No More Periods
Eliminating periods with continuous birth control may sound like a woman’s dream, but is it safe?
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."
So far, there's not enough data to declare menstrual suppression safe, the group says. It calls for greater research into the health effects of menstrual suppression, including effects on bone health, risks for blood clots and strokes, and effects on fertility, among other issues.
Prior worries, too, that continuous oral contraceptive use could increase risk of breast cancer. "My impression as somebody who cares about normal physiology is that the breasts need a break from hormones each month. That's why during menstrual flow, estrogen and progesterone levels are low." With continuous hormones, "the breasts never get a break.
"I think that there are acceptable side effects of hormonal contraception," she says. For example, a woman may be willing to accept increased risk of blood clots as a trade-off for preventing pregnancy. "But if you're going to use this not as a contraceptive, but as a lifestyle thing -- as something just because 'I want to get rid of my period' -- then you have to look at the risks in a totally different light."
How to Talk With Your Doctor
Opting out of periods is so new that doctors have no consensus on how many years a woman should go through normal menstruation before she tries menstrual suppression. Nor are there any age guidelines.