Most of us have no problem casually mentioning, say, our high blood pressure or diabetes to perfect strangers. But when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), most of us would rather crawl into a dark cave than discuss these types of anatomically awkward conditions with our close friends or doctors.
However, physicians know full well the seriousness and scope of these scarlet-lettered maladies, which, when left unmentioned and untreated, can cause significant physical and psychological harm. And if you think you have no chance of having a sexually transmitted disease, think again. If you’ve ever had sex—even if it’s been with the same partner for years—you could potentially, and even unknowingly, have an infection.
But no need to jump out of the sack just yet. Safe sex reduces your risk tremendously, and regular checkups with your doctor will help you catch and treat any problems that do come up.
Why you should talk to your doctor
Most STDs cause heartbreaking complications if left unattended. Hope to have children one day? An untreated infection could hurt your chances of getting pregnant later in life or harm your unborn child. It could even increase your odds of getting cancer. But don’t consider a diagnosis an automatic death sentence. These culturally maligned conditions can be managed with an ounce of prevention and a stockpile of effective, natural treatments.
It might surprise you to learn that one out of five Americans over age 12 has genital herpes—although many show few or no signs of its culprit, the herpes simplex virus type-2 (HSV-2). When HSV-2 does flare up, its blisters and sores cause pain, and the chance of infecting someone else increases. So if you do have herpes, talk to your partner as soon as possible. The last thing you want to do is give him or her this lifetime STD. Can’t even imagine how to broach topic? See “Coming Clean” below.
While you can’t cure HSV-2 with any medication or treatment, you can help keep the virus in check by supporting your immune system. Do this and you’ll have fewer and less severe outbreaks—and possibly even rid your body of HSV-2 over the long haul.
The conventional treatment:
Most doctors prescribe antiviral drugs, like Valtrex or Acyclovir, for HSV-2 sufferers. While effective at helping to prevent full-blown outbreaks and reducing the severity of flare-ups, these drugs target the symptoms (not the underlying problem) and come with some uncomfortable side effects like nausea and painful periods.
The natural treatment:
The No. 1 thing you can do is reduce your stress. A 2007 study out of London’s Imperial College Healthcare linked chronic stress, a potent immunosuppressant, to higher recurrence rates of genital herpes. “Dedicated stress management boosts the immune system’s function,” which helps lessen HSV-2’s impact on the body, says David Goldmeier, MD, the study’s lead author. So give stress busters like yoga, t’ai chi, cycling, and hiking a shot.
Ionic zinc preparations may help stop lesions from forming (try Zicam or Novitra). The amino acid supplement L-lysine can also help keep HSV-2 in check. Docs recommend 1,000 mg three times a day, but you can also find small amounts in foods like fish, beef, cheese, and beans. Foods high in the amino acid arginine, on the other hand, may actually contribute to outbreaks. Steer clear of chocolate, oats, white flour, soybeans, and peanuts, all of which have high levels of arginine.
When outbreaks do occur, topically apply soothing anti-inflammatories like aloe, liquid vitamin E, zinc cream, propolis (from bee resin), olive leaf extract, or a calendula mother tincture diluted in water (1:5 ratio).
Busting bacterial infections
If you have a bacterial STD, such as chlamydia, syphilis, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), or gonorrhea, even holistic healthcare providers recommend a course of antibiotics. Antibiotics kill the culpable bacteria much faster and more efficiently than natural meds and also prevent them from affecting the rest of the body.
However, antibiotics can compromise your immune system and kill the gut’s beneficial bacteria, so you should supplement with probiotics as soon as you’re done with your meds. Take one or two capsules a day (each containing 5 to 10 billion CFUs of live probiotics) to replenish your normal flora.
Here’s a sobering statistic: 50 percent of all sexually active men and women will have genital human papillomavirus (HPV) at some point in their lives. Interestingly, few people show any symptoms of the disease and, in fact, most people’s immune systems take care of the infection before they even realize they have it (check out “Immune-Boosting Action Plan” below). However, a few high-risk HPV strains can cause cervical cancers—keeping current with your annual Pap smear is the best way to stay ahead of the risk.
And men, you (and your partner) need to get checked for genital warts, which result from the low-risk types of the HPV virus. While they won’t turn into or cause cancer, these cauliflower-looking bumps are highly contagious, so speak up and get treated.
The conventional treatment:
Docs tend to excise the warts with chemicals, surgery, or by freezing them, but these procedures can be painful and can cause scars.
The natural treatment:
For genital warts, topical vitamin E and garlic oils help heal the skin and fight the virus. Apply, cover, and repeat twice a day for one week or more.
You can diminish outbreaks of all HPV strains by boosting the immune system (see “Immune-Boosting Action Plan” on page 50), according to John Neustadt, ND, medical director of Montana Integrative Medicine in Bozeman. With healthy immune support, the body can often fight off the virus on its own.
If you need more aggressive treatment of external genital warts, you may need to turn to prescription medicine, but some options are more natural than others. Ask your doctor about podofilox (brand name Condylox), derived from mandrake root. This gel kills the infected cells that cause the warts. For stubborn cases, a more potent form of this mandrake derivative, podophyllin resin, can help, but it has to be administered by your doctor. Sinecatechins ointment (branded Veregen) made from an extract of green tea leaves has also shown good results in eliminating external genital warts. Just to be safe, pregnant women should skip these treatments.
Take that next step
Don’t put it off any longer. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of an STD. Talk to your lover. Your health and emotional well-being depend on it. We indeed have private parts, but no secrets should exist between us and the people who care about our health.
Kris Kucera is a writer in Lisbon, Maine.
Immune-Boosting Action Plan
No matter what STD you’re battling, these supplements can help keep your immune system in top shape.
Bovine thymus. Your thymus gland, an important immune system component, functions less effectively as you age, but this supplement helps boost its disease-fighting power. Dosage: 250 mg three times daily
Vitamin C. This critical vitamin accumulates in your immune cells, maximizing their effectiveness. Dosage: 500 mg twice daily
Zinc. Your body uses this mineral to support infection-fighting white blood cells. Dosage:
15 mg once daily
Echinacea. This herb enhances your body’s ability to fight infections. Dosage: 400 mg three to six times daily
Maitake mushroom. Beta-glucan, contained within the mushroom, activates a healing response in the body. Dosage:
20 mg twice daily
Tell Your Doc What’s up
Jennifer Hillier, ND, assistant professor, Canadian College of Naturopathic
Medicine, gives some good advice for talking to your healthcare provider about
You’re not alone. It can be challenging, awkward, or even taboo for patients to talk to their healthcare practitioners about below-the-belt ailments. However, these problems are actually very common. Don’t feel like you’re alone out there—you’re not.
We’ve seen it before, honest. Doctors and naturopaths are trained to be nonjudgmental and have an open mind when it comes to all aspects of your health. And that training carries over into our practices. Besides, we really have seen practically everything, and we’re more than willing to meet with you and help with your problem.
Your health matters! As a professor and a naturopath, I tell students and patients that by addressing their sexual health, people’s lives are improved and, in some cases, lives can literally be saved. Questions about the health of the genitals are no less important than questions about heart or lung health. The sooner you involve your healthcare provider, the sooner you’ll be on the path to wellness. Only you know when your body isn’t right, and it really is useless to suffer unnecessarily. Make that appointment!
Telling your partner or future partners about your condition doesn’t have to be as hard as you think. Before you bare all, remember these suggestions from Jennifer Hillier, ND, assistant professor, Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine.
Be honest. Telling a sexual partner about something that can impact his health is an important part of any relationship.
Know what you’re talking about. Do research and ask your doctor for any handouts that can help answer any questions your partner may have—no doubt he will have some!
Be understanding. Finding out that you have an STD may be distressing for you and your partner. He may be worried about your health, his own health, or the future of your relationship. Be compassionate and prepared for a wide range of emotions.
Don’t delay. Every encounter raises the risk of infecting your partner, whether you use protection or not. As soon as you know about an STD, tell your partner so that you can both understand any risk you may be taking.