Ancient Remedies for a 21st Century Plague
In 2002 alone, AIDS killed 3 million people and infected 5 million more worldwide. What was first described as "the gay man's disease" now shows itself to be an equal-opportunity killer: Half of all AIDS cases are women, and 80 percent of the new infections between 1997 and 2000 occurred in people under 29 years of age.
For the 42 million people who reported having AIDS in 2002, alternative therapy in health and medicine such as Chinese herbs and acupuncture can offer relief as a new AIDS treatment .
Though there is no known cure for AIDS , researchers have managed to acquire an extensive understanding of how the virus works. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus ( HIV ) directly attacks the cells of the immune system, specifically a type of immune cell called the CD4 lymphocyte. CD4 cells play a crucial role in the immune system because they coordinate the attack by white blood cells and antibodies on viruses and other body invaders.
HIV itself is somehow able to escape detection by the CD4 T-cell . It then attaches to these cells and enters them. Once inside, the virus's genetic material takes command of the CD4 T-cell and forces it to make copies of the virus.
After creating these new HIV cells, the CD4 cell dies; up to10 billion new HIV virus particles are produced every day in this manner. About 2 billion new CD4 cells are needed each day to keep this process in check.
A healthy person can have a CD4 T-cell count of up to 1,200. As HIV gains a stronger hold over the body, the number of CD4 cells sharply decreases. Without enough CD4 cells, the body becomes unable to protect itself not only from HIV , but also from other viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites. When a person's CD4 T-cell count reaches less than 200, they develop AIDS .
Until a patient is diagnosed with AIDS , there may be no signs that anything is wrong. However, patients who are diagnosed with AIDS are usually faced with often debilitating symptoms, such as weakness, fatigue, nausea, neuropathy and diarrhea. Many of the drugs prescribed by Western medical practitioners to fight HIV and opportunistic infections associated with AIDS only compound these ailments. It is no surprise that many people are seeking new AIDS treatment .
Lynda Harvey, a licensed acupuncturist and faculty member at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego , California , has been treating AIDS and HIV patients since the mid-1980s. Oriental medicine offers alternative therapy in health and medicine , something AIDS patients have been increasingly seeking.
"The [Western] medications at this point primarily attempt to kill the virus and block the transmission of HIV from one cell to another," Harvey said. "Many of the medications are quite toxic to the body and impair liver function and kidney function. They produce innumerable side effects, some quite severe."
Acupuncture and Chinese medicinal herbs do not have these side effects when prescribed by a licensed herbalist. This is a major benefit of acupuncture . In 1993, the National Institutes of Health Consensus Conference on Acupuncture stated, "The data in support of acupuncture are as strong as those for many accepted Western medical therapies. One benefit of acupuncture is that the incidence of adverse side effects is substantially lower than that of many drugs or other medical procedures used for the same conditions."
Harvey has seen proof of this in her own experience with HIV and AIDS patients.
"Because the herbs are combined in formulas, and we do have herbs to protect the digestion, enhance liver metabolism and tonify the immune system, our treatments don't have the same problem with side effects - nor are they ultimately harmful for the body the way Western medications can be," Harvey said.
"David," a Pacific College of Oriental Medicine patient who wished to remain anonymous, has been diagnosed with AIDS for over six years. He has been taking Western medications on and off since contracting the disease, and has been using acupuncture and Chinese herbal formulas since becoming a Pacific College of Oriental Medicine patient four years ago.
"Since I stopped taking the [Western] medications, I got much better," he said. "The meds will make your tongue peel in a heartbeat."
Acupuncture has been cited by the World Health Organization to treat over 43 conditions, including those associated with AIDS . Over 2,000 acupuncture points on the human body connect with 14 major pathways, called meridians. Chinese medicine practitioners believe that these meridians conduct qi , or energy, between the surface of the body and internal organs. It is qi that regulates spiritual, emotional, mental and physical balance. When the flow of qi is disrupted through poor health habits or other circumstances, pain and/or disease can result. Acupuncture helps to keep the normal flow of this energy unblocked. It also invigorates the body, working like an immune system supplement to boost health.
By stimulating specific points throughout the body, acupuncture releases endorphins in the brain. These endorphins have the dual effect of increasing energy, which is often severely decreased as a result of AIDS , and relieving pain.
These endorphins also help combat the depression experienced by many people who contract AIDS . A 1992 study published in Journal of the American Medical Association found that patients who are diagnosed with AIDS are over seven times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
Studies show that the endorphins released by acupuncture can raise the amount of white blood cells, T-cells and anti-bodies in the body, which increase the body's level of immunity - a very important benefit for those diagnosed with HIV . If the body's level of immunity is low, HIV patients can fall victim to opportunistic infections like pneumonia, influenza, skin cancers, eye infections and vaginal infections. Alternative therapy in health and medicine can help fight these symptoms.
"There are many studies that show herbs ' ability to increase T cells," Harvey said.
Chinese herbal medicine is one of the most sophisticated herbal medicine systems in the world. These herbs help to boost the immune system by creating more antibodies, which fight disease. Typically, combinations of six to 20 ingredients are used in formulas correlated to each individual's pattern of disharmony. The formulas are crafted together to act synergistically, each ingredient designed to accomplish a part of the overall process of restoring balance. Chinese medicinal herbs can include ingredients from the animal, mineral, and plant kingdoms. Typical ingredients include roots, barks, fruits, berries, twigs, stems, leaves and flowers. Chinese medicinal herbs , when prescribed and dispensed by a licensed practitioner, is safe with few or no side effects.
A study published in the January 1994 edition of Being Alive confirms acupuncture and Chinese medicinal herbs ' ability to raise CD4 and white blood cell amounts. In a group of 103 adults, 11 had CD4 counts of less than 200, 63 were between 200 and 500, and 29 people had CD4 T-cell levels of over 500.
The patients were given herbs and acupuncture twice a week for three years. At the end of that period, 66 percent of the group improved, reaching an average CD4 T-cell count of 616. None of the patients progressed to AIDS or died.
One man in the study began treatment in January of 1987 with a CD4 level of 300. After four and a half years of continuous treatment, his CD4 T-cell count was 710 and he remained free of symptoms.
Clinics in San Francisco have also been successfully using alternative therapy in health and medicine such as acupuncture and Chinese medicinal herbs as an immune system supplement to treat AIDS since the epidemic began in the 1980s.
For example, San Francisco General Hospital concluded the first controlled clinical trial of a Chinese herbal compound as a new AIDS treatment at a major research institution. Thirty subjects with T-cell counts between 200 to 500 were given either a placebo or a complex Chinese medicinal herbs formula. Participants took 28 pills per day for 12 weeks. The pilot study showed that there was a statistically significant improvement in the areas of "life satisfaction," fatigue, gastrointestinal symptoms and neurological symptoms, all of which were measured by standardized questionnaires.
This research contrasts sharply with studies of the effectiveness of Western drugs. Some scientists have questioned why populations that are too poor to gain access to these drugs do not have lower HIV and AIDS survival rates. The March 8, 2002 issue of the medical journal AIDS reported a study that compared HIV -infected patients in Uganda who had no access to Western drug therapies with 13,030 patients from Europe, North America and Australia infected with HIV . The study found that the 10-year survival rate for the Ugandans was 78 percent, while that of the Western group receiving medications was only 66 percent.
When posed with these statistics, David said he believes that the reason studies show that patients who don't receive AIDS medications live longer is because Western drugs are so toxic. This is why some opt for an immune system supplement such as Chinese medicinal herbs .
While some researchers continue to analyze whether or not Western drugs are really more effective than other forms of treatment, statistics show that another benefit of acupuncture and Chinese medicinal herbs is that they are more cost-effective. Western medical treatment for HIV and AIDS patients cost the United States government $6.9 billion in 1999, up from $4.5 billion just two years before, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Acupuncture , by contrast, costs an average of only $85 per session. According to the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine , nearly one out of every 10 adults in the United States has tried acupuncture .
For patients with AIDS seeking symptom relief, acupuncture and Chinese medicinal herbs can alleviate the need to pay for Western medical care entirely.
"The HIV virus mutates very, very quickly, so many patients become resistant to the medication available and it no longer helps them," Harvey said. " Traditional Chinese medicine, on the other hand, seems to increase the patient's resistance [to HIV ]."
This key difference makes it possible for some patients to forgo harmful Western medications.
"If a patient begins treatment before his or her T cells drop below 800, and they do acupuncture , herbs , dietary changes, therapeutic doses of nutrients, lifestyle modification such as stress reduction and moderate but regular exercise, they may be able to avoid pharmaceutical treatment," Harvey said. "We have a few patients now that have never taken any Western medications, and if all goes well, they may not need to because of the comprehensive nature of their complementary treatment."
Harvey said that depending on how sick each patient is, the number of acupuncture treatments they may need will vary.
"If they're not getting sick, [they may only need acupuncture ] once a month," Harvey said. "But if the disease is progressing, maybe once a week."
However, even patients who take Western drugs can manage their side effects by using Chinese herbs and acupuncture .
"Since most patients with AIDS are on medications, often what we do is to help them tolerate the side effects of those medications," Harvey said. Such side effects can include nausea, fatigue, digestive problems and dizziness.
For people like David, this can be a blessing.
"The big [side effect] is the neuropathy that the medications cause, and acupuncture totally takes that away," he said.
Chinese medicinal herbs can also fill in the gaps where Western medications may be lacking.
"We try not to repeat what the medications are doing," Harvey said. "If the medication is antiviral, then we'll prescribe an herbal tonic formula. The herbs balance the drugs, they don't interfere."
Harvey adds, however, that acupuncture and Chinese herbs are just one part of managing AIDS and HIV . Other lifestyle changes, such as diet, stress reduction and exercise, also help maintain the immune system.
Though there is no cure for AIDS , that doesn't mean that those who are diagnosed with this disease must suffer. Acupuncture and Chinese medicinal herbs may not only offer those diagnosed with AIDS a longer life, but one filled with a better quality of life than the side effects of Western medications may allow.