WHAT IT MEANS The immune system is your body’s own incredibly complex network of chemicals and cells that protects against viruses, bacteria and other infections as well as tumor cells and toxins.
WHY IT MATTERS Having HIV means living with an immune system that is always in danger. The virus attacks—and, when left untreated, can destroy—your immune system’s CD4 cells, whose job it is to tell other cells when and how to mount a defense against a specific infection and/or cancer. This can leave your body defenseless against many ailments.
WHAT YOU CAN DO Treating HIV with medication to stop the virus’ attack on your immune system is essential. Once you prevent HIV from reproducing, your immune system has a chance to rest and can begin to rebuild itself, one CD4 cell at a time. But if you wait too long before starting treatment, your immune system may not have enough left to build from.
Just as it is important not too wait too long before starting on HIV meds, there is no benefit from rushing to treatment before you really need it. Until then, a time-tested regimen of exercising, eating right and sleeping well—not to mention watching your intake of toxins like cigarettes and alcohol—is your best immune-boosting bet.
“If there’s something overwhelming going on, I go sit in a private place to relax. I also feel it’s very important to eat right and exercise. Sometimes, I wake up and just jog.” —Marvelyn Brown, Nashville, TN, Diagnosed: 2003
NOTE TO ROOKIES Beginning HIV medication is a serious decision that warrants a heart-to-heart discussion between you and your doctor. Experts recommend starting HIV treatment based on the results of a test that measures your CD4-cell count, which is a marker of your immune system’s health:
The minimum CD4 count increase during the first year of therapy for HIVers to hedge their chances of progressing to AIDS or death in the following two years.
COUNTING CELLS * If you have more than 350 CD4 cells, most doctors agree that your body has enough immunity to keep you well and to rebuild itself once you go on HIV meds. * If you have fewer than 200 CD4 cells, most doctors agree that it is time to start treatment in order to stop HIV’s attack on your immune system. Indeed, many doctors advocate starting at 350 CD4 cells.