Hearing the words “abnormal Pap smear” can trigger a gut-wrenching fear—and for good reason. Cervical cancer was the leading cause of death among women for many years. Today, it ranks only 13th among women in the United States, yet many women continue to have “abnormal” Pap test results. What’s going on?
“Abnormal” Pap test results are now fairly common, and almost always due to the widespread human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many types of this virus, and it is so common that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states that “most women will be infected with it at some point during their lifetime,” and they may not even know it because there are typically no symptoms.
Causes of Cervical Dysplasia
HPV is the leading cause of cervical dysplasia, a catch-all term for abnormal cells in the cervix. Cervical dysplasia is a primary risk factor for cervical cancer, but it does not mean that cancer will develop. Fortunately, cervical cancer is slow-growing, usually taking years to develop, and its precursor, cervical dysplasia, is easily detected as part of routine Pap tests.
Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance (ASCUS) is the most common abnormal Pap test result. It means exactly what is says: something unusual is present, which could be precancerous or not, and/or it could be cervical dysplasia or not. The typical recommendations are to repeat the Pap test in six months and “wait and see” if something develops.
For those who are interested in a more proactive approach to managing their health, some naturopathic practitioners suggest there are safe and natural ways to treat (and perhaps even prevent) mild to moderate cervical dysplasia.
Drs. Tori Hudson, Marianne Marchese, and others have had success treating cervical dysplasia with supplements including folic acid, indole-3-carbinol (I3C), vitamins A and C, antioxidants such as green tea and carotenes, as well as herbal remedies. Natural treatment formulations include oral formulations and vaginal suppositories.
Green tea extract, also known as epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), shows promising results as one of the more effective natural treatment options. In a study comparing the application of different EGCG formulations to subjects with cervical dysplasia, close to 70% of the subjects demonstrated an improvement in their condition, as opposed to only 10% in the control group. Among the different formulations, there was slightly more success using ointment alone, or ointment and capsules, than capsules alone. This study bodes well for the vaginal use of an ointment or suppository containing green tea extract as an effective treatment for cervical dysplasia.
With any treatment—including surgical treatments—cervical dysplasia can return. “Addressing the cause is key to treating the disease,” warns Dr. Marchese. Nutritional and hormone deficiencies affecting the immune system should also be addressed as part of a treatment plan.
Preventing HPV and Cervical Dysplasia
Education regarding how HPV is transmitted, as well as the risk factors associated with both cervical dysplasia and cervical cancer, is critical to prevention.
Practicing safe sex is now more important than ever. Anyone of any age who is sexually active can be exposed to HPV. It is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, usually during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Not everyone who is exposed to the cell-changing types of HPV will exhibit dysplasia or know they have been exposed (especially males).
Quitting smoking can significantly reduce the risk of cervical dysplasia. Smokers are two to three times more likely to develop cervical dysplasia for several reasons:
- Nicotine concentrates in the cervical glands
- Smoking reduces the levels of ascorbic acid, which changes the pH balance of the cervix
- Smoking alters immune system function
Reducing stress or finding ways to manage unavoidable stress may help reduce the development of dysplasia. Dr. Hudson found that “life stressors with negative impacts over the previous 6 months showed a direct, positive association with the level of dysplasia.”
Finally, maintaining a healthy immune system is obviously an extremely important aspect of prevention, as well as treatment.