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. And, to a certain extent, you certainly should. However, there is more to controlling the virus than popping a daily pill (or three). Complementary treatments are there to help you. Some will mitigate side effects from drugs, while others may actually help keep your immune system in tiptop shape.
Of course, there are individuals who refuse to take the antiretroviral medication, putting all their faith in these alternative treatment. Have some time to kill? Read up on the ridiculous Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, a.k.a Dr. Beetroot. No, she is not a new age vegan hippie. Rather, she was the former health minister of South Africa. Her approach to AIDS: forget the pills! Instead, indulge in garlic, olive oil and lemon. Oh, and plenty beetroot! Hey-presto you will be cured! Suffice to say, she has been accused of committing genocide.
Your treatment plan is not back and white. 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 (under medical supervision). If Charlie Sheen can stop taking his meds to test alternative therapies so can you! Side note: His viral went up and he jumped back on the pills.
Why not just stick to your medication? After all, the discovery of HAART (Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy) has saved millions. My loyalties clearly lean away from alternative treatment.
Well, meds can take a tremendous toll on your physical wellbeing. (Relax, so can Advil.) HAART can lead to nasty side effects. Let’s explore one component of HAART: Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors, NRTIs. NRTIs, particular the older pills, can cause Mitochondrial toxicity. The implications? Cardiomyopathy, Pancreatitis, Hepatic Steatosis and Lactic Acidosis.
Psychologically speaking, HIV is no fun walk in the park. HIV-positive folks have an increased chance of developing depression and anxiety, both of which weaken the immune system.
So really, if there are any additional means of helping the body and mind deal with the virus, why wouldn’t you want to test the waters? Besides, the following complimentary treatments are fun, affordable, and easy to incorporate in your daily routine.
First up, acupuncture.
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. I would not blame you if you decided to stop taking meds because of the pain and cramps. However, stopping your medication is problematic for a whole symphony of reasons, such as the development of drug resistance down the road. Acupuncture can dramatically improve the gastric side effects, allowing you to maintain adherence to your medication. HIV is also known to cause peripheral neuropathy, which is essentially pain and weakness in hands and feet. Acupuncture can counteract this wretched condition.
Not that you need an excuse to get high, but marijuana is leading the way in alternative HIV treatment opportunities. One of the most tragic results of HIV is the development of mental deficits. With the immune system constantly activated, chorionic inflammation in the brain can occur. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), has been shown to reduce the number of inflammatory white blood cells circulating the blood, helping reduce the inflammatory process. Lighting up has also been shown to stop viral replication of HIV. This is essentially the rationale behind HAART. Perhaps most intriguing for those avoiding meds is new research out of Michigan State. It was found that THC may actually prevent HIV progressing to stage three HIV aka AIDS.
To clarify, HIV is a manageable condition, while AIDS may lead to serious health complications.
Use the munchies to good effect.
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), some scientists have come to believe that increasing CD4 counts is actually 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 food or supplementation). 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 are cheap, affordable and, when canned, have crazy long shelf-lives.
Become a Yogi.
Stress, at the best of times, damages the immune system. For people living with HIV, mitigating anxiety is all the 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 amongst those living with HIV. The reasons are varied, from chronic inflammation to side effects of drugs such as Abacavir. Incorporating yoga into your daily schedule is a cost efficient (and relatively simple) means of keeping your heart in check. A recent study confirms that yoga could “lower blood pressure in pre-hypertensive HIV-infected adults with mild-moderate CVD risk factors.”
Some options here require no medical supervision (no one will stop you enjoying a good old sardine sandwich). However, always speak to your health care provider about any complimentary 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.
Boris J. Abrams is a British writer using sexuality as a vehicle for wider social analysis and commentary. Based in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @BorisAbrams.