This is not a question I’ve come across online yet, but I ran across it in real time. An acquaintance, who I’m guessing had just received some bad news, asked me this question when we were on the subject of plant-based diets. Anyway, if that person thought of it, I’m sure others have.
Unfortunately, no specific diet (plant-based or otherwise) is known to cure STDs. Treatment exists for the reversal of STDs but is limited to certain chronic infections and involves medications such as antibiotics.
According to the WHO, there are in excess of thirty different viruses, bacteria, and parasites known to be transmitted through sexual contact. Of the thirty pathogens, eight are linked to the greatest incidence of sexually transmitted disease. And finally, of the eight infections, at present four are curable: syphilis, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, and chlamydia.1
So there are four STDs that are actually curable, and the treatment depends on the specific STD. If you have one of the incurable infections, then long term management should be the goal.1
Diet does come into play in the management of certain chronic infections, and the vegan diet may have many benefits in this regard. So, read on if you want to know more.
Why Can’t Some STDs Be Cured?
Well, it has to do with something called selective toxicity. Most (not all) of the curable infections are bacterial, while most of the incurable infections are viral.
Think of it this way: when a surface in your kitchen or bathroom is contaminated with pathogens, you can blast them with the most corrosive cleaner you can find, because you’re not too worried about the surface of your kitchen being collateral damage.
But if you became infected by a pathogen, you wouldn’t just chug down the foamy bathroom cleaner, because while it may clean out the pathogen, it would certainly damage your own cells.
Now, when your body’s normal defenses can’t prevent or overcome a disease on its own, the infection can be treated with an outside source, but it has to be the right drug in the right amount.
Unlike disinfectants used on kitchen surfaces, antimicrobial drugs need to act within the host without damaging it. I.e. damage the microbe without damaging the host. Hence, selective toxicity.2
Knowing Your Enemy—There’s a Fungus Among Us!
With this in mind, remember from high school biology class that there are a couple of major classifications of cells: prokaryotic and eukaryotic (I guess all the good names were taken).
Bacteria are prokaryotic while our bodies, along with fungi and protozoa, are eukaryotic. For this reason, researchers have had a pretty easy time finding drugs that are effective against the former (bacteria), without hurting the latter (human cells).2
Taking the Clean Shot
So when you want to target a pathogen in a cell, you need to avoid hitting the hostages.
How is this possible? Well, the two types of cells differ substantially in many ways
- The presence or absence of cell walls—human cells don’t have walls, so if a chemical specializes in targeting these, it’s no skin off our nose (an old dad phrase meaning we’re not worried about it).
- The ribosomes—machinery inside the cells—can vary in structure.
- Details of their metabolism—if you want to target some aspect of the metabolism that’s specific to the pathogen, you can do that so long as the mechanisms aren’t shared by the metabolism of your own cells.2
As you can see, selective toxicity has many targets. The problem of selectively targeting a pathogen without damaging human cells becomes much more difficult when the microbe is a eukaryotic cell, such as a fungus, helminth, protozoan.
Just so you know, the latter two are parasites. Protozoa is (or often is) a parasite, but it’s single-celled. A helminth is a tiny little worm, so it’s a multicellular parasite. Though the worm is multicellular, it’s still invisible to the naked eye, so it qualifies as a microbe.
Now it can be done. In fact, one of the four curable infections is trichomoniasis—a common STD caused by infection by a protozoan parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. It’s just that at the cell level, these organisms resemble human cells more than bacteria cells.
So, in the end, you just have fewer options in terms of which angles you can hit them from. The arsenal against these types of pathogens is just a lot more limited than the massive arsenal of antibacterial drugs.
Now viral infections, which aren’t cells at all, are uniquely difficult to treat.
- These little guys are tiny, so they exist inside the host’s cell
- They contain genetic information which directs the human cell to make viruses instead of doing what normal cells do—making normal cell stuff.
Most of the common STDs that are incurable are viral, but the principle of selective toxicity still applies.
Specifically, the four infections lacking a known cure include:
- Hepatitis B—“hep-“ is the medical prefix for liver, while “-itis” means inflammation. Hepadnaviridae is a virus that causes inflammation of the liver.
- Herpes simplex virus—a viral infection, caused by a group of herpes viruses. They can produce genital inflammation, cold sores, or conjunctivitis (inflammation or swelling of the conjunctiva—the thin tissue lining the inner surface of the eyelid). The latter (conjunctivitis) is similar to some of the manifestations of vitamin A deficiency.
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)—the virus that leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)
- Trichomoniasis human papillomavirus (HPV)—a group of over 100 viruses.
So, What Can Be Done For a Chronic Infection?
I can only speak to nutrition, which I will touch on next. But for now, here are some resources:
- Hepatitis B: https://www.cdc.gov/std/tg2015/hepatitis.htm#hepB
- Herpes treatment: https://www.cdc.gov/std/tg2015/herpes.htm
- HIV treatment: https://aidsinfo.nih.gov/understanding-hiv-aids/fact-sheets/21/51/hiv-treatment–the-basics
- HPV: https://www.cdc.gov/hpv/index.html
Diet and Chronic Infectious Disease
So, is there any intersection between diet and the management of STDs? Let alone the vegan diet?
There are established guidelines in medical nutrition therapy (MNT) that dietitians are to refer to when counseling those with severe conditions such as HIV and AIDs. HIV is a serious condition that compromises one’s immune system, making it possible for one to get extremely sick or even die from common infections. For this reason, the goals of MNT in the management of HIV include eating to optimize ones immune function and avoid exposure to foodborne illness.
According to L. Kathleen Manahan and Janice L Raymond, authors of Krause’s Food and the Nutrition Care Process, “Proper nutrition may help maintain lean body mass, reduce the severity of HIV-related symptoms, improve quality of life, and enhance adherence to and effectiveness of ART.”3
For folks living with HIV, nutrition intake that’s adequate and balanced is essential in maintaining a healthy immune system and to prolong life. Plant-based eating can go a long way in bolstering one’s immune system, however, the potential for foodborne illness applies to plant foods as well as any other.
Maintenance of lean body mass is also a priority for dietitians in counseling patients with HIV. It’s been documented that both children and adults living with HIV have a lower fat-free mass and total fat mass.4 Proper nutrition with sufficient protein can help maintain lean body mass.
What About Regular Old Venereal Disease
Nutrition can be important insofar as it influences immunity. Perhaps I’ll write an article on the best foods that have been shown to boost immunity. A well-planned vegan whole food diet can help your body be as healthy as it can be while living with a chronic infection.
Trust me, you can be infection free and far from healthy, with clogged arteries, etc. Likewise, you can have a chronic infection, but if you eat healthily, remain active, and follow your doctor’s orders, it’s possible to be much healthier than those around you who are infection free.
- Sexually Transmitted Infections (stis) https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/sexually-transmitted-infections-(stis)
- Tortora, Funke & Case, Microbiology: An Introduction | Pearson
- Krause’s Food & the Nutrition Care Process L. Mahan-Janice Raymond – Elsevier – 2017
- American Dietetic Association: Position paper on nutrition intervention and human immunodeficiency virus infection, J Am Diet Assoc 110:1105, 2010.