HIV and Lifestyle Changes

Medically Reviewed by Jonathan E. Kaplan, MD on May 21, 2023
5 min read

You can live a normal life with HIV. With your doctor’s help and advice, you can take steps to stay as healthy as possible. Here are some of the things you can do.

Everyone with HIV should be on anti-retroviral therapy, or ART. You might see it called highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART) or combined anti-retroviral therapy (cART). These medicines reduce the amount of HIV in your blood. When your viral load is low, you’re less likely to get infections. ART also lowers the odds you’ll pass HIV to someone else.

You’ll need to start ART right away. That’s usually as soon as you get an HIV diagnosis. You might need to take one or more pills at the same time every day. Don’t skip doses or take your pills randomly. Your medicine can stop working if you start and stop your treatment.

ART can help you stay healthy. But it can cause some unwanted side effects. Tell your doctor if this happens to you. You might need to switch to a different medicine or mix of drugs.

Vaccines are especially important for people who have HIV as the virus puts you at higher risk for infections or more serious complications of those infections. Ask your doctor which vaccines you need based on your age and your T-cell counts.

The food you eat can ease medication side effects, help you maintain a healthy weight, and support your immune system.

You don’t need to figure out a balanced diet all on your own. Ask your doctor to refer you to a registered dietitian nutritionist who works with people who have HIV.

In general, you should eat more of these nutrient-rich foods:

You may need extra dietary supplements. But that’s something you should ask your doctor about. They can run some tests to find out if you’re low in certain nutrients. They’ll also let you know what’s safe to take with your medicine.

You’ll need to pay attention to food safety. That’s because HIV raises your odds of catching a food-related illness. Here are some tips to keep you healthy:

  • Don’t eat raw eggs, meat, or seafood.
  • Don’t drink out of any natural bodies of water.
  • Don’t eat or drink unpasteurized dairy products.
  • Don’t use the same cutting board for meat and produce.
  • Rinse your fruits and vegetables well.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water before you eat.

Regular physical activity can boost your mood and lower your odds of other health problems. That includes heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.

But that’s not all.

Exercise can also:

  • Improve your strength
  • Lower your risk for depression
  • Support your immune system
  • Help you get good sleep

Aim for 150-300 minutes of moderate exercise a week. That’s biking or fast walking for 30-60 minutes a day, 5 days a week. And work your muscles twice a week. Strength-training includes exercises such as pushups, bodyweight squats, or lifting weights.

Lots of people with HIV have trouble sleeping. It’s not clear why. But experts think stress, the disease itself, and medication side effects may all play a role.

Treatment can help you get a good night’s rest. Your doctor might suggest:

Ask your doctor before you try an over-the-counter sleep drug, herb, or supplement. They’ll let you know what’s safe to take with your medicine.

Stress, medication, and HIV itself can affect your mood. In turn, feeling low can make it hard to stick with your treatment plan. But you may get sick if you don’t take your medicine the right way.

Tell your doctor if you feel depressed, anxious, or have any other mood problems. Your emotional health is just as important as your physical health. And treatment can ease your symptoms.

Mental health care might include:

A weak immune system leaves your whole body open to infections. That includes your mouth. You can get painful sores that make it hard to eat or take your medicine. Tell your doctor about any of these symptoms. Treatment can help.

Here are some other tips for good oral health:

  • Go to the dentist regularly
  • Brush and floss twice a day for 2 minutes
  • Don’t smoke
  • Stick with your HIV treatment

You’re less likely to have mouth problems when you’re on ART. But some HIV drugs can cause side effects, such as dry mouth. Tell your doctor if that happens to you. Lifestyle changes and medicine can help you make more saliva.

Cigarette smoking isn’t just bad for your oral health; it can make it harder for your HIV treatment to work. It also raises your odds of lots of other health problems, such as:

Ask your doctor for help if you can’t stop on your own. There are many tools to help you quit. You may need nicotine replacement therapy, medication, or behavioral treatment. And don’t give up on your first try. Your odds of quitting go up with each attempt.

It’s harder to stick to your treatment plan when you can’t think clearly. You may also make unsafe choices when you’re impaired.

Heavy use of alcohol and other drugs can also:

  • Hurt your immune system
  • Damage organs like your brain or liver
  • Interact with your HIV medicine
  • Make you less likely to take your medicine the right way
  • Lead to poor nutrition

Abstinence is the only surefire way to avoid sexually transmitted infections (STIs). But no sex isn’t a realistic choice for most people.

If you have HIV, here are some steps you can take to protect your partner:

  • Take ART
  • Use condoms
  • Have HIV-negative partners use PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis)
  • Talk to HIV-negative partners about PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis)

HIV medicine can lower your viral load so much that lab tests can’t measure it. That’s called an “undetectable viral load.” That basically means you can’t transmit HIV to someone else through sex. But you should talk to your doctor more about what that means when it comes to your sex life.