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How Complementary Therapies Help Me Manage HIV
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Complementary therapies are additional things that we do to take care of ourselves along with our doctors’ prescribed medication regimen. They can literally have a different meaning for everyone. Don’t confuse them with alternative therapies, which involve seeking a different treatment from what your doctor recommends. Complementary therapies are things you add along with your prescription medication for, let's say, added insurance.

Complementary therapies are as varied as the human condition. Everyone has different ideas about what they find helpful for them. Stress is a condition that can affect your physical health, especially when you live with HIV, so people find lots of ways of dealing with stress, depression, and anxiety. I myself have benefited from professional therapy. It's good to have someone to talk to who has training, education, and experience, who can actually help in a substantial way, and who is also legally bound to secrecy. I've also taken on a few hobbies and relaxation techniques like listening to music, learning an instrument, and spending time with puppies. These things have had real effects on my health, both mentally AND physically. Have you ever thought of puppies as a health care approach? It has proven results and impressive statistics. Just look into those adorable, innocent eyes and try to be mad, I dare you.

Sure some therapies can be universally good ideas for anyone living with HIV, like exercise and a good diet, staying hydrated, and getting plenty of sleep. But I can't say I've exactly done that. Living with HIV I should be treating my body like a temple rather than an amusement park. I often work all night and get little sleep at all, I don't exercise and I eat whatever I want when I want, and sometimes I feel the price of those decisions as will you.

The body needs to be maintained in order to be ready to respond to illness, or prevent other issues from happening in the first place. When you live with HIV, it's a good idea to keep an eye toward prevention, so I get a flu shot every year and keep up to date on all my vaccinations. I probably should but I don't take any supplements though they can be beneficial for heart disease, bone density, cholesterol levels, immune health, and other common issues to people who live with HIV.

Prevention can also mean what you don't do, like not drinking lots of alcohol, or eating greasy foods. I try to avoid alcohol, it doesn't mix well with me, but as for greasy foods? Well y'all, I'm southern and I gotta eat.

Prevention can also be something as simple as a pill box to help you remember to take your meds. How is this prevention? Because a little secret about the HIV virus is that if you miss too many doses of your HIV medications the virus can become resistant to the medication by mutation, learning how to outsmart it and thus permanently rendering that particular drug useless for you. So strict adherence to your meds is vital to prevent relapse of the virus, opportunistic infections, and even death. Pill organizers have helped me remember to take my medications for years, simply remembering to always take your meds keeps the virus dormant and under control.  Whereas I may slack a little on a lot of things that I know I should do for my health, taking my medications, and on time, is something I adhere to religiously.

Not all complementary therapies are traditional to Western culture and many of my own friends enjoy the benefits of Eastern medicine and alternative therapies of various kinds, like acupuncture, reiki, or reflexology. To tell the truth, I had never heard of reiki or reflexology, my friends had to explain them to me, but they say they work for them so I share that information with you.

Many people also use various roots and herbs, but be well aware that there are many people who try to sell herbal cures for HIV and I don't want you to be mistaken or mislead, because THERE IS NO CURE FOR HIV!! So under no circumstances should you ever stop taking your HIV medication no matter what else you add to your health regimen.

You need to understand how HIV medication works. Antiretrovirals (the modern form of HIV medication) can't destroy the virus, nor can anything else to date. Rather, it prevents the virus from replicating thus diminishing its numbers. Small amounts of the virus remain dormant, unable to replicate and rendered harmless. So while HIV can't be eradicated completely, it also can't be transmitted to others as long as you remain on your meds. That's the U=U facts (undetectable equals untransmittable), which means that if you take your meds you reach an undetectable viral load (meaning there's not enough virus to be counted in blood tests).

It has been proven impossible to transmit the virus to others. That's a life-changing fact.

Complementary therapies do not help the medication suppress the virus, the medication needs no help to do that. Complementary therapies treat other issues that the medication does not (or may even cause).

Yes, you read that right, HIV medications can have some side effects on areas like vision problems, joint inflammation, muscle aches or fatigue, and more. These are different for everyone, as we are all unique and our bodies react uniquely to illness and medications. This is the purpose of complementary therapies, to address issues that your HIV medication doesn’t, to balance the adverse side effects of the medication and ultimately to give you the peace of mind that you're doing all you can to help your health. But there is NO VIABLE ALTERNATIVE to HIV medication as prescribed by your doctor.

Creating a health care regimen with a mix of medications and complementary therapies to serve your unique needs can be a personal journey. But remember, it’s a journey best taken in collaboration with your doctor. Always talk to them about supplements, exercise, or anything else you might want to add to your health care routine. The greatest health care advantage you can have is a good, open, honest, and collaborative relationship with your doctor.

 

 

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Katie Willingham

Katie Willingham

Diagnosed since 2000

Katie Adsila Willingham is a woman of transgender experience from rural northwest Alabama. She has been living and thriving with HIV since 2000 and became an advocate in 2017. Willingham is a Community Advisory Board member and blogger for The Well Project’s A Girl Like Me, raises awareness of HIV issues with the Alabama Poz Life Facebook group, and is Alabama state lead for Positive Women's Network USA.

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