disease) is lipid-enveloped, i.e., its nucleic acid core is sheathed in a fatty membrane. Viruses of this type require an intact membrane to be infective. BHT seems to work against such viruses by disrupting (“fluidizing”) their viral membranes.

In the chicken study cited above, the amount of BHT needed to inhibit NDV turned out to be equal to the amount already present in chicken feed as an additive, i.e., 100 to 200 parts per million of total diet. Assuming a comparable result for humans and a total food intake of about 2 kilograms per day, this would mean that 200 to 400 milligrams of BHT ingested daily should be adequate to protect most people from infection by herpes and other lipid-coated viruses. See Table for a listing of common viruses which have a lipid envelope and are therefore amenable to inhibition by BHT.

If our diet consisted exclusively of foods containing BHT as a preservative (such as some breakfast cereals, potato flakes, chewing gum, and certain baked goods made with shortening), we’d probably get enough BHT to ward off herpes—or mumps and measles for that matter. But we don’t. Most of our diets tend to be more varied than that and, besides, in recent years we’ve all been conditioned to avoid food additives.

The other option for getting enough dietary BHT is to consume it as a food supplement, a controversial proposition at best because it isn’t a nutrient—it’s a synthetic antioxidant. Nevertheless, this is precisely what some pioneering life-extensionists did in the late ’70s. Inspired by early scientific reports on the antiviral activity of BHT, a number of people suffering from herpes began to experiment on themselves. As described in several books published a few years later, the BHT experimenters discovered that a daily dose of 250 to 1000 mg resulted in rapid recovery from herpes eruptions with no recurrences. This figure is in good agreement with the estimate based on the chicken study above.

In addition to these anecdotal reports, a number of studies published over the years have confirmed the activity of BHT against many different human and animal viruses, including such members of the herpes family as CMV or cytomegalovirus and pseudorabies as well as genital herpes. BHT has been shown to inhibit infectivity of HIV, the AIDS virus, although contradictory results have also been reported. Several studies have revealed a protective effect of BHT against the development of influenza infection as well. The mechanism involved may have to do with the fact that BHT is a highly potent, membrane-active antioxidant as well as a membrane fluidizer. It’s known that reactive oxygen species (ROS) play a role in the pathogenesis of viral infections—including RNA viruses such as influenza, DNA viruses such as hepatitis B, and retroviruses such as HIV—and it’s been suggested that antioxidants may be useful as therapeutic agents in such infections.

If BHT is so effective against lipid-enveloped viruses, why don’t doctors prescribe it for their patients? The answer is that almost none of the controlled studies on the antiviral properties of BHT have been performed on humans; most of the experiments thus far have been conducted in lab dishes (in vitro) or in animals. A human clinical trial of BHT cannot be performed because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved BHT for use only as a food preservative, not as a medicine. But that hasn’t stopped some people from using BHT on their own to treat herpes or other viral conditions.

Since it is not a natural product, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has prohibited its sale as a supplement (although approving its use in food as a preservative).  BHT is therefore sold as a food preservative… To use this product in a government-approved manner, "add BHT to cooking oils or salad dressings to retain their freshness."

In the past, safety concerns have been sometimes raised about BHT because of its reputed toxicity when given to rats in massive doses—doses much larger than those usually consumed for their antiviral effect. On the other hand, 25 years is long enough for any adverse effects as well as positive benefits to have shown up in humans. Many individuals—including my friend Roger, whom I’ve known since high school—have been supplementing with BHT on a regular basis for years at a time. Roger looks pretty healthy to me these days, but I phoned him anyway to press him for details on his BHT experience.

Roger first began taking BHT in 1984 after reading about it in Pearson and Shaw’s groundbreaking book "Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach." Initially he took about 1 gram per day because he was buying BHT in bulk at the time and larger amounts were easier to measure out than smaller ones. Later he was able to obtain BHT in capsules containing 250 mg per cap, and from that point on he took 250 mg every day for 6 to 7 years. Not surprisingly, during this period he remained completely free of herpes eruptions. More surprising is that he still remains herpes-free to this day, 19 years after his last dose of BHT. Around 6 years ago Roger had a comprehensive physical exam, including blood work. His physician told him that no antibodies to the herpes simplex virus could be found in his system.

Today Roger’s health is generally excellent, with no indication that his years of supplementing with BHT have harmed him in any way. The only adverse effect he ever encountered happened early on, while he was still experimenting with the size of the dose. Roger found that taking 3 grams of BHT each day resulted in dizziness and disorientation, which quickly disappeared when he cut his dose back to 1 gram per day. No adverse effects were seen thereafter.

Of course, a sample of one doesn’t constitute much of a survey. I needed to consult a larger database, so I turned to Steven Fowkes, resident guru at the Cognitive Enhancement Research Institute in Menlo Park, California and co-author of Wipe Out Herpes with BHT. Steve, by the way, is working on an updated version of his 1983 book.

Steve Fowkes was unequivocal in his judgment. In the decades since BHT first arrived on the supplement scene, Steve hasn’t heard of any adverse reactions other than two minor ones. First, BHT can cause hives in some people who are sensitive to it. Second, BHT can cause a temporary decrease in blood clotting when people first begin taking it in substantial doses.

Allergic sensitivities to food additives such as dyes and preservatives have been known for some time but the role of these additives in precipitating chronic urticaria (hives) or other symptoms is still a matter of debate. Only a few cases over the years have identified low-level BHT intake as the sole cause of hives, so this reaction is not likely to be very common; however, it may well become more common if provoked by large doses of BHT. Fortunately, the condition tends to clear up after BHT use is halted.

As for the transient blood-thinning effect, Steve cautioned that people who have never taken BHT before should acclimatize themselves by starting out with small doses (less than 250 mg for the first day, if possible) and ramping up gradually over the course of a week; there is a special need for caution among those who are taking anticoagulants at the same time. In no case should the final dose exceed 1 gram per day without medical supervision. BHT’s anticlotting effect will diminish within 2 days in any event, unless extremely high doses (around 5 grams per day or higher) are being taken.

But what about liver toxicity? BHT gets metabolized in the liver, so won’t taking large amounts compromise liver function? Steve’s response was that he has spoken with literally hundreds of people who have successfully treated themselves for herpes with BHT. So long as a dose level of 1 gram per day was not exceeded, no cases of hepatic injury (as determined by pathologically high serum levels of the liver enzymes ALT and AST) have yet been reported by this group.

Unfortunately, some people taking BHT will find that not even 1 gram per day is sufficient to eradicate herpes. According to Steve Fowkes, the problem lies not with BHT but rather with the individual; the more unbalanced a person’s metabolic state, the less effective BHT seems to become. Rather than increasing the dose to more than a gram per day, Steve suggests maintaining the BHT level while supplementing with additional nutrients, including vitamins B12 and B6, polyunsaturated fatty acids, magnesium, and selenium; vitamin A is also suggested, although women who are capable of getting pregnant should limit their intake of this vitamin. In addition, anyone who suspects they are hypometabolic should arrange to have a thyroid test done, since hypothyroidism can increase the body’s viral susceptibility.

Finally, Steve suggested that the combination of BHT with hypericin (from St. John’s wort) is a synergistic antiviral combination, more effective than BHT alone. To determine an appropriate dose level, hypericin intake should be ramped up gradually from 1 mg per day until an effective dose is reached, usually 10 mg per day or less. Steve also recommended pulsing the hypericin at the effective dose level, i.e., using it for about a week at a time with time off between dosing episodes. Because hypericin can cause photosensitivity of the skin, sun exposure should be limited to half the usual daily amount during and after hypericin intake. One of the nice features of BHT is that it tends to inhibit any oxidative stress induced by hypericin; for this reason, Steve feels that anyone taking hypericin should always take BHT with it. More information on hypericin will appear in a future article on this blog.

After talking with Steve Fowkes and reviewing the scientific literature, I’ve concluded that the benefits of taking BHT seem to greatly outweigh the risks. In the process of researching this article I was reminded of a fundamental principle of toxicology first enunciated around 500 years ago by Paracelsus, the great Renaissance physician and alchemist: “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The correct dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.” Or in the present case, “the correct dose differentiates a remedy from a food additive.”

Table of Common Lipid-Enveloped Human and Animal Viruses.
Only the ones in the left-hand column can be inhibited by BHT alone.

Lipid-enveloped viruses Non-enveloped viruse
  • hepatitis B 
  • hepatitis C 
  • HIV   
  • Influenza   
  • herpes family
         HSV-1
         HSV-2
         herpes zoster
         Epstein-Barr
         cytomegalovirus
         HHV-6
         pseudorabies   
  • paramixoviruses
         measles
         mumps
         Newcastle-disease
  • Hemorrhagic fever viruses (Ebola)
            Arenaviruses
           Filoviruses

          Bunyaviruses

          Flaviviruses
  • hepatitis A
  • polio
  • rhinoviruses
    (the common cold)
  • adenovirus   
  • Coxsackie virus


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