How Sahaja Meditation May Help HIV/AIDS
Today HIV/AIDS is still one of the most complex human health problems facing physicians and researchers, but people who are living with this disease have more treatment options than ever before to boost immunity, relieve suffering and improve quality of life. Research is beginning to demonstrate how meditation may just be one of those options, especially in combination with other therapies (e.g., antiretroviral medications).
How HIV Works
To understand how meditation can help manage HIV/AIDS, you have to understand how HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, operates. In the human body, HIV behaves, generally, like other viruses, such as a flu virus or the common cold.
So why is HIV so deadly and so much more difficult to combat? The difference is that, over time, the human immune system can clear out most other viruses, but it can’t seem to get rid of HIV. Scientists are still struggling to explain why.
For starters, HIV is sneaky. It can hide within the nuclei of cells, embed itself within a person’s own DNA, and remain inactive for years.
HIV attacks infection-fighting lymphocytes, or white blood cells, known as T cells and uses them to reproduce, or makes copies of, itself. T cells known as CD4+ T lymphocytes, or CD4 T cells are sometimes referred to as the “brains” or the “generals” of the human immune system. When they detect foreign invaders such as viruses or bacteria, CD4 cells send signals to activate the body’s immune response and coordinate immune system activity. Unfortunately, they’re also the very cells that HIV attacks.
The battle for dominance between the virus and the immune system is continuous. HIV begins its life cycle by binding to CD4 receptors, fusing with a host cell, and releasing RNA, its genetic material, into the host cell. HIV enzymes then convert that RNA to HIV DNA and integrate the newly formed DNA into the host cell’s nucleus, where it remains hidden within the host cell’s own DNA, sometimes for years. The virus slowly eats away at CD4 T cells, weakening the immune system to a point where it can no longer even ward off other weak bacteria and viruses that would normally be easy to conquer. Because CD4 cells are critical to the process of fighting infection, they help prevent not only HIV-related complications, but all other opportunistic infections, as well. Ultimately HIV may destroy so many cells that the person develops AIDS, or Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome. More than one million Americans are currently living with HIV and HIV has infected roughly 40 million people worldwide since 1981 (CDC, 2011).
The CD4 count is one measure used to assess AIDS. A normal CD4 count ranges from 500 – 1,000 cells/mm3. A CD4 count of 200 cells/mm3 or fewer is one criteria in the diagnosis of AIDS.
But people living with HIV/AIDS are typically fighting a two-front war. There is a second powerful enemy: stress, which can accelerate the decline of the very CD4 T cells that are essential to activating the body’s immune response. For many people living with HIV/AIDS, managing stress may be half the battle.
Stress has many immunosuppressive effects, which only further compromise the immune system for people living with HIV/AIDS. Psychological stress and emotional reactivity always produce corresponding physiological responses. When the body’s stress response is triggered, its emergency resources are immediately mobilized for action. But while our bodies are battling stressors (e.g., relationship, career or financial worries), energy-consuming components of the immune system (such as T cell production), must temporarily slow down or even shut down. In compromising the immune system, stress — especially when prolonged — accelerates the disease process and diminishes our ability to heal properly and recover from illness. On the other hand, the ability to effectively manage stress helps us bounce back from illness and acts as a buffer against future attacks.
How Sahaja Meditation Helps
Here are some highlights of how meditation helps combat HIV/AIDS…
- Slows the progression of HIV by stopping the decline of CD4 T cells and reducing the inflammatory response common that helps drive the HIV/AIDS disease process
- Boosts overall immune system function (including T-cell function), facilitating faster healing and recovery and increasing survival rates
- Relieves psychological stress and emotional reactivity, which enables emotional self-regulation and its positive corresponding physiological responses, such as down-regulating the hypothalamic–pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to modulate hormones that, when imbalanced, depress immune system response
- Influences key neurotransmitters and neurohormones that regulate mental and physical health (See Evidence of Meditation’s Impact on Neurotransmitters & Neurohormones.)
- Reduces anxiety, improves mood and boosts coping skills and resilience
- Helps relieve chronic pain and other side effects (See How Meditation Relieves Chronic Pain)
- Improves quality of life, sense of well-being, and the ability to accept and tolerate stressors
Meditation Improves Coping and Stress Management Skills
Meditation acts as a stress-buffer. The emotional regulation effects of Sahaja meditation help prevent people who are living with HIV/AIDS from getting caught up in a spiral of distress and despair. Meditation elevates mood, promotes optimism and positive emotions, and restores a sense of control. Sahaja meditation teaches us to objectively acknowledge and release the intrusive negative thoughts and feelings that may accompany a HIV/AIDS diagnosis and prepares our minds and bodies to cope with stressful circumstances. (For a look at how Sahaja meditation regulates emotional reactivity, see Meditation as Emotional Regulator, as well as our comprehensive sections on anxiety and depression.
Stress impedes our ability to accurately appraise stressors, yet accurate appraisals are necessary for effective coping; otherwise, we are likely to exaggerate our appraisal and overreact. Attempting to exert control over uncontrollable situations only results in more distress. Thoughts and feelings based on false, distorted projections or fear-based beliefs can lead to chronic stress and an overworked immune system, which further endangers cellular longevity and immune response. Meditation teaches us accept reality and regulate our emotional response to it.
In increasing our awareness of present moment experience, Sahaja meditation increases positive thoughts and feelings, gives us a sense of control (and a decreased need to control), increases acceptance of our emotional experience, and enhances our ability to accurately appraise stressful situations. Thus, meditation reduces the likelihood of rumination, exaggerated threat appraisals, and distress about distress. Increasing positive emotional states and decreasing stress cognitions, in turn, slows the rate of cellular aging and cell death that so severely compromise the immune system (Epel et al, 2004).
For an in-depth look at how meditation relieves stress, see Stress Therapy: How Sahaja meditation Relieves Stress.
Meditation Slows Disease Progression
Meditation helps stop CD4 T cell death.
One meditation study at UCLA showed how 8 weeks of meditation can slow the progression of HIV/AIDS by stopping the decline of CD4 T-cells (Creswell et al, 2009). (HIV-1 is generally the most virulent form of HIV/AIDS.) All study participants were HIV-1- positive and suffering from moderate levels of stress. The meditation participants showed no loss of CD4 T cells, indicating that mindfulness meditation can buffer CD4 declines. Notably, this CD4 protection effect persisted throughout the study for all meditation participants, regardless of whether they were on HIV antiretroviral medications. In contrast, by the end of the study, the control group, which had only a 1-day Stress-Reduction) class, showed significant CD4 T cell declines, which is characteristic of HIV progression, particularly when exacerbated by stress.
Researchers found a proportionate “dose-response” relationship between meditation and CD4 count. The more participants meditated, the higher their CD4 counts, suggesting that regular, ongoing meditation can help achieve better long-term outcomes. Mindfulness helps us regulate our attention and focus on the present moment with openness and acceptance, rather than thinking about the past or worrying about the future. For more about how Sahaja meditation increases mindfulness, see Meditation and Mindfulness.
A small Iranian meditation study found that HIV participants’ CD4 counts remained stable at 3, 6, 9 and 12 months (Jam et al, 2010). Participants received an 8-week (one two-hour session weekly and a 1-day retreat) meditation training course and practiced intermittently for one year. Meditation was believed to improve immunity by influencing several dimensions: It changed participants’ perception of distressing events, instilled discipline, and provided real time self-awareness of everyday life.
Meditation may reduce HIV RNA Levels and stop HIV replication.
Several studies have shown that the meditation-generated quality of mindfulness can function as stress management “training” for people with HIV/AIDS (Logsdon-Conradsen, 2003). But the UCLA study (Creswell et al, 2009) suggested that, in addition to the stress management effect of meditation, meditation may also have had a direct physiological effect on CD4+ T lymphocytes by reducing HIV RNA levels. HIV RNA, remember, ultimately converts itself to HIV DNA and integrates itself into a person’s own DNA.
Other studies have shown that stress management reduces HIV RNA (e.g., Antoni et al., 2006; Petrie et al., 2004). Meditation’s ability to reduce HIV RNA levels is an important pathway to HIV/AIDS management because it would ultimately reduce HIV’s ability to insinuate itself into a person’s DNA and replicate. A number of studies have also found that stress accelerates HIV viral replication (e.g., Cole et al., 1998; Sloan et al., 2007).
Meditation increases antibody production, which boosts the overall immune response.
Studies have found that meditation boosts immune system function by increasing antibody production (Davidson et al, 2003), boosting T-cell function in women with breast cancer (Walker, 1999; Carlson et al, 2003), reducing stress symptoms, and transforming depressive immune patterns in men with prostate cancer and women with breast cancer to a healthier immune profile (Carlson et al, 2003). Antibodies are proteins in bodily fluids that tag and target foreign invaders (e.g., virus cells) for destruction.
Meditation regulates pro-inflammatory genes.
Studies have shown that meditation may even operate at the genetic level by regulating the expression of certain genes that play a role in causing inflammation. One study found that meditation significantly reduced the pro-inflammatory gene expression and blood levels of C-Reactive Protein (CRP), a marker for inflammation (Creswell et al, 2012).
Meditation’s ability to reduce inflammation is important because inflammation plays a role in perpetuating the disease process for a host of serious illnesses, from HIV/AIDS to cancer, cardiac disease, pulmonary disease, diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s.
The International Sahaja Yoga Research and Health Centre in Belapur, India is researching the clinical effects of Sahaja on HIV/AIDS with promising results, though they have not formally published this research. For many, Sahaja meditation may prove to be a safe, no-cost therapy for managing HIV/AIDS, especially in combination with other therapies (e.g., antiretroviral medications).
For an in-depth look at all the mechanisms through which Sahaja meditation influences the immune system, see: Meditation and the Immune System section.
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