The doctor has told you that you must start taking antiretroviral medication right away. The longer you wait, the greater the risk of complications. They may elaborate, telling you that without pills your CD4 count will drop and your viral load will escalate. Amidst all the jargon, it is easy to bow down to the physician’s command to take the pills and move on with your life. You certainly should, but you can also top those meds off with additional complementary therapies. Some of these treatments can mitigate side effects from HIV drugs, while others may help keep your immune system in top shape.
A note of caution: They are called “complementary” because they are meant to complement, or add to, your treatment. They are not meant to replace your antiretroviral medications — even though there are individuals who refuse to take antiretroviral drugs, and quacks who insist they can cure HIV with alternative medicine. Have some time to kill? Read up on the ridiculous Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, a.k.a Dr. Beetroot. No, she’s not a New Age vegan hippie. She was the health minister of South Africa between 1999 and 2008. Her approach to addressing the AIDS epidemic? Forget the pills! Instead, indulge in garlic, olive oil, and lemon. Oh, and plenty of beetroot. Then presto, you will be cured.
According to her obituary in The New York Times, Msimang, who died in 2009, was responsible for policies that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Africans. (A Harvard study put the number around 365,000 premature deaths.) Suffice it to say, she has been accused of committing genocide.
Fortunately, there is an enormous difference between such quackery and most alternative therapies (many of which have research to back up their health claims). I encourage you to enjoy the beauty of medical autonomy and choice. You can stick to one treatment regime and then move to the other. Feel free to dabble, but never replace your antiretrovirals. Remember when Charlie Sheen stopped meds to test alternative therapies? His viral load spiked dangerously.That kind of thing threatens your long-term health and can lead to the development of drug resistance down the road.
Still, the Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) that has saved millions of lives can also take a toll on your physical wellbeing (but so can Advil). HAART can lead to nasty side effects including kidney failure, pancreatitis, fatty liver disease, and bone density loss.
HIV-positive folks also have an increased chance of developing depression and anxiety, both of which weaken the immune system, and can make you sicker, which can make you more depressed. So really, if there are additional means of helping the body and mind deal with the virus, why wouldn’t you want to test the waters? Besides, the following complementary treatments are fun, affordable, and easy to incorporate in your daily routine.
Stick pins in you.
Quite frankly, who isn’t having needles pierced into their skin these days? If you haven’t realized yet, HAART can cause serious stomach upset, from nausea to diarrhea. There are drugs designed specifically to target HIV-related diarrhea, but acupuncture comes with additional benefits like relieving stress. Acupuncture dramatically improves your gastric intestinal health, allowing you to maintain adherence to your meds. HIV can cause peripheral neuropathy. That’s essentially pain and weakness in hands and feet, which acupuncture can counteract.
Not that you need an excuse to get high, but marijuana is leading the way in alternative HIV treatment opportunities. HIV-positive people have heightened risks of developing certain neurological disorders. HIV can spur chronic inflammation in the brain. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is known to reduce the number of inflammatory white blood cells circulating in the blood, reducing the inflammatory process. Researchers at Michigan State University found that inflammatory reduction could delay or prevent cognitive decline in those living with HIV.
Cannabinoids (chemical compounds found in pot) have also been shown to inhibit the viral replication of HIV and, some say, may prevent HIV from progressing to stage 3 HIV (or AIDS).
Embrace the munchies.
For all Dr. Beetroot’s nonsense, there is something to be said for the power of food and nutrition in the battle against HIV. Focus on using food and nutritional substances to raise CD4 counts. While it is important to keep your viral loads down (and ideally, undetectable, which means it’s near impossible to transmit to another person), some scientists believe that increasing CD4 counts is of greater importance. We need CD4 cells to help fight infections. Research found that in Tanzania, consumption of probiotic yogurt significantly increased CD4 counts and reduced the prevalence of gastric infections. Yogurt is cheap to purchase and easy to make at home!
Another thing to watch out for is decreases in bone mineral density, a common side effect of HIV medication. Try adding a good portion of calcium and vitamin D to your diet (through foods like dairy products, almonds, or vegetables including broccoli and kale). Supplements work too. Taking 4000IU of a daily vitamin D supplement in combination with 1000mg of calcium was shown to reduce bone loss by a whopping 50 percent during the first year of ART treatment. If you don’t fancy taking supplements, stock up on sardines (an absolute favorite of mine). They’re cheap and, when canned, have long shelf-lives.
Become a Yogi.
Stress damages the immune system. For people living with HIV, mitigating anxiety is even more important. If only we could talk ourselves into being “calm’.” As anyone who has suffered from depression can attest, this is no easy task. Yoga forces your body into a state of relaxation. Just one month of integrated yoga for HIV-positive individuals was shown to raise CD4 counts. Cardiovascular risk is another cause for concern among those living with HIV. The reasons are varied, from chronic inflammation to side effects of certain drugs. Incorporating yoga into your daily schedule is a cost efficient (and relatively simple) means of keeping your heart healthy. A recent study confirms that yoga could “lower blood pressure in pre-hypertensive HIV-positive adults with mild-moderate CVD risk factors.”
Some options here require no medical supervision (no one will stop you from enjoying a good old sardine sandwich). However, always speak to your health care provider about any complementary therapy you may choose to explore. Sometimes, even something as innocent as garlic supplements can be risky. (Garlic supplements can actually cause levels of ART to drop.) In other words, feel free to explore — and even go off trail. But don’t trek into the wilderness alone without a compass. Your doctor can help show you the way.