At the time, a medical student about to be married, I didn’t know that my life would be forever changed. My first migraine, massively swollen legs and a later leg blood clot—all were because of hormonal contraception (the Pill) samples, which I got from Planned Parenthood. It was estrogen (100 micrograms versus today’s 20) first and then progestin. When I threw them away after five days I knew the high-dose estrogen Pill made me sick.
I got on with life and forgot about it. Now, reflecting, I know that my “Dreadful Pill Experience” changed me and how I am focussing my life. First of all, for contraception I learned to use a diaphragm and vaginal spermicide—it never let me down. Most importantly, it created my deep scepticism about the “goodness” of estrogen and a strong desire to scientifically understand women’s menstrual cycles.
For all these reasons, I rejoice at Holly Grigg-Spall’s Sweetening the Pill (Zero books, Hants, UK 2013). After all, her dedication speaks directly to me: “For every woman who has suffered physically and emotionally as a result of hormonal birth control.” I totally agree with Holly’s Pill addiction analogy—we as a Culture, and as individual women, are “hooked on hormonal birth control.” In fact, we’ve been brainwashed into thinking of our Pill-taking selves as our normal selves!
Sweetening the Pill appropriately focuses on unwanted effects from Pill use for contraception and to prevent pregnancy. But an even greater problem is that the Pill is now touted, advertised and promoted by physicians not just for contraception but to treat menstrual cycle, bone health and other problems women may experience. These Pill so called “non-contraceptive benefits” are not proven in placebo-controlled trials, the only way a therapy can be scientifically proven! Even the effects of the Pill on bone health had not been studied in a whole population of young women until we showed in the Canadian Multicentre Osteoporosis Study that menstruating women who’d been on the Pill at some point (86%) had lower bone density than those who had never used it (Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2001).
My misery on the Pill led me to learn some very women-positive things since founding the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research. Now, surrounded by bright and committed colleagues we are poised to scientifically document that normal length (normal estrogen) and normally ovulatory (normal progesterone) menstrual cycles, prevent women’s risks for osteoporosis, heart attacks and breast cancer. Our focus should be on ovulatory menstrual cycles that include balanced levels of estrogen and progesterone. Women who are stressed or losing weight or have regular cycles but don’t ovulate normally and thus lack normal progesterone. This is what we call “ovulatory disturbances” that are increasingly linked with serious health risks.
To have normal ovulation in her menstrual cycles, a woman needs to feel at home in her body, valued as a unique human and be comfortable with her future. Because life is not always perfect – women are often put down, we must learn to love ourselves, to accept our unique female bodies and to become our own advocates. Achieving this balance usually restores disturbed ovulation to normal. If not, for a time cyclic natural progesterone can be taken to mimic the normal ovulatory cycle. Most importantly, in my expert medical and scientific opinion cyclic progesterone therapy should be used instead of the Pill to treat absent or irregular cycles, acne, heavy flow and cramps—the Pill covers up, progesterone fixes, the problem. Ovulatory disturbances are the canary in the coal mine helping us to recognize when our life is out of balance. Stay tuned as CeMCOR develops a test so that you, cycle by cycle, can inexpensively and easily learn whether or not you’ve ovulated. Until then, keeping the Menstrual Cycle Diary and tracking your first morning temperature will provide what you need to know about your cycles and ovulation.
I have learned a lot from my horrifyingly miserable five days on a high dose estrogen Pill in the 1960s.
Disclaimer: The information and opinions expressed herein are not a substitute for the advice of a physician. Only your doctor or a qualified health provider can provide you with advice and recommendations for your individual situation. Dr. Jerilynn C. Prior and the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research presents information that has been researched and written by a doctor for the community. Medical experts have reviewed the medical information for accuracy; however, the information provided should not be used as the sole source of information regarding reproductive health. Dr. Jerilynn C. Priorand CeMCOR cannot be held liable for injury or damages resulting from use of the information provided in this blog post and the referred links and studies.
Dr. Jerilynn C. Prior is a Professor of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C. She has a special interest in menstrual cycles and the effects of hormones on women’s health and has studied extensively on the topic of women’s menstrual cycles, perimenopause and the causes for and treatment of osteoporosis. Dr. Prior currently acts as the Scientific Director for the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research (CeMCOR); a leader in menstrual health research.