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Complementary & Alternative Medicine and HIV/AIDS:

By. Alex G.

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What is CAM?

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is often used instead of saying alternative therapies, because for many more people living with HIV/AIDS these are not alternatives at all, but important additions to their current medical treatments.  Since they use these treatments in addition to their medical treatments, they are considered complementary.  Some of the most commonly known therapies include things like acupuncture, Chinese medicine, Homoeopathy, massage, meditation, yoga, Reiki, aromatherapy, herbal and nutritional supplementation to name a few.


Listed below are just some  of the benefits people with HIV/AIDS have experienced using complementary therapies.

Acupuncture Pain Relief
Help with fatigue
General feelings of wellness and balance
Assistance with recovery from addictions
Stress relief
Help with neuropathy
Improvement of gastrointestinal complaints
Increased energy
Help with Anxiety, Depression and Other Nervous Disorders
Relief with diseases of the Muscles, Bones and Joints, including back pain, repetitive stress injury, shoulder and neck problems, whiplash, sprains, and arthritis
Relief from Headaches, migraines
Help with Menstrual problems

*These a provided by the courtesy of Alan Bitker from: http://newhavenmassage.com


Relaxes and rejuvenates
Alleviates stress and pain
Enhances flow of vital energy
Improves postural alignment
Provides a nurturing experience of touch
Promotes ease and well-being
Offers comfort and emotional support
Facilitates self awareness and acceptance
Encourages the developmental and nutritional health of the muscular system
Brings oxygen and nutrients to muscles
Relieves tension, soreness, and stiffness in muscles
Keeps muscles flexible and pliable
Produces firmer, more elastic, muscles
Strengthens weak muscles
Elongates contracted muscles
Liberates and restores elasticity to the muscles
Frees the musculature from the skeleton
Softens and brings elasticity to the skin
Maintains freedom of movement in joints
Prevents the formation of adhesions
Assists in the removal of lactic acid
Stimulates circulatory, neural, and cell functions
Improves blood circulation, reducing the work load on the heart
Lowers blood pressure
Tones blood vessel walls
Boosts the immune system
Enhances lymphatic flow and the elimination of waste
Improves digestion
Eases abdominal tension
Stimulates the liver and kidneys
Releases the diaphragm
Nutritional Therapies Help with Medication Side Effects
Boosts the immune system
Reduced diarrhea and GI symptoms
Help managing peripheral neuropathy
Help avoiding and managing loss of lean muscle mass
Better digestion and absorption of food
More energy
Less muscle and joint pain.
Lowering bad cholesterol (LDL)
Raising good cholesterol (HDL)
Assist with detoxification
Helps protect vital organs like the liver, lungs, and heart
Increased strength and endurance
Gi Gong, Tai-Chi, Yoga Better flexibility
Reduced Stress
Improvements in immune system
General feelings of wellness and balance
Meditation, Visualization, Prayer Stress relief
Better concentration
Accelerated self healing
General feelings of wellness and balance
Increased hope and faith
Feeling more grounded and connected

In the early days of HIV, before the dawn of anti-hiv medications, people sought out such therapies in a desperate attempt to avoid the disastrous effects HIV has on the body.  Some of these treatments made good sense, others were shots in the dark.

Many individuals still use CAM in the hopes of keeping their immune systems strong enough to keep HIV in check naturally, thus prolonging the need for toxic anti-hiv medications which is very much like chemotherapy in some ways.  Since they are using these therapies to avoid medical treatments, they are considered Alternative.  This point of view was degraded by medical professionals who were convinced that the best way to treat HIV was to hit it hard and hit it early.  This strategy focused solely on HIV.  A persons health was reduced to laboratory tests and markers, and failed to take into account other aspects of health and wellness.  A point of view that has changed as we learned more about HIV and the immune system, and have seen the side effects, sometimes fatal, that some HIV medications have.

While there is still much more to learn about HIV and how the immune system works, medical professionals are more willing to look at a more holistic approach, and lean toward Integrative Medicine that looks at the whole person.  Such examples are The American Association of Integrative Medicine , and the American Holistic Nurse Association .  The United States Government is now also taking a serious look at CAM, as exemplified by their web site at The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)

Although stress relief is often repeated as a benefit,  it should be be noted that this is a very significant goal for people with HIV.   Scientists have known for a long time, that even for 'healthy' people, prolonged stress can even sometimes lead to death.

Living with HIV is very stressful.  As if modern life itself wasn't stressful enough, HIV continually bombards the body causing it to defend itself and restore balance.  This stress is often called oxidative stress, and many complimentary -- especially nutritional -- therapies can help with this.  The 2003 New Haven Fairfield Ryan White Title I Needs Assessment  had questions listing some of the major symptoms of HIV Wasting, and based on the preliminary analysis of 554 respondents here are some of the breakdowns:


222, 40.1% Reported Debilitating Fatigue


218, 39.4% Reported Muscle Weakness and/or muscle pain


175, 31.6% Reported Loss of Appetite and/or problems digesting food


169, 40.5% Reported Unintentional Weight Loss / Loss of Muscle Mass


134, 24.2% Reported Extended Periods of diarrhea

Considering that most of the sample size is relatively new to the infection, these findings are even more startling. The majority of respondents stated that they first tested positive for HIV and AIDS between 1996 and 2000 (31.5% and 40.0%, respectively).  It is no surprise that these respondents also reported that the second highest unmet need was access to complementary health care.

There is a lot of psychological stress living with HIV.  Such as:


Fear of getting sick and dying


Infecting someone else


Being re-infected with new strains of HIV


Paying for medications


Trying to eat right, exercise, and do the right things


Avoiding unhealthy habits, addictions, people, places and things.


Being "identified" and/or discriminated against because of HIV


Being alienated by friends and sometimes even family.


Having access to quality health care and treatments


Dealing with Doctors and Insurance Companies and/or other entitlements


Having a clean, safe place to live, and clean water to drink


Making sure you take all your medications on time as as prescribed


Worrying about potential side effects of HIV medications

Living long and well with HIV takes a lot of work, and people living with HIV have to squeeze all that in plus live as normal a life as possible to keep themselves and family together, while living with the sometimes debilitating side effects of anti HIV medications.

Here are just some of the possible benefits for people living with HIV/AIDS:

Which is the right thing for me?

This can not be answered.  I have often found that my best source of information was talking to other people living with HIV to find out what works for them.  Although I realize that what works for one person may or may  not work for another, if it sounds reasonable, and it seems to have some benefit, I am willing to give it a shot.

I also discuss various alternatives with reputable professionals such as Naturopathic Doctors (ND), and doing a lot of my own research on-line and at health food stores.  If you need assistance in locating a Naturopathic Physician in your area, try visiting www.naturopathic.org

I also discuss my CAM therapies with my medical professionals and over the years I have had every kind of response from one MD who actually laughed when I said taking a multiple vitamin would be a good idea, to those that -- although they didn't understand all of it -- encouraged me to pursue programs targeting health and wellness.  In one study, over 40% of people using alternative therapies did not discuss them with their health care providers. Hopefully things are changing, and as we learn more about the safety and efficacy of such treatments, medical professionals will be more receptive to them.

How can I afford them?

Some CAM treatments are relatively inexpensive, others such as seeing a licensed Naturopathic Physician (ND) can be pricey.  The good news is that there are more and more aids service organizations trying to help get people living with HIV access to these services and treatments.  A good source to find such programs is calling 211, and asking about programs for Alternative/Complementary Therapies.

As with anything else, it is always best to use caution when trying an alternative therapy, and to be wary of anyone who claims to have a "cure" and quick fix to HIV/AIDS.

The bottom line:

There is no quick fix or cure for HIV/AIDS.  As we said, it takes some work, and one must pay attention to the body, mind, and spirit as well as focusing on hiv, and preventing it's spread.  The good news is that there are a lot of options, some of which are mentioned on our tips pageThe bottom line is taking control of your life and health outcomes.  Being empowered, having hope, enjoying life and something to live for are vital ingredients.  Nobody is going to know or care about your body and life more than you do, and although it seems to place the burden on one's self, the good news is that we don't have to do it alone.  There are plenty of individuals and agencies to help us achieve our goals.  There is still more work to do to get more funding and services, and that is a goal worth fighting for because your life or someone that your care about, may need it.

Peace and Good Health








Looking for an a practitioner in the Complementary and alternative medicine field with experience with people living with HIV/AIDS?

We are working on developing an Holistic HIV Practitioners Database, which will even include medical professionals that ascribe to holistic medicine.

You can also locate a Naturopathic Physician in your area using this site:


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