Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection can cause a state like chronic jet lag, according to a new study. The research, by a team of scientists based in South Africa and the UK, deepens our understanding of the effects of HIV and may help improve quality of life for the almost 40 million people with the virus worldwide.
It’s true that the outlook for patients testing positive for HIV has improved massively in recent decades. Advanced drug treatments mean that the virus can be managed, and many people with HIV are able to lead long, healthy lives.
Thanks to these breakthroughs, fewer people who catch the virus are going on to develop Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), the disease that first brought HIV to the attention of the world in the 1980s. It is now even possible for a person’s HIV viral load to be reduced to such low levels that it becomes undetectable, meaning that they cannot pass the infection on.
So, HIV/AIDS is no longer considered a death sentence. However, as patients are living longer, scientists are keen to continue to find out as much as they can about the effects of the virus.
The new study looked at people aged 45 and over living in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, where almost a quarter of people are HIV-positive. The scientists measured levels of the hormone melatonin to assess participants’ circadian rhythms – sometimes called the biological or body clock. They found that in HIV-positive participants, their circadian rhythms were delayed by over one hour on average. They also had shorter sleep cycles compared to HIV-negative people, meaning that they fell asleep later and woke up earlier.
Whether it be from jet lag after a long flight, working nights, or the clocks going forward, most people will recognize the feeling of being a bit out of sync with the world. For the people with HIV in this study, that feeling didn’t seem to go away.
“The participants living with HIV essentially experience the one-hour disruption associated with switching to daylight savings time, but every single morning,” said study author Professor Malcolm von Schantz of Northumbria University in a statement.
“Our findings have important potential implications for the health and wellbeing of people living with HIV, especially given the well-established relationships between disrupted circadian rhythms and sleep deprivation.”
Despite successful treatment for the virus itself, people with HIV are still at higher risk of other health conditions, including metabolic, cardiovascular, and psychiatric disorders. The researchers think that these findings could go some way to explaining this risk, and may pave the way for future treatment strategies.
“This is very similar to the risk profile observed in shift workers. Understanding and mitigating this disruption may be an important step towards helping people living with HIV live healthier lives,” said Dr Karine Scheuermaier, senior author, from the University of the Witwatersrand.
“The next step must be to establish if the same body clock disruption exists in people living with HIV who are younger and who live in other countries,” added co-author Xavier Gómez-Olivé.
Despite the huge advances in prevention and treatment, the HIV epidemic continues, with the World Health Organization reporting 1.5 million new infections in 2021. Research like this sheds new light on previously unseen effects of this virus, helping scientists to work towards ways of ensuring that the lives of people with HIV can be as healthy as possible.
The study is published in the Journal of Pineal Research.