for Veterans and the Public
Alternative (Complementary) Therapies for HIV/AIDS: Entire Lesson
Alternative Therapies: Overview
Many people use alternative (sometimes known as complementary) health treatments in addition to the medical care they get from their provider.
These therapies are sometimes called "alternative" because they don't fit into the more mainstream, Western ways of looking at medicine and health care.
They are called "complementary" therapies because usually they are used alongside the more standard medical care you receive (such as your VA provider visits and the HIV medications you might be taking).
Some common complementary therapies include:
- Physical (body) therapies, such as yoga, massage, and acupuncture
- Relaxation techniques, such as meditation and visualization
- Herbal medicines (from plants)
With most complementary therapies, your health is looked at from a holistic (or "whole picture") point of view. Think of your body as working as one big system. From a holistic viewpoint, everything you do--from what you eat to what you drink to how stressed you are--affects your health and well-being.
Do alternative therapies work?
Healthy people use these kinds of therapies to try to make their immune systems stronger and to make themselves feel better in general. People who have diseases or illnesses, such as HIV, use these therapies for the same reasons. They also can use these therapies to help deal with symptoms of the disease or side effects from the medicines that treat the disease.
Many people report positive results from using complementary therapies. In many cases, however, there is not enough research to tell if these treatments really help people with HIV.
If you want to try complementary treatments to help you cope with HIV, please remember these things:
- Always talk to your VA health care provider before you start any kind of treatment, even if you think it is safe.
- Just because something is "natural" (an herb, for example) doesn't mean that it is safe to take. Sometimes these products can interact with your HIV medications or cause side effects on their own. St. John's-wort, for example, decreases levels of some HIV medications in your blood.
- The federal government does not require that herbal remedies and dietary supplements be tested in the same way that standard medicines are tested before they are sold. Many of the treatments out there have not been studied as much as the HIV drugs you are taking. It is always a risk to take something or try something that hasn't been fully studied or researched.
- Be careful of treatments that claim to be "miracle cures"--ones that claim to cure HIV/AIDS. There are people out there who may try to trick you into buying an expensive product that doesn't work. Always do your research and ask your VA provider for help.
- Complementary therapies are not substitutes for the treatment and drugs you receive from your VA provider. Never stop taking your HIV medications just because you've started an alternative therapy.
- The federal government is funding studies of how well some alternative therapies work to treat disease, so look for news about these studies.
Here you can read about some of the more common complementary therapies that people with HIV use. Sometimes these are used alone, but often they are used in combination with one another. For example, some people combine yoga with meditation.
Physical (body) therapies
Physical, or body, therapies include such activities as yoga, massage, and aromatherapy. These types of therapies focus on using a person's body and senses to promote healing and well-being. Here you can learn about examples of these types of therapies.
Yoga is a set of exercises that people use to improve their fitness, reduce stress, and increase flexibility.
Yoga can involve breathing exercises, stretching and strengthening poses, and meditation. (See the Meditation section for more information on what this is.)
Many people, including people with HIV, use yoga to reduce stress and to become more relaxed.
There are many different types of yoga and various classes you can take. You can also try out yoga by following a video program.
Before you begin any kind of exercise program, always talk with your health care provider.
Many people believe that massage therapy is an excellent way to deal with the stress and side effects that go along with having an illness, including HIV.
During massage therapy, a trained therapist moves and rubs your body tissues (such as your muscles). There are many kinds of massage therapy.
You can try massage therapy for reducing muscle and back pain, headaches, and soreness. Massages also can improve your blood flow (circulation) and reduce tension.
Acupuncture is part of a whole healing system known as traditional Chinese medicine. During acupuncture treatment, tiny needles (about as wide as a hair) are inserted into certain areas of a person's body. Most people say that they don't feel any pain from the needles.
Many people with HIV use acupuncture. Some people think that acupuncture can help treat symptoms of HIV and side effects from the medicine, like fatigue and nausea.
Some people say that acupuncture can be used to help with neuropathy (body pain caused by nerve damage from HIV or the medicines used to treat HIV).
Others report that acupuncture gives them more energy.
If you are interested in trying it out, ask your VA provider to recommend an expert. At the end of this guide are links to websites where you can read more about the history of acupuncture and how it works.
Aromatherapy is based on the idea that certain smells can change the way you feel. The smells used in aromatherapy come from plant oils, and they can be inhaled (breathed in) or used in baths or massages.
People use aromatherapy to help them deal with stress or to help with fatigue. For example, some people report that lavender oil calms them down and helps them sleep better.
At the end of this guide are links to websites where you can learn more about aromatherapy.
Please remember! The oils used in aromatherapy can be very strong and even harmful. Always talk with an expert before using these oils yourself.
Relaxation therapies, such as meditation and visualization, focus on how a person's mind and imagination can promote overall health and well-being. In this section, you can read about some examples of how you can use relaxation therapies to reduce stress and relax.
Meditation is a certain way of concentrating that may allow your mind and body to become very relaxed. Meditation helps people to focus and be quiet.
There are many different forms of meditation. Most involve deep breathing and paying attention to your body and mind.
Sometimes people sit still and close their eyes to meditate. Meditation also can be casual. For instance, you can meditate when you are taking a walk or watching a sunrise.
People with HIV can use meditation to relax. It can help them deal with the stress that comes with any illness. Meditation can help you to calm down and focus if you are feeling overwhelmed.
If you are interested in learning more about meditation, you should ask your VA provider for more information. There may be meditation classes you can take. At the end of this guide are links to websites where you can learn more.
Visualization is another method people use to feel more relaxed and less anxious. People who use visualization imagine that they are in a safe, relaxing place (such as the beach). Most of us use visualization without realizing it--for example, when we daydream or remember a fun, happy time in our lives.
Focusing on a safe, comfortable place can help you to feel less stress, and sometimes it can lessen the pain or side effects from HIV or the medicines you are taking.
You can ask your VA provider where you can learn more about visualization. There are classes you can take, and there are self-help tapes that you can listen to that lead you through the process. See the links at the end of this guide.
Herbal medicines are substances that come from plants, and they work like standard medicine. They can be taken from all parts of a plant, including the roots, leaves, berries, and flowers.
People with HIV sometimes take these medicines to help deal with side effects from HIV medications or with symptoms from the disease.
An important note about St. John's wort: St. John's wort is an herbal medicine that is used by some people to treat depression. It interacts with the liver and can change how some drugs work in your body, including some HIV medications (for example, protease inhibitors and NNRTIs). If you are taking antiviral medications for your HIV, you should NOT take St. John's wort. Be sure you tell your provider if you are using St. John's wort. Also, do not take St. John's wort if you are taking other antidepressants.
- Always use herbs carefully. Learn the proper dosage and use.
- Always ask your provider before taking anything new. Just because something is "natural" or "non-drug" doesn't mean that it is safe.
- Learn about the possible side effects of an herbal therapy. Remember: Some herbs can interfere with your HIV medications.
To learn more about herbs, see the links in the Resources section at the end of this lesson.
Points to remember
In addition to getting mainstream medical care, many people use complementary treatments to improve their overall health or to help with specific health problems.
Complementary therapies can include physical therapies (such as yoga and acupuncture), relaxation techniques (such as meditation), and herbal medicines.
Many people report that these therapies make them feel better and help with symptoms and side effects.
It is important to remember that not all complementary therapies are safe for you. In fact, some therapies (including certain herbs) can be very dangerous because they can interact with your HIV medications or cause severe side effects.
Always be sure to let your provider know what medicines you are taking--whether they are prescription or not.
- VA Whole Health for Life
Information about whole health and complementary care at VA.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)
The NCCIH is one of the 27 institutes and centers that make up the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This website includes information on specific diseases, treatments, and herbal therapies. Includes a reference on Safe Use of Complementary Health Products and Practices.
- AIDS InfoNet (part of the New Mexico AIDS Education and Training Center)
Includes several fact sheets on alternative and complementary therapies.