According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cervical cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths among women. And we've all heard the recommendation to get a Pap test. But when it comes to what the cervix actually is and what it does, how much do you know?
It’s Cervical Health Awareness Month, so let’s get better acquainted with ours by learning some of its amazing functions and understanding how to care for it—including preventative measures and your nutrition.
The Gateway to Your Fertility
Let’s review the basics. For starters, the cervix is the short, cylindrical lower part of the uterus that connects your uterus to your vagina. Depending on hormonal levels, the cervix changes shape and even texture.
It is important to be proactive in taking care of your cervical health because the cervix protects the rest of the female reproductive system by being a gateway to your uterus and, thus, your fertility. As it changes shape and texture in response to hormone levels, it also changes the type of cervical fluid it produces in order to allow or prevent sperm from passing through. This is a vital function of fertility and one that we almost don’t even notice unless we are charting the signs every day.
In the days leading up to ovulation, the cervix is soft and open, allowing sperm to pass through. For a few days before you ovulate and on the day of ovulation, it also produces a type of cervical fluid that is clear, stretchy, and lubricative due to high estrogen and low progesterone levels. Under a microscope, this fertile type of cervical fluid appears as elongated channels. Sperm can swim through and live in these channels for several days.
Conversely, after you ovulate estrogen levels suddenly drop off, and progesterone levels begin to rise. The cervix becomes harder and more closed (after ovulation, there is no reason for your body to allow sperm to pass through because there is no longer a living egg present and ready for fertilization). After ovulation, your cervix also stops producing the fertile-type cervical fluid. Instead, it starts producing a type of fluid that, under a microscope, literally looks like a stone wall. The sperm can’t swim or live in it, and die within a few minutes to hours in this now inhospitable environment.
Promoting Health Is More Than Eliminating Risks
Some of the risk factors for developing cervical cancer are similar to those of other cancers, like smoking and long-term use of oral contraceptives. Thankfully, largely due to better and widespread screening procedures and public health campaigns to increase awareness, the numbers of deaths from cervical cancer have decreased significantly in recent years. Up to 93% of cervical cancers are preventable, and we have to keep working toward getting the number of preventable cancer cases down to zero.
If you are a woman between 21 and 65 years old, it is important to get regular Pap Tests to screen for abnormal cervical cells that may turn cancerous. You should also ask for an HPV test, as not all Pap tests automatically screen for HPV. The vast majority of cervical cancer cases are the result of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common STI passed from one person to another during sex or intimate skin-to-skin contact, according to the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC).
If you are not sexually active, the CDC advises, "If your test results are normal, you can wait 3 years for your next Pap test." Women who are sexually active, especially if you have had more than one sexual partner, should have a Pap and HPV test at least once a year. Be aware that you can have a Pap test that comes back normal, yet you may test positive for HPV. If you do, you'll need to take more frequent Pap smears to keep an eye out for any abnormalities that could signal cervical cancer.
Eating Your Way to Better Cervical Health
In addition to Pap smears and HPV tests, nutrition can play a role in your cervix's health and resilience against infection. Emily Kennedy, a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, FertilityCare Practitioner and blogger for Natural Womanhood, shares that your cervix responds negatively to chronic inflammation associated with low-nutrient, high-inflammatory diets. Emily says, “Keeping your cervix on the calm, un-inflammed side bodes well for your entire reproductive system—and it means you are taking good care of the rest of your body too, from the inside out. Feeding vulnerable cervical cells foods that do not help them combat oxidative stress puts your entire system at risk for inflammation.”
Emily also recommends staying away from anti-nutrients, like sugar, and taking care of your overall wellness. “Staying on top of stress management for resistance to viruses including HPV. Viruses love to attack when our defenses are down. Both excessive sugar intake and chronic or acute stress diverts attention away from keeping the bad guys out of our vital parts.”
Vitamin C and Vitamin D
Vitamin D and Vitamin C decrease inflammation throughout your body, including your cervix. Resulting metabolites go to cervical cells and encourage any precancerous cells to either adapt or die. Nature Immunology describes how these nutrients stimulate the immune system to help fight off the strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer. Emily recommends taking Vitamin D supplements during the winter. Beyond the usual citrus suspects, you can get Vitamin C from antioxidant-rich fruits such as guava, kiwi, strawberries, and cantaloupe. These have been shown to reduce the risk of cervical cancer, according to Gynecology Oncology.
There are two probiotic Lactobacillus strains—Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14—that have been associated with an improvement in cervical flora. The cervix, like the gut, naturally has bacterial strains living in it. It is important that there are more "good" than "bad" strains which create infections. Coconut milk yogurt (which is non-dairy) is a fun source of of L. rhamanosus and L. reuteri. Emily suggests trying it in a smoothie, with granola, or plain.
Cancer Prevention Research Journal reports increased levels of folate have been associated with a decreased chance of being diagnosed with abnormal cervical cells that may later turn into cancer. That’s one great reason to get leafy greens into your daily diet! It may be especially important for those who use hormonal birth control, as there is some evidence as described by the University of Maryland Medical Center showing pill users have lower levels of folate. Emily says, "Aim to enjoy a wide variety to get all different forms of this important nutrient. You can't go wrong getting 5 cups of folate-rich veggies in per day. Spinach, turnip greens, bok choy and parsley are top sources, but I could name a dozen others that are almost on par." Asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli also top the high-folate list.
Lastly, excess estrogen levels have been linked to several female cancers, including cervical. Cruciferous vegetables (including cauliflower, cabbage, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and horseradish) help eliminate excess estrogen in the body. They contain a certain compound called Indole-3-carbinol, that decreases estrogen activity in the body thereby reducing cancer risk. Emily recommends making sure some of your daily vegetable intake includes at least a couple of these cruciferous veggies.
Your cervix is doing a lot for you every month as it fulfills its role as the gateway to your uterus and your fertility. Why not do something in return today, such as eating a few kiwis or some cauliflower? Your cervix thanks you in advance.
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