Hormones play an important role in the body’s chemical messaging system. Hormones help direct and regulate many bodily processes. Like most systems, hormones operate within a delicate balance that can lead to undesirable symptoms and disease when disturbed.
We have talked a lot about the importance of lifestyle and dietary factors as well as genetics and nutrient levels in the progression of HPV. But how do hormones fit into all of this?
Here is what we know.
Hormones and HPV
The role of hormones in the development of HPV first started to be explored following findings that HPV infections were more common in individuals on oral contraceptive pills (OCPs) and women with multiple pregnancies.
There is a two to four-fold increase in HPV persistence in individuals on the OCP than non-OCP users. The risk increases the longer the individual is on birth control and declines once they go off it. The mechanism that might explain this is the increase in synthetic estrogen delivered through the OCP, leading to an increase in estrogen in the blood.
In individuals with seven or more pregnancies, cervical cancer risk increases 3.8-fold as well. Like the OCP, pregnant women are exposed to elevated estrogen levels, which may explain the correlation.
To further understand the estrogen-HPV link, mouse studies have been conducted. In one study mice were injected with estrogen for 6 months or 9 months. All mice in the study developed cervical tumors. However, the mice that were given estrogen for longer (9 months, instead of 6 months) showed a significant increase in the number of tumors and their size. Moreover, the mice treated for less time saw a reduction in tumors compared to those treated for 9 months. This suggests that the longer the exposure to estrogen, the higher incidence of cervical tumor number and size.
The study also helped shed light on the part of cancer development impacted by estrogen. Because tumor growth was seen in all mice, estrogen appeared to initiate tumor development. Additionally, the increased growth in the 9-month group also supports estrogen’s role in cancer progression.
It is important to note that this study was done in mice models and therefore may not be replicable in humans. Nevertheless, these findings may warrant more caution used with OCPs in HPV-infected individuals and increased screening in women with more pregnancies.
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A Bit About The Hormone Estrogen
Estrogen is a sex hormone. Both males and females carry this hormone, but it plays a larger role in the development of the female reproductive tract. Estrogen is typically released cyclically during the menstrual cycle to stimulate the growth of the egg follicle and the endometrium lining to prepare the uterus for a possible pregnancy. Estrogen also contributes to many other bodily processes like cognitive health and the cardiovascular system.
Estrogen levels fluctuate among different individuals and can vary over the month and lifetime. The fluctuations can alter growth processes in the body, influence mood, and create symptoms like hot flashes during menopause.
While estrogen generally supports bodily processes, the hormone is carcinogenic in certain doses and can contribute to the formation and growth of tumors. Excess or lost estrogen can also lead to disruptions in the menstrual cycle and increase symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.
Other Estrogen Exposures
In addition to OCPs and pregnancy, estrogen levels may be increased through other external sources or xenoestrogens. Many foods, environmental contaminants, and personal care products have been found to contain hormone modulating chemicals that mimic estrogen in the body. Accumulated exposure to these compounds may disrupt normal hormone levels and contribute to estrogen-related cancers.
Research has found an increased risk of gender-related cancers and xenoestrogen exposure. However, we currently do not have a good understanding of the cumulative impact of these hormone disruptive chemicals on cervical cancer.
How to support healthy estrogen levels
- Avoid the OCP: Given the strong association between OCP and HPV, alternative birth control options may be preferred to reduce the risk of HPV.
- Buy organic foods: pesticides, chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics added to some foods can alter natural hormone levels in humans. Focus on antibiotic-free and organic produce and meats as much as possible to limit exposure to harmful estrogens.
- Eat your fruits and vegetables: eating a diversity of plant foods supplies the body with the micronutrients and antioxidants to support healthy detoxification. The liver and gastrointestinal system are primarily responsible for metabolizing and eliminating estrogen to keep them in a healthy balance. Green leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables (Brussel sprouts, kale, cauliflower, cabbage) are especially helpful in supporting liver metabolism. Aim for 7-10 servings of plants a day.
- Consume flaxseeds: flax is a phytoestrogen, a form of estrogen we get from foods. Phytoestrogens have been found to support healthy hormone levels. Aim for 1-2 tbsp of ground flaxseed per day.