HPV (The Human Papillomavirus) is the single most common STD in the U.S., affecting upwards of 79 million Americans. It is so common that approximately 14 million people become infected every single year. Based on my own experiences when counseling my patients about their HPV diagnosis, most people do not realize how much they can do themselves to help their body eliminate it.
HPV is screened for on routine Pap smears, which is of course only a fraction of the reason why seeing your healthcare provider routinely is so critically important. The HPV virus causes genital warts, abnormal Pap smears, and ultimately, if left untreated, cervical cancer. HPV is also responsible for several other less common, but unfortunately on the rise, cancers.
When HPV is found on a Pap smear, the conversation usually goes something like this: "You have an STD called HPV. Sometimes your body gets rid of it on its own, and sometimes it doesn't. We would like to get a better look at your cervix to see if the virus has caused damage. Be sure to schedule that test, which is called a colposcopy, before you leave. The procedure is quick, but it is not painless. You’ll want to take ibuprofen ahead of time to help with the discomfort. If left ignored and untreated, it could cause cervical cancer." Yikes! Is it any wonder that most people leave these appointments confused and mortified!?
Here is the part of the story that rarely makes it to prime time. With so many other important topics to go over on you routine doctors visit, there is often not enough time for this. There are in fact things you can do to help clear the infection up. I’ve outlined them below for you.
1) Eat your folate! Folate is a B vitamin found in dark green leafy vegetables, and it has been proven to help rid the body of HPV. It is always preferable to obtain your vitamins through food, but there are supplement options as well. Dosage and formulations vary, and make a huge difference, so I don't recommend navigating this one on your own. It’s important to know that some people have a gene that actually makes synthetic folate (folic acid) dangerous. There is, however, no risk to experimenting with that new kale, swiss chard, broccoli, or spinach recipe you've been wondering about - your body will thank you!
2) Quitting cigarette smoking is also proven to help clear up the HPV virus. If you smoke, your body is constantly fighting an uphill battle to stay healthy. The HPV virus loves smokers! My patients that smoke seem to be perpetually HPV positive despite their best efforts to heal the infection.
3) Stress and poor sleep make recovery from HPV more difficult. High emotional stress levels are associated with increased oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is linked to an increase rate of progression of HPV to cancer. If you needed one more reason to learn to meditate and get a good night's rest, perhaps your abnormal Pap smear is it. Learn more about fighting oxidative stress here
4) There is convincing evidence that other essential vitamins and nutrients also play a role in healing from HPV. Some of those other supplements include Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Retinol, Beta and Alpha-Carotene, Lycopene, Lutein/Zeaxanthin, and Cryptoxanthin.
5) Long term use of hormonal contraceptives (the pill, the ring, the patch, etc.) is linked to persistent and aggressive HPV infection. There are safe effective contraceptive options that do not involve the use of systemic hormones. Talking to your provider about them is never a bad idea, especially if you have HPV.
The most important piece of advice I can give you is to rethink your body's relationship with the HPV virus. You are not a helpless victim of this virus, you are at war with it - and if you work with a knowledgeable physician to make a few adjustments in your diet and lifestyle, you can win.
Allison Fox, M.D.