The Role of Acupuncture & Chinese Herbal Medicine in Management of HIV

2009 Forward to “The Role of Acupuncture & Chinese Herbal Medicine in Management of HIV”

I wrote this article back in 1999 at a time when I was the primary acupuncture provider for people with HIV in Sacramento. Back in those days, there was ample funding from the Ryan White foundation for alternative medicine through such case management institutions like C.A.R.E.S (Center for AIDS Research, Education & Services) and the Sacramento AIDS Foundation, an organization which has not existed for several years now. At this time, and indeed for a few years now, Ryan White funding for alternative medicine is unfortunately no longer available in Sacramento.

At the time I wrote this article, I had conventional ideas about what acquired immune deficiency was and how it should be treated by Western Medicine. My role for most individuals with HIV was to provide alternative but adjunctive care—that is, care that complemented allopathic treatments. With the passage of time, further studies, and the acquisition of more clinical experience, I became confused about what HIV infection is and how it should be treated. I became aware that tests for HIV infection are not always accurate and that there are many false positive readings. I also became aware that testing for “viral load” as a measure of infection was controversial. Indeed, the inventor of the test, Kary Mullis, stated that viral load is not a valid indicator of HIV infection. I also read arguments that asserted that HIV was not always the cause of A.I.D.S. I worked with individuals who thrived without Western drugs while others were succumbing to their side effects. On the other hand, I have also seen many individuals who experienced very positive improvements in their health by using conventional drug cocktails.

Far be it from me to have the final word on what this infection is and how it should be treated, at least from the point of view of Western medicine. I am therefore letting the article stand as it was written ten years ago. It conforms to the belief structure of most people with HIV, and that of almost all allopathic doctors, but most importantly, I am letting it stand because the principles expressed therein on how HIV can be managed with Chinese Medicine are still valid, even if one opts out of following the traditional Western medical approach.

Due to the discovery of new and more powerful drugs, most notably the protease inhibitors, HIV has become much more manageable in recent years, as evidenced by declining mortality rates. Unfortunately, these drugs often cause side effects which reduce the quality of life, and over time, drug resistance can develop, leading to the use of more potent and toxic drug combinations. Given this scenario, Chinese Medicine—most notably acupuncture and herbs—has much to offer as an adjunctive therapy to the pharmaceutical approach.

1. The immune system can be strengthened and use of drugs can be delayed.

At the very beginning of HIV infection it is probably wise to consent to an aggressive drug approach, possibly a triple-drug combination, because it appears that the progress of the disease can be significantly retarded if this is done. However, in most cases HIV infection is not discovered till it has progressed to a certain point. If the individual still has a relatively high CD4 count and low viral load, then the use of acupuncture and herbs can help maintain the integrity of the immune system so that the use of antivirals can be forestalled. The individual then avoids side effects and buys time until more effective and less toxic drugs are discovered, or at the very least saves these drugs for a time when they are really needed.

In his book Healing HIV, Dr. Jon Kaiser states that it is possible for the immune system to control HIV for years without the use of antivirals if an aggressive program of natural therapies is followed, in which he includes acupuncture and herbs, as well as diet, vitamins, exercise and stress reduction. We have all known people who have demonstrated few ill effects from their exposure to HIV. At the other extreme are those who have quickly developed symptoms and succumbed to the illness. Louis Pasteur, the father of “germ” theory, observed that in prognosis, it is not the disease which must be considered so much as the terrain, by which he means the health of the immune system.

Acupuncture and herbal medicine have been used for thousands of years to fight disease and strengthen the immune system. Acupuncture has a regulatory effect on all the systems of the body, and by enhancing the life force of the body, called “qi” in the Chinese language, it empowers the body to heal itself, and many formulas have been developed and used successfully for the treatment of HIV. These formulas employ antiviral herbs as well a herbs considered to be adaptogenic. The term “adaptogen” was coined by scientists who studied the effect of tonic herbs that have been used for centuries by the Chinese to enhance resistance to disease, improve physiological and mental functioning, and increase longevity.

2. For those already on antivirals, fewer drugs need be used, and those that are will work better and last longer. Moreover, side effects of drugs can be ameliorated, as well as symptoms attributed to HIV itself.

It has been observed at various clinics that integrate drug therapy with natural therapies that when the immune system is kept strong , it becomes possible to use fewer antivirals and to prolong the time one can use a drug or combination of drugs before a resistance is developed. This is partially due to the fact that the immune system is kept stronger, or as Pasteur would say, the “terrain” is enhanced. It is also due to the fact that various cofactors that either deplete the body or stimulate the immune system and hence increase viral replication are managed more effectively. When these cofactors are controlled, the viral load remains low. When the viral load increases, the virus mutates more quickly and drug resistance is likely to occur more rapidly. Among these cofactors are the following:

  1. Allergic rhinitis and chronic sinus infections. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal formulas obtain excellent results with these conditions.
  2. Herpes infections. Herpes infections are usually controlled by drugs, but acupuncture and herbs offer excellent results so that the body does not have to be burdened with more toxicity.
  3. Intestinal health. It is important to control the growth of pathogenic flora in the intestines. Chinese herbs accomplish this quite well. The formulas have a very broad fungicidal function and also improve the functional capacity of the digestive system and intestinal tract.
  4. Intestinal parasites. There are effective Chinese herbal formulas for parasites, and they also strengthen the digestive system.
  5. Hormonal imbalances. Acupuncture has been proven to have a regulatory effect on the endocrine system, and certain herbal formulas enhance testosterone production.
  6. Emotional distress. Acupuncture in particular has a very calming effect on the nervous system and helps to regulate neurotransmitter production. It is common for patients to feel emotionally calmer and mentally clearer after a series of acupuncture treatments. There are also herbal formulas designed to help insomnia and anxiety. In China, acupuncture and herbs are used very successfully in mental hospitals for serious mental illnesses.
  7. Substance abuse. Acupuncture has been used very successfully for over twenty years in drug rehabilitation programs.

Among side effects of drugs and/or HIV infection that can be helped by acupuncture and herbs are the following:

  1. Peripheral neuropathies. Acupuncture obtains excellent results in many cases. Herbs and nutritional therapies (calcium, magnesium and vitamin B6) are very useful as well.
  2. Indigestion, nausea, diarrhea. Acupuncture can have a remarkable effect on indigestion, bloating, gas, and malabsorption. It can control nausea and is often used for morning and motion sickness. Diarrhea often responds well to a combination of acupuncture and herbs.
  3. Headache, muscle aches. Headaches (tension headaches and migraine headaches) respond very well to acupuncture. Acupuncture is also quite effective at relieving pain and muscle tension.
  4. Anxiety, insomnia and depression. Anxiety and insomnia were discussed above. Depression responds well to acupuncture for many of the same reasons.

I have treated hundreds of individuals with HIV and have noticed they have one personality trait in common: they are not passive individuals but have aggressively assumed responsibility for their own lives. I have had a few in the later stages of the disease who refused to take antiviral medication and chose alternative, more natural approaches, generally because they could not tolerate the toxicity of medications. There may be cases where such an approach is necessary, but I never recommend it, except in earlier stages of the infection, before the person has taken antivirals, provided the CD4 count is high and the viral load is low. It is my opinion that a combination of therapies is best in the long run.

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