Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection—but it can also be one of the more dangerous. In fact, we have now identified at least 13 strains of the virus that are known to cause cervical cancer. Yes, the HPV virus is seriously disrupting cervical health.
Let’s talk about what is HPV, how it can affect your health, and how you can support your body naturally.
What Is HPV?
Human Papillomavirus is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), meaning it’s contracted through sex—genital, oral, or anal. The virus can also infect your mouth and throat and lead to cancer, as is the case with oral HPV.
HPV isn’t just one virus. In fact, there are nearly 150 known strains of HPV.
The thing about HPV unlike other sexually transmitted infections is that it is super common. HPV is so prevalent that nearly all sexually active adults have at least one strain. It’s highly likely that you or someone you know has HPV.
Papilloma means “wart” in medicine, but not every strain of HPV actually causes warts you can see, as is the case in subclinical HPV.
There are two types of HPV: low-risk and high-risk strains. Low-risk generally causes genital warts or no symptoms. High-risk can cause cervical.
HPV 6 and HPV 11 are responsible for about 90% of genital warts. If you have visible warts, it’s likely you’re carrying the low-risk HPV 6 or 11.
Whereas, HPV 16 and 18 cause nearly 66% of cervical cancers in the U.S. There are 13 total strains of HPV known to cause cancer. The type of HPV that causes warts has not be found to cause cancer.
That’s right. HPV can seriously and dramatically harm your cervical, sexual, and overall health.
Do Birth Control Pills Increase the Risk of Cervical Cancer?
As I explain in Beyond the Pill, there have been studies to show that the risk of cervical cancer increases the longer a woman stays on the pill. There is definitely a correlation, however, the studies haven't been able to show clearly if this is pill related alone or due to increased risk of HPV infection on the pill.
The pill doesn't protect agains HPV and in fact, it may make a woman more susceptible in contracting it. I explain all of this in my book, Beyond the Pill, along with other ways the pill can impact your health.
What Are The Symptoms Of HPV?
“But I can’t have HPV because I don’t have warts!”
- Not all HPV strains cause warts. In fact, the majority of women with HPV only realize they have it once a lab test comes back positive.
- Most HPV strains are asymptomatic, unlike other STIs. This means that you could be carrying the virus without showing any symptoms at all. Men carry it. Women carry it. And they often don’t even know it.
The reality is that HPV could be impacting your cervical health without you realizing it.
Do You Have HPV?
If there are often no symptoms of HPV, how do you know if you have it?
Your gynecologist can test for HPV at the same time as your Pap smear. If you’re over 30 years of age, your doctor will often include HPV testing as part of your cervical cytology, but it is always a good idea to double check that they are testing for this. HPV is typically only tested for in women under 30 following an abnormal pap. More on that soon.
It’s important to note that new HPV infections often occur close to the time a woman begins having intercourse. So, it’s common for women to contract HPV before age 25. But before you start to worry, cervical cancer is extremely rare in our 20’s, which is why medicine takes a conservative approach in most cases. Most women will be able to clear the virus at this age, with the majority of new infections testing negative 6-12 months later.
If you do test positive for HPV your doctor will be able to counsel you about next steps based on the genotype of the virus and the results of your pap, which reveal the health of your cervical cells.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist recommend the following for HPV and cervical cancer screening based on age.
- Women aged 21–29 years should have a Pap test alone every 3 years. HPV testing is not recommended.
- Women aged 30–65 years should have a Pap test and an HPV test (co-testing) every 5 years (preferred). It also is acceptable to have a Pap test alone every 3 years.
If you have an abnormal pap you may need to follow up sooner. And although you may not be due for your pap, an annual checkin with your doctor is a really good idea.
How to Support Cervical Health Naturally
Your immune system can actually fight HPV! In fact, studies show that your body has a high probability of clearing the virus on its own before age 30. And clinically, I've seen women be able to do this after 30 as well.
In my own clinical practice, while partnering with a woman's gynecologist, I’ve helped a number of women successfully reverse abnormal cellular changes that can lead to cancer. We work on building their immune system and supporting hormone health, and follow the guidelines for appropriate testing to ensure the virus has resolved.
Focusing on healthy lifestyle changes to support your immune system and cervical health is one way you can improve your chance of clearing the virus. Here are some tips to help.
No matter your age, focusing on nourishing your body and supporting a healthy immune system can go a long way in maintaining your cervical health and fighting off HPV naturally.
I often recommend increasing leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables. Aiming to make half your plate vegetables at every meal and eat a rainbow of colors ensures lots of immune-boosting antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients in your diet. Here's a sample meal plan + recipes to help you get started.
Kick the Smoking Habit
Real talks. The studies on smoking and HPV are downright scary. The more you’re exposed to cigarette smoke (yes, second hand too) the more likely it is that you’ll have a more advanced disease. Some studies have found that smokers have a 2-fold increased risk of cervical cancer.
We all know smoking is bad, but when it comes to your lady parts and HPV, it is correlated with poorer outcomes.
Eliminate Nutrient Depleting Meds
When I work with a woman who has been diagnosed with HPV, I take a comprehensive approach to understanding her health as a whole in order to create an individualized treatment plan. This often means completing lab testing, examining hormone and gut health, and looking at her medication list to see if any of her medications are depleting her nutrients.
Not all meds can be discontinued, but elective ones, like he birth control pill is something your should seriously consider ditching. The pill is a double whammy against a woman with HPV. The hormones in the pill have been correlated with a higher risk of cervical cancer. The pill also depletes critical nutrients that are vital for viral protection and immune system optimization.
Shake What Your Mama Gave Ya
After age 30, it gets harder for the body to fight against this virus naturally. Why?
One theory is pelvic stagnation. After we enter our 30s, we’ve spent a significant amount of time sitting. Work and family overcomes us, and we spend less time working out or “playing” like we used to. This lack of physical activity can lead to what is called “pelvic stagnation.” In theory, this would deprive the pelvis from adequate circulation to bring in nutrients and immune support to clear the virus.
The other theory is immune decline. As we age, our immune system naturally starts to slow down. Age can also contribute to hormonal imbalance, which further can further complicate the matters.
Engaging in regular exercise that gets your pelvis moving, like hula hooping, belly dancing, yoga and pilates, can help get things moving in your pelvic floor and keeps your immune system in shape.
Commence 3-minute dance party now! Doctors order.
Folate and betacarotene can help support the immune system and encourage healthy cells. Antioxidants like vitamin E, vitamin C, and green tea extract are beneficial antioxidants that support healthy cells. Green tea is especially useful at kicking the immune system into gear and protecting your cells from damage.
DIM, which is an extract from the cruciferous vegetables like kale, broccoli, and cauliflower, can also be beneficial and aids in creating healthy estrogen levels. You'll also find DIM in Balance – Women's Hormone Support, as part of a combination of other others and nutrients to support your body in optimizing hormone health.
Of course, you should always consult with a medical professional before adding supplements to your regimen. And you definitely need to be following up with your doctor as recommended if you've had an abnormal pap!
Show Your Cervix Some Love
Regardless of your HPV status, taking steps towards a lifestyle that provide your body (and cervix) ample support is a win all around. HPV is a common, can be detected with testing, and there is a lot you can do with lifestyle to improve your cervical health.
If you're looking for more support please download my recipe guide and meal plan. In it, you'll find recommendations that help balance your hormones, lower inflammation, and improve your overall health.