This study is the first to reveal this link.
In a first, researchers who followed a group of women for over a decade have suggested that stress and depression play a significant role in whether a woman can fight off a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection naturally or not, as well as alcohol, cigarette, and drug use. Certain strains of HPV that remain in a woman’s system can eventually lead to cervical cancer.
From the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, the team of scientists began studying 333 women volunteers in 2000. On average, the women were about 19 years old when the study began, and they came into the lab every six months so the researchers could take samples for HPV.
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During the 11th year of the study, the women completed a questionnaire that measured their levels of depression and stress as well as how they coped with stress. Then, the researchers compared their responses to whether they had HPV persistence, which means that that they still tested positive for the virus.
The researchers say that the body’s immune system tends to fight off HPV within a couple of years after exposure, but they found a troubling link between HPV persistence and stress, depression, alcohol and drug use.
"Women who reported self-destructive coping strategies, like drinking, smoking cigarettes or taking drugs when stressed, were more likely to develop an active HPV infection," principal investigator Anna-Barbara Moscicki, chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine and professor of pediatrics at UCLA, said in a press release.
"We also found that women who were depressed or perceived themselves to have lots of stress were more likely to have HPV persistence," she said, noting that this is the first study to reveal these connections between stress and HPV persistence.
There’s an extensive amount of research that links stress to negative health effects, says Moscicki. For instance, previous studies have demonstrated that stress can lead to higher numbers of herpes outbreaks in those infected with the virus.
She says that the new HPV study may support the theory that stress is related to abnormal immune responses.
"HPV infections are the cause of cervical cancers. But HPV infections are extremely common, and only the few infections that continue years beyond initial infection are at risk of developing cervical cancer," Moscicki added. "This is alarming since many of these women acquired their persistent infection as adolescents."
She suggests that women with HPV infections should be advised that stress reduction could help them naturally clear their infection, and that drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or using drugs may inhibit their ability to steer clear of HPV persistence.
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