BiographyDavid A. Dawson, L.Ac.Zhu Da Header - D. A. Dawson, Ph.D., L.Ac.

HIV/AIDS in the context of Chinese Medicine
David A. Dawson, Ph.D., L.Ac.

The care and treatment of people living with HIV and AIDS in the USA has evolved remarkably since the disease was identified in the 1980s. While it can truly be said that an HIV+ diagnosis need no longer be a death sentence in this country (which is not to minimize the difficulty many have in gaining access to information and medical care which can make this true), patients with HIV nevertheless face significant health care complications, both in terms of the progress of the disease, and the side-effects of the medications used to treat them. In both these areas, Chinese medicine can offer a significant range of benefits.

AIDS in the 14th Century - Wen Bing Medical Theory

This sounds a bit bizarre even to me, as I write this, yet bear with me in this. The truly remarkable thing is that Chinese doctors described the development of AIDS-like pathogens in the 14th through the 16th centuries. For during the time when Chinese culture was moving into southern Asia, diseases with similar natures were encountered, producing a nearly 300-year long nationwide study of how to classify and treat them. The resulting body of hundreds of medical works - of which several dozen are extremely important - is called the Wen Bing school of disease diagnosis and treatment. Wen Bing means 'warmth-related illness' and doctors studying these new diseases found very different disease progressions than had been described before (nor indeed since, for the approach to these diseases is not paralleled by any Western medical approach).

Essentially, Chinese medicine has developed, over its millennia of continual building on the wisdom of the great doctors of preceding ages, the ability to assess what the virus wants to do in a human body and what the particular constitution of any specific patient means for disease progression for that patient. 

With these two pieces of information in hand, the practitioner can predict the path of least resistance that the virus will seek to take in the patient. While it is often said that HIV has a latent phase during which no significant symptoms arise, Chinese medicine, using different diagnostic tools than conventional Western medicine, can observe, track and treat the progression of the pathogen even when 'gross symptomology' (more obvious signs and symptoms of disease) is absent or minimal. 

HIV affects several organ systems of the body right from the outset, and complex pathologies are the rule rather than the exception. Chinese medicine has the theoretical sophistication and the practical versatility to address these. For example, to treat sinusitis effectively we may need to address many issues at the same time, such as opening the nose, clearing Phlegm and Heat from the Lung system, strengthening the Spleen system to assist transformation of fluids, calming the Liver, and gently warming the Stomach to assist digestion. This need to approach a number of concerns at the same time, combined with the fact of a Warm, latent pathogen at the root of the problem, means that it may take a while before we have the sinusitis completely under control (to the point where it is unlikely to come back even in cold weather, for example). But this indeed is the goal, and is achievable. 

As HIV pathologies fit clearly into patterns described in works going back to the 12th century and earlier, we have the ability to project what damage HIV will be inclined to cause (especially since we have a clear sense of the individual’s constitution), and we can take steps to protect it from the kind of damage HIV would lead to if not treated appropriately. This ability to undertake specific protective treatments in advance of HIV progression is one of the many things that set Chinese medicine apart as a treatment modality. By understanding the nature of the pathogen, and discerning the constitutional strengths and weaknesses of a patient, Chinese medicine provides a means of mapping out how HIV will act in individual patients, allowing us to act in advance of the progress of the disease to preserve the health of the patient. 

Does this not sound astounding?! I cannot help but be amazed and excited by this!

The Application of Wen Bing Theory to HIV/AIDS: Benefits to the Patient 

This has two benefits: the first is that patients can be kept at lower at risk of HIV-related illness, since we can keep their bodies and spirits stronger, allowing them to resist the disease more effectively. The second is closely related to the first, but often comes as a surprise to both patients and their primary care providers – by keeping the patient constitutionally stronger, we are able to prolong the therapeutic benefits of the drug regimen they are on, slowing the treatment-failure rate, and decreasing the kind of forced change of medical regimens that is one of the most problematic aspects of treating this disease. When a person gets to the point where he or she is taking HAART medications, or is dealing with more substantial health concerns, by virtue of its focus on keeping the organ systems harmonized so they function effectively in relation to one another, Chinese medicine can help keep the patient from suffering serious side-effects from other treatments, and can even increase the effectiveness of those treatments.

The Application of Wen Bing Theory to HIV/AIDS: in Practice...

How does one treat a patient with HIV/AIDS? To be honest, there is very little difference between treating this disorder and any other which we might treat… we do a full diagnostic interview, looking not only at the history of the disease in the patient but also the treatment history and its successes and difficulties. The differences in treatment generally come in the form of the commitment of the patient to long-term success (few patients living with HIV/AIDS are cavalier about their health), and in the form of the dialogue between medical practitioners.

In most cases, incorporating Chinese medicine into a treatment regimen provides only benefits rather than complications. Nevertheless, it is sometimes important to bring other medical practitioners up-to-date as to what we would like to address, and how it will affect the patient. In HIV/AIDS patient care, very often both the patient and his or her MDs follow the developments very closely, and the patient is often as sophisticated as the practitioner about the treatment options. Yet rarely do either know much about what Chinese medicine can and cannot do in this case. An open-minded dialogue can significantly broaden the treatment options, and can do much to facilitate the best possible health care.

Western practitioners are recognizing that many of the conditions associated with progression of HIV are psychological. Chinese medicine, with its emphasis not only on physical functions, but also on psycho-spiritual imbalances can be a particularly effective part of the treatment plan, in that these concerns can be treated with herbal formulas and acupuncture treatments specific to each patient, minimizing the need for those medications which so often carry with them complicated side-effects.

How HIV/AIDS is treated in the Clinic Setting

Treatment of HIV/AIDS with Chinese medicine is a long-term project, as you might expect. The task is manifold: to balance the system by regulating any current medical issues, such as being too hot at night, or having problems with diarrhea, while harmonizing the organ systems involved in these issues, and to strengthen the system where it is weak, or is likely to be under attack in the natural progression of the disease. Conditions which often respond well to acupuncture alone include anxiety, insomnia, pain in the extremities or abdomen, peripheral neuropathies, headaches, sinus congestion, and so on. In most cases, however, and even in those listed above, the best results are achieved by a combined approach of acupuncture and herbal formulas, while other treatment modalities (such as moxa, cupping, and so on) are incorporated as necessary.

Much like peeling layers off an onion, the goal of treatments is to bring imbalances under control; as we gain ground on that front, the focus shifts more and more toward regulating the underlying organ systems whose imbalances are allowing these conditions to arise. As Chinese medicine is based in a model of keeping the body healthy enough to avoid disease altogether, these tasks are easier to accomplish when there is not already showing serious damage to the system, or severe complications such as pneumonia or dementia. But even in cases where there is substantial illness, Chinese medicine can markedly improve the patient's condition, and where there is not permanent damage can even help eradicate the very problems caused by HIV - turning back the clock on HIV disease is not something we are conditioned to permit ourselves to hope for, but it is a possibility with combined Western and Chinese treatment.

I believe strongly that people benefit from clear understanding of their health, and of the medicine they use to treat it; therefore, if you or anyone you are concerned about would like to discuss this concern with me, in complete confidentiality, please feel free to phone or email me with any questions. I would be honored to answer any questions I can.

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