A Practical Guide to a Healthy Body for People Living with HIV
Making healthy living practices your “new normal” will help you live long and well with HIV. In addition to taking HIV meds, this means eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, enjoying a healthy sex life, nurturing your emotional well-being—and, if you do street drugs, taking steps to minimize the potential harms. These practices are good for the health of HIV-negative people, too, but for people living with HIV, they are even more important.
For most people with HIV, taking and staying on a combination of antiretroviral drugs (also called antiretroviral therapy, or ART) is central to maintaining their long-term health. ART reduces the amount of HIV in your body and allows your immune system to partially recover. By taking and staying on ART, your chances of living long and well improve significantly. We also now know that by suppressing HIV, ART dramatically lowers the risk of passing on HIV during sex.
Though HIV medications can cause side effects, the newer medications commonly prescribed today are well tolerated by most people. You may have to try a couple of combinations to find the one that works best for you. With the help of your healthcare team, you will learn how to cope with any side effects you might experience. (For more in-depth discussions about HIV treatment and how you can manage side effects, check out CATIE’s Practical Guide to HIV Drug Treatment and A Practical Guide to HIV Drug Side Effects. You can also call CATIE at 1.800.263.1638 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet—consisting of lean proteins, healthy fats, whole grains and colourful fruits and vegetables—provides your body with the nutrients it needs to function well. A plentiful supply of all the nutrients your body needs can slow the aging process, boost your energy and enhance your sense of well-being. Good nutrition can help prevent many diseases and health problems and it can help your body to heal.
Although nothing can replace a healthy, well-balanced diet, it’s a good idea for people living with HIV to supplement their diet with a multivitamin-mineral that contains a broad spectrum of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients. When the immune system is activated to fight HIV, getting enough antioxidants may help counter the oxidative stress and inflammation that can contribute to many problems. Studies have shown that people with HIV are more prone to nutritional deficiencies, so taking nutritional supplements regularly can help ensure that your body gets the nutrients it needs. (For an in-depth look at nutrition for people with HIV, see CATIE's Practical Guide to Nutrition for People Living with HIV. Or, for a good overview, see “Eating well” in chapter 4 of Managing Your Health.)
Most people find that exercise improves their overall health and boosts their sense of well-being. A strong body is better equipped to fight HIV as well as other conditions that can affect people with HIV, such as heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. Resistance exercise, such as weight training, is particularly beneficial because it is the most efficient way to build healthy muscles. Aerobic exercise that gets your heart pumping—such as running, brisk walking, biking, skating, swimming and dancing—can improve your heart health, speed up your metabolism and help you maintain a healthy body weight. It helps keep your brain fit, too! Last but not least, a good fitness program can relieve stress and reduce depression, both of which affect many people living with HIV.
Nurturing your emotional well-being
There’s no doubt about it: Living with HIV can be stressful. Receiving the initial diagnosis, telling people you have HIV, and dealing with stigma and health concerns can all be tough. And that’s on top of the other parts of our lives that can stress us out, like relationships, work and financial concerns. Everyone deals with some amount of stress, but when that level passes a certain point, it can make you feel isolated, anxious or depressed.
In the same way that stress can have a negative impact on your physical health, nurturing your emotional well-being can have a positive impact on your physical health.
Finding people you can talk to is a good place to start. Who are the people in your life whom you can trust to support you? Many people with HIV find that joining a peer support group, where they can talk to others who are dealing with similar challenges, is invaluable. Or you might want to talk to a counsellor or therapist. A supportive or therapeutic relationship can offer you an opportunity to talk openly about problems you may be dealing with and to address some of them. We all need someone we can talk to, laugh with, lean on and work through our challenges with.
What else helps you cope with stress? Maybe it’s getting a massage, meditating, deep breathing, doing something creative, going to yoga class, making time to engage in activities you enjoy and having a good laugh. Check with your local HIV or community health organization to see if it offers wellness workshops and services. Many do. Many also organize social events for people living with HIV.
A healthy lifestyle can help you cope with stress and help you feel mentally and emotionally well. Eating a nutrient-rich diet is important not only for your physical health but also for your emotional health. Regular exercise can boost your mood and counter anxiety, stress and depression. Getting a good night’s sleep not only helps your body regenerate and heal but can also improve your mood and ensure that you have enough energy.
Learning how to nurture your emotional wellness is an ongoing process. You might need to experiment to find what works best for you. (For more on emotional wellness, see the CATIE booklet HIV and Emotional Wellness and chapter 6 of Managing Your Health, “Your Emotional Health.” You can also call CATIE at 1.800.263.1638; all calls are treated as private and confidential.)
Sexual health is more than just the absence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It is about having satisfying and respectful sexual relationships and safe and pleasurable sexual experiences.
Your HIV diagnosis may have changed the way you feel about yourself and how you relate to others romantically and sexually. But whether you are HIV-negative or HIV-positive, you have a right to an enjoyable sex life! People with HIV can date and have meaningful relationships and fun, fulfilling sex lives.
It is true that some health conditions can put a damper on your sex life. For example, low testosterone, which is relatively common among people living with HIV, can lower the sex drive of both men and women and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence for some men. Diabetes can lead to impotence in men (to find out how you can manage blood sugar problems and maintain a healthy sex life, see “Diabetes and Blood Sugar Problems”). Cardiovascular disease also can sometimes cause sexual difficulties, including erectile dysfunction, as well as shortness of breath and decreased energy, which can adversely affect a person’s sex life (to find out how you can promote your cardiovascular health, see “Cardiovascular Health”).
Because your sexual health is linked to the sexual health of your partners, safer sex is an important aspect of sexual health. This involves learning how to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV and other STIs to your partner(s) and how to reduce the risk of being infected with an STI from them. (To check out CATIE’s collection of safer-sex resources, visit www.catie.ca/en/prevention/sexual-health. You can also order free resources from our Ordering Centre at orders.catie.ca. Or speak directly to one of our education coordinators by calling 1.800.263.1638.)
Some people with HIV use substances recreationally, which means that they use drugs or alcohol in social situations or on occasion for fun. Some experience problems as a result of their substance use, such as hangovers, blackouts and overdose. And some people become addicted. The term harm reduction refers to an approach to using drugs that reduces potential harms so that you can live as healthily as possible. Although substance use can put you at risk for health problems, you can take steps to reduce those risks.
(For more on harm reduction, see the section on “Harm reduction as a tool to healthy living” in chapter 4 of Managing Your Health. See also What Works: Tips for Taking Care of Yourself if You Have Hep C or HIV and Inject Drugs.)
Putting it all together
Does all of this seem like a lot of work? Yes, committing yourself to these healthy living practices does take effort. But if you are not already on this path to health, you will be surprised to find out that so much of it feels good. Healthy nutrition involves eating delicious food. Nourishing your body every day through what you eat and the supplements you take can result in a feeling of well-being. In addition to its other benefits, exercise can make you feel good because it boosts the brain’s production of endorphins, also known as “feel-good” chemicals. Knowing that you are taking steps to protect your health can make you feel great about yourself and give you confidence in your ability to live long and well with HIV. So is it worth the effort? We think so.