“Your pap test shows cervical dysplasia.”
Many women worry when they hear their doctors say these words. Cervical dysplasia, or abnormal cell growth on the cervix, could be a sign that cancer is developing. If untreated, cervical dysplasia may spread to the upper vagina, the uterus, and other parts of the body.
But the progression is far from inevitable. For many women, these cell abnormalities clear up on their own. And for others, the early warnings provided by annual Pap tests and the available array of herbal and medical treatments offer chances to defeat cervical dysplasia before it becomes cancer.
Who has it?
Approximately 5 percent of all Pap smear tests conducted in the United States note cervical dysplasia, with the peak incidence occurring in women aged twenty-five to thirty-five. Health practitioners know that some women are more at risk for cervical dysplasia than others, particularly those who smoke, who are vitamin-deficient, or who have been infected with the viruses that cause herpes, genital warts, or HIV.
The more advanced the dysplasia, the more likely it is to become cancerous, but even mild cervical dysplasia should be closely monitored. When a Pap test reveals cervical dysplasia, another Pap test is usually ordered to confirm the first test result. If abnormal cells are still present, a procedure called a colposcopy may be performed, which allows the doctor to examine cervical tissue in greater detail and biopsy any abnormal areas. If the cells from a follow-up Pap turn out to be premalignant, your doctor may surgically remove or otherwise destroy the offending cells.
You can help correct mild to moderate cervical dysplasia by adopting a natural health program that includes exercise and a nutrient-rich, toxin-free diet. This regime helps support the body’s immune system and cleansing abilities, two important functions when it comes to treating cervical dysplasia. The five herbal action groups described below are especially strong allies.
Whether hormone imbalance promotes dysplasia hasn’t been established by science, but we believe hormones’ intricate interplay is an important consideration. To prevent both dysplasia and cancer, we recommend herbs that increase progesterone, regulate estrogen, and reduce prolactin levels. Excessive estrogen, whether synthetic or produced by the body, can also increase the chance of cervical dysplasia or cancer.
Vitex berries (Vitex agnus-castus): Usually considered the herb of choice for cervical dysplasia, vitex helps balance progesterone levels. Scientists think that vitex works by regulating the pituitary gland, which sends chemical signals to other glands, telling them how much of each particular hormone to make.
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa): This hormone balancer acts as a mild sedative, fights inflammation, and has estrogenic properties.
Many cancers are a response to a continual irritant—such as cigarette smoke—that stimulates abnormal cell growth. Western and Chinese herbalists theorize that the liver’s inability to break down and eliminate toxic waste products may increase the chance of developing cervical dysplasia and cancer. Liver-supporting herbs also help keep excess estrogen from causing damage. Some herbs and foods can support the liver and help it detoxify the body.
Artichoke leaf (Cynara scolymus): This popular Mediterranean plant has bile-promoting qualities.
Boldo leaf (Peumus boldus): This South American herb stimulates bile flow.
Burdock root (Arctium lappa): One of the foremost detoxifying herbs, burdock root removes toxins and acts as a diuretic.
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale): A well-known and safe diuretic, dandelion root helps maintain potassium levels while eliminating excess fluid from the body.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale): This warming herb helps strengthen digestion and settle the stomach.
Milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum): Tests show that milk thistle contains silymarin, which helps protect the liver from free radicals as well as heal it.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa): Common in Indian and some Mediterranean food, this spice is tasty and good for you—it’s an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory.
Yellow dock root (Rumex crispus): Another popular cleansing herb, yellow dock root helps boost iron absorption.
Blood detoxifiers, immune stimulants
Herbalists believe that increasing elimination of waste products from the blood via the bowels and kidneys can help heal the source of many ailments. Immune stimulants such as echinacea should only be used short-term.
Echinacea leaf or root (Echinacea spp.): This native American plant is a superior immune booster.
Red clover flower (Trifolium pratense): A common American forage plant, red clover is a traditional blood tonic.
Sarsaparilla root (Smilax spp.): This original flavoring for root beer cleanses and detoxifies.
Other herbs can support the immune system in its effort to recognize abnormal cells and eliminate them from the body. Tonic herbs strengthen the immune system and help it eliminate infections quickly.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus): This herb improves immune-system vitality (for more about astragalus, see page 40).
Shiitake mushroom (Lentinula edodes): This nutritious mushroom boosts immunity and can be found fresh in the produce section of natural food stores.
Ligustrum berries (Ligustrum spp.): Good blended with astragalus, ligustrum berries protect the liver and kidneys.
Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum): This herb is a classic immune tonic known as “the mushroom of immortality” in China.
Some herbs have a mild estrogenic effect on the body and are known as plant estrogens, or phytoestrogens. They prevent human estrogen from overstimulating sensitive tissue and reduce the risk of developing cancer.
Kudzu root (Pueraria lobata): Kudzu contains the estrogenic compound daidzein.
Red clover: Flavonoids in the flowers and leaves are estrogenic.
Directly applying herbs
In addition to taking herbs, you may wish to consult your doctor about applying them internally. Naturopathic doctors can “paint” the cervix with an herbal solution that causes the cervical lining to slough away, much as occurs after cryotherapy (cold surgery). More visits to the doctor are required, however. An alternative is to make your own suppositories (suppository recipes are included in our forthcoming book, Women’s Herbs, Women’s Health from Botanica Press).
The importance of nutrients
Much research has focused on cervical dysplasia and nutrient levels. Women with cervical dysplasia often have lower-than-normal blood levels of vitamin C, folic acid, and selenium, and many physicians recommend they take these in supplement form. Taking a 10-mg folic acid supplement daily has been associated with improved Pap smears in dysplasia patients. And recent research indicates that insufficient dietary amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, riboflavin, and vitamin E are also strongly linked to the condition.
High blood levels of vitamin A, which is formed by the liver from carotenoids, have been associated with regression of cervical dysplasia. In particular, lycopene, a carotenoid found in both fresh and cooked tomatoes, seems to have a protective effect against dysplasia.
Another way to help your body is to normalize the microflora in your intestines by eating fermented foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut. Acidophilus supplements also encourage a healthy balance of microflora.
We believe that anything that lowers general immunity probably contributes to cervical dysplasia and cancer. Whenever you are trying to strengthen your immune system, avoid fried food, caffeine, and refined sugar in any form because they can increase inflammation and reduce immune function. Inflammation is closely associated with free radicals, which may also be involved in the creation of abnormal cells that may develop into tumors.
Cardiovascular exercise also increases the strength of the immune system. Daily exercise such as walking stimulates deep breathing and greatly increases the circulation of life-giving oxygen and blood. 8
These recipes incorporate herbs from each of the five herbal action groups mentioned above, but you can create your own blends. Simply select one herb from each action type, depending on availability, quality, and preference. You can use dried herbs, tinctures, tablets, or capsules. Use two parts of the hormone-regulating herb to one part of each herb from the other categories.
If you’re making a tea from dried herbs, separate them into two categories: (1) roots, berries, or barks, and (2) leaves, flowers, or other aboveground plant parts.
The roots, berries, and barks can be simmered to make a decoction, or strong tea. Bring about six cups of water to a boil and add one-fourth to one-half cup of herbs; simmer for about twenty minutes, let cool, and strain.
For leaves and flowers, make an infusion by pouring boiling water over the herbs and letting them steep for about five minutes in a covered teapot or mug.
If you’re using a prepared formula, follow the directions on the package. Several of these herbs can also simply be sprinkled into any cooked dish.