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Why Might Vegetarians Have Less HPV?

Most young women get infected with human papilloma virus, the cause of cervical cancer, but most are able to clear the infection before the virus causes cancer. What dietary changes can improve viral clearance?

July 10, 2013 |
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Supplementary Info

Sources Cited

P. J. F. Snijders, R. D. M. Steenbergen, D. A. M. Heideman, C. J. L. M. Meijer. HPV-mediated cervical carcinogenesis: Concepts and clinical implications. J. Pathol. 2006 208(2):152 - 164

E. L. Franco. The sexually transmitted disease model for cervical cancer: Incoherent epidemiologic findings and the role of misclassification of human papillomavirus infection. Epidemiology 1991 2(2):98 - 106

D. C. Chung, S. S. Yoon, G. Y. Lauwers, D. Patel. Case 22-2007: A woman with a family history of gastric and breast cancer. N Engl J Med 2007 357(3):283 - 291

S. Srivastava, S. Gupta, J. K. Roy. High prevalence of oncogenic HPV-16 in cervical smears of asymptomatic women of eastern Uttar Pradesh, India: A population-based study. Journal of biosciences 2012 37(1):63 - 72

R. L. Sedjo, D. J. Roe, M. Abrahamsen, R. B. Harris, N. Craft, S. Baldwin, A. R. Giuliano. Vitamin A, carotenoids, and risk of persistent oncogenic human papillomavirus infection. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers \& Prevention 2002 11(9):876 - 884

F. Rösl, B. C. Das, M. Lengert, K. Geletneky, H. zur Hausen. Antioxidant-induced changes of the AP-1 transcription complex are paralleled by a selective suppression of human papillomavirus transcription. Journal of virology 1997 71(1):362 - 370

E. F. Dunne, E. R. Unger, M. Sternberg, G. McQuillan, D. C. Swan, S. S. Patel, L. E. Markowitz. Prevalence of HPV infection among females in the United States. JAMA 2007 297(8):813 - 819

H. K.Pannu, F. M. Corl, E. K. Fishman. CT evaluation of cervical cancer: spectrum of disease. Radiographics. 2001 21(5):1155-1168

Y. Tantamango-Bartley, K. Jaceldo-Siegl, G. Fan J, Fraser. Vegetarian diets and the incidence of cancer in a low-risk population. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2013 22(2):286-294.

Acknowledgements

Image thanks to Laboratory of Tumor Virus Biology.

Transcript

Cervical cancer is now considered a sexually transmitted disease, originally suspected as such as it was supposedly found less in nuns and more in prostitutes, 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.

Most young women contract HPV, but most don't get cervical cancer because their immune systems are able to clear out the virus. 70% of women clear the infection within 1 year and more than 90% within 2 years before the virus can cause cancer, unless you're immunocompromised or something. 

Well if that's the case, maybe those with particularly strong immune systems might clear the virus even faster. That's what may behind this new study that found vegetarian women appeared to have significantly lower infection rates with HPV, one of many studies reporting that vegetarians have lower risk of HPV infection thought to be because of the presence of more fruits and vegetables in their diet which are rich source of all sorts of good phytonutrients.

So for example if you take a bunch of women with cancer causing strains of HPV infecting their cervix and follow them out and retest at 3 months, and then 9 months while analyzing their diets, what do you find? Higher levels of vegetable consumption may cut the risk of HPV persistence in half, double one's likelihood of clearing this potentially cancer-causing infection. And "higher" levels just meant like 2 or more servings a day.

What do antioxidants in plants have to do with viral diseases? Different antioxidants affect different viruses in different ways, but against HPV don't you know that electrophoretic mobility supershift assays showed "Irrespective of enhanced c-fos expression, c-jun was phosphorylated and became primarily heterodimerized with fra-1, which was also induced after PDTC incubation," I mean duh. I had to read this paper like 5 times, long story short, 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.

In terms of preventing cervical cancer, through their role as antioxidants, 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. Whereas the protective associations may be due to their antioxidant properties, they have all sorts of other wonderful effects, so who knows, who cares, bottomline: higher consumption of vegetables may decrease risk of HPV persistence," which may help explain why this 2013 study found vegan woman have significantly lower rates of all female cancers combined, including cancer of the cervix.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org.

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

Vegetarians appear to have lower rates of all cancers combined (see Vegetarians Versus Healthy Omnivores), but this 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:

The other HPV video I reference is Treating Genital Warts With Green Tea.

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

For more context, check out my associated blog posts: Why do Vegan Women Have Fewer Female Cancers?

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • lovestobevegan

    Putting the Yum in Grandma’s Yam Salad

    – 3 small yams, cubed
    – juice of ½ a small lemon
    – 1 avocado
    – pinch sea salt

    Steam yams until soft. Meanwhile, mash avocado with lemon juice and
    sea salt. Add cooked yams to avocado mixture and stir gentle to combine. Enjoy hot or cold.

    Bookmark my new Plant-Based Emporium Facebook page for all my latest recipes. https://www.facebook.com/PlantBasedEmporium

    ~Complements of lovestobevegan

    • Thea

      lovestobevegan: I appreciate that you are excited about your diet and sharing your recipe ideas. I love to see that kind of enthusiasm.

      However, this site is for discussing the videos. Sometimes we share a recipe, but mostly the discussion is (properly) about nutrition science. You seem to be posting everywhere on NutritionFacts with the sole intention of getting people to go to your website. I’m not the moderator here and I’m only one voice, but I thought I would give you some feedback that you are actively turning off at least one person.

      Look at it this way: You have shared your website and recipes with the people on this site quite a bit already. So, now, please do stick around for some discussion if you wish. I think that making some really great discussion points on NutritionFacts is the best way to get the people who like to visit these pages interested in your site.

      Just a thought for you. Good luck with your site.

      • Coacervate

        Does this gang have a fav forum? I would love to have a reliable place to ask questions that don’t always correspond to the topic of the day but is WF/PB.

        • b00mer

          I’ve wondered that as well. Unfortunately, I haven’t really found one. A lot of vegan/activist forums out there, but even the boards talking about diet aren’t really focused on whole foods diet, just a vegan one. Then there’s the Fuhrman website, but you have to *pay* to even view the forums, which I actually did once (it was just a few bucks) but I found them pretty uninspiring. I would say perhaps the McDougall forums are your best bet. Though McDougall reeeally likes his starches, and has less of a focus on the super duper veggie foods we’re usually talking about here. But it seems like nice people there and a pretty active community.

      • b00mer

        Hi Thea, I agree with you and do find it somewhat distasteful as well. I know that you and I have actually swapped references to different recipes on here, but it feels quite different to have someone posting unsolicited advertisements rather than making a genuine recommendation in the context of a conversation. One person posting advertisements doesn’t hurt, but I just hope this doesn’t turn into a billboard section for every person with a vegan blog, since that tends to dilute and discourage genuine conversation. This is one of the few comments sections on the internet where genuine conversation actually takes place. I do hope it stays that way.

    • Susen A. Hunter

      The comment with only a recipe and a promotion for a FB page has nothing to do with this article. Therefore, I’m flagging it as inappropriate. Be polite, QUIT SPAMMING!

      • lovestobevegan

        It’s a shame you feel the need to cut other people down. I’m working toward the same goal as Dr. Greger by
        promoting a plant-based diet with my own plant-based recipes. Perhaps next time you should think about what you would gain with such unnecessarily hostile words.

        • Susen A. Hunter

          “Hostile words”? Drama much? Spam is spam, even vegan spam. You obviously have a serious need to be validated or just be the center of attention. Maybe you could work on your insecurity instead of your juvenile need to have people approve of you.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/ Michael Greger M.D.

      I love the recipes! The video was about how healthful a plant-based diet can be. The recipe is plant-based. Sounds like a perfect match to me! It’s one thing for me to tell people to eat healthy, it’s quite another to make healthy food yummy, so I encourage any and all recipes and tips on healthy eating.

    • BPCveg

      Your recipes sound delicious. Did you invent them yourself?

      • lovestobevegan

        Hi BPCveg,
        Yes, the recipes are all my own creations. Thank you for your kind words.

  • Chasity

    Great video! Too bad being vegetarian or vegan doesn’t automatically mean someone eats a lot of vegetables.

    • Plantstrongdoc M.D.

      Exactly! From a health perspective it is not about being vegan – but to eat a whole food plant based diet (97% of the time), which is vegan +

  • mtn&sea

    You say that HPV clears up with women who have regular immune systems. I have severe endometriosis and have been aware of my C1N1 mild displasia for about 5-6 years. I am wondering what your thoughts are on the two playing a part in this together. For instance, since I am immunally compromised (hence my Endometriosis), is that why my HPV is not going away on it’s own?
    Please correct me if I am misunderstanding this.
    Also, is there any way of knowing if I have a high chance of getting cervical cancer?

    Since January I have been minimizing (not eliminating) dairy, meat and gluten.

    Thanks for your advice. I appreciate your work!

    • Jan

      I disagree with Dr. G’s advice. Once again the research presented here only accounts for the success stories, there are plenty of vegans who develop cancer. I had HPV and has been clear since 2011, living as a pescatarian. I would eat an overall healthy diet, which isn’t about elimination, focus on moderation. I know I wouldn’t be happy down the line if I lived a life of restriction and then became ill. Genetics and environment, hm.

  • Plantstrongdoc M.D.

    In concordance with what T. Colin Campbell has demonstrated; aflatoxin gives you livercancer if you eat a diet rich in animal protein. The culprit is not the “bug”, but the diet. You are not a victim – you are in control (if you want to be!)

  • Lakshmi Tejeda

    I´m a happy vegetarian haha

  • Paul Payne

    What causes Hyperkyphosis (Dowager’s Hump/Hunchback)? Can it be cured by changing the diet?

    • disqus_RPpnR6H9hq

      I was told it is a spinal deformity. For me, I have a straight neck that doesn’t curve back, thus causing my hump.

    • b00mer

      Hi Paul,

      First off, I have no idea about your particular condition. But I will share an experience of mine anyway:

      Due to my work (desk and lab work), I used to get really bad pain in the side of the neck and in the upper back between the shoulders. I started doing “The Cactus” yoga pose for it, and it worked tremendously for me, however I also read that it helps improve the humpback condition as well. I can’t speak to that but you could give it a try:

      Stand with your back against a wall, with heels, butt, and if you can, shoulders touching the wall (or as close as you can get them). Bring your arms up and out to the side to form a “goalpost” position with them (upper arms parallel to floor and forearms perpendicular to floor). Try to keep the entire length of your arms touching the wall, especially at the elbows and hands (or get them as close to the wall as you can). Continue 20, 40, or 60 seconds, whatever you can do comfortably. Do several times a day. Hope this helps. :)

  • mattA

    do plant eating vegans get fewer cold and flu episodes too? Seems likely

    • Coacervate

      Seems that way to me. I know you are asking if studies show this. But my sick time has dropped to nil. Also, 2 weeks after switching to WF/PB eating I had my last migraine. Two years later, no more shimmering lights or blind spots. You have to live it to understand how great it is to have that behind you. Also, all the weird little growths that my dr told me not to worry about have dropped off or gone away…Or did you mean Plant eating vegans…Feed me Seymour!

    • Thea

      mattA: I’ll just echo what Coacervate says. I can’t remember if there are studies on this or not, but there is a mountain of anecdotal evidence that supports that whole-plant food based vegans get many fewer colds and flus. Plus, I know from my personal experience, in those rare cases where I do get sick, it is a fraction of the level of severity that my co-workers experience. Most recently, I had many many co-workers very sick for literally weeks. I didn’t manage to escape completely this time, but all I experienced was being medium-low level sick (subjectively and based on talking to co-workers) for a few days.

    • b00mer

      Kind of funny: just recently I was kind of wishing for a day off but caught myself thinking, “I can’t say I was sick, I never get sick!”. And my coworkers have taken notice of this. So you see, a wfpb diet does have its downsides… ;)

      I know Dr. Fuhrman has a book called “Super Immunity”. I haven’t read it but it does deal with this topic if you want to check it out.

  • Heather

    What does the .66 lower cancer rate for vegan women mean? That they get 66% less female cancers?

    • Veggivet

      It means that the rate is 1/3 less than non-vegan women.

  • Graham

    We need to be aware that HPV is readily transferred to males to cause throat cancer as a result of oral lovemaking.

    • Veggivet

      Yes, now known as the Michael Douglas syndrome…

  • Aaron Hollander

    Dr. Greger, what is your opinion on the HPV vaccine? The pediatrician groups push it. Should my girls (14 & 12) get it?

    • Padma Garvey

      As a practicing OB/GYN and vegan, I would recommend the HPV vaccine. While a plant-based diet may help protect one from HPV infections, the vaccine would further decrease one’s chances of developing cervical cancer. 70% of the world will acquire HPV infections at one point or another.

    • http://www.DonForresterMD.com/ Don Forrester MD

      I don’t recommend HPV vaccine as a general rule for patients except for specific high risk populations over age 18 and rarely for high risk populations under age 18. By practicing safe sex and minimizing the number of sexual partners they will lower cancer rates, unwanted pregnancies and sexual transmitted diseases as well. In medicine we have developed excellent vaccines and had a lot of success. Many physicians are trapped into the paradigm of all vaccines are good and lack the training and time to evaluate the recommendations and present those to the patients and their families. What is lacking at the clinical level is good shared decision making support for individuals and families. Other vaccines with marginal benefit would be the vaccine for shingles in adults and flu vaccines for healthy children and adults under age 65. It is true that vaccines are generally safe… although using single dose vials to avoid preservatives is my preference.

  • Carlo

    If a women has a positive pap smear, could dietary changes like these to eradicate HPV still be meaningful?

  • nearlyvegan

    Dr. Gregor, is there any recent research on vegan diet with hsv or zoster? Given the high arginine content of many vegan staples, would this be a rare example of a disease made worse by a vegan diet?

  • needhelp

    Mjs1231 athotmail dot com

    I need help

    I think i was exposed in 1999 to hpv via my x wife.

    In the last few years i have started getting spots all over my body, ankles, shins, hands, legs, face, i itch all over to the point its driving me insane.

    I have been vegan for 3 years and it just seems to be spreading all over my skin.

    Im about to realy freak out. No solutions that i can find, i have tried everything posted in every forum but it just keeps getting worse, 2 weeks ago i seem to have gotten a red rash on my uh ya that isnt going away.

    I have had 3 episodes in in the past 14 years where i felt super bad for a few days, 4 and 5th day i sweated severly. Then got better fast.

    Whats happening to me ? I feel like im being converted into some mutant creature. Im seriously thinking about that bullet. If there is no escape from this, im not going to be converted to some mutant shunned by humanity

    I fkn refuse that path.

    How the hell do i stop this shit from assaulting my body ?

    • http://www.DonForresterMD.com/ Don Forrester MD

      Practicing medicine can be a challenge. It is much easier if you have the proper diagnosis. Based on your description this doesn’t sound like HPV but you need to see your primary care physician and/or a dermatologist. The nice thing about practicing a whole plant based diet with adequate Vitamin B-12 intake is that you minimize but not eliminate alot of conditions. Good luck with obtaining an accurate diagnosis and then proper treatment.