Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can cause a condition 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 could help improve the quality of life for nearly 40 million people with the virus worldwide.
It is true that the outlook for HIV-positive patients has improved massively in recent decades. Advanced drug treatments mean that the virus can be treated and many people with HIV can live long, healthy lives.
Thanks to these discoveries, fewer people who contract the virus will develop Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), the disease that first brought HIV to the world’s attention in the 1980s. It is now possible for even a person’s viral load to reduced to such low levels that it becomes undetectable, meaning it cannot spread the infection.
Thus, HIV/AIDS is no longer considered a death sentence. However, as patients live longer, scientists are keen to continue to discover as much as they can about the effects of the virus.
The new study looked at people aged 45 and over living in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, where nearly a quarter of people are HIV positive. The scientists measured levels of the hormone melatonin to assess the participants’ circadian rhythms – sometimes called the biological or body clock. They found that in the HIV-positive participants, their circadian rhythms were delayed by an average of more than an hour. They also had shorter sleep cycles compared to the HIV-negative, meaning they slept later and woke up earlier.
Whether it’s jet lag after a long flight, working nights, or the clocks going forward, most people will recognize feeling a little out of sync with the world. For the people with HIV in this study, that feeling didn’t seem to go away.
“Participants living with HIV essentially experience the one-hour disruption associated with daylight savings time, but every morning,” said study author Professor Malcolm von Schantz of Northumbria University.
“Our findings have important potential implications for the health and well-being of people living with HIV, especially given the established relationships between disrupted circadian rhythms and sleep deprivation.”
Despite successful treatment for the virus itself, people with HIV are still at higher risk for other health conditions, including metabolic, cardiovascular and psychiatric disorders. The researchers believe these findings could go some way to explaining this risk and may pave the way for future therapeutic strategies.
“This is very similar to the risk profile seen in shift workers. “Understanding and mitigating this disorder can be an important step in helping people living with HIV lead healthier lives,” said Dr Karine Scheuermaier, senior author, from the University of the Witwatersrand.
“The next step should be to see 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 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 the previously unseen effects of this virus, helping scientists to work on ways to ensure that the lives of people with HIV can be as healthy as possible.
The study is published in the Journal of Pineal Research.