Menstruation is a hassle, but is it wise to do away with it?by Shereen El Feki / September 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
The Museum of Menstruation, a quirky little website devoted to the subject, lists more than 400 different expressions for the curse, including the historical (catamenia), sociable (“the cardinal is coming for a visit”), geographical (“the Red sea has flooded”) and political (“communists in the arbour”). Call it what you like, most women will tell you that periods are a pain: messy, uncomfortable and the butt of a thousand deeply unamusing jokes. But what if there were a safe, effective and, crucially, reversible way of suppressing menstruation?
Seasonale, a new oral contraceptive from Barr Laboratories, an American generic drugs manufacturer, claims to be just that. Like other versions of the pill, Seasonale contains levonorgestrel and ethinyl estradiol, synthetic versions of progesterone and oestrogen, sex hormones which regulate various bits of the female reproductive cycle, such as the ripening and release of eggs for fertilisation or thickening the lining of the uterus for pregnancy. These hormones are produced by the ovaries in response to a biochemical signal from the brain. Supplying regular extra doses, as in oral contraceptives, actually turns off these molecular signals, blocking the process.
Unlike many conventional oral contraceptive pills, which are taken for 21 days at a time with a seven-day break to allow for bleeding, Seasonale has been tested, and packaged, to be taken for 84 days in a row, followed by a week-long hiatus, reducing menstruation to a quarterly event. If it receives the official blessing of America’s food and drug administration, Barr hopes to be selling the product in the US this autumn. There are no plans, as yet, to market the drug in Europe.
Seasonale is old wine in new bottles: women-and their doctors-have long been rescheduling periods for special events, such as honeymoons or athletic competitions, simply by skipping the week-long pill holiday and continuously taking their packs. Indeed, pill-free breaks were introduced by the drug’s developers not for any particular medical reason, but in the hope that mimicking a woman’s natural cycle might win over critics-including the Vatican.
But there is nothing particularly natural about a woman’s monthly bleeding. For much of human history, women’s reproductive lives were taken up by pregnancy and breast feeding which block menstruation. The average woman today can expect 450 periods in her lifetime, compared with an estimated 160 in her ancestor’s. Humans are among the few species whose females shed their uterine lining every month.…