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Complementary and Alternative Treatments for HIV and AIDS

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on April 25, 2021

Many people living with HIV/AIDS use complementary therapies to help them manage their health. These methods don’t replace standard medical care but may help you feel better. Here’s a closer look at some common complementary treatments for HIV/AIDS and what scientific research reveals about them.

Mind-Body Practices

Massage: Massage has a long history in Eastern and Western cultures as a method of pain relief. There’s not a lot of research specific to HIV/AIDs, but some small studies show that it may ease depression and anxiety. If it helps you relax and feel better, that’s a benefit. Massage may work better when combined with other therapies like meditation and stress relief.

Yoga: Research shows that yoga, which involves different postures, breathing routines, and meditation, may benefit people living with HIV/AIDS by lowering blood pressure, pain, and anxiety. Sticking with an ongoing practice would keep those benefits going.

Meditation and other mindfulness therapies: Several research studies have looked at the benefits of meditation for a wide variety of health conditions. These practices focus on the link between the mind, body, and behavior to improve your health and well-being. When it comes to HIV/AIDS, scientists have found that meditation and other mindfulness training techniques like repeating mantras could lower stress and make you feel happier, and better prepared to manage anger and conflict.

Herbal and Dietary Supplements

Cannabis and cannabinoids: The FDA hasn’t approved the cannabis plant to treat any medical conditions. But the FDA has approved certain prescription drugs based on cannabinoids, a class of substances found in the cannabis plant that includes THC and cannabidiol (CBD).

One of these drugs is dronabinol (Marinol, Syndros), a lab-made form of THC. People living with HIV/AIDS and other conditions may use it to cure appetite loss and gain weight. There’s not much solid scientific evidence to show that cannabis and cannabinoids work for this purpose and are safe to use. Studies to date have been small and only lasted for a short time.

Evening primrose oil: This yellow flowering plant naturally grows in North and South America, but you can also find it in Europe and areas of Asia. Seeds from the evening primrose plant contain oil, which has omega-6 fatty acids. This oil may boost the effects of the drugs lopinavir and ritonavir (Kaletra), used to treat HIV. It’s thought to slow down how fast your body breaks down that medication.

Evening primrose is safe to use when you take the proper dose for a short time. But it can cause side effects like upset stomach and headache. You also shouldn’t take it if you have:

Supplement Safety

Although people living with HIV/AIDS may use herbal and dietary supplements, researchers have found that some do not help treat the disease and may even be harmful:

  • St. John’s wort likely doesn’t benefit people living with HIV.
  • SAMe could encourage Pneumocystis infection in people with HIV
  • Garlic supplements could hinder how well some HIV drugs, such as saquinavir, work.
  • Cat’s claw has not been studied widely to treat health conditions.

Supplement makers don’t have to prove to the FDA that a product is safe and effective before selling it to you. Before you try a supplement, talk to your doctor to make sure it’s safe and won’t affect any medicines you’re already taking. It’s also important to continue taking your HIV medicines along with any complementary treatments.

Watch out for any so-called HIV/AIDS treatments that claim to be “miracle cures,” such as electrical and magnetic devices and herbal cures. It’s best to research any possible treatment and ask your doctor about its safety.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Michigan Medicine: “CD4+ Cells.”

The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: “Massage therapy for people with HIV/AIDS,” “The medical use of cannabis for reducing morbidity and mortality in patients with HIV/AIDS.”

National Cancer Institute: “Natural Killer Cell.”

NCCIH: “Massage Therapy: What You Need To Know,” “Yoga: What You Need To Know,” “Meditation: In Depth,” “Cannabis (Marijuana) and Cannabinoids: What You Need To Know,” “Evening Primrose Oil,” “St. John’s Wort,” “S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine (SAMe): In Depth,” “Cat’s Claw,” “Safe Use of Complementary Health Products and Practices.”

BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine: “Mind-body practices for people living with HIV: a systematic scoping review.”

Mayo Clinic: “Evening primrose.”

FTC: “Miracle Health Claims.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Alternative (Complementary) Therapies for HIV/AIDS: Entire Lesson.”

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