Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

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.

Food. Fashion. Blood?

January 10th, 2014 by Laura Wershler

A month ago I was musing about what it might be like to blog about fun stuff like food, fashion or travel – you know, topics not quite so “fraught” as the menstrual cycle. Sometimes it feels like just so much work sharing facts and opinions about why body literacy matters, why knowing how our cycles work and how ovulation impacts our health can lead us into meaningful, self-determined relationship with our bodies and ourselves.

But in the days leading up to Christmas, I was reminded by two young women, both of whom I’ve known since they were babies, daughters of friends, one in her late 20s, the other in her early 30s, why I do what I do.

Photo by Laura Wershler

The younger had contacted me last September, at the suggestion of her mother, with questions about switching birth control methods. She was fed up with the Pill, wanted to quit, was considering the Mirena IUD, told me about her history with ovarian cysts, irregular cycles. In a stable relationship, she hadn’t thought much about children. We talked about options. I assured her there were effective non-hormonal methods she could use, that by doing so she could assess her fertility, get her cycle functioning normally before making a decision about the Mirena. I sent her information about treatment – not involving hormonal contraceptives – for ovarian cysts; I asked a medical colleague questions on her behalf. She was thankful, emailing me that she had “some heavy thinking to do, including my actual timeline for children.”

I hoped to see her at her family’s annual Christmas party. We greeted each other briefly when I arrived, but not until the house was teeming with guests did we have the chance to talk privately amidst the holiday din. She told me she’d stopped the Pill three months before, could hardly believe how much better she felt, even though she’d yet to have a period. She thanked me, again, for validating her desire to quit the Pill. It so happened she had an appointment the next day with her family doctor; she knew what treatment she would request to help get her cycle started.

It did not go well. Her doctor, like so many I’ve heard about, was not interested in the menstrual cycle research she had done or the choices she wanted to make about her reproductive health. Quite the contrary: her doctor was hostile. It was disheartening for her, maddening to me, but not surprising.

A day later, at another holiday gathering, the other young woman stopped me in the hall to ask what I thought of the Mirena. She’d made the switch from the combined Pill (estrogen/progestin) to a progestin-only version to help with migraines. She offered that she and her partner had not yet decided about children, but she was concerned about leaving it too late. I told her the Mirena was intended as a five-year method, and if she was thinking she might want a child, it was a good time to stop hormonal contraception and assess her fertility before making a decision, either way.

I forwarded both women links to a naturopath skilled in menstrual cycle and fertility issues, and to a fertility awareness instructor who’d just announced her 2014 Eco-Contraception Program. The decision about what to do next, of course, will be theirs.

I sense both young women are searching for new, mindful connections to their bodies. Even if all I ever do is help a few such women find the support they need to make this connection, then to hell with food and fashion, I’ll keep writing about the menstrual cycle.

Give the Gift of Body Literacy

December 16th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

Photo by Laura Wershler

This holiday season consider giving the women in your life the gift of body literacy. The books, resources and services compiled below support understanding and appreciation of our bodies.

Gifts for teenagers:

* To hold a Wondrous Vulva Puppet is to experience a loving representation of the female body. Dorrie Lane’s vulva puppets are used around the world to spark conversations about our bodies and our sexuality. To quote a testimonial on the website: “The sensual curves, velvety feel and beauty of these puppets seems to disarm people in a way that opens the door to real discussion about women’s sexuality.”

* Toni Weschler, widely known for her best-selling book on fertility awareness Taking Charge of Your Fertility, has also written a book for teenagers. Cycle Savvy: The Smart Teen’s Guide to the Mysteries of Her Body makes the perfect gift for your daughter or younger sister, neice or cousin. This book can transform a young teenager’s experience and understanding of her body as it teaches her the practical benefits of charting her menstrual cycles. Available in paperback and Kindle editions.

Gifts for those who want to learn fertility awareness:



* Justisse Method: Fertility Awareness and Body Literacy A User’s Guide by Justisse founder Geraldine Matus is a helpful gift for anyone wanting to learn about fertility awareness based methods (FABM) of birth control. It is “a primer for body literacy, and a guide for instructing women how to observe, chart and interpret their menstrual cycle events.”

For someone who wants to learn fertility awareness to prevent or achieve pregnancy, or to fix menstrual problems, finding a certified practitioner is getting easier. Technology can connect women with skilled instructors who may live thousands of miles away. Check out the practitioners below online and on Facebook.

*   *    *   *   *   *

* Flowers Fertility (Colleen Flowers, Colorado): Facebook.

* Grace of the Moon (Sarah Bly, Oregon): Facebook.

* Holistic Hormonal Health (Hannah Ransom, California): Facebook.

* Justisse Healthworks for Women provides a directory of Justisse-trained Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioners (Worldwide): Facebook.

* Red Coral Fertility (Justina Thompson): Facebook

* Red Tent Sisters (Amy Sedgwick, Ontario, Canada): Facebook

I invite other certified instructors who work locally to leave their contact information in comments.

Gifts for women in midlife

* For women who are in the perimenopausal transition – which can last from six to 10 years for most women, ending one year after the final menstrual period – give the gift of information. Connect friends and family with the website of the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research where they’ll find many free resources that offer explanations and treatment suggestions for the symptoms they may experience throughout this transition including night sweats, hot flushes, heavy and/or longer flow, migraines, and sore, swollen breasts.

* To those who love fiction, consider giving Estrogen’s Storm Season, a fictionalized account of eight women’s journey through perimenopause written by CeMCOR’s Scientific Director, endocrinologist Dr. Jerilynn Prior:

They are as different as women can be—yet they share the mysterious experiences of perimenopause, night sweats, flooding periods or mood swings. We follow these women as they consult Dr. Madrona, learn the surprising hormonal changes explaining their symptoms, get better or worse, and try or refuse therapies. As each woman lives through her particular challenge, we begin to see how we, too, can survive perimenopause!

Proceeds from book sales support ongoing research.

From menarche to menopause, it is never too early or too late to acquire body literacy. I invite readers to share other gift ideas that promote menstrual cycle comfort and support body literacy.

Why the “pullout generation” is a sex ed fail

November 13th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

Questioning and quitting the pill are current hot topics, fueled in no small part by Holly Grigg-Spall’s recently released Sweetening the Pill Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. Her book has drawn ample backlash, brilliantly addressed by re:Cycling blogger Elizabeth Kissling.

Adding to the media clamour was Ann Friedman’s New York Magazine online piece No Pill? No Prob. Meet the Pullout Generation which explores how and why women she knows are ditching hormones and depending on withdrawal and period tracking apps for birth control.

Black Iris by Georgia O’Keeffe, photographed by Laura Wershler
at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Both writers, along with Toronto freelancer Kate Carraway, recently discussed the topic Rebelling against the pill: ‘Pulling-Out’ of conventional birth control on CBC Radio-Canada’s The Current.

Listening to Grigg-Spall, Friedman, and Carraway discuss the pill rebellion affirms that while many young women are through with hormonal birth control, their transition off the pill, etc., is not without risk-taking and pushback.

Grigg-Spall nailed the pivotal point when she said “It’s a provider issue.”

The rise of the “pullout generation” is proof that sexual health-care providers and educators, among whom I count myself, have failed on two counts:

1) We’ve failed to address a key aspect of contraceptive use: how to transition successfully between method groups, in this case from hormonal to non-hormonal methods. We’d rather present the so-called “latest and greatest” hormonal methods and say – earnestly, pleadingly – try this! The CBC panelists provided strong anecdotal evidence that more and more women are having none of it.

2) We’ve failed to adequately acknowledge and serve women who can’t, won’t or don’t want to use hormonal methods. We are NOT providing across-the-board support and programs that include easy access to diaphragms or certified training in fertility awareness based methods (FABM), either onsite or through collaborative referral strategies.

For over 25 years I’ve advocated for increased access to information, support and services for women who want to use non-hormonal methods of birth control. It’s self-evident such services must include access to qualified instruction to learn FABM that have effectiveness rates over 99%. This is not to say there isn’t a place for withdrawal as an effective back-up. Check out this confessional how-to post by fertility awareness instructor Amy Sedgewick.

As Friedman said on The Current, women are intimidated by the idea of learning fertility awareness. I believe this is mostly because mainstream sexual health-care providers have never fully educated themselves about FABM or fully committed to presenting these methods as viable options to drugs and devises. Do they think that most women can’t or don’t want to learn fertility awareness skills? That would be like thinking most girls can’t or don’t want to learn to read.

As I’ve written elsewhere: “Fertility awareness, like riding a bicycle, is a life skill.”

If you can learn to swim, ski or snowboard, knit a sweater, read a balance sheet or master Adobe InDesign, you can learn to observe, chart and interpret your menstrual cycle events. We can all acquire body literacy.

Until sexual health educators and care providers develop programs to fully serve women who won’t use or want to stop using drugs and devises for birth control, we will continue failing to meet the growing “unmet need” for effective non-hormonal contraceptive methods.

The reign of hormonal birth control as the top-of-the-contraceptive-hierarchy gold standard appears to be coming to an end. The pullout generation represents just one thread in this transition. The questions is: Are sexual health educators and care providers paying attention and, if so, what are they going to do about it?

“Prescribing the pill has become ‘standard-of-care’ for being a girl”

October 16th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

I had the privilege of writing the foreword for Holly Grigg-Spall’s recently published book Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. It’s astounding to me that more than 30 years ago, before Holly was born, I was asking some of the same questions she explores in her book. I thought we’d have more answers by now, but one thing is certain: Holly’s book has prompted long-overdue discussion and debate about issues related to hormonal birth control. Below is my foreword to Sweetening the Pill.

………………..

In a letter dated March 22, 1980, I proposed to the editor of an American woman’s magazine that they consider my enclosed article: The Contraceptive Dilemma – A Subjective Appraisal of the Status of Birth Control.

I wrote:

“Recent articles (about birth control) deal almost exclusively with the basic pros, cons, and how-tos of the various contraceptives available – matter-of-fact discussions that reduce birth control to a mere pragmatic decision. If only that were the case. 

Contraception, like the sexual interaction that necessitates it, involves our emotions as much as it does the facts. Yet the subjective, personal aspect of contraception is so often ignored. In this age of scientific research we are expected to (subjugate) our emotional reactions to significant probabilities, our anger to logic. Very real fears and earnest questions are dismissed as irrelevant….”

Although today I wouldn’t use the phrase “emotional reactions,” it’s hard to believe that three decades later, the status of birth control and women’s relationship to it has not much changed. Websites, not magazines, now host information about the basic pros, cons and how-tos of available birth control methods. And it is writers like Holly, half my age, who honour women’s real fears and ask earnest questions that are still being dismissed as mostly irrelevant.

Just as my personal story with the pill – including over a year of distressing post-pill amenorrhea – set me on a course of research and advocacy, so too has Holly’s personal experience. Sweetening the Pill explores and challenges the ways in which the pill and other drug-based contraceptives damage women’s health, threaten our autonomy and thwart body literacy. What we don’t know about our bodies helps pharmaceutical companies “sell” their contraceptive drugs, and keeps us “addicted” to them.

At some point between my first attempt at non-hormonal contraceptive advocacy and Holly’s exploration of how we’ve become hooked on hormonal birth control, something disturbing transpired. Prescribing the pill, or other forms of hormonal contraception, has become, in the minds of most health-care providers, the “standard of care” for being a girl. It is all too common to subjugate a girl’s menstrual cycle to synthetic hormones that superficially “regulate,” but actually suspend the maturation of her reproductive system. And for many girls, the use of hormonal contraception continues well into their 20s, without awareness of what might be or has been sacrificed.

There are many women like Holly who are fed up with hormonal birth control. I’ve met scores of them during my 30 years involvement within the mainstream pro-choice sexual and reproductive health community, the one that prides itself on inclusion and diversity. Yet I’ve been unsuccessful in my constant advocacy for this community to accommodate a more inclusive, diverse approach to contraception, to provide acknowledgement, support and services to women who cannot or do not want to use drug- or devised-based methods. We pay lip service to the idea, but the message we convey is: “You’re on your own.”

I’ve found enthusiasm in other realms for my menstrual cycle advocacy and my belief that many women want to, and can, learn to use non-hormonal methods effectively and confidently. I’ve found scientific evidence of the value of ovulation to women’s health and well-being.

I’ve read, met or worked with several of the sources included in this book. Many have devoted their careers to understanding women’s bodies and our relationships with our bodies in ways the medical mainstream typically ignores and barely comprehends. They have made contributions that help us imagine a different way of thinking about fertility, contraception and our menstrual cycles in relation to our sexual, reproductive and overall health.

Two stupid ideas about menopause, and one that makes sense

July 3rd, 2013 by Laura Wershler

Two new suppositions about menopause have been tossed around the media in recent weeks. They make for racy headlines but both, unfortunately, perpetuate the myth that menopause is a disease women need to be protected from.

Most recent was the assertion by researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, that menopause in women is the unintended consequence of men’s preference for younger mates.

Men to blame for menopause

The writer with her mother Erna Sawyer who turns 95 on July 20, 2013. Is menopause an “age-related disease” that science must figure out how to prevent or an evolutionary adaptation for longevity?

Evolutionary biologist Rama Singh, co-author of the study published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, gave this explanation in a CBC news story: “What we’re saying is that menopause will occur if there is preferential mating with younger women and older women are not reproducing.”

The study used computer modelling to arrive at this hypothesis. Singh said that this “very simple theory”…”demystifies menopause…It becomes a simple age-related disease, if you can call it that.”

Well, no Mr. Singh, you can can’t call menopause a disease. I challenged this idea in response to the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Death Loves Menopause ads in February 2012.

Yet there he is, hoping his work will prompt research on how to prevent menopause in women, helping us to maintain better health as we age. What does he really know about menopause anyway?

Another stupid idea about menopause surfaced in late May with headlines like: Women could evolve out of menopause ‘because it is no benefit to them.’

Women could evolve out of menopause

The story, covered by media everywhere, was based on comments by biologist and science writer Aarthi Prasad at the 2013 Telegraph Hay Festival, Britain’s leading festival of ideas.

The Daily Mail reported that if women evolve out of menopause we could then have children well into our 50s (But how many women want to?), and that “targeted gene therapies will be developed to treat the condition.”

We’ve been fighting the assumption that menopause is a “condition” that needs to be treated for decades, with members of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at the forefront of this assumption-busting.

Quoted in The Telegraph, Prasad also said, “What we think is normal is not normal for nature. If it is something not in all mammals, is it something necessary or beneficial for us? I do not see any benefits.”

Wow! Menopause is not “normal for nature.” But what about the argument made by doctors like Elsimar Coutinho who promote menstrual cycle suppression, who assert incessant ovulation (i.e. reproductive capacity) is not natural, normal or healthy in humans, therefore we should take drugs to stop it?

These doctors and scientists need to get on the same page. Which is it? Do we ovulate too much or do we not ovulate enough?

As for “no benefits” to menopause consider this: What if menopause is an evolutionary adaptation that works in women’s favor?

Do women live longer, healthier lives because of menopause?

An October 2010 story in The Calgary Herald - Why don’t monkeys go through menopause? - discussed the research of University of Calgary anthropologists Mary Pavelka and Linda Fedigan who’ve spent years documenting the aging and reproductive histories of Japanese female macaques.

Few study subjects lived past their reproductive capacity, about age 25, and those that did showed signs of serious physical deterioration. For these primates, retaining the ability to reproduce until late in life did not make them healthier. Fedigan noted that they were “crippled up with arthritis, their face is all wrinkled and their fur is falling out.”

The question, they noted, was why would human females lose their ability to reproduce in healthy middle age?

“One hypothesis is that it’s a byproduct of evolution for longevity in humans,” Pavelka said.

Now here’s an idea that makes sense. Think about it. Men produce sperm – albeit of dwindling quantity and quality – until they die; women transition to menopause and can live healthy lives for decades after. Women live significantly longer than men. Therefore, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that menopause supports longevity in women.

Illustrating menstruation with something other than femcare products

May 29th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

Frances, a woman in her 50s, had never talked about menstruation with anyone before attending Scarlet Summer.

The woman who created this image brought her baby with her to the event.

Bleedy the Period Puppet was created by artist Bree Horel.

Andrea, 25, said this piece depicts the multiple emotions she feels around menstruation.

It was great to see the media attention garnered last week by Red Moon Howl, the menstrual poetry slam happening in New York City on Friday night, June 7, 2013, at Marymount Manhattan College. The event is part of the upcoming Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference – Making Menstruation Matter.

But as re:Cycling noted on our Facebook page, it was a shame the only way Jezebel, The Gloss, and The Frisky could think to illustrate their previews of the event was with stock photos of femcare products.

It made me realize the value of the archive I have of menstrual images created by women who attended the menstrual arts and crafts events we hosted when I was executive director of Sexual Health Access Alberta. At Scarlet Summer [pdf], an event held in August 2007, attendees watched Giovanna Chesler’s documentary Period: End of Menstruation, participated in a discussion, then created visual and tactile illustrations of what menstruation means to them.

In anticipation of the upcoming conference and menstrual poetry slam, here are several menstrual images that may inspire your own periodic creativity.

How do girls learn about periods?

May 1st, 2013 by Laura Wershler

How do girls learn about menstruation today? Who talks to them? Who do they talk to? Or do most girls rely on the Internet for information about periods?

Take this article by Elizabeth (bylines are first names only) – What I Wish I Knew About My Period – posted last week at Rookie, an online magazine for teenage girls. Not a teenager but definitely a young woman, Elizabeth (Spiridakus) shares the wisdom she’s gained through her menstrual experience. Here’s her sum-up:

These are all the things I wish someone had told me before I got my first period, and in the couple of years that followed. Most of all, I wish I had FOUND SOMEONE TO TALK TO! I had so many questions and fears about the whole business, and I think I would have been so much less self-conscious, and so much HAPPIER, if I had only had access to some friendly advice. So, talk to your friends! Talk to your cool older cousin or aunt or sister or your best friend’s cool mom or your OWN cool mom. Leave your questions—and your good advice—in the comments, because I certainly haven’t been able to cover all the bases here.

Read this again: “Most of all, I wish I had FOUND SOMEONE TO TALK TO!”

Photo courtesy of Laura Wershler

Elizabeth urges readers to talk to their friends, cool older relatives, or their own – or somebody else’s – “cool mom.” Great advice, but I have to ask:  Why aren’t cool moms and older relatives already talking to the girls in their lives about menstruation? Sharing friendly advice? Passing on wisdom from mother to daughter, woman to woman?

Suzan Hutchinson, menstrual activist, educator and founder of periodwise.com, a project dedicated to empowering girls and women to embrace the taboo subject of menstruation, has a few ideas about this. She thinks many moms don’t know when to begin “the period talk” or what to say, so they remain silent until their daughters start their periods, or they wait thinking their daughters will initiate period talk. She warns against this.

“We should all remember that when moms offer too little information or start providing information too late, girls often question their credibility and hesitate to return as new questions arise.”

Although Suzan’s mother talked to her about menstruation, she didn’t start early enough, before Suzan heard things from other girls that she didn’t understand. Her early menstrual experience included lying to her friends about getting her period long before she did at age 15. By then she was “too embarrassed to ask my much more experienced friends” and “too proud to turn to Mom.” She tried to deal with things on her own.

“I needed a period coach – someone to walk through things with me and instruct me…help me figure out what to do, when to do, how to do.”

A period coach. This is exactly what Elizabeth is for the girls at RookieRead the comments. Readers loved it.

She’s not the only one using the Internet to connect with girls about menstruation. Despite my reservations about a website operated by the company that sells Always and Tampax, the content of which deserves serious critique, I must acknowledge that thousands of girls are turning to beinggirl.com for period coaching, including tips on how to talk to their moms!

Moms shouldn’t be waiting for their daughters to talk to them. They need to find their own period coaches. Other mothers like Suzan Hutchinson and the mom who started bepreparedperiod.com.

The more information girls have the better. Brava to Elizabeth for What I Wish I Knew About My Period. But moms and cool older relatives have got to get in the game. Now. Don’t wait until the girls in your life come to you.

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.

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.

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.

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.