By ANDREA PICARD
PUBLIC HEALTH REPORTER
TORONTO GLOBE AND MAIL
Wednesday, April 7, 2004 –
Getting around that monthly cycle
Freedom from menstruation is necessary for some, a lifestyle choice for others
Like many young women, Adrienne Barstow takes the pill. But she takes only the first 21
pills in the pack and throws out the last seven, starting immediately on the new pack.
The method, known as continuous use, suppresses menstruation.
“I take four packs in a row and that way I have my period only four times a year,” Ms.
Bairstow said in an interview.
She has taken this approach, recommended by her gynecologist, for five years to deal
with two painful medical conditions, dysmenorrhea (painful periods) and endometriosis,
when tissue usually found in the uterine lining grows outside the uterus.
“Personally, I haven’t found a downside to reducing my periods,” Ms. Bairstow said. “I
used to be really, really sick every month and now my symptoms are a lot better.”
But, as a teen sex counsellor, Ms. Bairstow said she is seeing a new phenomenon:
Menstrual suppression being marketed not for medical reasons, but for lifestyle
purposes. In fact, one of the hottest new drugs on the contraceptive market is
Seasonale, which is being marketed with the slogan: “Fewer periods. More possibilities.”
Seasonale — which is not yet available in Canada — is a traditional birth-control pill sold
in a 91-pack, instead of the traditional 28.
“There’s a real social transformation here: The pill is being repackaged as a way of
controlling menstruation rather than as a birth-control method,” Christine Hitchcock, a
research associate at the UBC Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research,
said. “I’m not sure what triggered this, but I find it a bit troubling.”
Dr. Hitchcock said marketers are exploiting cultural taboos about menstruation, and
suggesting that a monthly period is dirty and shameful, which is an unfortunate message
to send to women, and particularly young girls.
“They’re playing into the cultural distaste for menstruation without a lot of information on
the safety of menstrual suppression,” she said.
Susan Rako, author of the book No More Periods? is disturbed by the growing popularity
of menstrual suppression, saying the safety data simply do not exist.
“Monkeying around with women’s cycles is not something we should be doing in such a
cavalier fashion,” Dr. Rako said.
“Of course, menstrual bleeding is unpleasant and messy, but it happens for a very good
reason,” she said. She added that many women have come to believe that the only point
of menstruation is to signal to a woman that she is not pregnant but, in fact, the monthly
cycle greatly influences the endocrine system, and general health.
She notes that women’s blood pressure falls during half their menstrual cycle, and that
bleeding is the only way of ridding the body of excess iron, which can contribute to
hardening of the arteries. These factors may help explain why rates of heart disease are
so much lower for women than men.
Dr. Rako said menstrual suppression is appropriate for a small number of women who
suffer from gynecological problems.
Ms. Barstow agreed wholeheartedly. “If I didn’t have an incurable disease, I wouldn’t be
taking the pill continuously,” she said. “I agree that menstruating is natural, but what’s
not normal is to be violently ill every month. I’m glad these products exist, but I just hope
they aren’t abused.”