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Unconventional Therapies

Part of A Practical Guide to Complementary Therapies for People Living With HIV


Most of the therapies in the first two sections of this guide have roots in ancient systems of healing that were developed in a variety of cultures over hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years. The following complementary therapies were developed much more recently. Developed in the Western world, these therapies rely on Western science to explain their effects. But, for various reasons, they have not been widely accepted by the Western medical community.

With the advent of HAART as an effective conventional treatment for HIV infection, interest, among PHAs, in these unconventional therapies has declined over the past few years. Because many unconventional therapies are not widely accepted and have no tradition of use, they should be considered risky.



DNCB is a chemical used to develop colour photographs. Some PHAs use a very dilute solution to enhance immune system function. DNCB is absorbed through the skin and carried to the lymph nodes by immune system cells. Within the lymph node network, the chemical is used to stimulate several parts of the immune system, both to produce chemicals that regulate the immune system and to increase specific immune cell levels. DNCB is used to stabilize CD4+ cell levels (or at least slow their decline) and increase levels of other immune cells important in the control of HIV. Several small trials support these claims, including a Brazilian trial of 35 individuals who used DNCB over an 18-month period. The PHAs in this study experienced increases in CD4+ and other immune cells. They also experienced significant weight gain compared with a control group that did not use DNCB. No one in this trial had access to antiretroviral therapy.

DNCB is usually applied in a diluted solution to a small patch of skin in decreasing doses over time, as the immune system becomes more responsive. Applying DNCB should produce redness, itchiness and perhaps even blisters or raised welts. These reactions are all signs that the immune system is responding. If the symptoms are too severe, a person usually switches to a more dilute dose. If there are no visible symptoms, a person may use a more concentrated solution. For most people, DNCB seems to have few side effects beyond the itching and discomfort where the chemical is applied. These symptoms can be treated with calamine lotion or other over-the-counter anti-itch creams. A small percentage of people have a severe reaction to DNCB and must discontinue use. DNCB can also make the spot on which it is applied more sensitive to the sun. A DNCB starter kit costs about $50 (US). DNCB is not regulated nor available in Canada.


Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally by the body's pineal gland, located at the base of the brain. This gland secretes the hormones serotonin and melatonin. Melatonin is also secreted by the intestines, regulating intestinal health, healing and peristalsis. Some people consider melatonin a complementary therapy since it is available in both synthetic and natural forms over the counter in the United States. But melatonin is not legally sold in Canada, and its use is controversial. Melatonin regulates the body's clock and the way a person responds to light. By doing so, it regulates our cycles of waking and sleeping. Many people use melatonin for insomnia and jet lag, for which studies have shown that it is effective.

Melatonin is also an antioxidant. Antioxidants neutralize oxygen free radicals, the natural by-product of human metabolism, which may be increased in PHAs. Excess free radicals may damage body cells and decrease their ability to resist infection. For details on antioxidants, see A Practical Guide to Nutrition for People Living with HIV, published by CATIE.

Several studies have shown that melatonin may play a useful role, together with chemotherapy, in treating some cancers. However, use of melatonin in AIDS-related cancers has not been studied. Most manufacturers of melatonin say that it is not appropriate for people with cancers that affect immune cells, such as lymphoma and leukemia, because it may promote the growth of these cells. Further, some claim melatonin may increase a person's risk of developing skin cancer because of the way it changes the body's susceptibility to light.

In the United States, melatonin is sold in tablets in varying doses. It is probably safer to take synthetic melatonin than natural melatonin, since natural melatonin is produced from the pineal glands of animals, thus has more potential for being contaminated. In most people, melatonin appears to have few side effects. A small percentage of people may have adverse reactions such as headaches, agitation and nausea. Cases of depression have also been reported, although other people use melatonin as an anti-depressant. Pregnant women and children should probably not take melatonin.

Oxygen Therapies

Oxygen is a clear, odourless gas and is part of all body functions, since the body requires a continual supply to survive. Many bacteria and other infection-causing organisms are conversely anaerobic, meaning they live in a low-oxygen environment.

The term oxygen therapy describes treatments that use forms of the oxygen molecule to destroy infections and rejuvenate body tissues. Although these therapies are considered useful by some PHAs, there are significant risks associated with their misuse. Oxygen therapies should be used with the aid of a knowledgeable and experienced practitioner.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBO) is probably the most well-documented form of oxygen therapy in the field of HIV. People receive it by sitting in a chamber that increases the air pressure and proportion of oxygen they breathe in. HBO chambers are primarily used to treat carbon monoxide poisoning and decompression sickness in divers who have been under water too long. They're also used to treat tissue damage caused by burns and radiation by providing an increased amount of oxygen to the damaged tissue. At least one study suggests that HBO therapy may be useful in treating the damage caused to lung tissue by PCP (Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia). Other studies suggest that HBO may be effective in treating HIV-associated fatigue and might even work to reduce viral load. HBO chambers are available in large hospitals in most urban centres. Arrangements to access one have to be made through a doctor.

Two other compounds commonly used in oxygen therapies are hydrogen peroxide and ozone.

Hydrogen peroxide, commonly used to disinfect wounds, has been shown to kill HIV in test tubes. Very dilute amounts of hydrogen peroxide are sometimes drunk or even injected into the body to destroy infections. Users should proceed with extreme caution, however, since several people have died from the misuse of this therapy.

Ozone has also been shown to kill HIV and other germs in test-tube studies. Ozone therapy usually involves some kind of device. One type may be inserted into the anus so that ozone may be blown directly into the rectum. PHAs have used this form of therapy to treat diarrhea and other gastrointestinal infections. In another form of ozone therapy, autohemotherapy, blood is first removed from the body then put through a process of ozonation and returned to the body. This treatment may involve risk of infection or cellular damage or both. Several trials have shown it to be of no benefit to PHAs. Both forms of ozone therapy should only be used with the assistance of an experienced practitioner.

Practitioners using ozone and hydrogen peroxide therapies are not regulated anywhere in Canada. Nor are there standards for their training. Careful interviewing is necessary to assess individual practitioners. (See section on choosing a complementary therapist.)

Many PHAs take antioxidant supplements like N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) or vitamins C and E to counteract oxygen free radicals in the body. Although they are natural byproducts of the body's metabolism, these free radicals may be increased in people with HIV, potentially damaging the body's cells and decreasing the ability of those cells to resist infection. Oxygen therapies like those described above actually increase the number of oxygen free radicals in the body. Antioxidant supplements are usually recommended for those who use oxygen therapies.

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This article was provided by Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. Visit CATIE's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.