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Why Do Vegan Women Have Fewer Female Cancers?

March 18, 2014 by Michael Greger M.D. in News with 10 Comments

Why Might Vegetarians Have Less HPV?

Cervical cancer is now considered a sexually transmitted disease. It was originally suspected as such, but now we have DNA fingerprinting proof that virtually all cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted virus, human papilloma virus, which also causes cancers of the penis, vagina, vulva and throat. HPV is considered a necessary, but not sufficient cause of cancer.

I profile a study in my four minute video, Why Might Vegetarians Have Less HPV?, that shows that while most young women contract HPV,  most don’t get cervical cancer because their immune systems are able to clear out the virus. Within one year, 70 percent of women clear the infection, and more than 90 percent clear it within two years — before the virus can cause cancer.

Might those with particularly strong immune systems clear the virus even faster? That’s what may be behind a new study that found vegetarian women had significantly lower infection rates with HPV, one of many studies reporting lower risk of HPV infection among those eating plant-based diets.

When researchers took a bunch of women with cancer-causing strains of HPV infecting their cervix and followed them out and retested at three months and nine months while analyzing their diets, what did they find? Higher levels of vegetable consumption appeared to cut their risk of HPV persistence in half, doubling one’s likelihood of clearing this potentially cancer-causing infection. And “higher” levels just meant about two or more servings a day. Antioxidants appear to suppress the activation of critical segments of the virus’ DNA. Maybe that’s why smearing green tea on genital warts—also caused by HPV—has been found so effective in clearing them (See my video, Treating Genital Warts with Green Tea).

In terms of preventing cervical cancer, phytonutrients like lutein (found in dark green leafy vegetables) and lycopene (the red pigment in tomatoes) may decrease viral load, thereby decreasing persistence and progression to disease. Bottom line: higher consumption of vegetables may decrease the risk of HPV persistence, which may help explain why a 2013 study found vegan women have significantly lower rates of all female cancers combined, including cancer of the cervix.

Vegetarians also have lower rates (see Vegetarians Versus Healthy Omnivores), but the Adventist Health Study 2 is the first study of cancer rates among thousands of North American vegans. There are other reasons that help explain these results, from lower levels of the cancer-promoting growth hormone IGF-1 (The Answer to the Pritikin Puzzle), the foreign meat molecule Neu5Gc (How Tumors Use Meat to Grow: Xeno-Autoantibodies), and heterocyclines in cooked meat (Estrogenic Cooked Meat Carcinogens) to more of the good stuff (#1 Anticancer Vegetable and Which Fruit Fights Cancer Better?).

Other viruses may actually be found in the food. See, for example:

More on improving immune function with improved nutrition can be found in Boosting Immunity While Reducing Inflammation and Boosting Immunity Through Diet.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2014 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image credit: Peter Kemmer / Flickr

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Dr. Michael Greger

About Michael Greger M.D.

Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial. Currently Dr. Greger proudly serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.

View all videos by Michael Greger M.D.

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  • Ravi K

    Gardasil versus Dark green leafy vegetables? I think the choice is clear :-)

  • joeboosauce

    There is a study this reminds me of by Dean Ornish where they tested the blood of vegans on cancer cells and found that the immune function was about 8x higher than non-vegans.

  • Hadley V. Baxendale

    I find it difficult to understand how “vegans” unqualified have the health benefits you mention, since I think a vegan eating nothing but potato chips and drinking cola is not going to have these health benefits. Isn’t there someway you can qualify your use of “vegan” perhaps by using “whole food vegans” so that these studies make sense?

    • Esther Salomon

      I think this is an important issue. I know some vegetarían who eat mostly junk. How do they fit in those studies?

      • Deb

        While on the surface, your questions may seem obvious, but I think it is worth asking. Is it the absence of meat which provides the benefit, or the assumption that vegans consume healthier foods? I find that younger vegans/vegetarians often refrain from meat as a moral consciousness and nutritionally their diets are quite poor. They could be more clear if wanting their research to be disseminated and considered.

    • Lawrence

      Hi Hadley and Esther, I had the same concerns and infact have meet an overweight vegan who was proud of his size. In response, I have coined the term Vegan Plus who is someone who eats a wide variety of whole organic plants while avoiding added salt and sugar. Personally I also avoid caffeine and alcohol as they both raise my blood pressure. I have come to view that alcohol is a slow poison which has become socially acceptable for its mood altering effects. You can read more about it here http://lwghpd.blogspot.com.au/.

      • DGH

        Hi Lawrence,

        I am a medical doctor and I am interested in your link that alcohol is a slow poison, but I couldn’t find it on the URL you shared above (http://lwghpd.blogspot.com.au/). In the interests of full disclosure, I should state I have a slight bias of my own on this issue, since I don’t drink alcohol. But I would enjoy if you could point me to your link on alcohol. Hello from up top! (Canada).
        Dan

    • Guest

      Vegan would revolve around eating non processed whole foods. When you hear Dr. Greger or others talk about benefits of a vegan diet they are talking about a non processed whole food plant based diet. Vegetarian is a muddied topic though because there are different classifications of vegetarian, but they would also revolve around non processed whole foods, which may include eggs, or dairy, or both.

    • vegan31

      Hadley V. Baxendale, I am a long time vegetarian (mainly cheese pizza was my downfall) and strict vegan for about 6 years. I consumed junk food as well as a tremendous amount of healthy food. Now I am dealing with breast cancer. So I am proof that all vegan women are not protected from these illnesses. As a vegan/vegetarian I consumed too much sugar and had a low Vitamin D3 level which might have contributed to my diagnosis. However, it is difficult to know.

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