More in periods and birth control…

John Rock’s Error: What the co-inventor of the Pill didn’t know about menstruation can endanger women’s health.

I just read this absolutely fascinating article on the development of the birth control pill and its ramifications for women’s health. It completely debunks the idea that having a period every month is in any way “natural”. You all should read it. Seriously. Even you men. (Well, I guess the gay ones are excepted, but you still might find it interesting.)

It starts off talking about Dr. John Rock, the Catholic doctor credited with inventing the Pill, and his belief that the Church would approve it as a “natural” method of contraception. After all, human females already have a safe time each month where they can’t conceive, and all the Pill does is provide more of the body’s own hormones to extend that time frame. The Church already approved the rhythm method and Dr. Rock saw the Pill as merely a regulator and helper for that. As we all know, the Pope didn’t quite agree.The second part of the article is about the research of Beverly Strassmann, who travelled to Africa in the 80’s and lived with a tribe for two years. They use no contraception and live as they did thousands of years ago. She reckoned that by observing the women’s reproductive lives she’d be able to see what really was “natural”. In the end, her records showed that healthy women spent most of their lives not menstruating (either from pregnancy, breastfeeding, or menopause). These “natural” women had on average 100 periods over the course of their lifetimes. Western women average around 350-400. From the article:

In other words, what we think of as normal–frequent menses–is in evolutionary terms abnormal. “It’s a pity that gynecologists think that women have to menstruate every month,” Strassmann went on. “They just don’t understand the real biology of menstruation.”

The last part of the article delves into the health problems menstruating causes (and we’re not talking PMS here). Every time you have cell division, there’s an increased risk of cancer. The monthly hormonal fluctuations caused by menstruation result in a lot of cell division. Researchers have long wondered by Japanese women have a much lower risk of breast cancer than Western women. Two scientists named Pike and Henderson were able to correlate this increased risk with a number of hormone and period-related factors: age of first period, weight, and diet. Japenese women weigh less, eat less fat, and start menstruating later in life. This means on average they produce 75% of the estrogen Western women do. Pike reckons that by limiting the amounts of progestin women have (which is augmented by the Pill), their risk of breast and ovarian cancer would fall dramatically. He’s now working on a new contraceptive inhaler that would do just that.

The article concludes by returning to Dr. Rock, who felt so let down by the Church’s decision about the Pill that he lost his faith entirely. He died poor and alone. I was left feeling sorry for him but amazed at the effects of his work. We modern folks tend to think that we’re so advanced but in reality we’re just bumbling and stumbling. Our knowledge of one of the vital processes of life is laughably vague. Sure, we don’t necessarily have to sit in a menstrual hut every month anymore, but modern women are still exposing themselves to unnecessary trials and risks.

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  1. It is an idea that I think most woman would jump all over. Except…

    “A woman’s psyche is intimately connected to her monthly flow of hormones. Hormones not only direct and determine physiological processes but also influence emotional and psychological states. Besides controlling sexual development and function, hormones also help to control growth and muscle building, regulate the digestive system, blood sugar levels, blood pressure and fluid balance. Hormones also hold the key to subjective feelings and changes in blood chemistry associated with stress. Hormonal imbalances not only create a myriad of health problems and diseases but can also undermine self-esteem, a sense of wellbeing, creativity, mental acuity and a healthy sex drive.”Sherrill Sellman

    Also, using pill users are at a higher risk for breast cancer. I am considered high risk because the last three genertions of woman in my family had breast cancer. Three Gyn’s suggested I not use the pill.

    Fucking with your bodies natural rhythem can cause more problems in the long run. I would rather have my period for 7 days a month than increase my chances for breast cancer or decreasing my sex drive, or screw with my blood sugar levels, etc. The list above my Sellman is pretty scary.

  2. But the whole point of the article was that what we consider to be “natural rhythm” isn’t natural at all. You might as well be arguing that we should all be pregnant most of our lives, because that’s what is most “natural”. Having a period a month is just as fucked up from an evolutionary standpoint, really. Who’s to say that my Depo Provera shot, which mimics the hormonal pregnant state I’d have spent most of my life in 100 years ago, isn’t therefore more “natural” overall? Maybe we’d all feel *less* stressed emotionally if our bodies weren’t going up and down the hormonal rollercoaster every month?

    As for your personal risk of breast cancer, it probably has everything to do with your family history. The research in the article I linked flat out stated that most scientists now agree that the Pill has zero effect on the average woman’s cancer risk. I’m not too worried about it. (Besides, the research in the article also made the case that having a period every month actually *increases* your risk of breast cancer, thus anything that lowers the frequency of estrogen spikes will lower your risk.)

    I don’t know; I just don’t buy into the whole “I should just put up with my crazy mood-altering and health-risking hormonal surges because they’re the essence of my femininity” thing. I don’t worship the moon goddess and I don’t feel having a period connects me to the circle of life. It’s painful, it’s annoying, and apparently it can be detrimental to my health. But that’s just me… I’m one of those wacky people that would prefer to be a cyborg. 🙂 I want humanity to progress beyond the stage of being mere animals. That’s why I get annoyed with having to perform so much “maintenance” every day: eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, etc. It sucks and it’s such a time waste. This is the 21st century! I should be able to get all my nutrients in pill form and excrete wastes through my pores. It’s so ridiculously PRIMITIVE that I have to sleep eight hours a night. I’d rather be a robot. 🙂

  3. How can what our bodies do naturally, not be natural? That doesn’t make sense to me.
    It is a very interesting article. Do you have any other material related to this because I am extremely interested in it.
    Thanks. 🙂

  4. Nope, I just stumbled across this one today. It’s just something I find interesting too, mostly because whenever I mention how *great* it is not to have periods, I get the whole “natural” thing thrown up in my face by women who think it’s somehow nobler to suffer pain and inconvenience than to make it go away. (Don’t they take aspirin for headaches?)

    I think the big reason this is in the news now is stuff like Seasonale, the “new” birth control pill that only causes four periods a year. In reality, it’s just the same old pill but you take 84 of them in a row without a break. The doctors and pharmalogical companies are finally admitting that there’s no harm in it. (Besides, women have been doing it for years to miss weddings and vacations.)

    I remember reading a theory back in high school that menstruation was designed to rid the female body of toxins put there by men. It was an attempt to explain why such an biologically wasteful process – the shedding of perfectly good blood – had evolved in humans but not the rest of the primates. I guess this new whole “we’re not meant to menstruate every month anyway” theory kind of blows that old one out of the water.

  5. What’s natural, anyway? Espresso drinks, allergy meds, and the internet aren’t “natural,” but they improve my quality of life. Same with my BCP’s. Sometimes we get a little too anti-technology and forget that even the arrowhead was technology, and we miss the bigger picture. The fact that I’ve been taking BCP’s for 10 years may slightly increase my risk of some types of cancer, but it decreases the risk of getting other types, decreases my risk of child-birth related death, injury, stress, etc, and reduces the pain, cramps, and inconvienience of menstrual periods, making the decision to take hormones pretty darn easy.

    So I’m not going to buy into either theory (we’re either meant to menstruate every month or we’re not) and go for the theory and science that makes the most sense for me and my body.

  6. I like this discussion! Firstly, I have a completely different attitude to you Kris. I find the thought of never menstruating scary. It’s probably irrational, but it all sounds like some freaky science-fiction novel where the entire race has been neutered and all the women walk around as period-free robots. To me the ‘living like robots’ scenario is scary and de-humanising, not desirable, but then that’s just a simple differene of opinion 🙂

    As for the health benefits, I agree with your point about 350 periods being unnatural – women’s bodies were never meant to have that many. But surely spending much of your reproductive life in a chemically-induced state of non-menstruation is completely different to spending much of your life pregnant/lactating/menopausal. The only thing those two situations have in common is that there is no menstruation – I imagine the various processes and levels of hormones involved would be completely different, so who’s to say that being on something like Depo Provera would provide health benefits (or prevent disease, etc) in the way that the natural states of pregnancy, etc do? But then I’m no scientist!

  7. Are the guys scared to comment here or what? I’d love to know what men think of all this 🙂

  8. you should talk to my doctor. she is a full on advocate of skipping as many periods as you personally feel comfortable missing. I’ll email you her details….you’d like her.

  9. Oh, to be a period-free robot! Hahaha… That’s going to look HILARIOUS on the front page of the site. 🙂 But I see what you mean, Claire. There’s just a difference of innate opinion there. I wonder if my outlook would be different if A) I had hit puberty earlier than oh, say, SIXTEEN, or B) my periods weren’t excruciatingly painful and random. I just resented them right from the start.

    I think I like Tricia’s middle ground the best. Everybody has a different situation and what’s “natural” for some might not be the same for others. I knew girls in college, for instance, who had very light periods with no cramps. (I hated them.) For me, the benefits of not having far outweigh any feminine guilt.

    Thanks for the offer, Amy! I’m pretty happy with mine though. They’ve been shooting me up with Depo every three months since 2001, and what’s more, they bulk bill. Very important when you’re lazy, no-private-insurance-having slackers like us. 🙂

  10. I think that the whole menstruation point is really interesting- i read somwhere that actually, it is not a natural process- that many years ago, when we ate more fruit and veg (mainly raw) and nuts and seeds etc., that the blood lining the womb was simply reabsorbed into the body and there was no monthly cycle. But as our diets have become less nutritious and evolved in different ways, women have started to have these cycles. there was numerous accounts of evidence to back this up of when women have followed a mainly vegan/rawist/fruitarian diet, their periods have stopped- yet they have remained completely fertile and able to bare children. I found this really interesting..just wondered what you thought?

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