Alternative Medicine for HIV and AIDS

Anti-retroviral therapies have brought renewed hope for people living with HIV. However, they do not offer a cure, and they can cause side effects.

For these and other reasons, many HIV-positive people have turned to alternative medicine for help. Some people use alternative medicine instead of standard Western medicine. However, most people choose to use alternative medicine along with standard Western medicine. This is called "complementary" or "integrative" medicine.

Alternative medicine includes many types of therapy. The goals of these therapies are to:

  • Strengthen your immune system
  • Provide relief from symptoms and drug side effects
  • Improve your quality of life

What Is Alternative Medicine?

Alternative medicine involves a range of healing approaches. Many are holistic in approach. This means they connect the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Following are a few examples of AIDS and HIV alternative medicine. It's important to note that alternative medicine is not approved by the FDA or regulated by the U.S. government.

Alternative medical systems. These have evolved separately from -- and in some cases, before -- standard Western medicine.

  • Homeopathic medicine is an individualized treatment. It includes natural substances such as minerals, vitamins, and herbs. It is based on a principle that these substances can cure, when given in small doses.
  • Naturopathic medicine uses natural healing forces within the body to help it heal and stay healthier.
  • Ayurveda is an example of a system practiced mainly in another area of the world -- in this case, the Indian subcontinent. It emphasizes the use of the body, mind, and spirit to prevent and treat diseases.

Physical therapies focus on the body and senses to promote healing and a sense of well-being.

  • Yoga is an ancient system of breathing and stretching exercises, postures, and meditation.
  • Massage therapy involves touching or rubbing body tissues to reduce pain and improve blood flow.
  • Acupuncture requires the insertion of tiny needles into certain areas of the body. It can be used for a variety of reasons. For example, acupuncture may be used to increase energy, reduce fatigue, decrease nerve pain, or even help with addiction.
  • Chiropractic is a system of manipulation and treatment of body structures, especially the spine.


Mind-body therapies use the mind and spirit to help lessen pain, stress, and other side effects.

  • Meditation helps quiet and focus the mind and body. It often involves deep breathing.
  • Visualization uses the imagination to help you picture being in a safe, relaxing place.
  • Humor and inspirational audiotapes are two other types of mind-body techniques.

Biologically based therapies use substances found in nature to make the body healthier.

  • Herbal therapies come from plants and may work much like standard drugs.
  • Dietary supplements are foods or substances from foods taken by mouth to add to your diet. They may contain vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, or enzymes. These may be used for a variety of purposes, such as boosting your immune system.

Energy therapies use energy fields to help improve your health.

  • Biofield therapies apply pressure or manipulate the body. Practitioners believe that energy fields surround and penetrate the human body. They place hands in or through these fields to improve energy flow and your health. Reiki and qi gong are two examples.
  • Bioelectromagnetic therapies use magnetic or pulsed fields to rebalance energy.

What You Should Know About Alternative Medicine

It's best to take precautions when trying out something new. The field of alternative medicine is not regulated or researched the way standard Western drugs or techniques are.

  • Talk to your doctor about any alternative medicine you want to try. Know that some doctors may discourage you because of the lack of evidence about effectiveness and the potential of unknown side effects and interactions with other treatments.
  • Check on costs. Health insurance covers some types of alternative medicine, such as acupuncture and chiropractic. It may not cover others.
  • Research the therapy. Investigate the training and experience of the person offering the treatment. Also, talk with others who've used the same type of therapy.
  • Remember that "natural" doesn’t guarantee safety. For example, studies have shown that St. John's wort interferes with HIV therapy. You should not take it with HIV drugs. Also, the safety of products varies. This depends on where the ingredients come from and the quality of the process used to manufacture them. You should always tell your doctor about any non-prescription drugs that you are using.


Be cautious about "miracle cures" or treatments that claim they can treat a wide variety of ailments. Look for studies backing the claims. Success stories are often based on anecdotal evidence (individual experience), rather than on data collected by controlled studies with large groups of people.

Research on alternative medicine is being done. But this is often difficult because:

  • Many types of alternative medicine are highly individualized or customized.
  • Many types of alternative medicine treat the whole person, not a particular illness, making them more difficult to evaluate.
  • Many types of alternative medicine aren't standardized. Different brands of herbs, for example, may have different amounts of active ingredients.
  • It is expensive to do research. The makers or practitioners of these therapies do not have the kind of financial resources drug companies do.


WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jonathan E. Kaplan, MD on July 24, 2019


AIDS Info Net: "Alternative and Complementary Therapies."
UCSF Center for HIV Information: "Complementary Therapies."
CDC: "HIV/AIDS and Alternative Therapies."
NCCAM: "What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?" 
NCCAM: "Garlic Supplements Can Impede HIV Medication." 
NCCAM: "Are You Considering Using Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?" 
Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange brochure, "A Practical Guide to Complementary Therapies for People Living with HIV."

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