Holistic health & HIV

People find different ways of keeping healthy. Because anti-HIV drugs really work, some people did not need to look too far beyond medical treatment. As one man said 'Good doctors and the YMCA' were all he needed. Others believed in a more 'whole person approach' to health. Taking such a 'holistic' approach means that you focus on body, mind and spirit when you think of improving your health. You may for example try to improve your fitness, lifestyle, emotional wellbeing and spiritual wellbeing. The people we spoke to who took a holistic approach were not against anti-HIV medication. Instead, they talked of things like balance, moderation and harmony in their lives.

People found all sorts of ways which they believed  improved their wellbeing including relaxation exercises, meditation, yoga, hypnotherapy, reiki, massage: 'When you are stressed out, when you are depressed, a good massage with some oils can give you a new lease on life,' said one man. 'Acupuncture released and calmed me down… Homeopathy on a regular basis made me feel less anxious,' said another man.

Some people found herbal and homeopathic treatments helped them to feel better. People we talked to were aware that while there may not always be scientific research that such approaches work against HIV, unconventional approaches helped alongside their medical care. For instance, one man believed treatment with Maitake Mushroom along with anti-HIV drugs and chemotherapy really helped his immune system to improve: 'It wasn't just the combination therapy, it [T cell count] was increasing exponentially and I credited the Maitake with that.'

Some herbs and vitamins (e.g. large doses of Vitamin C, garlic, St John's Wort) can interfere with anti-HIV drugs and other medication, so you should ask your doctors before using them.

Complementary approaches were thought to help in  many ways including reducing stress, reducing some side effects, supporting the immune system and providing pain relief. With this in mind even sceptics could get benefits from alternative approaches. One man said, 'I think that reiki's very bumph [suspect] to be honest. But it's just good to be able to have an hour where you have nothing else to think about!'

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The people we spoke to were aware that there was no scientific evidence that complementary approaches like herbs and spiritual healing could cure HIV. One African woman said, 'Traditional herbalists in my country… say they cure HIV. But whether that is true or not, that needs to be seen.' African individuals were also aware that HIV could be blamed on things like witchcraft. However people we talked to were sceptical about witchcraft being either a cause or a potential cure for HIV.

Alternative approaches to health can be expensive - one man said he spent £500 per week on alternative care when he was very unwell. However some HIV organisations can arrange access to cheap complementary therapies. And even simple everyday things like having a candle lit bath with aromatherapy oils in the water were thought to promote wellbeing. One man believed that small amethyst stones that you get cheaply from health shops were good for mental health problems: 'I think they allow you to cry,' he said.

People also described the benefits from everyday things such as gardening and caring for pets' 'I see my little garden and I get pleasure out of it,' said one man. 'It's nice to come home to someone or something, and my cat is there,' said another man. 'If I've been really busy I'll need to spend a good portion of the next day resting… If I'm resting on the bed, I just leave the door open and I'll have a pile of purring pussies on me,' said another man.

Many people said it was important not to under-estimate the power of eating well, taking exercise and getting enough sleep: 'Be very in tune with your body and really listen to it… to the reactions not only to treatment, but what you eat, what you drink, how much you sleep… and to stress.'

Those who had been physically ill found it particularly helpful to do physical exercise to regain their strength: 'I spent the whole of the summer going to the YMCA, to different programmes, investing in myself, getting myself physically fit again.' People did things like walking, jogging, yoga, Pilates or gym to build strength and aerobic exercise to improve the heart and circulation system.

Gym membership was too expensive for some but others pointed out that exercise programs for people with HIV could be affordable. One man volunteered for a YMCA exercise program and received free training to become a personal trainer. Exercise could also be done at home. Some people thought that exercise helped to strengthen the mind, detoxify the body from the effects of medication, reduce side effects and fight HIV.

For gay men who were not sporty in their youth, doing exercise could help to build up muscle and increase their comfort with their bodies: 'I feel like I inhabit my body in a way I never did before…,' said one man. However, for African women, exercise and good diet resulting in weight loss sometimes attracted negative comments: 'People would see me and say "oh you've been sick" or "you should stay big",' said one woman. Some African men with HIV had to overcome their fear of exercise.

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Some people need to think about when to eat because of their medication. Some medications can make it hard to keep food down at times. One man said he got a 'metallic' taste from his medication and suddenly developed 'funny food dislikes.' Many people changed their diets to include more fresh fruit and vegetables and home cooking: 'I want to be helping my body fight HIV… I always make my own food and I enjoy the process,' said one man. People also tried to reduce animal fats in their diet because one side effect of some anti-HIV drugs is increased cholesterol.

Some people could not afford to eat well or get the ingredients they needed for their traditional food: 'I miss my food badly,' said one African woman. One man hoped that doing exercise would mean that he did not have to worry about diet: 'I don't follow a nutrition programme myself. I know that fats are my enemy but if I am going to the gym I can only hope that they are cancelling each other out.' Some people noticed that they needed to improve their eating habits: 'When I am happy I eat, When I'm upset I eat.'

Last reviewed May 2017.

Last updated September 2010.


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