Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Depo Provera and menstrual management

April 8th, 2014 by Holly Grigg-Spall

Melinda Gates speaking at the London Summit on Family Planning; Photograph courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks back I did an interview with Leslie Botha regarding the distribution of Depo Provera to women in developing countries. Recently Leslie shared with me an email she received from someone working in a family planning clinic in Karnataka, India. He described how he was providing the Depo Provera injection to women and finding that, after they stopped using it, they were not experiencing menstruation for up to nine months. He asked for advice – “what is the procedure to give them normal monthly menses….is there any medicine?”

I have written previously about one potential problem of providing women with Depo Provera – the possibility of continuous spotting and bleeding that would not only be distressing with no warning that this might happen and no medical support, but could also be difficult to navigate in a place with poor sanitation or with strong menstrual taboos. As women in developed countries are so very rarely counseled on side effects of hormonal methods of contraception, it seems unlikely women in developing countries receive such information. As we know, some women will instead experience their periods stopping entirely during use of the shot and, as we see from this email and from the comments on other posts written for this blog, long after use.

In this context I find it interesting that the Gates Foundation’s programs for contraception access have a very public focus on Depo Provera. The method was mentioned again by Melinda Gates in a recent TED interview and when she was interviewed as ‘Glamor magazine Woman of the Year’ the shot was front-and-center of the discussion of her work. Yet the Foundation also funds programs that provide support for menstrual management and sanitation.  Continuous bleeding from the shot, or cessation of bleeding altogether, would seem to be an important connecting factor between these two campaigns.

Much has been written on the menstrual taboo in India and how this holds women back. In the US we have come to embrace menstrual suppression as great for our health and our progress as women. We see menstruation as holding women back in a variety of ways. However, in India could lack of menstruation also be seen as a positive outcome? Instead of dealing with the menstrual taboo with expensive programs that provide sanitary products and education, might suppressing menstruation entirely be seen as a far more cost-effective solution? It may seem like a stretch, but I am surprised this has not been brought up during debates about the need for contraceptive access in developing countries. Yet of course, the menstrual taboo may well extend to absence of menstruation – a woman who does not experience her period might also be treated suspiciously or poorly.

When Melinda Gates says women “prefer” and “request” Depo Provera I always wonder whether that’s after they’ve been told how it works (perhaps described as a six-month invisible contraception) or after they’ve had their first shot or after they’ve been on it for two years and then, via FDA guidelines, must find an alternative? How much follow up is there? As the self-injectable version is released widely how will women be counseled? Gates argues that the invisibility of the method is part of the draw as women do not have to tell their partners they are using contraception, but what happens when they bleed continuously or stop entirely?

It seems to me like there might be a real lack of communication – both between medical practitioners and their patients, drug providers and the practitioners, and those who fund these programs with everyone involved. It is often argued that the risks of pregnancy and childbirth in developing countries justify almost any means to prevent pregnancy – including the use of birth control methods that cause health issues. How much feedback are groups like the Gates Foundation getting on women’s preferences if they seem to be so unaware of the potential problems, even those that would greatly impact their wider work?

The Subject of Sneers or Jests: Menstrual Education in the Service of Racism

March 20th, 2014 by David Linton

Title page of What a Young Woman Ought to Know

Sometimes, when it seems that progress toward the elimination of harmful menstrual stereotypes, myths, and misinformation is slow or even stalled, it is bracing to take a look back at the kinds of educational materials, marriage manuals, and sources of advice that women were offered in the past in order to be reminded that progress does actually exist. Consider, for instance, an effort to enlighten women about sex, marriage, and the menstrual cycle from the early 20th Century.

One hundred years ago, in 1913, a book appeared in the “Self and Sex Series” titled, What a Young Woman Ought to Know by an author identified as Mrs. Mary Wood-Allen, MD. Her credentials, displayed on the title page, include the following: “National Superintendent of the Purity Department Woman’s Christian Temperance Union,” and she is credited with having written six other books, including Almost a Man and Almost a Woman.

To get a hint of the direction the book takes in its effort to instruct young women in what they ought to know a glance at some of the chapter titles may suffice:

Ch. V – “Breathing”
Ch. VI – “Hindrances to Breathing”
Ch. VII – “Added Injuries from Tight Clothing”
Ch. XVI – “Some Causes of Painful Menstruation”
Ch. XVII – “Care During Menstruation”
Ch. XIX – “Solitary Vice”
Ch. XXVII – “”The Law of Heredity”
Ch. XXXIV – “Effects of Immorality on the Race”
Ch. XXX – “The Gospel of Heredity”

As these titles suggest, the book manages to link menstrual education with some of the most virulent eugenic nonsense that had gained widespread acceptance in American science and politics of the time, the same sham-science that led to sterilization of disabled people and African-Americans in the U.S. and found a welcome home in Nazi Germany in the following decades.

Perhaps the best way to communicate the stupidity of the book’s content is to allow it to speak for itself. Consider the explanations of menstrual discomfort and the effects of bad reading habits:

“Whenever there is actual pain at any stage of the monthly period, it is because something is wrong, either in the dress, or the diet, or the personal and social habits of the individual.” (119)

“Romance-reading by young girls will, by this excitement of the bodily organs, tend to create their premature development, and the child becomes physically a woman months, or even years, before she should.” (124)

“…if girls from earliest childhood were dressed loosely, with no clothing suspended on the hips, if their muscles were well developed through judicious exercise, they would seldom find it necessary to be semi-invalids at any time.” (146)

The underlying disdain or fear of sexual pleasure is expressed in the chapter about masturbation, titled “Solitary Vice,” in which it states, “the reading of sensational love stories is most detrimental…This stimulation sometimes leads to the formation of an evil habit, known as self-abuse….The results of self-abuse are most disastrous. It destroys mental power and memory, it blotches the complexion, dulls the eye, takes away the strength, and may even cause insanity.”

As if these dire consequences were not bad enough, it turns out that once one has inflicted these conditions on one’s self, they can enter the girl’s genetic code and be passed along to future generations. Even a girl’s clothing choices can have long term, disastrous effects: “The dress of women is not merely an unimportant matter, to be made the subject of sneers or jests. Fashions often create deformities, and are therefore worthy of most philosophical consideration, especially when we know that the effects of these deformities may be transmitted.” (223)

The author minces no words as to the effects on the children of such a careless mother: “The tightly-compressed waist of the girl displaces her internal organs, weakens her digestion, and deprives her children of their rightful inheritance. They are born with lessened vitality, with diminished nerve power, and are less likely to live, or, living, are more liable not only to grow up physically weak, but also lacking in mental and moral stamina.”

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.

The Other Dangers of Yasmin and Yaz

July 2nd, 2013 by Holly Grigg-Spall

Recently, in a piece for the Ms. Magazine blog, re:Cycling’s Elizabeth Kissling remarked on the lack of media coverage of serious safety issues with the popular birth control pill brands Yaz and Yasmin. Of the coverage there has been, little has looked beyond the significant number of injuries and deaths caused by blood clots to the potential dangers held in the negative psychological impact of these drugs, an impact that it appears a large number of women may have experienced.

As I read the stories of women who had suffered strokes or gone blind, I wondered how many women using Yaz or Yasmin had also been driven close to death, or perhaps even died, due to the depression the pills can provoke.

I decided to interview Dr Jayashri Kulkarni at Australia’s Monash University, one of the few people researching into this area, to find out more. As a practicing psychiatrist Dr Kulkarni treats women with mental health issues as well as leading research studies into this possible root cause of psychological problems.

Of the potential for these pills to create suicidal tendencies in users Dr Kulkarni says, “We have seen amongst women using these oral contraceptives a profound lowered self-esteem which causes them to lose perspective, misinterpret comments, and feel like no one would notice, or the world would be better off, if they weren’t around anymore. We’ve seen suicide attempts.

Dr Kulkarni is undertaking both a large-scale national and international survey of women’s subjective experiences with Yaz, Yasmin, as well as the Mirena IUD, Depo Provera shot, and Implanon implant and a smaller scale in-clinic study of the impact of oral contraceptives like Yaz and Yasmin on women over a three month period. The psychological impact is not what she calls “major depression” but instead a “sub-clinical depression” wherein women experience a mood change that impacts their relationships, work, and overall happiness.

“This depressive syndrome has a spectrum of symptoms. We tend to think depression just means sadness, but it can present as fuzzy headedness, inability to multitask, guilt, irritability, anxiety, and in behavioral changes like the development of obsessive compulsive disorders. Women experience a change in perspective that makes them magnify issues that occur in their lives, be that a slight weight gain or an argument with a partner, into feelings of worthlessness. It can also cause impulsivity, making the woman suicidal.”

At her clinic Dr Kulkarni describes treating a mother who found it difficult to let her children go to school for fear something would happen to them and another who became transfixed with the idea that her partner was cheating, and so called his phone repetitively to check on him. She believes that the provoked anxiety can display itself clearly as panic attacks, but it can also appear as paranoia and agoraphobia. When taken off Yasmin and Yaz these women returned to their previous state with a healthy perspective.

The Depo Provera shot and Implanon implant have shown in the research to also cause particularly profound depression. For women who have a history of mental health issues or have environmental factors that make them more vulnerable to mental health issues, these methods have been seen to provoke serious negative changes in mood.

Dr Kulkarni’s hypothesis is this: “Low estrogen pills and progesterone-only methods seem to cause depression at the highest rate. In our research we’ve seen women respond better to higher dose estrogen and natural progesterones. Clinical studies on animals have shown progesterone in a low dose causes increased anxiety, but conversely in a high dose it alleviates anxiety.” Her findings will be published later this year in full.

At present Dr Kulkarni treats her patients by changing their hormonal birth control method with her research in mind, a practice she believes to be generally successful. She prescribes new pill Zoely to patients who have responded badly to other brands. Zoely (which contains 2.5 mg of nomegestrol acetate and 1.5 mg of 17-beta-estradiol) was refused approval by the FDA for the US in 2011.

Yaz and Yasmin: An Unacceptable Level of Risk?

June 25th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Photo by Flickr user Beautiful Lily // Creative Commons 2.0

Don’t feel bad if you missed last week’s headline news about the deaths of 23 young women from their birth control. It was a top story for CBC news and a few other Canadian sources, but it was barely a blip on the radar of most U.S. news outlets. Yaz and Yasmin, two similar new-generation birth control pills from Bayer, are suspected in the recent deaths of these young Canadian women.

These are among the best selling oral contraceptives in the world, but this is not the first time Yaz and Yasmin have been suspected of causing death or adverse effects. Earlier this year, Bayer agreed to pay up to $24 million to settle claims from plaintiffs with gall bladder injuries caused by the drugs, and the company set aside $1 billion to settle claims from approximately 4,800 women who have suffered blood clots due to Yaz or Yasmin. As of February, 2013, approximately 10,000 lawsuits against Bayer are still pending in the U.S., and an additional 1,200 unfiled claims are pending. The company anticipates additional lawsuits—and additional settlements—regarding blood clot injuries, such as pulmonary embolisms or deep-vein thrombosis.

The history of the birth control pill and its social impact is well documented. First approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1960, it quickly became the world’s first “lifestyle drug,” and it has become the one of the most studied drugs in history. It is considered to be so safe that the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recently recommended that oral contraceptives be sold without a prescription.

But all hormonal contraceptives–the pill, the patch, the shot and the vaginal ring–carry a risk of blood clots. For most users, this is a minor concern, affecting approximately six of every 10,000 pill users. For users of new-generation pills—that is, pills containing drospirenone, the fourth-generation synthetic progesterone found in Yaz, Yasmin, Ocella and several other brands—the risk jumps to ten of every 10,000 users, although Bayer maintains that their own clinical studies find the risk comparable to older pills. Note, however, that the risk in most of these studies is compared either to other hormonal contraceptives or to pregnancy, not to using effective non-hormonal contraception. As if women’s only choices were to be pregnant or be on the pill.

And it is this matter of women’s choices that brings me to my main point: Why we have we seen so little media attention to the safety profile of Yaz/Yasmin (and hormonal contraceptives more generally)? This isn’t about just a few unlucky Canadian women: Four women in Finland have died, more than 50 U.S. users of Yaz and Yasmin died in just a few years and France reports 20 deaths per year due to birth control pills between 2001 and 2011, with 14 attributed to the new-generation contraceptives. This is a major consumer safety concern, and a women’s health issue.

In an earlier time, this might have led to Congressional investigations, such as the Nelson Pill Hearings, which resulted in FDA-mandated Patient Package Inserts (PPIs)—the printed information about risks, ingredients and side effects included in pill packets, first required for oral contraceptives and then for all prescription drugs. It is hard to imagine today’s Congress calling for such an investigation. Among many other social changes since 1970, drug manufacturers in the U.S. hold more influence over both legislators and consumers, now spending nearly twice as much on promotion as they do on research and development.

A parallel can be found in the health crisis triggered by an outbreak of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) linked to tampon use in 1980. TSS is a potentially fatal infection caused by bacterial toxin Staphylococcus Aureus. A new brand of superabsorbent tampon was linked with 813 cases of TSS, including 38 deaths, that year. By 1983, the number of menstrual-related cases reported to the CDC climbed past 2,200, and manufacturer Proctor & Gamble had “voluntarily” pulled the product from the market before the FDA forced them to do so. The intense media coverage, public concern and outcry from feminist activists pushed the FDA to reclassify tampons as a Class II medical device, an upgrade which meant tampons would require more specific regulation and possibly after-market surveillance. They were much slower to mandate absorbency standards, but eventually did so under court order. These actions resulted in a documented decrease in menstrual-related TSS, although it is important to note that it has not disappeared.

Today, more than 30 years later, young women are again dying from something purported to help them, something that affects mostly women. Thousands more are experiencing life-threatening, health-destroying side-effects, such as blindness, depression and pulmonary embolism. Canada’s professional association of OB-GYNs defended the drug, suggesting that perhaps the recent deaths could be attributed to non-contraceptive reasons for which it was prescribed, such as PCOS or diabetes, both of which are associated with higher risks of blood clots. But there is little evidence of public concern, outside of Yaz/Yasmin user message boards. Even feminist outlets aren’t always covering these issues as vigorously as we might hope.

Yet the birth control pill in general has never been more politicized in the U.S.: In the last year or so, we’ve seen headlines and public debates about insurance coverage of the pill, access to emergency contraception and so-called personhood bills which have been introduced in legislatures in at least eight states. Feminist activists and health care advocates have been working tirelessly to protect access to the pill along with other forms of birth control, as well as the right to end an unintended pregnancy—and feminist journalists have been writing about these activities.

In the urgency of responding defensively to these political attacks—and we must respond—feminists cannot ignore corporate threats. Just as preserving contraceptive and abortion access is critical to women’s health and well-being, so is protecting contraceptive safety.

Cross-posted from Ms. magazine blog.

Ethics in Wonderland: The SUPPORT Study

June 24th, 2013 by Paula Derry

Arthur Caplan is a well-known ethicist, the head of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. On June 11, 2013, Caplan posted an article called “Get real: No need to overdo risk disclosure” on the medical website Medscape. According to basic ethical standards, subjects in research projects are supposed to give written informed consent, which means among other things that they are informed of possible risks that a decision to participate in the study might cause. The Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services criticized researchers in a large project called SUPPORT for failing to clearly disclose the study’s risks. In his Medscape article, Caplan disagreed with OHRP and argued that strict, inappropriate requirements for consent discourage important research. His sentiments were echoed in a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, a major respected journal. In contrast, SUPPORT is criticized in a New York Times editorial entitled “An Ethical Breakdown” and by watchdog organizations like the Alliance for Human Research Protection and Public Citizen (many of the critical documents are on the Alliance for Human Research Protection website).

Here’s some background: SUPPORT was a large study of how best to treat very premature babies. These babies often need to be given oxygen to help them breathe. However, if too little oxygen is given, there is a risk of death or brain damage; if there is too much, the babies may develop an eye problem called ROP or blindness. Enter SUPPORT. According to the researchers, their goal was to determine the best oxygen level to get lowest risk of blindness without increased risk of death. This amount had already been narrowed to 85% to 92% oxygen saturation (a measure of the oxygenation of blood) in medical practice; the researchers wanted to find out where within this range is best. Infants in the research were randomly assigned to experimental conditions; in one condition, babies were given enough oxygen to bring the oxygen saturation measure to the lower end of the range (averaging 85%); in the other condition, the higher end (averaging 92%). The researchers found that infants receiving less oxygen did, indeed, have fewer eye problems than did infants given the higher amount, but more of them died.

The critical letter from OHRP stated that the consent forms that the mothers of the babies signed should have clearly stated, but did not, that an increased risk of blindness (for babies in the higher oxygen condition) or death (for babies in the lower oxygen condition) was possible. The ethicist Caplan objected to this. He argued that the researchers were comparing two standard medical practices, since 85% to 92% is the standard range used by doctors. In his view, the current way that doctors decide how much oxygen to use within that range is “a coin flip”; randomly assigning babies to the experimental groups was simply comparing two treatment approaches currently in use to see which one is best and involved no increased risk than the babies would otherwise face. He distinguished this from studies that introduce a new treatment, where informed consent about risks is a different matter. Caplan stated: “I believe that this research is highly ethical” and expressed concern that overly strict rules will hinder needed research. The New England Journal of Medicine editorial also objects to the OHRP letter. The editorial states that the OHRP’s finding that subjects should have been informed of an increased risk of death was based on hindsight. The editorial quotes the researchers, who state that “there was no evidence to suggest an increased risk of death” for infants receiving the lower levels of oxygen before their study was done. The editorial states that OHRP has “cast a pall over the conduct of clinical research” and “strongly disagree[s]” with their letter. SUPPORT, in the editorial’s view is “a model of how to make medical progress.”

What is the controversy? First, with regard to the idea that what was being compared were two versions of standard care, although Caplan does not state this in his article, the OHRP letter specifically addressed this point. In real clinical practice, a range of 85% to 95% exists, but in this study only the extremes were used. As the letter states:

Does Depo-Provera work like a charm or a curse?

February 6th, 2013 by Laura Wershler
Author’s Update, February 14, 2013: As clarified by Bedsider.org in the comments section below, the Works Like A Charm Contest mentioned in this post is not current but ended in 2011. The contest website pages are now inactive.

If Bedsider.org sponsored a contest called Why I Hate My LARC, there would be no shortage of contest entrants. But I expect it will be a long time before the nay-sayers get as much attention as the yeah-sayers.

Composite illustration by Laura Wershler

Bedsider has jumped on the LARC bandwagon. The online birth control support network for women 18-29 has launched the Works Like a Charm contest encouraging “the awesome women and couples” who use long-acting reversible contraception to share why they love their LARCs for the chance to win up to $2000. This is a variation of the Why I Love my LARC video campaign sponsored by the California Family Health Council last November, only with prizes!

To quote my blog post about the earlier campaign: “Throughout the contraceptive realm, LARCs are being heralded as the best thing since Cinderella’s glass slipper with little acknowledgement that for many women LARCs are more like Snow White’s poisoned apple.”

One long-acting, not-so-reversible contraceptive in particular – Depo-Provera – is causing grief for many women. Yet “the shot” is front and center in the graphic on the contest website.

Considering the rah-rah tone of the Works-Like-a-Charm campaign messages, it seems that bedsider.org, a project of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, is oblivious to the misery caused by this contraceptive. Often, Depo works like a curse.

I acknowledge that Bedsider is doing good work: The website provides youth-friendly, accessible information about the full range of birth control methods. But, in my opinion, any organization that promotes Depo-Provera as a contraceptive method should be totally transparent about the ill effects many women experience both while taking and after stopping the drug.

Depo-Provera, to put it bluntly, fucks with a woman’s endocrine system.

The long list of ill effects while on or after stopping this drug includes: continual bleeding (from spotting to heavy), mood disorders, severe anxiety, depression, digestive issues, loss of sex drive, extreme weight gain (often without change to exercise or eating habits), lingering post-shot amenorrhea, intensely sore breasts, nausea, and ongoing fear of pregnancy leading to repeated pregnancy tests. (Not to mention its documented negative effect on bone density.)

These effects are why the continuation rate of Depo-Provera is only 40-60% after one year of use, and why women are filling online comment pages with stories of their struggles coming off this drug.

At Our Bodies, Ourselves, the blog post Questions About Side Effects of Stopping Contraceptive Injections has been attracting comments since November 3, 2009, with no end in sight.

On my April 4, 2012 re:Cycling post – Coming off Depo-Provera can be a woman’s worst nightmare - there are over 130 comments. All but six were posted since mid-November when the post caught fire. Not more than a day or two goes by before another women shares her story of distress, confusion or frustration. I read each one and respond occasionally. Rarely, a positive experience appears; one criticized other commenters for complaining.

It’s one thing to read or hear about potential ill effects while trying to decide whether or not to use Depo-Provera. It’s quite another to experience some or many of them for months on end without acknowledgement or health-care support from those who promote or provide this drug.

The Works Like a Charm contest website says about LARCS:

Reversible = not permanent. If and when you’re ready to get pregnant, simply part ways with your LARC and off you go.

“Off you go?” Tell that to the thousands of women who are waiting, months post-Depo, to get their bodies and their menstrual cycles back to normal. Most of them still aren’t ready to get pregnant.

I am a pro-choice menstrual cycle advocate

January 9th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

As 2013 begins, I give thanks to each and every one of my colleagues at the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research and all my blogging buddies at re:Cycling. Without them I’d feel left out in the cold.  

Are menstrual cycle advocates left out in the cold? Photo by Laura Wershler

I’ve been a menstrual cycle advocate since 1979 when, during a year of post-pill amenorrhea that totally freaked me out, I began to research the ill effects of hormonal contraception. It is not an understatement to say that reading  Barbara Seaman’s national bestseller Women and The Crisis in Sex Hormones changed my life. It started me on a path of self-discovery, and commitment to the idea that healthy, ovulatory menstruation is integral to women’s health and well-being. If you don’t know about Barbara Seaman and her work in women’s health activism, please read about her.

My menstrual cycle advocacy took what could be considered a counter-intuitive path. I aligned myself with the pro-choice sexual health community, committed to comprehensive access to sexual and reproductive health information, education and services. I’ve been as much a contraception and abortion rights advocate over the last three decades as I’ve been a menstrual cycle advocate. But I was a successful user and ardent advocate of the fertility awareness method long before I became a board director at the pro-choice Calgary Birth Control Association in 1986. I went on to serve 10 years on the board of Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada and worked for six years as executive director of Planned Parenthood Alberta, which became Sexual Health Access Alberta in 2006. I’m currently on the board of Canadian Federation for Sexual Health, the former PPFC.

I stress my pro-choice credentials because I think I’m often suspected of being anti-choice. Surely any woman who advocates for healthy, ovulatory menstruation and speaks out against the health concerns inherent in hormonal birth control methods must be anti-contraception and anti-choice. I am neither. More broadly, I’ve written and talked a lot about the value of body literacy for women’s health and well-being.

I wonder sometimes why I’ve stuck it out with the pro-choice sexual health community. While many have been open to my ideas, I have seen little effort to learn about the health benefits of ovulatory menstruation or acknowledge the need – let alone act – to better serve women who want to use non-hormonal contraception. It’s frustrating to be a lone voice, but I keep talking.

It took me over 20 years to find the community that serves and appreciates my menstrual cycle advocacy. I attended my first Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference in 2005, and that’s how I came to belong to this diverse group of academics, medical professionals, researchers, activists and artists committed to advancing knowledge and awareness of the menstrual cycle. We come from different perspectives, we ask different questions and we focus on different aspects of women’s menstrual lives. But we all hold true to the same idea: #menstruationmatters.

Menstrual cycle advocacy can be lonely and oh so frustrating. Chris Bobel’s recent post about how difficult it can be to help others make the menstrual connection included this quote from me:

Caring about menstruation and the menstrual cycle makes me almost a freak in the pro-choice world. I get ignored or criticized a lot because people don’t want to ask or answer some of the questions I keep trying to pose about choice around non-hormonal contraceptive methods. 

Thanks to SMCR and re:Cycling, I’m not going to stop asking hard questions, or challenging the ignorance and avoidance that many in the mainstream sexual health-care community demonstrate when it comes to ovulation, the menstrual cycle and fertility awareness. I’ll keep chirping and chipping away.

I’m fed up with birth control propaganda

October 17th, 2012 by Laura Wershler

Birth control in the U.S. has become synonymous with drugs and devices. The pill, patch, or ring; Depo-Provera or hormonal implant; copper IUD or Mirena IUD; traditional hormonal birth control or long-acting reversible contraceptives. All impact the function of the menstrual cycle; some suppress it completely. As a pro-choice menstrual cycle advocate I take issue with the fact that keeping your cycle and contracepting effectively are now considered mutually exclusive.

A widely published Associated Press story tells us that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists now recommends hormonal implants and IUDs as the best birth control methods for teenagers. The research this recommendation is based on did not even study pregnancy outcomes for women using condoms, barriers, or fertility awareness methods. These methods were not among the free contraceptives offered to study participants. Another story reported that ”the new guidelines say that physicians should talk about (implants and IUDs) with sexually active teens at every doctor visit.” This sounds like a hardcore sales pitch to me. I expressed my concerns about pushing LARCs on teenagers in a previous re:Cycling post.

Drugs and devices also figure prominently in Switching Contraceptives EffectivelyNew York Times health writer Jane E. Brody writes about the mistakes women make when switching between birth control methods that can result in unintended pregnancies. The reasons women switch are explored and a link to a resource on how to switch methods successfully is provided.

The Reproductive Health Access Project developed the pamphlet to help women prevent gaps in contraception when they change methods. The premise is a good one:

What’s the best way to switch from one birth control method to another? To lower the chance of getting pregnant, avoid a gap between methods. Go straight from one method to the next, with no gaps between methods.

But the pamphlet developers made the huge false assumption that all women just need or want to try another drug or devise. It focuses ONLY on these method — how to switch from the pill to Depe-Provera or the copper IUD, or how to switch from the Mirena IUD to the progestin implant. Condoms and barrier methods are considered useful ONLY for the transition period between drugs and devices. Fertility Awareness Methods are ignored completely. The resource comes across as propaganda for drug- and device-based birth control methods.

Neither Brody nor those behind the Reproductive Health Access Project seem to understand that this approach contributes to the unplanned pregnancy rate by failing to acknowledge that many women are fed up with contraceptive drugs and devices. These women want support and information to switch away from these methods. They are falling though the contraceptive gap created by this failure.

Is it any wonder that some women stop using their contraceptives without talking to their physicians? Maybe they are fed up with doctors like Ruth Lesnewski, education director of the Reproductive Health Access Project, who offers trite admonishment that side effects ”will go away with time” and insists that caution about using long-acting methods like the IUD or hormonal implant is “outdated.” Real health issues are associated with all these methods. I guess Dr. Lesnewski doesn’t read health blogs where women document their frustration about side effects and dismissive health-care providers.

This article places blame for contraceptive failure on women not knowing how birth control works, instead of where the blame really belongs — on the blind spot that keeps sexual and reproductive health-care providers from seeing, and serving, women who are sick and tired of drugs and devices.

As for the ACOG recommendation on the best birth control methods for teens? It’s just a step away from coercive, patriarchal decision-making by doctors for teenage girls, and a threat to the sexual agency of many young women.

Coming off Depo-Provera can be a woman’s worst nightmare

April 4th, 2012 by Laura Wershler

Need proof that women are sometimes desperate for information and support when it comes to quitting hormonal contraception? You need look no further than the 100 plus comments in reply to an old blog posting at Our Bodies OurselvesQuestions About Side Effects of Stopping Contraceptive Injections.  The comment stream – a litany of woes concerning women’s discontinuation of Depo-Provera – has been active since Nov. 2, 2009.

On March 29, 2012, Rachel, author of the post, wrote a follow-up piece in which she laments: “Although a quick internet search finds many women complaining of or asking about post-Depo symptoms, there isn’t much published scientific evidence on the topic.” Beyond research about bone density and length of time to return to fertility, little is known about the withdrawal symptoms women have been commenting about.

Depo-Provera is the 4-times-a-year birth control injection that carries an FDA “black box” warning that long-term use is associated with significant bone mineral density loss.  Never a fan, I made a case against this contraceptive in a paper for Canadian Woman Studies, published in 2005. The comments on the OBOS post indicate that many women took Depo-Provera without full knowledge of the potential for serious side effects while taking it, or of what to expect while coming off the drug.

Considering that Depo-Provera completely suppresses normal reproductive endocrine function, it is not surprising that many women experience extreme or confusing symptoms once stopping it. Take Lissa’s comment for example, posted on February 21, 2011:

Omg I thought I was tripping. I have been on depo for a year and stopped in jan. My breasts constantly hurt, I put on weight, have hot flashes, and sleeping problems. I pray everyday my cycle returns and stops playing with me. I only spot lightly.

Two and a half years after publication, the original article continues to garner monthly comments. I’ve read most of them and have yet to see one that offers concrete advice or a referral to resources that provide information and support to women looking for both. One such resource is Coming Off The Pill, the Patch, the Shot and Other Hormonal Contraceptives, a comprehensive, clinical-based guide to assist women transition back to menstruation and fertility, written by Megan Lalonde and Geraldine Matus.

Lalonde, a Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioner, and Certified Professional Midwife, helps women establish healthy, ovulatory cycles after using hormonal contraception. She says that women who’ve used Depo-Provera generally experience the most obvious symptoms and have the hardest time returning to fertility.  She finds that every client’s experience is different and will be affected by the status of their cycles before taking the drug, and their overall health. “It can take time to regain normal menstrual cycles, from a few months to 18 months, in my experience,” says Lalonde. “Some women have minimal symptoms while their own cycles resume, while others might have significant symptoms, including mood changes, unusual spotting and breast tenderness.”

The comments to the Our Bodies Ourselves blog post demonstrate that many women are not finding the acknowledgement and support they need to understand and manage the post-Depo transition. Some are disheartening to read, like this comment by Judy from April 12, 2011, and this recent one posted by Melani on March 21, 2012.

In my last re: Cycling post, I asked for input on the Coming Off the Pill Mind Map I created. I’ll be making a few revisions thanks to the thoughtful feedback readers have provided. I had assumed that this guide would be applicable to all methods of hormonal birth control but, after reading these women’s comments about their Depo-Provera experiences, it appears this contraceptive may require its own branch on the mind map.

Fog Warning Ahead

March 29th, 2012 by Heather Dillaway

As I embark on my 40th year I look ahead to menopause. I guess there is a good chance I’m approaching some foggy years. Brain fog, that is.

In the past week a flurry of online news articles review new research findings on the “brain fog” that many perimenopausal women experience. The brain fog is more easily understood as a slight memory problem, if you take the time to read through the various news stories. A new study analyzed how 75 individual women, aged 40 to 60, rated their memory performance based on factors like how often they forgot details and how serious their forgetfulness was. Researchers also gathered information about the women’s overall health, mood and hormone levels, as well as other menopausal symptoms, and tried to figure out the extent to which this “brain fog” exists. According to news reports, about 41 percent of the women in the study reported having forgetfulness that was “serious,” and those who felt that their memory problems were serious were more likely to score poorly on tests of working memory and attention. Some women who rated their memory problems as serious also reported some depression and other symptoms like hot flashes and sleeping problems. Other researchers suggest that the memory problems women experience are related to changing levels of estrogen in a woman’s body at menopause, but interestingly this new study did not find links to changing hormone levels.

The whole notion of “brain fog” is interesting, and I am suspicious of it as a strictly menopausal symptom. What about the brain fog we all experience when we’re tired or sick or just way too busy? Defining brain fog as a “menopausal” (really, perimenopausal) symptom further defines middle-aged women as somehow less than functional and set them up to be taken less seriously.

Putting this issue aside, though, what I actually find most interesting about all of the news coverage of this study is just how different each report of the study is. I am reminded that we should all be careful of which report we read about a study. For example, the first article I read on this study was placed in the Los Angeles Times and focused on the possible connections between menopausal brain fog, depression, and dementia. I was left feeling like the author of the article inferred that all menopausal women might have depression or dementia and that they should seek treatment. After reading this article I was angry because I felt as if I had been warned that midlife brain fog was the beginning of an inevitable decline for all women. Then I read a WedMD piece that simply described the study and did not concentrate on depression, dementia, or the need for treatment, and I wasn’t really sure what to make of the research study. Finally I read an article by a HealthDay reporter which quoted one of our own, SMCR member Nancy Wood, who reminds readers that “a number of other stressors in life, from work to taking care of children and parents, that pile up around the same time as menopause can hinder memory and ability to concentrate.” In addition, this article’s author states that “memory problems are not necessarily an early sign of dementia” and cognitive ability is regained after other perimenopausal symptoms subside. This third article concluded that the research study is helpful because findings suggest that brain fog is real – that women aren’t crazy – but that it is normal and not that detrimental to women’s long-term cognitive abilities.

Of course, nothing is a substitute for reading the original article published by Miriam Weber and her co-authors this March in the journal, Menopause. But if you need a quick synopsis of what a research study finds just make sure you know its source and think about whether the coverage of the details makes sense! I for one like the tone of the HealthDay news article – that, if brain fog exists, it is temporary and normal and could be caused by lots of things. It is not necessarily an indicator of depression or dementia or even a permanent memory problem.

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.