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One of the most common reasons I hear women give for taking birth control pills is to 'regulate their periods' or 'balance their hormones'. Anyone who wishes for a more convenient period experience can take this magic pill. If you are someone who has struggled with irregular cycles, painful periods, or heavy bleeding, chances are your doctor has suggested that you try oral contraceptives. But does the Pill actually 'cure' these conditions?
What's so special about a period, anyway?
Believe it or not, that regular monthly bleeding that occurs when someone is taking the Pill is not actually a period. I know that sounds strange, but listen: true menstruation is the shedding of the uterine lining (the endometrium) that occurs after the final, progesterone-influenced phase of a woman's cycle that follows ovulation. If conception does not occur, the endometrium is not needed to nourish a new life and so it is shed, beginning the next cycle.
The 'period' associated with taking the Pill is not actually menstruation, but rather withdrawal bleeding, caused when the artificial hormones are suddenly taken away during the sugar pill or off week of your pill-taking.
Taking oral contraceptives does not 'balance' your cyclical hormone pattern - rather, it suppresses it, interfering with the natural processes of the cycle. This hormone suppression effects your entire body, not just your reproductive system (which is why the Pill has so many side effects). Remember, the menstrual cycle is not simply having a monthly period, but it involves all of the biological processes that happen between the start of one period and the next, including ovulation (the releasing of an egg from an ovary).
The benefits of true menstruation
Allowing your body to have real periods has enormous benefits. One of the most obvious is simply the absence of oral contraceptives, which (among all their other unpleasant side effects) are actually carcinogens. But there are other benefits as well.
The normal hormone fluctuations associated with a true ovulatory menstrual cycle are vital for a woman's overall health. The delicate balance between healthy estrogen, progesterone, follicle stimulating hormone, and the other hormones of a woman's fertility cycle affect systems beyond a woman's reproductive organs. For example, research has shown that ovulation and healthy progesterone levels are important for bone health. Taking cycle suppressing birth control during the teen years seems to be particularly damaging, often contributing significant bone loss later in life.
But perhaps the most valuable thing your period can do for you is to tell you if you are healthy or not. Having very heavy bleeding, severe cramping or other pain during your period is NOT normal. Rather than simply suppressing the normal functions of your reproductive system to alleviate symptoms (essentially ignoring the problem), more and more women are seeking to actually treat the causes of these symptoms.
Your period can give you clues about what is really going on with your health. For example, very long cycles or irregular periods could be a sign that you aren't ovulating regularly. This could be caused by stress, being over or under weight, poor nutrition, or certain disorders such as Polycistic Ovary Syndrome. Extremely painful periods can be a symptom of excess inflammation, vitamin deficiencies, poor nutrition, or disorders such as endometriosis. Many of these issues can be treated by diet change and supplementing, though for certain conditions medication or surgery may be indicated.
In addition, learning to chart your cycle using natural family planning can give you even more information about your health, often revealing hormonal imbalances, thyroid, adrenal, and endocrine problems, and more.
Where to start
The first step to taking back your reproductive health is to allow your body to have real periods again. If you've been on hormonal birth control, this could take a while, so be patient. Free of the cycle supressing effects of the Pill, you are now free to take a close look at what your cycles are revealing about your body and your health.
Next, find a qualified natural family planning instructor or fertility educator and learn to chart your fertility cycle. Your charts will give you a wealth of information about exactly what is going on in your body from month to month, and will usually tell you if there is a problem.
One of my favorite resources for learning about how to correct cycle problems is Fertility, Cycles and Nutrition by Marilyn M. Shannon. It is absolutely full of information not only about proper nutrition, but specific dietary and vitamin remedies for common cycle problems.
Third, if you are having issues with your cycle, find a doctor who is willing to work with you in a holistic manner. A doctor trained in natural reproductive technology, or NaPro, is willing to investigate the causes of menstrual cycle problems, rather than simply masking the symptoms. Find a NaPro doctor here.
Above all, keep in mind that women were created to have periods. Yes they can be inconvenient, but they are natural and normal for women of reproductive age to experience and vital for normal hormone levels. Take away such an essential part of female biology, and who knows what the effects may be?
So next time you are tempted to wish away your period, try learning more about it instead. Your cycle is trying to tell you something; maybe it's time to start listening.
photo credit: marin/freedigitalphotos