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Alternative Medicine

Complementary and alternative approaches to HIV care have become of increasing interest over the past several years. A complimentary therapy or approach refers to a non-traditional treatment that is used with typical medical treatment options. Alternative therapies are used in place of traditional medical treatment options. Some healthcare providers can create plans of care that are integrative, meaning they incorporate both traditional and non-traditional approaches.1,2 It has been estimated that as many as 30-60 percent or more of individuals living with HIV utilize some form of complementary or alternative therapy.3,4

Complementary and alternative therapies are used for a variety of conditions or for different reasons. Research on how effective complementary and alternative therapies are in relation to HIV care is limited, especially in comparison to the amount of scientific information we have on how effective antiretroviral therapy (ART) is at suppressing HIV.

Although ART is the standard of care and the most effective method of controlling the virus and improving overall health and life expectancy, some may still choose to pursue complementary and alternative methods to improve their physical, mental, or emotional health. Some complementary or alternative therapies may help give the immune system a boost to help fight HIV such as physical exercises or supplements, while others may be aimed at improving the side effects of treatment.3,4

Important note on complementary and alternative therapies

Whatever the reason is for pursuing these options, it is always important to consult with your healthcare provider before trying any new therapy. There can be dangerous consequences of stopping or changing medications on your own; some therapies, especially supplements or herbs, may impact the way medication or other treatment impacts the body. A supportive healthcare provider will help you navigate complementary or alternative treatment options and work with you to integrate these into your plan of care, if possible.

Common complementary and alternative therapies used for HIV are outlined below.2,5

Yoga

Yoga is a type of exercise that involves flexibility poses, controlled breathing, stretching, and strengthening exercises. Yoga is often practiced in an effort to decrease stress, improve mental health, and physically strengthen the body. Yoga can come in many forms and intensities. It can range from breathing techniques and limited movements to intense stretches and strengthening moves.

The type of yoga you practice is up to you (and your healthcare provider if there are limitations on the physical activity you are able to do). Yoga can be practiced in a yoga studio or gym, or it can be practiced at home with the help of online videos or subscription services.

Massage and aromatherapy

Massage involves having a trained professional rub or adjust body tissue and muscles in order to decrease tension, increase relaxation, and reduce stress. Massage may help improve headaches and back pain, in addition to improving mental health. Aromatherapy can be used alongside massage or on its own and involves using certain smells or scented oils to induce relaxation or different emotions. However, it’s important to note that aromatherapy oils can be strong or damaging if used incorrectly, and should be discussed with a healthcare provider before starting.

Acupuncture and Reiki

Acupuncture involves inserting small, thin needles into specific sites of the body. It is part of traditional Chinese medicine and aims to align a person’s chi, or life force energy. The effects of acupuncture can vary from person to person, with some using it to improve side effects like fatigue and nausea. Just like a massage, it’s important to only undergo acupuncture with a trained professional. The practice of acupuncture can be damaging if not done correctly.

The practice of Reiki is similar to acupuncture in that both are forms of energy transfer or alignment. Reiki involves a practitioner placing their hands on or just above the body in order to transfer Universal Life Energy. It does not require needles like acupuncture or deep touch like a massage. Some individuals believe Reiki helps relieve their stress and reduce their pain, among other benefits.

Meditation and visualization

Meditation and visualization are methods of calming and focusing the mind. Meditation involves improving awareness of thoughts and experiences in order to become more relaxed. Visualization involves using the imagination to envision yourself in a safe, calming space. Deep breathing may also accompany meditation and visualization. Both practices are aimed at decreasing stress and calming the mind and body, and can be practiced in a variety of ways.

Similar to yoga, these can be practiced in a formal location with a trained professional (or may even be practiced during a yoga session) or can be done on your own with the help of videos or recordings to guide your process. Meditation and visualization may be practiced with your eyes closed or open. It is possible to meditate and/or practice visualization while doing other activities, such as going for a walk or carrying out simple tasks.

Herbal medicine and supplements

Herbal therapies involve using parts of plants or herbs that are thought to improve health and wellbeing. The practice of using natural elements like this has been going on for hundreds of years. However, more recently, the development and use of supplements that contain herbal elements or other vitamins and minerals have been on the rise.

As with other forms of complementary or alternative therapies for HIV, research on herbal medicines or other supplements for HIV is very limited. At this time, there is no scientific consensus on the efficacy of these methods in treating HIV or its related symptoms.

Additionally, these products are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that they do not have to go through the same testing and monitoring procedures that traditional treatment options do, and their ingredients and strengths can vary greatly. Some supplements and herbs may also interfere with traditional treatment options. These reasons are why it is critical to check-in with a healthcare provider before starting any new supplement or herbal medicine.

Some common herbal remedies and supplements used by individuals with HIV include, but are not limited to:

  • Aloe Vera
  • Ginger
  • Garlic
  • Vitamin B
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin D4

However, as mentioned, the efficacy and safety of these products in relation to HIV care are not known at this time.

Written by: Casey Hribar | Last reviewed: September 2019
  1. Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s in a Name? National Institutes of Health: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/integrative-health. Published April 2, 2019. Accessed August 10, 2019.
  2. Alternative (Complementary) Therapies for HIV/AIDS: Entire Lesson. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. https://www.hiv.va.gov/patient/daily/alternative-therapies/single-page.asp. Published April 30, 2019. Accessed August 10, 2019.
  3. Bahall M. Prevalence, patterns, and perceived value of complementary and alternative medicine among HIV patients: a descriptive study. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 23 Aug 2017; 17, 422. Available from: https://bmccomplementalternmed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12906-017-1928-4. Accessed August 10, 2019.
  4. Lorenc A, Robinson N. A review of the use of complementary and alternative medicine and HIV: Issues for patient care. AIDS Patient Care and STDs. Sep 2013; 27(9), 503-510. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3760022/. Accessed August 10, 2019.
  5. Reiki. Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/integrative_medicine_digestive_center/services/reiki.html. Accessed September 24, 2019.