Complementary Therapies for People Living with HIV*

Complementary therapies have been attractive, and a necessity of life for PWAs since the beginning of the HIV epidemic. Positively Aware is committed to providing easy-to-understand health information&, including complementary therapy, to help people living with HIV make informed choices in regard to their treatment. As more anti-retroviral therapies become available it is important for people living with HIV to remember that we, also, have to learn more about complementary treatments to ease the side effects associated with HIV therapy. The following is a brief excerpt of many complementary therapies used by PWAs, as compiled by CATIE (Community AIDS Treatment Information Exchange). As some complementary therapies can interact with your drug regimen, it is important to remember to discuss therapy decisions with your health care provider.


Homeopathy involves specialized remedies to treat the whole person rather than a diagnosed condition. Homeopathic remedies are chosen by matching the remedy to the unique physical, emotional and mental characteristics of the individual being treated. Hundreds of homeopathic remedies are available, and all are prepared from dilute extracts of animals, plant and mineral substances.

Homeopathy is popular in Europe, where a number of clinical trails have looked at homeopathic methods. A recent paper in the prestigious British journal, The Lancet, concluded that the effects of homeopathy could not be attributed to the placebo effect and urged further clinical study. Although some people living with HIV use homeopathy to treat particular HIV-related infections or symptoms, very little has been published about the experiences of HIV-positive people with homeopathy, and few studies have examined the usefulness of homeopathy in HIV.

Homeopathic combination remedies are sold in some drug and health food stores. These over-the-counter remedies are not carefully matched to specific symptoms. Instead, they contain combinations of different remedies that are most commonly prescribed for particular illnesses. Despite this broad-spectrum approach, these remedies carry little risk of side effects because they are so dilute. For treatments specifically targeted to symptoms, visit a qualified homeopath.


Naturopathy uses natural substances and the body's own healing powers to treat and prevent illness. Naturopaths view the symptoms of illness as warnings of lifestyle flaws or imbalances in the body. Naturopathic treatments are specific responses to extensive reviews of an individual's lifestyle and nutritional requirements. Naturopaths are trained in many of the healing practices including acupuncture, herbal treatments, massage and homeopathy as well as nutritional counseling. Naturopaths are the generalists of the complementary medicine world, employing methods derived from a variety of different systems. Visiting a naturopath may help you decide which complementary therapies are right for you.

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a complete medical system with its own unique philosophy, diagnostics and treatment methods. The goal of TCM is to balance the yin (vital function) and the yang (vital essence). One analogy describes yang as the gear and yin as the grease that allows the gear to run smoothly. An excess of yang leads to the consumption of yin and the formation of heat, much as a gear that works too hard burns away the grease and builds up heat. The balancing of yin and yang stabilizes as person's energy, otherwise known as qi (pronounced chee). The purpose of TCM is fu-zheng, which means to support the true or righteous qi to inhibit diseased qi from progressing.

Acupuncture is a component of TCM widely used by HIV positive people. It stimulates the flow of qi in specific organs or areas through the insertion of needles at designated points on the body.

Acupuncture can be used to treat generalized symptoms, such as fatigue, and may be useful for localized symptoms, such as neuropathy (tingling or burning sensation in the hands and feet). Neuropathy, which may be a side effect of antiretroviral drug treatment or a direct result of HIV infection, is notoriously hard to treat. Although different approaches work for different individuals, many reports indicate that neuropathy symptoms and pain decrease for PHAs treated with acupuncture.

Several other forms of Chinese medicine focus on acupuncture points. Through massage, acupressure stimulates the acupuncture points without the use of needles. In moxibustion the acupuncture points are warmed by applying burning herbs to protected skin. The herb used is mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). Fat cigar-shaped bundles of the herb wrapped in rice paper are most commonly used. Moxibustion is frequently used to treat digestive complaints such as diarrhea, but it should be avoided if you are experiencing fever, numbness or neuropathy.

Herbal Therapies

Herbal therapies are medically active substances harvested from plants. They may come from any part of the plant but are most commonly made from leaves, roots, seeds or flowers. They are eaten, drunk, smoked, inhaled or applied to the skin.

Herbal medicines are often viewed as a balanced and moderate approach to healing. Pharmaceutical drugs derived from plants are made by isolating the chemicals that have a medical effect and concentrating them in the medication. Herbal therapies, on the other hand, contain all the chemical components of a plant, as they occur naturally. This important part of herbal medicine may explain why some herbs -- used by experienced practitioners for centuries -- have not performed well in modern clinical trials when their active chemicals were isolated from the rest of the plant.

Herbal medicines are often promoted as a gentle and non-toxic approach to good health. This does not mean health therapies never cause side effects or never interact with other pharmaceutical and herbal treatments. Learn enough about any herbal therapy to ensure that the dose is safe and effective. Learn about possible side effects and watch for signs of drug interactions.


Juicing creates liquid foods, which the body can easily assimilate and absorb. It allows the vitamins and other nutrients in fresh fruits and vegetables to be easily consumed -- even by people who have no appetite. Raw foods provide abundant energy. They supply the body with optimum nutrition in the form of vitamins, food enzymes and fiber. Juicing is often used if a PHA's health is compromised by weak digestion or malabsorption and if a person has difficulty chewing.

Most fruits have a cleansing effect on the body's system. Their high water content flushes the digestive tract and kidneys. Juicing is used to flush the kidney, liver and gastrointestinal system of toxins. For PHAs dealing with the side effects of antiretrovials, juicing may assist in removing the toxic by-products of the drugs. These enzymes are naturally present in fruits and vegetables. Proponents of juicing believe that enzymes are destroyed when food is processed or heated. Our own bodies produce enzymes that digest food and incorporate it into the cells of our bodies. Juicing allows us to ingest the enzymes of fruits and vegetables, which may make digestion easier.

The freshest produce will give you the most enzymes. So choose fruits that are in season. To avoid ingesting pesticides, peel the skin of the fruit or vegetable and do not ingest the pulp. Fresh juices are a concentrated form of food. Be moderate in your consumption. Fruit juices are high in fruit sugar. Think of juice as a meal.

Doing Your Own Research on Complementary Therapies

Although the use of complementary therapies is becoming increasingly common, depending on where you live, you may have difficulty finding some of the therapies.

Here are ten questions to ask yourself to guide your investigation into any new therapy, either complementary or conventional:

  • What am I hoping to get out of this therapy?
  • Is this therapy used by other PHAs?
  • Am I able to talk to any of these PHAs about their experiences?
  • Is there any research or additional information about this therapy?
  • What are the side effects of this therapy, if any?
  • What sort of commitment do I have to make to use this treatment?
  • Where can I get this treatment, and will it be regularly available?
  • How much of this treatment is too much and what are the early signs of taking too much?
  • Does this treatment interact with anything else I'm taking?
  • How much does it cost?

Red Flags (things that should make you cautious about complementary therapy information):

  • The information source discourages you from consulting others or belittles the information you have received.
  • The source claims that the treatment can be used for a long list of illnesses without any explanation of how results vary depending on the condition or how the conditions are related.
  • The information focuses on the treatment's popularity or financial success, not on how it works.
  • The information relies exclusively or predominantly on testimonials from past users.
  • The information is all about comparisons with other similar products.
  • The qualifications of the practitioners or promoters aren't offered.
  • Studies of the product referred to in promotional literature haven't been published or are published only in a newsletter owned by those selling the product.
  • The source's focus is on payment, not information.
  • Opinions and facts are mixed together in the information.
  • The treatment is unjustifiably expensive and no clear explanations are given.

When you start a new treatment, it is wise to keep a journal. This applies to any new treatment, complementary or conventional. A journal allows you to record your experiences so that, in a few weeks or months (depending on the time commitment required), you can decide if the treatment is working. In the journal, record how you feel each day and what changes, if any, you think can be attributed to the new treatment. Record when you feel ill or when you think this treatment is interacting with another or with food. If you're experimenting with dosage, you should record the various amounts and your observations. If you get the treatment when you see a practitioner, note the date and time of your appointments. A journal will allow you to evaluate the treatment more fairly. It is a more reliable record than your memory, which often remembers only the most dramatic experiences, good and bad. A journal will help you determine whether changes in your life are associated with a particular treatment. It will give you a record of your treatments, which you can use in discussions with your doctor or practitioner. This type of record-keeping is particularly useful if you are trying a number of treatments. The journal is also a good source of information for PHAs who ask you about your experiences.

Introduction written and resource list compiled by Charles E. Clifton.

Resources for Complementary Therapies and HIV


Healing HIV: How to Rebuild Your Immune System, by Jon Kaiser, MD. (Mill Valley, CA: Health First Press).

You Don't Have to Die: Unraveling the AIDS Myth, by Leon Haitow, ND, DO, and James Strohecker with The Burton Goldberg Group. (Puyallup, WA: Future Medicine Publishing).

Nutrition and HIV: A New Model for Treatment, by Mary Romeyn, MD. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers).

The HIV Wellness Sourcebook: An East-West Guide to Living Well with HIV/ AIDS, by Misha Ruth Cohen, OMD, LAC, with Kalia Doner. (New York: Henry Holt).

Directory of Complementary and Alternative Therapies in HIV/AIDS, by National AIDS Manual. (London: NAM).

Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements, by Michael Murray, ND. (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing).

Prescription for Nutritional Healing A-To-Z Guide to Supplements, by James F. Balch, MD and Phyllis A. Balch. (East Rutherford, NJ: Avery Publishing Group/East Rutherford).



The New Mexico AIDS InfoNet

The Body


Healing Well

Herb Research Foundation

Project Inform