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To Menstruate Or Not To Menstruate

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When I was a kid, and for a few years after that, the food company Del Monte ran adds which featured the tag line “It’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature.” Needless to say that was meant to assure consumers the product was as near fresh-picked as could be possible for something bought in a can.

It’s just a pity that same catchy slogan can’t be stapled to the foreheads of people in the employ of pharmaceutical companies. They seem intent on seeing how far they can push the human body away from the natural order of things. This is especially true in the case of women’s menstrual cycles.

The latest attempt comes from the pharmaceutical giant Wyeth and their new birth control pill Anya which would completely eliminate a woman’s menstrual cycle. Unlike previous versions of the pill that had a seven-day off period that allowed for a woman’s period, Anya would be taken every day for the course of the cycle, preventing menstruation.

Instead of releasing the traditional almost 50mg of estrogen a pill, Anya would release 25mg, but over a longer time, thus preventing the menstrual cycle without increasing the amount of estragon being taken by the patient. Currently the only drug on the market that is available for women that will stop their period is Depo Provera a three-month hormone shot.

Initial informal polls done at the Museum of Menstruation in Maryland showed that four out of five women who visited liked the idea of not ever having to have a period again. Fifty percent of the women polled in the medical magazine, Contraception, also shared that opinion. (The Menstruation Museum closed its doors in 1999 and exists online only. This poll was conducted online as a request for letters in response to the question, “Would you stop menstruating if you could?” The only references to Contraception I was able to find online were either offers for magazine subscriptions – over $200.00 per year – and references to articles being published in the magazine.)

Naturally there is some debate among the medical and research profession as to the value and dangers of this product. According to Dr. Robert Reid, a professor of obstetrics and genecology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario there is no more risk in taking Anya than in taking regular birth control pills. If you’re a smoker it will increase your chances of stroke and heart attack, for example.

He also sees nothing wrong with a woman not having a monthly menstrual flow and said in Saturday June 24th’s Globe and Mail that a woman’s period actually might increase her chances of infection each month, saying “there’s no evidence that you’re getting rid of toxins in your body.”

Dr. Jerilynn Prior, an endocrinologist and the scientific director of the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research at the University of British Columbia, is highly critical of this pill and in the same article explains that most of her concerns come from the fact that we still don’t know the extent of the side effects caused by the original pill. She also brings up the whole “Don’t mess with Mother Nature argument.”

She points out that menstruation is an “intricate cycle…and a vital sign of our health.” Messing with it at this level, she believes, is a horrible thought. She thinks the continuous-use pill is just a way for the pharmaceutical companies to jazz up an old product.

It sounds like Health Canada will approve this drug with certain provisos. The basic one being that all women who take the drug will have to enroll in a program where they have to have medical follow-ups every six months. There is no mention about how long that program will be in place or what Health Canada deems to be long enough to gauge whether or not there will be any ill effects felt by women.

Not being a woman it may not seem appropriate for me to comment on this product, but being appropriate has never been a problem for me before so it’s not going to stop me now. I’m sure the appeal for most women will be the convenience; no more having to worry about what you can and can not wear for one week out of every month, no more horrible cramps, no more having to strap on or insert something inside of you every month to mop up blood.

Put like that, it sounds just great doesn’t it? Free of the curse, as it has been so nicely called by some segments of society. No more thinking of yourself as unclean once a month as so many societies call it. The stigma that’s been attached to a woman’s cycle for so many years has reduced one of the major distinguishing characteristics of being a mammal to being something dirty that’s not talked about in proper society.

There have been many societies where this has not been the case, where a woman’s cycle has been taken as a sign of her power of creation, not as a curse. In some Native American nations, the women were released from all responsibilities during their cycle. They would gather in a special lodge set aside for them so they could spend the time away from the cares of their day-to-day existence and do whatever they wanted.

If that meant sleeping, sitting up and talking, or praying, it didn’t matter, and was left up to the individual person to decide. Instead of trying to hide the fact that women bleed, it was recognized as being part of life and accommodated. It was understood that they might need to rest, that their hormones would be out of balance, but most of all they weren’t made to feel dirty or unclean.

A whole industry has been built around convincing women that one week out of the month they are less than perfect, there is something wrong with them, and they have to take steps to ensure that no one knows. Imagine growing up having that being driven into your head all the time?

Think about it guys, how would you feel if something you had no control over made you, at best, an object of derision every month, down on through being told that you have to hide away a part of what defines your gender. What is it about that one bodily function that makes people so uptight and afraid? Everybody always talks about the miracle of birth, but nobody seems to want to admit that it might be because of a woman’s bleeding every month that it happens.

Well you know what, I’ll let you in on a secret; you can’t have one without the other. Shocking news, isn’t it? If a woman doesn’t menstruate, she won’t have babies. Okay so that’s a little sarcastic, but sometimes you have to wonder if the sellers of all this stuff, covering up or preventing menses, don’t want you making the connection between the two.

Why else would they make it something you would want to hide, or get rid of, like it serves no purpose? Perhaps because if we admitted how important menstruation was in the grand scheme of things, we might end up not treating it with such disdain and actually affording the cycle of life some sort of respect.

So that brings us back to the whole issue of stopping a woman’s menstrual cycle through the use of drugs. These drugs somehow prevent the woman’s uterus from producing eggs and negating the need for the sloughing off of the extra tissue that’s produced each month because of it.

If there is no need for the cycle, why is it that women who are on estragon therapy have to go in for routine D-and-C’s to clean out the build-up in the uterus? I’ve known women who have had to take Depo Provera for medical reasons and they swell up like balloons because of water retention. Some have had their blood pressure go through the roof as a result.

How can stopping a body’s normal process from occurring before it is time to stop be said to be without risk if we’ve never done it before? Nobody has been on it for long enough to know yet what’s going to happen to them if they ever want to have a baby afterwards. What effect will it have on a woman’s cycle when she wants to start it up again?

When my wife and I got together we knew we weren’t going to have children. I went out and had a vasectomy so she didn’t have to take the pill. It took close to six months for her cycle to start to return to normal, and ever since it has been heavier and more debilitating then it was before she went on the pill.

I know that’s only one person and strictly anecdotal evidence, but then how much more proof do any of the companies offer that there will be no problems down the road with something like Anya? Or how about Yasmine, which went on the market in the States in 2002 amid promises that it would reduce a woman’s weight. Despite evidence that proves it has no real effect, women continue to buy it without even considering what causes the weight loss.

The human race doesn’t exactly have an exemplary record when it comes to our attempts to mess around with the natural order of things. What evidence is there to support anyone’s claims that anything we do makes things better instead of worse? There was probably a good reason for our bodies being designed to function the way they do. There’s a lot to be said for the old adage “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

Perhaps that’s the other saying the pharmaceutical companies need stapling to their foreheads.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site He has been writing for since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Natalie Bennett

    Sorry Richard, but you are wrong on this, not that I disagree with your view of pharmaceutical companies. If you want to argue from what is “natural”, then most women throughout the existence of the human race have probably had no more than half a dozen menstrual cycles in their life.

    Think back to paleolithic hunter-gathers. Girls would have started menstruating, and in most cases within a couple of cycles they would be pregnant. They’d then breastfeed for two years or more, and would generally not have a period during that time. When their periods resumed, they would most likely be pregnant within a couple of cycles again. So say between ages 15 and 30 (if they lived that long), they might have five children and 10 periods.

    Basically what the pill does is mimic pregnancy, so there is an argument for saying that taking the pill continuously is more “natural”.

    And many women, myself included, have been using the existing pills in this way for many years. (Anything but the phasic ones can be used in this way.)

    That’s for two reasons. There’s some suggestion that it might reduce the risk of hormonal-related cancers (such as many breast cancers), because you are not subjecting your body to around 12 hormonal storms a year, and it is a damn sight more convenient. (I confess the latter is a strong argument in my mind.)

    Of course it is a good idea for anyone thinking of doing this to discuss it with a doctor or nurse – but do pick the right one. Lots of doctors are still dinosaurs on women’s reproductive issues.

  • Dave

    I’m sorry but they do not mimic pregnancy, if so you’d be eating for two also, you’d be pucking in the morning, no?

    Being pregnant is the natural way of blocking menstruations; pills are an artificial way of blocking them. Artificial methods of doing anything have always proven to have serious side-effects.

    Men take blue pills to get a hard-on instead of eating better and keeping fit. The side effects of healthy living are not life threatening like the side effects of Viagra. One’s natural the other isn’t.

  • John Guilfoil

    All I’m going to say–and I usually don’t follow gender roles–is that I’m a man and I do not feel at all qualified to judge a woman if she doesn’t want to have a period, or judge the companies that enable that choice (for lack of a better word…)

    I have no idea what it’s like to go through that and from what I have been told by women, I simply don’t wanna know.

    Then you brought up the vasectomy, which made my legs naturally twinge. How do you know that’s not interfering with natural male processes?

    Can’t agree with you on this one…

  • chantal stone

    A whole industry has been built around convincing women that one week out of the month they are less than perfect…

    A whole OTHER industry has been built to make us feel inadequate ALL the time.

    This is an interesting article, Richard. I, for one, was never totally comfortable with taking any kind of hormones over such a long period of time, but I have to admit, after already having 3 healthy children, if I could somehow stop my periods naturally, I would do it.

  • Orchid

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with Natalie’s assessment of menstruation in paleolithic times. It assumes that women had few periods because they were constantly pregnant or breastfeeding. There is no evidence that women were so fertile or sexually active that they rarely had the opportunity to menstruate.

    In fact, the anthropoligical evidence indicates women lived together to raise their off-spring and gather food and men worked separately at hunting. Men would “visit” groups of women in their proximity and either rape or copulate with them but there wasn’t a pairing off or serial monogamy with regular sexual contact.

    Additionally, if you look at the behavior of tribal cultures that have existed outside of modern technology (like the Yanomami), you’ll see that they also do not fit the pattern Natalie suggests despite living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

    As for nature, it isn’t natural to suppress your menstrual cycles with artificial hormones nor to regulate them. The fact that birth control pills might have some rather serious side effects (depression, blood clots, blood pressure problems) illustrates how unnatural it is.

    I don’t necessarily oppose pharmaceutical companies producing any medication they want to market as long as they make the potential side effects clear. People can choose to buy such products or not and speak to the future of such “unnatural” methods with their wallets. While personally I’d never take them (and I don’t take birth control pills either – prophylactics work just fine), people have the right to do whatever they choose to their own bodies including harming them with chemicals.

  • A.L. Harper

    I started having my period at the age of 9, I am now 36. I have been told, repeatedly, by Doctors – some of whom seem almost gleeful about it – that the earlier you start the longer you have it. If I’m unlucky I can look forward to having my period until I am into my 60’s.

    As many women can tell you, when you start to age your periods can become much heavier. By about a year ago mine had gotten so bad that I didn’t leave the house for more than an hour or two at a time. Not because of some old fashioned idea about being unclean but because of the personal feeling of needing a shower when blood would run down my leg.

    I went to the Doctor, here in Scotland, and was given “The Coil”/IUD. They told me that this would prevent births but, with the type that I would be receiving, it also had the added effect of helping to stop 80% of the bleeding. It works by delivering a small amount of hormone to the lining of my womb. This prevents it from forming that protective layer that your body sheds once a month and we call that having a period.

    For me it stopped 100% of the bleeding. I haven’t had a period in a year!

    I have never felt so FREE! I was completely unprepared for the sense of elation that would come from NOT having my period. It’s like the best vacation ever! I do get slightly hormonal but even that is less than what it was. No more crying fits. No more craving bizarre foods. No more uncontrollably horny (I mean no more than normal for me on a regular basis). I feel human and happy.

    I never used a chemical birth control method before, not because I have issues with using drugs or messing with nature but because I had a bad reaction to the pill when I was 16 (and that would be the reason I had a teenage pregnancy), so I have never known the freedom of it. I wouldn’t deny it to any woman.

    I was told that it could make it more difficult to conceive if I wanted to later and there could be a few other side effects but so far I have not experienced any although I haven’t tried to conceive and I’m not going to at 36.

    I guess I think it’s up to the woman. I know how hellish it can be. I also know how it feels to think that you will have your period for 50 years. It can be very depressing. I can see where this pill would have its uses.

  • A.L. Harper

    I do have one more, slightly shorter, thing to say. I don’t think that any man has the right to comment here. If you don’t know don’t say.

    I wouldn’t talk about what felt better a hand-job or a blow-job. And I think comments like:

    “No more thinking of yourself as unclean once a month as so many societies call it. The stigma that’s been attached to a woman’s cycle for so many years has reduced one of the major distinguishing characteristics of being a mammal to being something dirty that’s not talked about in proper society.”


    “Why else would they make it something you would want to hide, or get rid of, like it serves no purpose? Perhaps because if we admitted how important menstruation was in the grand scheme of things, we might end up not treating it with such disdain and actually affording the cycle of life some sort of respect.”

    prove that you have no idea how it feels to be a woman. Or what it’s like to have your period.

    I think your great Richard, but off the mark with those comments.

  • Lisa McKay

    Richard is commenting from a cultural and historical perspective. I don’t think he’s trying to explain how it feels to be a woman, and in fact I think he’d be the first person to agree with that.

    Menstruation has indeed been stigmatized by western society and by some religions — my take on Richard’s point of view is that he’s arguing in favor of regarding it as what it is, a natural part of the life cycle.

  • PoizonMyst

    I don’t see the harm in giving women another contraceptive choice. Talking about what is “Natural” these days is quite unrealistic – I mean, should I be reading this article on a monitor which is likely to burn my eyes after hours of use, and slowly releases radiation into my surrounding environment, or would reading it on paper be the healthier “natural” option? What about the air we breathe every single day?

    For many women their period is extremely debilitating, and they have been using many more methods than just Deprovera over the years to reduce or prevent their periods. The current pill is often used by skipping the placebo pills for three months at a time, while Implanon and the Mirena IUD can also prevent the menstrual cycle in many women. In the modern age, these options are essential for women, for more reasons than just the sake of ‘convenience’. Unlike cultures of the past, where the entire community would be responsible for raising children, today’s mother is expected to fulfill that role with little or no assistance outside the immediate family. Motherly duties are impossible when one is writhing in agony, and in fact, I was fired from one job because the extreme symptoms of my period were too unpleasant for customers to see.

    I agree further testing is critical in assessing any side effects that may be associated with ceasing Anya, for those women who then wish to get pregnant, but I would think that “25mg over a longer time” would be better for the body than 50mg over extended durations – which, as I mentioned, is already done with the current pills on the market.

    Dave comments that the pill “does not mimic pregnancy”. However, hormones are not the reason pregnant women are “eating for two”, it has more to do with the fact that they ARE eating for two, and morning sickness is a result of a combination of factors – including rapidly increased hormonal levels, enhanced smell, and excess stomach acids. When used as preventative for the period, one could argue the pill does “mimic pregnancy” in the same way oestrogen and progesterone play an important role in preventing miscarriage. Progesterone also prevents the release of any further eggs until the pregnancy is completed or terminated, in the same way the pill works to suppress ovulation. No contraception will “prevent the woman’s uterus from producing eggs” … because unlike the production of sperm in a male, women’s ovaries contain all their eggs from birth.

  • PoizonMyst

    One last thing …

    Orchid says:
    “The fact that birth control pills might have some rather serious side effects (depression, blood clots, blood pressure problems) illustrates how unnatural it is.”

    These are also common & natural problems associated with pregnancy, along with many other complications.

  • Natalie Bennett

    Indeed, taking the pill is, I have no doubt, very much safer for the vast majority of women than being pregnant.

    As for the arguments about the Paleolithic: I started menstruating at 10, and that means most likely at least 40 years of menstruating, approaching 500 periods. No woman over most of human history would have been likely to have had one tenth of that.

    Certainly you can find examples of modern or recent hunter-gatherers that do something to restrict the number of pregnancies and hence boost the number of periods, but many of them don’t e.g. traditional Aboriginal cultures in northern Australia where girls as young as 13 were (and sadly sometimes still are) given as brides to middle-aged men, to use as they wish.

    It is a complex debate, but I think all the evidence we have for, say, the peoples who did the famous French cave paintings, suggests the death rate was such that they must have kept reproducing as much as possible. Indeed, given the speed at which early modern humans exploded out of African and populated the world in perhaps 50,000 years, it seems unlikely much restriction of the birth rate was practiced.

    Once the world was “full”, however, the experience of the societies of which we know, things might have changed. But that is, in terms of biological history, only yesterday.

  • A.L. Harper

    “I started menstruating at 10, and that means most likely at least 40 years of menstruating, approaching 500 periods.

    Oh my god I think I would have to commit suicide if I had to have that many. JEBUS NO!

  • Dave

    I started menstruating at 10, and that means most likely at least 40 years of menstruating, approaching 500 periods.

    Oh my god I think I would have to commit suicide if I had to have that many. JEBUS NO!

    Well studies show that the more men are present in the household (father, brothers, cousins, uncles, etc) the sooner a girl will begin to menstruate. The warmer the environment also has the same effect. So girls with many makes in the household in equatorial countries, tend to menstruate younger than girls with less men around in cold places like Canada. (there are of course exceptions to rules (hmmm that’s a pun for French speakers))

  • diana hartman

    i’ll debate all day long with those who share in my plight — but discuss the merits of the pill with those who have no ovaries, no eggs, no tubes, no uterus, and no periods?


    what’s it to men if women don’t want to have periods?

    that there is any man who didn’t know women were using the pill this way all along and only now chimes in with an opinion is tragic — where have you been? it wasn’t a problem for you for 20 years, but now that you know about it, you’re out-of-the-blue right and millions of women are all of a sudden wrong?

    i’ll take no naturality lessons from a gender who has yet to cite the artificiality of all those erections brought on by v*i*a*g*r*a…

  • Natalie Bennett

    Sorry Dave, my example won’t work for your claim. I was an only child, and lived with only two parents (yes one of each sex) and a greandmother who spent a lot of time in the house. That was all. And in Sydney, which has a temperate climate.

    And there’s some interesting data suggesting that the long-term average age of onset is 12-13 (which means quite a few girls must have started menstruating at ages 10 or 11), but that our perspective has been skewed by 19th-century figures from areas of very poor nutrition.

    Indeed, a 14th-century English cleric reported that girls started menstruating at 10 or 11.

  • Natalie Bennett

    Just an update on this, from the Independent (which will unfortunately disappear behind a paywall):
    The contraceptive pill saves the lives of up to 3,000 women a year in the UK and Europe, according to new medical research.
    A number of studies now suggest that the Pill reduces the risk of ovarian cancer significantly. One study, reported in the British Journal of Cancer this week, found a protective effect of up to 50 per cent for Pill users, while another, reported in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, found a similar effect after analysing data on the use of the Pill since its introduction.
    According to the studies, women who use the contraceptive pill reduce their risk of developing ovarian cancer by more than a third, and the longer they take it for, the greater the protection.

  • beadtot

    Menstruation can be an expression of anger — the heavier the flow, the more anger (and lessened blood pressure) is expressed.