Inhale, exhale and increase your CD4+ levels.

-Maria Lawrynowicz
Supervised by: Gilbert Mallais

Anti-retrovirals have had a huge impact on the quality of life of those living with HIV; however, individuals still react differently to treatment leading to a range of outcomes. Why? Some researchers believe that stress may play a large part in this difference. This study looked at meditation techniques and their effect on CD4+ t-cells in HIV+ adults. Because CD4+ cell decline is a marker for progression to AIDS, this is an excellent proxy for overall health in HIV patients.

Mindfulness meditation training effects on CD4+ T lymphocytes in HIV1 infected adults: a small randomized controlled trial

-J. David Creswell, Hector F. Myers, Steven W. Cole, Michael R. Irwin in 2009

The participants were HIV+ individuals who were diagnosed over 6 months ago and demonstrated minimal psychological stress symptoms. The sample excluded those who currently had AIDS, hepatitis or psychiatric treatment in the last 30 days, as well as, those who already did some kind of mind-body exercise. The chosen participants were put into two groups: the first had one 6 hour day of training in meditation, while the other was enrolled in an 8-week meditation program that included weekly training sessions, daily meditations guided by an audio recording and finally a meditation retreat. Because of the difficulty in standardizing meditation for research purposes, practitioners have developed a standardized ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction program’ (MBSR) to ensure that different studies can be compared.

When circulating CD4+ levels were compared before and after the meditation regimen, researchers noted a significant difference between the two groups. Those in the one day meditation program had a larger drop in CD4+ levels regardless of whether or not participants were on anti-retrovirals. Those participants in the 8 week program buffered their decrease in CD4+ cells in direct proportion to their adherence to the program. This means that the more often the patients went to meditation training, the better their CD4+ levels!

What could account for this difference? This could be due to the effect of meditation on t-cell redistribution in the body or turnover rate (i.e. when new cells are produced and old cells die). And even though this study saw no significant changes in HIV RNA levels, other studies show that stress increases viral replication, so this cannot be excluded as a possibility. One problem with this study is that the researchers did not compare the ‘mindfulness based stress reduction’ program to other stress reduction techniques so it may be possible to get these benefits by other measures, we just don’t know yet.

So why not try it? Meditation has many health benefits, requires limited training at low cost, and has been shown to make you happier! Increasing CD4+ levels while reaching enlightenment… not a bad deal.