Just*in Time: Staying Healthy When Living with HIV

Photo by Jessica Bolton

My field is public health and we look at the big picture quite often. But really public health also means you. We can make changes as individuals to improve our health, so here are some of the important strategies to stay healthy when living with HIV.

Exercise, gym or no gym
Yes, I know that, at the beginning of the year, many of us (me included) make New Year’s resolutions and then it’s March and no progress has been made. Mine was to get to the gym, the same gym for which I have a membership but never use. Exercise, however, is one resolution I intend to keep. In terms of living with HIV, exercising can help those of us who have experienced weight loss by increasing body mass. We may also suffer from increased levels of blood sugars and fats, such as cholesterol, which can increase the risk of some serious long-term health issues. Exercise reduces the risk of many of these issues, such as Type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.

Eat healthy
For my own personal spiritual reasons, I’ve cut pork out of my diet. Of course, I’m not telling you to cut pork out of your diet. We all have to do what makes us happy….OINK. HIV is a tricky fucker and it likes to dictate when we are hungry or should not eat. A lot of people do not eat three times a day, but it is important that persons with HIV eat three healthy meals a day.

Fruits and vegetables give the body antioxidants, and antioxidants help protect your immune system.

Carbs! Now before you say, “Hell no,” hear me out. Carbohydrates actually give your body energy—it’s like gassing up your car. Also make sure you get fiber in your diet as it helps fight against lipodystrophy or wasting.

Change to sea salt—that’s what the Internet seems to be telling us. Okay, maybe changing to sea salt isn’t the best advice but do decrease your salt and sugar intake. Too much in one’s diet can increase one’s chances of heart disease. People living with HIV are already at an increased chance of getting heart disease.

People who are living with HIV need more protein in their diet, as it helps restore, repair and preserve all the cells in the body, maintains hormone levels, and enzymes.

Many ASOs provide nutritional services to help guide your diet, or even provide necessary food missing from your pantry.

More pills?!
Some vitamins and minerals, such as zinc, iron, selenium and vitamin B12, may not be well absorbed in people with HIV. I suggest if you cannot find these in foods you like, there are pills that contain vitamins and minerals that your body may need. Yes, I know. Who in the hell would want to take more pills? Well, if you don’t, you don’t, but you should at least consider the option. I personally take vitamin D pills daily and glucosamine as well.

Mental health
If you have HIV, it’s important to take care of both your physical and mental health. When you are living with HIV you have an increased chance of mental health conditions than persons who are HIV-negative. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2015, about eighteen percent of American adults in the United States had a mental illness, and this can include mental conditions such as stress, depression and anxiety. Resources may be in place around you. Sometimes it’s best to be around people who are going through what you are, and who understand your challenges. People living with HIV often join a support group, meeting others in a safe and supportive environment. HIV support groups exist in major cities, but what if you live somewhere without support? There are supportive phone apps that can put you in touch with someone to talk to.

I do not mean to sound too New Agey, but meditation works for me. When I get stressed out, I get on my knees (stop thinking about that!) and close my eyes. I let all the stress, negative energy, and thoughts go, with every breath. For me, it helps decrease depression, anxiety, and stress. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) (2017), meditation also decreases blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and insomnia, and increases calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being.

Justin B. Terry-Smith, MPH, has been fighting the good fight since 1999. He’s garnered recognition and awards for his work, but he’s more concerned about looking for new ways to transform society for the better than resting on his laurels. He started up in gay rights and HIV activism in 2005, published an HIV-themed children’s book, I Have A Secret (Creative House Press) in 2011, and created his own award-winning video blog called, “Justin’s HIV Journal”: justinshivjournal.blogspot.com. Presently, he is working toward his doctorate in public health. Visit his main Web site at www.justinbsmith.com. He welcomes your questions at [email protected].