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No More Periods

Eliminating periods with continuous birth control may sound like a woman’s dream, but is it safe?

Hormones and Placebos continued...

How safe are extended and continuous oral contraceptives? Advocates point to a generally good safety profile for standard oral contraceptives, which have been studied heavily since their introduction in 1960. In addition, oral contraceptives can cut the risk of endometrial and ovarian cancers and anemia, Mass says.

Still, Miller says that the long-term effects of the new regimens aren't fully known. "When you don't have the week off, you are going to get extra hormones." In particular, she's planning to study the effects of menstrual suppression on bone density. "If we drop the estrogen low enough so that you don't bleed, are the bones OK? I think it's going to be OK, but we don't have proof of that."

"Is continuous pill use an experiment? Sure," Mass adds. "Nobody knows what's ideal."

Do Periods Matter?

Jerilynn C. Prior, MD, professor of endocrinology and metabolism at the University of British Columbia, takes a different view -- especially when women stop menstruating for the sake of convenience.

"I think that the normal menstrual cycle is absolutely crucial to women's health. My perspective is that the normal menstrual cycle is incredibly complex, it's created from the brain, and it serves a general health purpose, not just a reproductive purpose." She says that normal menstruation has beneficial effects on women's bone and cardiovascular health.

"To reduce it to 'periods don't matter' is totally unscientific," she says.

Role of Culture

Why the interest in stopping periods? Prior says that our society rejects menstruation because it's associated with women -- and therefore, of inferior status, she says. "Our culture certainly sees menstruation as negative, a wound, something messy or dirty and to be hidden, especially from men. There's a taboo about menstrual cycles."

Menstruation would shoot up in status if it happened in men, she says. "Men would probably be having competitions over pad counts or who had the most regular periods."

Prior also serves on the board of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, a group of researchers that includes doctors, nurses, and social scientists.

While the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research acknowledges that menstrual suppression may be useful for severe menstrual problems such as endometriosis, its web site states: "We do not believe that continuous oral contraception should be prescribed to all menstruating women out of a rejection of a normal, healthy menstrual cycle."

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