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In February 2000, the Mayo Foundation released a statement that at least 95 percent of cervical cancers are tied to the presence of a sexually transmitted virus, the human papilloma virus (HPV). Perhaps even more dramatic news is that studies show one-half of all sexually active young women are infected with one of the nearly 70 types of viruses in this family.

While this need not be alarming to most women, it is, indeed a wake-up call. HPV remains dormant in most women, sometimes it results in genital warts or mild itching, and rarely invades cervical cells causing cervical dysplasia or abnormal cell growth. When HPV is present in the cervix, this dysplasia is considered to be a pre-cancerous condition.

Is HPV more powerful in some women than others? No, the reverse is true: some women's cell structure is weak or damaged allowing HPV a foothold for wreaking havoc with a woman's sexual health. In Nutrition for Women: The Complete Guide by Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, studies from major schools (U of Alabama, UC at Berkeley and Harvard University) are cited as pointing toward several risk factors that allow the cervical cells to weaken to the point they are vulnerable to the deadly damage of HPV.

Risk factors include smoking, use of oral contraceptives, poor nutrition, lowered immune response, stress, combined caffeine use and folic acid deficiency (although caffeine use alone did not appear to increase the risk), pregnancy and vitamin A, C, E, Beta-carotene and folic acid deficiencies.

With this list of risk factors, a woman facing a lifetime of abnormal pap smears, and the resulting, often invasive, course of treatment of pre-cancerous cells, can take heart. She can now take steps to reduce the likelihood of recurrence of a precancerous cervical dysplasia.

Quit smoking, change birth control methods, reducing stress are positive and healthful changes. Vitamin deficiencies can be reversed by altering the diet, thereby strengthening weak cell structure through out the entire body. Cruciferous vegetables - brussel sprouts, cabbage and broccoli - are championed as able to reverse mild to moderate dysplasia when a daily part of a woman's diet in the May 1999 issue of American OB-GYN. Folic acid-rich foods include fresh, crispy greens. Orange juice is lower in folic acid, so doubling up on intake is advised. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables will also increase the necessary vitamins. Supplements can help but caution is advised when taking a folic acid supplement: never take more than 100 percent RDA, or 400 mcg. per day.

A woman's annual pap test is by far the superior weapon against cervical cancer. As long as pap results are normal, no test for the presence of HPV is usually done, even though awareness of its widespread existence, the potential for damage and the test to identify its presence have been around for over a decade. Gender bias may account for this: men suffer no symptoms except in extremely rare cases a man may develop genital warts. Women pay the price, so it is up to them to take charge of their health: ask questions, do research, empower themselves.

While at this moment work is ongoing for a cure for HPV, a woman's health is dependent upon her working with a gynecologist and educating herself with nutritional information and eating a better diet. With these first steps, a woman can regain conrol over her cervical health.