Healthy Body Soul


Acupuncture and HIV: Living Well with HIV

By: Dr. Misha Ruth Cohen, O.M.D., L.Ac. for Acufinder Magazine

Traditional Chinese medicine has an important role to play in improving the treatment of people with HIV infection, according to one of the leading experts in the field.

To use traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), you don’t have to understand its underlying philosophy or principles. You can take the herbs, receive acupuncture, and try other therapies much as you would take a pill – Western style – and you will still reap considerable benefits.

But a curious thing happens when you use TCM: Its transforming power works its way into your unconscious as the treatments strengthen your mind, body, and spirit. You may not understand how it works or what it can do, but you still find that getting the basic treatments on an ongoing basis – herbs, acupuncture, dietary therapy, Qi Gong exercise, and meditation – changes you in subtle but far-reaching ways:

  • You become more tuned into your physical and spiritual self.

  • You become aware of the profound impact of your breath on your physical and mental well-being.

  • You begin to sense the flow of Qi –the life force–through your body.

  • You tune into your own mental and physical strengths and imbalances.

  • You learn to rejoice in the interconnectedness of all life experience.

This transformation creates a sense of empowerment that’s particularly important in dealing with a chronic disorder such as HIV disease. A condition like this can erode your sense of control over your own body and make you feel estranged from your physical and spiritual self.

But there is a way to get reconnected to the total “you.”  Putting yourself within the Eastern frame of mind can help you get the most out of Western treatments, while reducing their negative side effects. You’ll also be better able to manage HIV-associated disorders and diseases, such as sinusitis and chronic diarrhea, which often resist Western treatments. So I hope you’ll take the time to explore a little bit about the inner workings of Chinese medicine. It can bring a great deal of joy and healing into your life.

Toxic Heat and HIV: Understanding AIDS from the Chinese Perspective

In my practice, I have observed and treated thousands of people with HIV and AIDS. In particular, I’ve done clinical evaluations of the tongues of more than 600 people with HIV infection or AIDS and used the techniques of pulse diagnosis. Through this process, I have come to understand that HIV infection is triggered by toxic heat, and initially attacks the spleen and stomach organ systems. They are the central organs involved in this complex syndrome and must be supported throughout the entire course of the disease’s treatment, even when the HIV-related disharmonies expand to involve all the other organ systems as well.

The Impact of Toxic Heat

Toxic heat creates the initial flu-like symptoms that for many people come with initial exposure to HIV. And as the toxic heat moves more deeply into all systems of the body, it triggers a whole variety of common HIV-related symptoms: pruritis (chronic itching), sore throat, increase in body temperature, a sense of having a fever even if one is not present, and a nagging sensation that something toxic is present in the body.

Toxic heat is also responsible for the cascade of organ system disharmonies in the spleen, stomach, kidney and liver, which contribute to the major complication associated with HIV infection: wasting.

HIV in the Spleen and Stomach Systems

The spleen and stomach systems govern the digestive process, transforming food energy and fluid into Qi and Xue (blood). As a result, the spleen and stomach moisten and nurture all the other organ systems and channels.

When toxic heat disrupts the spleen and stomach systems, it triggers symptoms that are associated with the very early stages of HIV infection. These symptoms include:

  • Fatigue

  • Inability to gain weight, no matter how much one eats

  • Loose stools

  • Bloating, gas, flatulence, and/or dull pain in the abdomen

  • The need to take naps after meals

  • Frequent infections

In addition, symptoms of early-stage HIV infection (such as dry skin and lips) set in when the flow of fluids and food essence from the spleen and stomach to the lungs is disrupted. Often dryness in one area triggers dampness in another. Thus, spleen Qi deficiency with dampness can manifest in one or more of such symptoms as early neuropathy (a numbness or tingling sensation that often occurs in the hands or feet), swelling and inflammation of the lymph nodes, vaginal yeast infections, more serious loose stools, or bloating. Spleen-related diarrhea is very common, with loose stools and abdominal bloating after eating. Skin rashes, commonly associated with early-stage HIV infection, are a result of spleen Qi deficiency and lung disharmonies interacting with the essential substances.

Spleen Qi deficiency also causes deficient Xue (blood). Once this sets in, the door is opened to allow Toxic Heat to enter the depleted blood and penetrate ever deeper into the body. The body then moves into more advanced stages of HIV/AIDS. If unchecked, an increasing depletion of the fluids of the Spleen (the Spleen’s Yin aspect) leads to overall Yin deficiency, which in turn can lead to Yang depletion.

Disharmony, HIV Syndromes, and Opportunistic Infections

The combination of Western and Chinese therapies can temporarily slow the progression of HIV infection to end-stage AIDS for many people. But wasting can become severe when the cascade of spleen- and stomach-triggered disorders causes overall Yin deficiency and Yang depletion. Diarrhea stops, and the skin becomes drier and drier. Thirst is unquenchable. Fevers spike every afternoon and often in the evenings. The pulse is rapid, “thready,” and superficial. This is a terminal stage of HIV disease. Acupuncture and herbs are used to support the Shen (spirit) and the passing over to a new phase of existence.

Toxic heat and the spleen-stomach disharmonies weaken the body’s overall resistance to assault from both internal and external disease factors. This process allows other organ systems to become involved, leading to the development of HIV-related disorders and opportunistic infections. For example, if toxic heat assaults the lungs, PCP (Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia) may develop. Xue disharmonies are associated with Kaposi’s sarcoma (a proliferating, circulatory cell disease that causes skin lesions). Dampness is associated with candidiasis (yeast infections) and fungal invasions. Yin deficiency and Xue deficiency are associated with MAC (Mycobacterium Avian Complex). Dampness and spleen and lung disharmonies may manifest as chronic sinusitis. Disturbed shen can be associated with the mental ailments that accompany HIV/AIDS. And there are many more. (A complete list of syndromes is detailed in Dr. Cohen’s book, The HIV Wellness Sourcebook.)

Looking at HIV disease from the perspective of TCM, the disease starts as an assault by toxic heat that starts with damage to the spleen and stomach, then moves on to include other organ systems and essential substances. This approach provides a concise method of describing, diagnosing, and treating the whole constellation of HIV-related diseases – and those who live with them.