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Do We Really Need to Have Monthly Periods?

June 10, 2008 - 7:30am
 
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Do We Really Need to Have Monthly Periods?

Menstrual periods today aren't the hassle they once were, thanks to changes in attitudes and better feminine hygiene products. But what if you only had to menstruate four times a year? And what if it was better for you?

Certain researchers—from medical experts to anthropologists—believe that women weren't meant to menstruate for the many years we now do in the industrialized world. Early menarche (the onset of menstruation), fewer pregnancies, and shorter duration of breastfeeding have subjected the female body to waves of hormones that make women vulnerable to health risks, they say. These researchers also believe that the solution for less frequent menstruation is readily available—by way of the birth control pill.

The Flexibility of the Pill

Doctors have known for years that the Pill's 28-day cycle is an arbitrary one that only mimics a woman's natural rhythm. For women with debilitating cramps, heavy flow, anemia, endometriosis, or menstruation-related migraines, some doctors prescribe the Pill to be taken every day, with perhaps the "week-off" of placebos taken every three months or so.

But healthy women, too, are using the Pill this way. Soldiers and astronauts have the option of staying on birth control pills to avoid having periods while on duty or in space. And women often turn to their doctors—and the Pill—to ensure a period-free honeymoon.

New Developments

The most recent news regarding extending cycle lengths involves the development of a new oral contraceptive specifically designed for just this purpose. The Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) has patented a new extended use pill called Seasonale, which is packaged as 84 days of continuous active contraception followed by seven days of inactive pills that allow for menstrual withdrawal bleeding. This pill regimen will reduce the number of periods per year from 13 to four (or once per season, hence the name "Seasonale"). This drug, which is manufactured by Barr Laboratories, received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in September 2003.

Health Benefits

Some researchers believe that interrupting the recurrence of menstruation could protect some women against ovarian, endometrial, and breast cancers, as well as inhibit fibroids, migraine, and endometriosis. However, supporting evidence is lacking for these potential benefits, and there may be health risks as well. There is little doubt, though, that the medication would address lesser complaints like mood swings, pelvic pain, and breast pain and swelling, and could help prevent iron deficiency anemia. Currently, studies are ongoing.

The History of Menstruation

Those who argue monthly menstruation is unnecessary cite faraway tribes and pre-industrial times. In such places and times women start menstruating at about age 16, begin having several children shortly after, and breastfeed each child for years (which can prevent menstruation). American women today typically menstruate 400 times before menopause. By contrast, in the lifetimes of our ancestors as recently as colonial times or of such tribes as the Dogon in Mali today, women might menstruate 100 times before menopause.

The argument is that evolution didn't make the leap when we advanced our nutrition to the point where we began menstruating around the age of 10 and controlled our fertility to the point where we have only two children, often well after the age of 30.

The History of the Pill

When the Pill was first being introduced, its makers decided that maintaining a woman's monthly cycle would engender its acceptance. But they also knew that the Pill's cycles weren't the same as normal menstruating cycles because the Pill prevents ovulation, and that a three-month-long cycle on the Pill would be just as "natural" (or unnatural).

Another Example of the Right to Choose?

Some health professionals believe that monthly menstrual cycles are a healthy, natural function of a woman's body. Some are even leery of the Pill as a contraceptive, even after all these years. They are loathe to consider continuous use of the Pill to avoid menstruation altogether. However, the idea may be intriguing. Indeed, should studies show that continued use of the Pill is good for you, or at least as healthy as the 28-day Pill cycle, many women will undoubtedly welcome control over their menstrual cycle

RESOURCES

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
http://www.acog.org/

Food and Drug Administration
http://www.fda.gov/

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada
http://sogc.medical.org/

Women's Health Matters
http://www.womenshealthmatters.ca/index.cfm

References

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Available at: http://www.acog.org/.



Last reviewed March 2008 by Ganson Purcell Jr., MD, FACOG, FACPE

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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