by Darra McMullen, Women’s Health Network Writer/Researcher
There is good news for the new year about cervical cancer rates; they are dropping. A combination of increased awareness about the importance of early detection and wider acceptance of the HPV vaccine seems to be having positive impacts on the incidence of cervical cancer.
Most cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted and usually “clears up” over time simply by a person’s immune system fighting back normally. However, some people seem not to be able to overcome the virus, and eventually, HPV infection can lead to cervical dysplasia, which is an abnormal growth of cells on the surface of the cervix. Cervical dysplasia is classified as low-grade or high-grade, depending on the degree of the abnormal cell growth. Low-grade cervical dysplasia progresses slowly and usually resolves without treatment. High-grade cervical dysplasia can (but doesn’t always) lead to cervical cancer.
The best solution, of course, is to never contract the HPV virus in the first place, thereby greatly lowering the risk of cervical cancer. This is where being very careful to choose healthy sexual partners and being vaccinated for HPV comes into the picture.
The HPV vaccine is officially recommended for women up to 26 years old; however, for women older than 26 years with limited (or no) sexual experience, preliminary evidence points toward the vaccine being helpful in protecting them also – if taken before entering into a sexual relationship where they could potentially be exposed to HPV.
Discuss your personal risk levels for HPV infection with your doctor and make an informed decision together about whether the HPV vaccine is right for you. Also, during the conversation, figure out a plan for an appropriate schedule for screening for pap smears and any other doctor recommended tests revolving around HPV infection, cervical dysplasia, and cervical cancer.
Interestingly, there are over 30 types of HPV that can infect the genital area; with that said, fortunately, most women infected with HPV never develop cervical dysplasia. Some estimates speculate that up to 70% of women have been infected with HPV at some point during their lives, but the vast majority of them don’t go on to develop cervical cancer. Most women’s immune systems clear out the virus over time.
However, sometimes certain factors can weaken the immune system, making people more susceptible to HPV and its potentially deadly spread and transformation into a life-threatening disease.
Below are listed some factors linked to a weakened immune system and a greater susceptibility to cervical dysplasia.
- Hormone imbalance
- Smoking (doubles risk)
- Poor diet – especially if low consumption of fruits and vegetables is present
- HIV infection
- Chlamydia infection
- Multiple male partners
- Low socioeconomic status and the typically resulting poor health care, which often leads to a person becoming more susceptible to HPV and other diseases
- Oral contraceptives – may be a contributing factor by artificially causing hormone imbalances
Now that we’ve established that keeping the immune system strong can be a great ally in the fight against cervical cancer, what can we do to help our immune systems stay strong?
First of all, avoid or correct as many of the above-listed issues as possible, such as improving diet, stopping smoking, losing weight, and having hormone imbalances or infectious diseases treated promptly. Re-think risky sexual behaviors, and get as much regular health care for your whole person as often as you can fit it into your life – either financially or “time-wise.”
Next, give a second look at some dietary advice and natural supplements that can enhance immunity in general and that have at least some track record of success in being effective in assisting with cervical dysplasia in particular.
Let’s begin by looking at dietary cautions. Firstly, avoid simple sugars, fried foods, and processed foods; these all can suppress immunity, leaving the body more vulnerable to any kind of infection, whether it is HPV or the common cold.
Secondly, increase intake of fruits and vegetables, especially ones with high levels of carotenoids, such as carrots, cantaloupes, yellow squash, peaches, and corn.
Eggs are also high in carotenoids and are recommended for anti-cervical dysplasia diets.
Thirdly, daily consumption of cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kale help to normalize estrogen metabolism and have anti-cancer properties.
Finally, foods high in vitamin C should also be included in the daily diet. Citrus fruits are an excellent example. Studies show women with a high dietary intake of vitamin C have a reduced risk of cervical dysplasia.
Now, let’s take notice of some dietary supplements that can help in the fight against progressing cervical dysplasia.
To start, let’s note that carotenoids and vitamin C are also available in supplement form and can be used alongside a healthy diet or to fill in gaps where the diet falls short.
Next, we should consider two B-vitamins, B-12 and folate, both of which are involved in healthy cell replication and both of which tend to run low in women who have a history of oral contraceptive use. It is best to supplement these two B-vitamins along with a multi-B complex formula that offers the full spectrum of B-vitamins.
Green tea in the form of 300mg. daily capsules has been shown in studies to be effective in improving or stopping the progression of cervical dysplasia. The studied dose was 55% EGCG (or epigallocatechin -3-gallate), an active ingredient of green tea.
Another supplement to consider when thinking about cervical dysplasia is vitamin E. Low levels of vitamin E in studied women are associated with an increased risk of cervical dysplasia. A 400 I.U. supplement of mixed vitamin E, containing both tocopherols and tocotrienols, is thought to help improve low blood levels of vitamin E and help fight against the progression of cervical dysplasia.
Let’s not forget good old curcumin, known for some time to help reduce inflammation in its many forms, but also more recently discovered to help suppress HPV. The effective dose seems to be 500mg. taken twice daily as a supplement.
Although all of the above diet and supplement “assistants” can be valuable tools in the battle against cervical cancer, nothing can take the place of getting regular screenings and keeping open a line of communication with your doctor about risk, symptoms, treatments, or simply worries.
So, let’s start the new year with a commitment to pap smears (or other doctor recommended cervical cancer tests) and consuming healthy, “anti-cancer” foods!