Complementary and Alternative Medicine and HIV/AIDS

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) refers to practices and techniques that many believe can help maintain health and fight disease, but have not yet been proven to the satisfaction of many doctors of modern, or allopathic, medicine. Some CAM practices have existed for thousands of years and been used by millions of people. Others are very new.

Unfortunately, when it comes to HIV/AIDS, CAM is in the same position as modern medicine – struggling to come up with ways to treat a disease never before encountered. Still, some CAM techniques and practices have benefits to offer people with HIV/AIDS.

Here are some of the CAMs that are most likely to help people with HIV/AIDS.

Ayurvedic Medicine: Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India. Modern medicine has already learned a great deal from Ayurveda – in fact ‘modern’ plastic surgery was born when British doctors brought surgical techniques to Europe that had been in use in India for thousands of years.

Ayurvedic medicine is a complete medical system, much as allopathic medicine. It includes nutritional guidelines, herbal medicines, surgery, dentistry and more.

Unfortunately, very little research has been done on Ayurvedic medicine. Without scientific studies to support it, most western doctors do not consider it reliable. Worse, in a way, without scientific studies to observe the effects of Ayurvedic medicine, it is very difficult to translate the traditional terminology into ideas and concepts western doctors can understand.

Ayurvedic medicine treatments which are used to boost the immune system, fight viral infections and are effective treatments for secondary infections may benefit people with HIV/AIDS. Good information on Ayurvedic medicine is hard to find, and just like no one should take prescription medication without a doctor’s advice and oversight, taking Ayurvedic medicine outside of the care of a trained Ayurvedic practitioner is not a good idea.

New medicines for HIV/AIDS are being developed from medical herbs.

Herbalism: Most modern medicine is based on herbs that have been proven to help treat medical conditions. Digitalis for heart conditions is from the foxglove plant, aspirin from willow bark, and many others. Current research suggests that licorice and several other herbs may help reduce viral load counts or increase CD4. Other herbs may fight secondary infections, or improve quality of life.

However, herbs are very similar to their medical decedents in the pharmacy. They can be toxic in high doses, they can have dangerous side effects, and in some cases they may be addictive. At the moment there is relatively little research on the effect of herbs on HIV/AIDS. Not because doctors aren’t interested in doing the research, but because there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of herbs that need to be tested, and full testing takes years of time and millions of dollars.

There just isn’t the time or money for doctors to test all the herbs that might help HIV/AIDS, while testing all those same herbs for effectiveness against thousands of other medical conditions. The research is happening, just very slowly.

Unfortunately, herbal supplements are not regulated, not required to include notification of possible side effects, and do not have standard dosages. If possible, it is best to go to a trained herbalist to determine what herbs may help and how to take them.

Homeopathy: Homeopathy has been around for a few hundred years. It is not well respected by modern doctors because its basic theory and practice contradict several theories of modern medicine. However, small scale studies have found that homeopathy can improve comfort and quality of life for people with HIV/AIDS. One controlled clinical trial also found the homeopathy boosted CD4 counts in patients with Stage III AIDS.

Unlike herbs, homeopathy is believed to never have side effects due to the way it’s made. Basically it has so little of the active ingredient that side effects are simply not possible. (This is the same reason many western doctors say that homeopathy cannot be effective). However, some studies have found indications that homeopathy may have drug interactions.

Because of the lack of side effects, taking homeopathic medicine without a trained homeopath is not dangerous, but a trained homeopath can better help in determining what homeopathic medications are most likely to help.

Traditional Chinese Medicine: Similar to Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a medical system that has been practiced in China for thousands of years. It is based on a very different understanding of human health and wellbeing than modern medicine, but has been shown to be effective in many areas. TCM includes nutritional guidelines, herbalism, acupuncture, massage, and more. Modern medicine has yet to fully adopt any of the techniques and practices of TCM, however several studies suggest TCM has a great deal to offer. Among other things, acupuncture has been shown to be an effect anesthesia during minor surgery, without the side effects of modern anesthesia.

Acupuncture improves quality of life for people with HIV/AIDS.

Similar to Ayurveda, TCM has had difficulty finding acceptance among modern doctors, largely because of the very different terminology TCM uses. For instance, a doctor of Chinese medicine might say that a patient needs to eat less salty food to reduce the amount of Fire qi in their body. A western doctor would call that mumbo-jumbo, but tell the same patient to stop eating salt before their blood pressure goes through the roof.

Recently, a database called Chem-TCM was created that lists the full chemical compounds of over 300 herbs used in TCM and compares their molecular structure to both western medicines, and the way diseases develop so doctors can see what herbs might have functions similar to the medicines they are used to in terms the doctors can understand.

While TCM has been studied more extensively than any other CAM for benefits to people with HIV/AIDS, the studies have barely scratched the surface – it’s like trying to put every modern medicine through new clinical trials, it will take decades for real progress to be made.

One study of acupuncture found that it reduced mortality in people with advanced HIV/AIDS, though it did not help with pain. The same study had some indications of possible drug interactions as well. And like almost all CAM studies, it was a small scale study and can only be considered a preliminary finding. Other studies have found that TCM treatments can include quality of life and treat secondary infections, as well as reduce the side effects of ART.

Doctors of Traditional Chinese medicine study just as long as modern doctors to learn understand their field. There are doctors of TCM in most large American cities, and many other areas. TCM is not over-the-counter medication and TCM treatment should be undertaken with a qualified doctor.

At this point, CAM is not, and cannot be, a substitute for western medicine in treating HIV/AIDS. There is simply no available treatment that is nearly as effective as ART in fighting HIV and preventing the progression of AIDS. However HIV/AIDS treatment can be divided into two categories – treatments that cure HIV/AIDS and treatments that care for people with HIV/AIDS. CAM may not be able to offer much to cure HIV/ADIS, but it has a great deal to offer in care of people with HIV/AIDS. CAM treatments can treat secondary infections, improve quality of life, and reduce the side effects of ART. CAM treatments may also help boost the immune system and slow the increase of viral load.

It is important to not self-treat with CAM; it is just as much medicine as anything the doctor prescribes and should be respected and used carefully. It is very important to inform your doctor of any CAM treatments you are using, so he or she can be aware of possible interactions with your treatment plan. Many CAM practitioners will be willing to speak with your doctor directly to explain the treatments they recommend and possible interactions and side effects your doctor may be unaware of.

CAM Scams

Unfortunately, the lack of regulations of CAM combined with the rise in interest in alternative medicine has led to a large and dangerous industry of quacks and scams taking advantage of people seeking help for medical conditions. There are several warning signs of possible scams, but the most important is that anyone who claims to be a CAM practitioner and wants you to stop seeing your regular doctor is someone to avoid. While many CAM practitioners disagree with some aspects of modern medicine, they also recognize that modern medicine has a great deal to offer and that integrating treatments will be more effective than one treatment alone.

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