Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Is the birth control pill a cancer vaccine?

March 11th, 2014 by Holly Grigg-Spall

I’d given up reading the comments on online articles for the good of my mental health when a small slip last week steeled my resolve. In response to an article exploring the arguments made by “birth control truthers” a concerned father decided to have his say, taking the defensive arguments put forward by those in opposition to these “truthers” to their only logical conclusion:

“Perhaps we should market contraceptive pills as hormonal supplements to reduce cancer risk instead of as “contraception”? After all, it is only in modern times that women have hundreds of menstrual cycles throughout their lives. Even up until 1800 it was common for women to be either pregnant or lactating throughout much of their short lives.

The body simply wasn’t built to handle so many menstrual cycles, which raises the risk for cancer.

Who could argue with taking supplements to prevent cancer?

This may sound strange, but I am seriously considering putting my 11 year-old daughter on the pill (with no placebo) just for the health benefits. I just have to convince my wife first who is a little shocked by the idea…”

I cannot count how many times I have heard that the birth control pill “prevents cancer” – specifically “preventing” ovarian and endometrial cancer.  In the last few months I have seen references to this benefit explained less and less so as a “lowered risk” and more and more so as a “preventative” action.  I think this is significant as the word “prevent” suggests that the pill guarantees you will not get these forms of cancer. And yet, to remark that the pill is counted as a carcinogenic substance by WHO – due on the increased the risk of breast and cervical cancers – will get you tagged as a “truther.”

What is interesting, of course, is that despite the “cancer protecting” benefits of pregnancy, and early pregnancy at that, we do not see women encouraged to get pregnant in order to lower their risk of ovarian cancer.  Criticism of child-free women does not generally include comments about their lax attitude towards their own health. The risk goes down further with every pregnancy and further still with breast feeding, especially breast feeding for a long period of time after birth. Women who have children young, and multiple children, have a lower risk of breast cancer than women who have no children or children after 30. Yet we see more talk of women having “too many” children at an age that is “too young” – in fact I was contacted via Twitter by someone who read this piece and who saw, in the comments, that one woman who uses natural family planning admitted to both liking the method and having 14 children. This admission disgusted the person who contacted me, even when I pointed out that it seemed the woman had very much chosen to have those 14 children.

It seems the people who are advocating prescription of the pill for cancer prevention purposes are not advocating women have children earlier, more children, or consider breast feeding for the good of their own health – in fact two of the loudest critics of my “birth control truther” book are vehemently against pregnancy and breast feeding being part of women’s lives (Amanda Marcotte and Lindsay Beyerstein). The risks of the pill are frequently compared to the health risks associated with pregnancy and child birth,  but we don’t often hear women say they are choosing to not have children to avoid putting their health at risk for nine or so months.

Which leads me to this article in the LA Times that suggested nuns should also be on the birth control pill for its cancer-protecting abilities:

“And are the pills really unnatural? Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had their babies four or five years apart, because of long intervals of breastfeeding. As a result of that and their shorter life spans, they had as few as 40 menstrual cycles in a lifetime, while a modern woman can have 400. Though we can’t claim that today’s pills are perfect, their use is certainly less unnatural than enduring the hormone turmoil of hundreds of menstrual cycles.

The Big, Fat, Menstrual Untruth in Cameron Diaz’s The Body Book

February 5th, 2014 by Laura Wershler

I was curious. If Cameron Diaz’s purpose in writing  The Body Book: The Law of Hunger, the Science of Strength, and Other Ways to Love Your Amazing Body was empowerment, helping women to understand how their bodies work, would she include information about the menstrual cycle?

There was no way of knowing from her Jan. 22, 2014 radio interview with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC’s Q. I listened to Diaz explain that conversations she’d had and overheard in the last few years made it clear to her that women are completely confused about their bodies. She said this had her thinking, “Wow, that’s such a crazy thing that after so many years of living in your body that you actually don’t have an understanding of it.”

Then she revealed her intention in writing the book – to empower women to make “informed decisions about their nutrition and their physical activity.” Judging from this comment, the book’s subtitle, and the fact she did not mention menstruation during the interview, I wondered if the menstrual cycle would even be mentioned.

I sought out The Body Book at my local bookstore and quickly scanned the table of contents and index. I found myself smiling, thinking about Betty Dodson, author of Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving, and how she revealed in Chapter 1 that whenever she gets a new sex book she “immediately” looks up “‘masturbation’ to see where the author really stands on sex.” Whenever I see a new book about women’s health I look up “menstruation” to see what the author really knows about the menstrual cycle. Turns out Diaz, and/or her co-author Sandra Bark, know both a lot and not so much.

In Chapter 21, Your Lady Body (the book’s introduction starts with the salutation Hello, Lady!), she presents a fairly accurate endocrinological description of the three phases of the menstrual cycle: follicular, ovulatory, luteal. So far so good. But then, in the last paragraph of the luteal phase section, comes the big, fat menstrual untruth, the implication that whether you use hormonal birth control or not, this is how your menstrual cycle unfolds. It’s an absolute falsehood, and one that many women in this age of burgeoning body literacy are sure to see through.

Photo Illustration by Laura Wershler
Note: This is the only reference to contraception in The Body Book

The last paragraph of this luteal phase description (page 182) is ridiculously misleading. If a woman’s birth control method is the pill, patch, ring, implant or (Depo-) Provera shot, the synthetic hormones each contains will shut down her normal menstrual cycle function. She most definitely will not experience a cycle with follicular, ovulatory and luteal phases. Hormonal contraception does not “protect” her eggs. She will not ovulate, therefore the egg will not die. She may have a “withdrawal bleed” but it is not a true period. This is the truth.

I can understand, possibly, why Diaz made this egregious implication. What were her choices? Open a can of worms? State categorically, as every description of menstrual cycle function should, that you don’t ovulate or experience a normal menstrural cycle while taking hormonal contraception? 
Maybe something like this?

Hey Lady! If you use hormonal birth control none of this fascinating menstrual information applies to you. Wish I could tell you what this means for your health and fitness but, sorry, that’s beyond my area of expertise.

If Diaz’s intention for this book is to empower women to better understand their bodies, then she failed when it comes to the menstrual cycle. I hope she’ll correct this big mistake in any future editions.

Stopping Depo-Provera: Why and what to do about adverse experiences

April 11th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

Laura Wershler interviews Ask Jerilynn, clinician-scientist and endocrinologist

A screen shot of comments to Laura Wershler’s blog post of April 4, 2012: “Coming off Depo-Provera can be a woman’s worst nightmare.”

With 250 comments – and counting – to my year-old post Coming off Depo-Provera is a women’s worst nightmare (April 4, 2012) I thought it was time to revisit this topic.

That blog post has become a forum for women to share their negative experiences with stopping Depo-Provera (also called “the shot,” or Depo), the four-times-a-year contraceptive injection. (Commenters reporting positive experiences have been extremely rare.) Many women have experienced distressing effects either while taking Depo and/or after stopping it. They report that health-care professionals seem unable to explain their problems or to offer effective solutions. What is puzzling for many is why they are experiencing symptoms like sore breasts, heavy and ongoing bleeding (or not getting flow back at all), digestive problems, weight gain and mood issues when they stop Depo.

This post aims to briefly explain how Depo works to prevent pregnancy, its common side effects and, most importantly, why and what to do about adverse experiences when stopping it.

What follows is my interview with Dr. Jerilynn C. Prior, Society for Menstrual Cycle Research board member, professor of endocrinology at the University of British Columbia, and scientific director of the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research (CeMCOR) Section 1 explains how Depo-Provera works and what causes its side effects. Section 2  explains the symptoms women are experiencing after stopping the drug.

1) Taking Depo-Provera: How it works and established side effects

Laura Wershler (LW): Dr. Prior, what is Depo-Provera® and how does it prevent pregnancy?

Ask Jerilynn: The term, “depo” means a deposit or injection and Provera is a common brand name of the most frequently used synthetic progestin in North America, medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA). Depo is a shot of MPA given every three months in the large dose of 150 mg. Depo prevents pregnancy by “drying up” the cervical mucus so sperm have trouble swimming, by thinning the endometrium (uterine lining) so a fertilized egg can’t implant and primarily by suppressing the hypothalamic and pituitary signals that coordinate the menstrual cycle. That means a woman’s own hormone levels become almost as low as in menopause, with very low progesterone and lowered estrogen levels.

LW: Could you explain the hormonal changes behind the several established side effects of Depo? Let’s start with bleeding issues including spotting, unpredictable or non-stop bleeding that can last for several months before, in most women, leading to amenorrhea (no menstrual period).

Ask Jerilynn: It is not entirely clear, but probably the initial unpredictable bleeding relates to how long it takes for this big hormone injection to suppress women’s own estrogen levels. The other reason is that where the endometrium has gotten thin it is more likely to break down and bleed. These unpredictable flow side-effects of Depo are something that women should expect and plan for since they occur in the early days of use for every woman. After the first year of Depo (depending on the age and weight of the woman) about a third of women will have no more bleeding.

LW: What about headaches and depression?

Ask Jerilynn: It is not clear why headaches increase on Depo—they tend not to be serious migraine headaches but are more stress type. Perhaps they are related to the higher stress hormones the body makes whenever estrogen levels drop. Unfortunately, headaches tend to increase over time, rather than getting better as the not-so-funny bleeding does.

The reasons for depression are mysterious to me but this is an important adverse effect. I believe that anyone who has previously had an episode of depression (whether diagnosed or not, but sufficient to interfere with life and work) should avoid Depo.

LW: Although there has been little discussion about bone health concerns on the previous blog post, I think we should address the fact that Depo causes bone loss. How does it do this?

Does it matter that hormonal contraceptives are endocrine disrupting chemicals?

March 6th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

I’ve been wading through State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals – 2012. The 289-page report was prepared by a group of experts for the United Nations Environmental Programme and World Health Organization.

It is dense and complex, but what I’ve been looking for is any acknowledgement that hormonal contraceptives are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).

Hormonal contraceptives clearly act as EDCs according to the definition used in this report:

An endocrine disruptor is an exogenous substance or mixture that alters function(s) of the endocrine system and consequently causes adverse health effects in an intact organism, or its progeny, or (sub) populations. A potential endocrine disruptor is an exogenous substance or mixture that possesses properties that might be expressed to lead to endocrine disruption in an intact organism, or its progeny, or (sub) populations.

Adverse health effects would include, in this context, anything that disrupts the reproductive systems of humans (and wildlife) or contributes to other health problems such as hormone-related cancers, thyroid-related disorders, cardiovascular disease, bone disorders, metabolic disorders and immune function impairment. Hormonal contraceptives certainly disrupt the reproductive system and have been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular events, loss of bone density, decreased immune function and, in some studies, increased risk for breast cancer. Metabolic disorders? Recent research suggests that long-acting progestin-based birth control may increase risk in obese women for Type 2 diabetes.

The only mention I could find of specific contraceptive chemicals is in section 3.1: The EDCs of concern. In a table under the sub-heading Pesticides, pharmaceuticals and personal care product ingredients, two key components of hormonal contraceptives are listed: Ethinyl estradiol, the synthetic estrogen used in most oral contraceptive formulations, and Levonorgestrel, a synthetic progesterone used in combined oral contraceptive pills, emergency contraception, the Mirena IUD, and  progestin-only birth control pills. Levonorgestrel is considered of “specific interest.”

The concern with these chemicals is not the effects they may have on women taking them, but on the possible reproductive impact on wildlife from the excretion of these chemicals into the aquatic environment. It seems ethinyl estradiol and levonorgestrel are considered safe contraceptive drugs when taken by choice to disrupt fertility, but EDCs worthy of concern when such disruption is unintended.

How would it change our perception of hormonal contraceptives if we acknowledged them as endocrine disrupting chemicals? Would we wonder why there is no discussion of how these EDCs might contribute to the health issues considered in the report? Would we ask why hormonal contraceptive EDCs are routinely used to “treat” (meaning only to alleviate symptoms of) endometriosis, fibroids and PCOS – conditions potentially caused by other EDCs?

Another relevant concern addressed in the report is the effect of “estrogenic agents, and their role in breast cancer.” The report states there “is good experimental evidence that estrogenic chemicals with diverse features can act together to produce substantial combination effects.” I have to wonder how hormonal contraceptive EDCs fit into this mix.

Here’s something to ponder. Last week news stories reported that the incidence of advanced breast cancer among young American women, ages 25 to 39, has risen steadily since 1976. Lead researcher Rebecca Johnson was quoted as saying, “We think it is a real trend and, in fact, it seems to be accelerating.” The increase is small in relative numbers, only 850 cases in 2009, but the “trend shows no evidence for abatement.”

Researchers can’t explain the increase. Lifestyle changes, obesity, sedentary lifestyle and toxic exposure to environmental chemicals are offered as possible factors. But what about the hormonal contraceptives many women of this generation have been taking since they were 15 or 16 years old? Surely these EDCs must be considered as potentially contributing factors.

Medicating the Postmenopausal Vagina

March 4th, 2013 by Paula Derry

On February 26, 2013, the Food and Drug Administration issued a news release saying that it had approved a medication called Osphena to treat a problem called postmenopausal dyspareunia (pain during sexual intercourse associated with changes in the vagina after menopause). The medical website Medscape reported that the news release had been issued. How to read these announcements? It seems as though FDA approval should be enough to know that a medication is safe and effective.   However, what are some guidelines in reading and evaluating this announcement?

First, some background: After menopause, when estrogen levels decline, tissues (cells) of the vaginal lining can become thinner, drier (thus providing less lubrication during intercourse), and less elastic or flexible.

This can result in pain during intercourse, feelings of burning or soreness, inflammation, and irritation.

Andreyeva by Ilya Repin // Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

There are a variety of solutions for dealing with this.  Regular sexual stimulation (intercourse, masturbation) is recommended to keep vaginal tissues healthy.  Water-based lubricants can help reduce discomfort during intercourse.  Expanded views of sexual pleasure that don’t include intercourse might work around the problem. Leaving enough time to become aroused during intercourse (extended foreplay), communication between partners about when sex is painful and when not, can also help. Herbs like dong quai and black cohosh are recommended, especially by complementary/alternative practitioners, although the herbs  lack a research base. A low-dose estrogen applied to the vaginal area (as a cream, tablet, etc.), is effective. Local application minimizes estrogen being absorbed into the bloodstream, traveling through the body, and having effects, some of them potentially negative, distant to the vagina. There is, however, controversy about some estrogen being absorbed.

Now, to the FDA announcement:  The FDA requires proof of a medication’s safety and effectiveness before it is approved.  According to the news release: “Osphena’s safety and effectiveness were established in three clinical studies of 1,889 postmenopausal women with symptoms of vulvar and vaginal atrophy. Women were randomly assigned to receive Osphena or a placebo. After 12 weeks of treatment, results from the first two trials showed a statistically significant improvement of dyspareunia in Osphena-treated women compared with women receiving placebo. Results from the third study support Osphena’s long-term safety in treating dyspareunia.”

Notice, first, that the drug’s effectiveness was tested for 12 weeks. This is not an unusual amount of time for such a study, but it is not very much time. Notice also that women treated with Osphena had a “statistically significant” improvement. As I discussed in a previous post, “statistically significant” means “unlikely to have occurred by chance.” In other words, there was evidence that Osphena  really did have an effect, but we don’t know how big an effect—it might be very large or very small.

Safety was established by studying the experiences of women for one year: however, one year is not a long time for side effects to develop. Osphena is a systemic medication. That means it is not applied locally in the vaginal area, it is ingested as a pill so that it travels to all parts of the body in the bloodstream. It is a selective estrogen-receptor modulator, or SERM. SERMs act like estrogen in some places in the body while not in others. The idea is that a SERM like Osphena would act like estrogen in keeping vaginal cells healthy while not acting like estrogen to increase health risks like certain cancers. However, more time than a year might be needed for health problems to show up. Indeed, the FDA news release stated that “Osphena is being approved with a boxed warning alerting women and health care professionals that the drug, which acts like estrogen on vaginal tissues, has shown it can stimulate the lining of the uterus (endometrium) and cause it to thicken…. Women should see their health care professional if they experience any unusual bleeding as it may be a sign of endometrial cancer or a condition that can lead to it.” The FDA announcement also stated that “Common side effects reported during clinical trials included hot flush/flashes, vaginal discharge, muscle spasms, genital discharge and excessive sweating” and that Osphena should be prescribed for the “shortest duration consistent with treatment goals and risks for the individual woman.”

Hot Flashes Are Weird

November 12th, 2012 by Paula Derry

I have two pretty contradictory sets of opinions about hot flashes. In a previous blog post, I emphasized one of them. Namely, that flashes are a mind/body phenomenon in which a woman’s interpretation of her physical experiences are central to her being distressed or not, of being able to cope or not, of what an experience is and means. A woman can identify her “real” self with her thoughts or her body, or she can experience her embodied self as a totality. In my first set of attitudes, the diversity of physical experiences is part of the mix: The same term, “hot flash,” is used for a wide family of experiences that range from mild to unbearable, from heat to heart palpitations, from empowerment to anxiety. However, in my second set of opinions, physical experience is front and central, and my thoughts can be summarized as follows: Hot flashes are weird.

In a conventional view, flashes are simply something that happens because of the hormonal changes surrounding menopause. They are often defined as a transient feeling of heat, sometimes accompanied by sweating or the skin turning red, that typically lasts a few minutes but can persist up to an hour. Flashes are most common in the years surrounding menopause but can begin many years before or occur many years after the final menstrual period. One theory is that fluctuating levels of estrogen affect a part of the brain that controls heat regulation. As a result, small changes in temperature are interpreted by the brain as meaning that the body’s temperature is outside the normal range; the hot flash is the body’s attempt to cool the body down. Alternatively, perhaps the hormonal imbalance affects the brain or other endocrine glands in other ways, or perhaps some women are simply more sensitive to these changes.

However, the experience of flashes is complex. A woman who is overheated for other reasons may not feel like a woman having a hot flash. A flashing woman might feel like she is on fire. Or she may feel hot only in an isolated body part, like her back or earlobes. Or the feeling of heat may start in one part of the body (like her head or upper back) and travel. Some women may not realize their feeling of gentle warmth is caused by a flash until later. Further, there are experiences in addition to that of warmth. The experience might feel like anxiety rather than heat. There may be a sharp physical shock or jolt. Some women, for example, may wake up in the middle of the night with a shock of anxiety and wonder what has threatened them. Some women report other associated sensations such as a racing heart, nausea, and breathlessness. Some feel dizzy, anxious, and unable to concentrate. Others experience cognitions and feelings such as empowerment, anxiety, and catastrophic thoughts.

Flashes are basically not understood. Beneath the scientific generalities, there is no specific understanding of what underlies flashes. They do clearly have something to do with estrogen: they increase in frequency in the years surrounding menopause, and treatment with a hormone medication is helpful. However, while fluctuating estrogen levels are assumed to be causal, clear evidence of this has been notably lacking. Further, flashes are found during the menopausal transition and postmenopausally, two very different hormonal situations, but are not a widespread phenomenon during premenstrual hormone fluctuations. For the minority of women with severe symptoms, there is no understanding that would lead to correction of underlying problems beyond symptomatic treatment with medications like estrogen. Why would a brain center regulating body heat be affected in some women but not others or in the same woman only sometimes? There are speculations that estrogen is needed for brain general health and proper neurotransmitter balance or that some women are “more sensitive” to normal changes in hormone levels. It seems that additional factors must also be at play. The large cross-cultural differences in flash frequency and the large placebo effects of medications are not understood, neither is the role of stress or other psychological or situational factors.

Hormone Imbalance: Breaking the Silence

September 5th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Leslie Carol Botha Women’s Health Freedom Coalition Coordinator, Natural Solutions Foundation

I still remember the first Society for Menstrual Cycle Research Conference I attended in Tucson, AZ in June, 1999. The statement that made the most impact was the collective concern that in ten years there might no longer be a menstrual cycle. It turns out the truer words were never spoken.

In the past 40 years, the pharmaceutical industry has spewed out and packaged and repackaged so many synthetic hormone contraceptives – pills, injections, and implants that virtually eliminate the menstrual cycle.  It also amazes me that in the 30 years I have been involved with the women’s health movement condoms and spermicide are still the safest and most effective contraceptive on the market.

However, a new trend is emerging as condoms and birth control pills are being pushed on the back burner because of ‘human error’. Women and men are not always diligent or careful about condom use, and many girls and women forget to take their pills.  What is now being prescribed to adolescent girls – whether or not they are sexually active — are implants and injections. Health considerations are not taken into consideration, nor are hormone levels. Somehow the pharmaceutical industry still views this as a one-size-fits-all prescription for all women, no matter their age of their state of health.

Menstrual cycle advocates are most aware that birth ‘control’ is about control…controlling the woman’s body with potentially harmful synthetic hormones. What has been overlooked are education and natural methods of fertility awareness.

While our focus recently has been on the politics of birth control, another ugly monster has reared its head and that is the silent epidemic of hormone imbalance. Not only is this the result of taking synthetic hormones for birth control but our environment, our foods, and water supplies are filled with estrogen mimickers upsetting the delicate orchestration of hormones in our bodies.

Another concern is the excess estrogen stored in women’s bodies and passed on genetically to their offspring.  It is possible that their children are hormonally imbalanced at birth.

Either way, the damage has been done. I believe we are at the tip of the iceberg in this silent epidemic and that hundreds of thousands of women are being misdiagnosed and over-prescribed. In most cases, thyroid imbalance is not considered as a cause of depression, and the prescribed fix is generally Prozac or a higher dose of synthetic hormones.

In 2009, I posted an article to my blog, from eHow editor, Shelly Macrea titled: What is Hormone Imbalance?, a very informative article and probably one of the first pieces for a general audience on the myriad of conditions that hormone imbalance can cause.

At the time I had three responses (with an average of 30,000 unique visitors a month.) In June of this year, another post on the article (which by this time was buried in my archives) appeared from a woman suffering anxiety due to hormone imbalance. And then another post appeared and I decided to bring the article out of the archives and re-post it. What ensued was a steady stream of women commenting on almost a daily basis on their extreme anxiety and depression and the myriad of misdiagnosis and drugs they were prescribed. I am posting the link here so that others can read what I believe should be of concern to all of us: Hormone Imbalance Anxiety, A Precursor to Other Health Issues.

In March of this year, I posted Laura Wershler’s article Coming off Depo Provera Can Be a Woman’s Worst Nightmare. Once again, truer words were never spoken. More and more women are now posting about their experiences on this drug – and the ensuing hormone imbalance and health issues.

Women are suffering.

This is an insidious ‘War on Women’. On the one hand we have had to fight for our reproductive rights and the availability of birth control – on the other hand it is the same birth control that is slowly killing us.

Fertility Charting Is the Way of the Future!

August 29th, 2012 by Kati Bicknell

The Quantified Self is the idea that by tracking things about your body you can live a happier and healthier life. Hardware devices like the Fitbit and Withings scale measure your daily activity and weight respectively so people can set and reach activity and weight goals. Apps like Lose It are tapping into this idea using a software-only approach: Lose it helps you lose weight, not by putting you on a diet, just by having you keep track of everything you eat. Every day you enter all the foods you eat into the app, and it tells you how many calories you consumed. You can also put in how much, and what type of exercise you did each day, and Lose It tells you how many calories you burned.  The result is you can see the amount of calories you burned, relative to the amount of calories you took in.

I have several friends who swear by this app. Lose it isn’t telling you anything you don’t know (eat less, and exercise more if you want to lose weight), but what it is doing is making it very easy for you to see how your actions are affecting your weight in a specific way on a daily and even moment by moment basis. In addition to achieving goals, quantifying the self leads to a sense of confidence and control where before there was confusion. And in doing so it makes us feel better.  This is the crux of the quantified self movement. Recording and analyzing everyday data can help us win at the game of life!

As my friend Lauren Bacon has pointed out, fertility charting fits right in to the Quantified Self movement. Women who chart their fertility record their waking body temperature, cervical fluid viscosity, and other data each day, and over the course of each menstrual cycle get a detailed picture of their reproductive health, and sometimes more!

Kindara Screen Shot © Kindara 2012

Cervical fluid viscosity is a proxy for estrogen level. Basal body temperature is a proxy for progesterone.  And as any high school student can tell you, hormones are powerful influencers of how we feel, think and act, and why our bodies do the things they do.  Just imagine if your menstrual cycle, and all the fluids, feelings and fluctuations that went along with it were no longer a mystery.  Imagine knowing just what was going on, and why.

By recording your daily fertility signs a whole world of possibility opens up for you! While it’s true that fertility charting can be, and often is used to achieve or prevent pregnancy, the benefits of it don’t stop there. Fertility charting can answer important questions about our ovulation, luteal phase, cycle health, thyroid function and more.  I have friends who have finally figured out the root of several food allergies, from charting their fertility.  I myself have learned that a diet high in animal fat keeps my cycles regular. One reason I’m so excited about what we’re doing at Kindara is that as more and more women start quantifying their fertility, we’ll start to generate new knowledge about fertility for the benefit of humankind, creating a virtuous feedback loop that will help each woman feel calm and confident with her fertility in her specific situation.

I envision a future where more and more women are taking an active role in their own health care with fertility charting.  How about you? If you’re currently charting your cycle, tell us in the comments what you’ve learned so far, and how it’s changed your life!

When Breastfeeding Isn’t Best

August 8th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Paula Modersohn-Becker (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Let me say up front that I have limited direct experience with adoption. Some members of my extended family have adopted children, another has given up an infant for adoption, and I have friends who have adopted children, and other friends who are adopted. It was one of those adopted friends who pointed me to this uncritical article from last fall about the practice of adoptive mothers ‘learning’ to breastfeed.

I’ve placed learning in scare quotes because this article isn’t about adoptive mothers developing a skill. It’s about taking high-risk drugs so that they can have the experience of breastfeeding their adopted children, even though they will be unable to produce enough breastmilk to nurse exclusively. But by taking combined oral contraceptives continuously for several months (which, contrary to the popular belief asserted in the article, does not “trick the body into thinking it’s pregnant”) and following up with domperidone, an antiemitic drug which sometimes has the side effect of causing lactation — even in men — some adoptive mothers are able to force their bodies to lactate.

What’s so terrible about this, you may be wondering. Domperidone isn’t approved by the FDA for use in the US, even for its intended purpose in treating nausea and vomiting, so it is usually purchased by ordering from other countries. The FDA, however, has not been silent about domperidone: The agency has issued multiple safety alerts, advising healthcare professionals and breastfeeding women NOT to use the drug. Although the amount bioavailable to the infant is small, domperidone is excreted in breastmilk.

The hormones in the birth control pill are also excreted in breast milk, and are suspected to promote growth of breast cancers, if not actually cause them. (And who can forget that immortal bit of testimony from the Nelson Pill hearings in 1970, “Estrogen is to cancer what fertilizer is to wheat”?)

I appreciate the desire of new moms to bond with their babies, I really do. But if you’re willing to take these kinds of risks with your own health and your baby’s, I have to wonder if your desire to breastfeed is really about the relationship with your child.

Midlife Muddle — Own the Power of Naming

May 17th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Jerilynn Prior, M.D. — Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research

By “midlife muddle” I don’t mean the trouble concentrating or remembering names that sometimes occurs for all of us (but more frequently if we’ve wakened with night sweats and not gotten back to sleep). I mean the condoned and official confusion about naming of women’s reproductive aging. Let me show you why I am upset.

 

STRAW+10 staging system for reproductive aging in women

Stages of Reproductive Aging Workshop (STRAW) held a 10-year anniversary last summer. (As someone frustrated by not being “heard” at the original conference, I still think that the “W” in STRAW should stand for Women!) Despite that, STRAW+10 has made progress because at least some of the classification is now supported by population-based prospective data rather than based on what experts believe. The names that are now politically correct are summarized in the STRAW+10 Executive Summary1 and the diagram1 at right.

 

We in the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research have also had our say about nomenclature: “Naming Women’s Midlife Reproductive Transition”.  I wrote this (with revision and refinement by collective effort of SMCR members) because women keep getting left out of this naming business. For example:

  • a regularly menstruating woman with night sweats, heavy flow, and increased cramps could learn to call herself perimenopausal2 (not STRAW+10 Late Reproductive Phase -3b?!).
  • a woman who just finished her period can say, I’m in late perimenopause and have at least a year without further flow before I’ll be menopausal. Based on STRAW+10 she could be told that specific menstruation was her final menstrual period (nickname “FMP”) and the next day, according to STRAW+10 be told that she is now “postmenopausal”!!
  • a woman with sore breasts, irregular periods, and heavy flow could say, I’m in perimenopause. However, she may instead be told she is in the “Early Menopausal Transition.” Because she has heavy flow she is also likely to be prescribed the birth control pill (as is currently and commonly recommended). Usually she will not be told that The Pill will make her perimenopausal irregular flow worse—she may well start spotting in the middle of her cycle.3

This new and improved STRAW+10 still centers all of women’s reproduction on that mythical FMP. But to call the FMP “menopause”, as many women’s health experts do, is just unscientific. It takes at least a year without another menstruation in those of us over age 45 before nine out of ten of us will not get another period4. But one (out of ten) of us will get a further, normal period even though we’ve been that whole year without any4. We can tell that new flow is normal (in other words, does not need investigation for endometrial cancer) if we had cramps or bloating or sore breasts or moodiness—or all of these—that told us our period was coming.

 

So our new Naming position statement says don’t call it “menopause” until you’ve not had a period for a year. And do call it “perimenopause” if things are variable and changing even if you are still having regular flow2.  Three of nine changes can confirm for you that you are perimenopausal even if your flow is still regular:2

  1. Shorter cycles (25 days or less);
  2. Increased cramps;
  3. Heavier flow;
  4. Increased trouble sleeping—especially waking up in the middle of sleep;
  5. New or increased migraine headaches;
  6. Night sweats—especially if they tend to occur before or during flow;
  7. An increase in or new premenstrual mood swings;
  8. New sore, enlarging or nodular breasts; and
  9. Weight gain without changes in what you eat or the exercise you do.

If women can learn to call themselves perimenopausal, they will be saying they know that perimenopause is not the same as menopause—perimenopause is a midlife transition with higher and erratic estrogen levels. Menopause is a fairly stable life phase with normally low estrogen and progesterone levels that begins one year after their last menstrual flow.

 

Furthermore, by naming themselves accurately they will be able to tell whether a medication that is proposed for them has been tested and proven effective in perimenopausal women. Usually symptomatic women are treated with oral contraceptives (that are proven reasonably safe and useful for premenopausal contraception), or offered hormone therapy that has only been tested and shown effective for hot flushes/flashes in menopausal women.

 

So. . . I like the word, perimenopause and think if women understand and own it they will be on their way out of a midlife muddle.

 

References

  1. Harlow, S. Executive Summary of the Stages of Reproductive Aging Workshop +10: addressing the unfinished agenda of staging reproductive aging [pdf]. Fertility Sterility, 2012   doi: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.20012.01.128
  2. Prior JC. Clearing confusion about perimenopause. BC Med J 2005; 47(10):534-538.
  3. Casper RF, Dodin S, Reid RL, Study Investigators. The effect of 20 ug ethinyl estradiol/1 mg norethindrone acetate (MinestrinTM), a low-dose oral contraceptive, on vaginal bleeding patterns, hot flashes, and quality of life in symptomatic perimenopausal women. Menopause 1997; 4:139-147.
  4. Wallace RB, Sherman BM, Bean JA, Treloar AE, Schlabaugh L. Probability of menopause with increasing duration of amenorrhea in middle-aged women. Am J Obstet Gynecol 1979; 135(8):1021-1024.

What is a hormone?

March 5th, 2012 by Paula Derry

All too often, hormones are portrayed in the media, and even in professional articles, as strangers inside our bodies that control us.   Sometimes hormones are personified as bosses that order our bodies around.  Sometimes they are portrayed as akin in function to gasoline or motor oil, needed to keep the machinery of our body moving or smoothly gliding.  Hormone levels that oscillate rather than maintaining a reassuring stability might be especially suspicious or even uncanny.

Take oxytocin.  According to the website ScienceDaily.com, which summarizes recent scientific studies, the hormone oxytocin is the “cuddle chemical”, promoting positive feelings, especially between mothers and infants, but it also has a “dark side,” promoting envy and gloating.  An oxytocin nasal spray might help shy people behave in a less introverted manner, and can make “surly monkeys treat each other a little more kindly”.

Or, take estrogen.  Teenagers are at the mercy of their “raging hormones.”   Premenstrual syndromes, perimenopausal mood changes, menstrual migraines, and hot flashes have all been attributed to hormones that oscillate (i.e., go up and down), dip, or are present in the wrong amount; thus, the orders barked out by the hormones go awry.   Perimenopausal estrogen changes are feared to destabilize the brain, creating preconditions for cognitive decline, or to increase risks for bone or heart disease.   A recent article (2010, vol. 1204) published by the Annals of the N Y Academy of Sciences was titled  “Estrogen and the aging brain:  An elixir for the weary cortical network?”.  A Science Daily report on estrogen and menopause (Oct. 4, 2011) was entitled “This is your brain on estrogen”.  Of course, not all hormones have this mythic status.  Important as diabetes is as a public health problem, I don’t recall seeing an article entitled “This is your liver on insulin.”

Here’s another view of hormones:  Most introductory science textbooks define them as chemical messengers, typically released from special tissues called glands, into the bloodstream.  In order for a hormone to affect a cell, the cell must have a receptor for the hormone. If there is no receptor, the hormone does not affect the cell.  If there is a receptor, the hormone changes the rate at which cells work, it does not make cells do things they would not otherwise do.  Hormones are chemical messengers that are involved in coordinating physiology, behavior, and development.

Consider a simple case, a person who is sitting in a chair and wants to stand up.  The muscles in a variety of parts of her body have to work together.  She can’t, for example, lift her buttocks before her feet push down on the ground, or lean so far forward that she falls.  Other parts of the body have to get into the act, also.  For example, her blood pressure must go up before she starts to stand; otherwise she would become dizzy since as she rises less blood reaches her head. Mind and body work together; blood pressure rises in response to her mere intention to get up.  In a similar manner, purposiveness is typically coordinated by hormones, the nervous system, and other players.

The way I think about it is that hormones are team players in complex, multi-determined systems that have a purpose. Hormones help to coordinate what happens in the body, but in normal functioning they do not act alone; they are part of a larger whole. They are more like telephone wires than the content of the conversation.

For example, what are some natural effects of oxytocin?  As summarized in the textbook “Introduction to Behavioral Endocrinology” (Randy Nelson), oxytocin does indeed have strong effects on the behavior of female rats.  Rats who have never been pregnant avoid pups, but begin taking care of their own pups as soon as they give birth.  Do their hormones make them do it? Apparently. When the blood of a new mother (which will contain her hormones) was given to a rat who had never been pregnant, the never-pregnant rat began acting like a mother within 24 hours. However, when never-pregnant rats were housed with pups for an hour or two a day, after about 5 or 6 days they also began to behave maternally. That is, being around baby pups also resulted in behaving like a mother.  The hormone speeded things up but didn’t change the animal’s essential nature. Rat mothers retrieve their young if they wander off, but injecting a human with rat hormones does not make the human build nests.

The pill, reduced period pain and the ongoing delusion

January 20th, 2012 by Laura Wershler

Is there a woman over the age of 18 anywhere who doesn’t know that taking the birth control pill can make her periods lighter and less painful? Most women know this, but not many know why. The news stories swirling around a new study about the pill and period pain will not enlighten them.

Photo credit: Ceridwen, Creative Commons 2.0

A 30-year longitudinal Swedish study has finally proved the worth of what is accepted practice in North America and Europe: the prescribing of combined oral contraceptives (COCs), or birth control pills with synthetic estrogen and progestin, to treat painful periods known clinically as dysmenorrhea.

Of course, pharmaceutical companies that manufacture COCs are probably eager for this research, as prescribing the pill for dysmenorrhea is still an off-label use in the U.S. (unlicensed use in the U.K.). Pill manufacturers may be able to use this finding to lobby the FDA (or equivalent agencies in other nations) to approve the pill as treatment for menstrual pain, leading to increased sales and insurance coverage. Perhaps that’s why news media have been treating this discovery as breaking news.

Take this headline: Yes, the Pill CAN ease the agony of period pain: Scientists confirm what millions of women already know, or this one: The pill ‘does ease period pain’, or this one: Combination oral contraception pills cut menstruation pain, or, really, any of these.

You can read the abstract of the study by Swedish researchers Ingela Lindh, Agneta Andersson Ellström and Ian Milsom, published this week in the journal Human Reproduction, here: The effect of combined oral contraceptives and age on dysmenorrhoea: an epidemiological study. The conclusions are simple: “COC use and increasing age, independent of each other, reduced the severity of dysmenorrhoea. COC use reduced the severity of dysmenorrhea more than increasing age and childbirth.”

Forget the age factor for the purposes of this discussion. The fact that COC use reduces the severity of dysmenorrhea is not astounding. This is old news. So says Dr. Steven Goldstein, an obstetrician/gynecologist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, quoted in a USA Today story:

“The study results are not surprising. It’s gratifying to see researchers documenting scientifically what practitioners have been seeing for a very long time. The amount of discomfort from a woman’s period with a combination birth control pill is a fraction of what it is without the Pill. There is a diminution of pain from the Pill.”

What is astounding is what Dr. Goldstein, and other OBGYNs, didn’t say in responding to the study. That the reason the pill reduces menstrual pain is because the synthetic hormones in the pill shut down a woman’s own menstrual cycle. The “period” women experience when on the pill is technically known as a “withdrawal bleed,” brought on by seven days of placebo pills. While it feels like a period to menstruators, it is not the same physiologically as the period they experience when NOT on the pill. That’s why it doesn’t hurt as much.

The point is, the pill is too often credited with regulating the menstrual cycle. It does no such thing. The pill does not regulate any woman’s menstrual cycle; it supercedes it. This research, and the many news stories that reported it, once again ascribe power to the pill – this time the power to cut menstrual pain. This is an incomplete truth.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.