HIV slowly eats away at CD4 T cells to weaken the immune system, and stress can accelerate this process.
The researchers say that mindfulness meditation can help stop the decline of CD4 T cells in HIV-positive patients suffering from stress.
Their study report in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity describes mindfulness meditation as the practice of bringing an open and receptive awareness of the present moment to experiences, and avoiding thinking of the past or worrying about the future.
"This study provides the first indication that mindfulness meditation stress-management training can have a direct impact on slowing HIV disease progression," said lead study author David Creswell, a research scientist at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA.
"The mindfulness program is a group-based and low-cost treatment, and if this initial finding is replicated in larger samples, it's possible that such training can be used as a powerful complementary treatment for HIV disease, alongside medications," he added.
For their study, the researchers ran an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) meditation program and compared it to a one-day MBSR control seminar, using a stressed and ethnically diverse sample of 48 HIV-positive adults in Los Angeles.
They observed that participants in the eight-week group showed no loss of CD4 T cells, while the control group had had significant declines.
According to the research team, that was an indication that mindfulness meditation training could buffer declines CD4 T cells, a characteristic hallmark of HIV progression.
Creswell notes that there is emerging evidence from other studies that shows that behavioral stress-management programs can buffer HIV declines in HIV-positive people.
He claims that his study is the first to show an HIV disease protective effect with mindfulness meditation training.
His team is now examining the underlying pathways through which mindfulness meditation reduces stress.
"Given the stress-reduction benefits of mindfulness meditation training, these findings indicate there can be health protective effects not just in people with HIV but in folks who suffer from daily stress," Creswell said.