No More Shark Week: Opting out of Periods

Back when I met Dr. Sophia Yen (MD, MPH, CEO of Pandiahealth.com, a reproductive health specialist, and a reproductive rights advocate) this past spring, I was in complete shock when she had mentioned to me that periods are indeed optional.

I was in major disbelief that I had been unaware that I could have simply chosen not to experience stabbing pangs of pain in my stomach that cause me to scrunch into fetal position or blatantly hurl my upper body over my desk in the middle of class just to “stretch out the cramps." I mean, I could have saved myself from a multitude of the “what the hell is she doing?” looks that my classmates and teachers have thrown in my direction since the sixth grade as they witnessed me stretch out my cramps mid-lecture, and perhaps kept at least a grain of my dignity. I had always accepted that one quarter of my life, starting from the age of twelve when our beloved Mother Nature first kissed me with a giant smooch of womanhood, would be delegated to a lot of blood, complaining, pain, and empty containers of Advil.

Well, as it turns out, Shark Week doesn’t need to be a part of our monthly agenda anymore thanks to birth control.  If you’re wondering about the logistics behind all of this, don’t you worry. Dr. Yen gladly answered some of the questions you may all be having regarding this topic.

What exactly do you mean when you mention that periods are “optional”?

I had the realization that the only reason we have a period is because “we didn’t get pregnant.” That is, no egg came down and hooked up with a sperm, so the lining decided to shed. So, what is the point of building up this juicy, uterine lining if we aren’t wanting to get pregnant that month?

If you are on the pill, patch, or ring, the week of withdrawal bleeding is optional. If you don’t want a period, just skip that week.

If you are not on any medications, then you should have a period each month because if you don’t, that means something is messed up with your hormones or there's another health issue. However, if you are on birth control medications, then it's okay not to have a period each month.

Some people say [it’s] not “natural” to not have a period each month. But before birth control, women used to be pregnant all the time. How many periods do you have when you are pregnant? None. So it’s “more natural” to have fewer periods. Malcolm Gladwell in his article “John Rock’s Error” talks about how women in Mali, Africa only have 100 periods in their lives because they start their periods later, have more kids and breastfeed for 18 months, vs. 350-400 periods in our lifetimes that we have in the US.

So how can I opt out of getting my period every month?

[You can do so] if you are on the pill, patch, or ring, or by skipping the “sugar pill” week and just keep taking the NOT sugar pills.

What are the benefits to having fewer periods?

The top reason that women miss work and school? Periods. Thus, miss less work/school.

With fewer periods, you have a lower risk of iron deficiency (which has been shown in kids to result in lower math scores and IQ scores) and lower risk of anemia. What is the #1 cause of anemia in a woman with periods? Her periods.

Less pain

Smaller carbon footprint because fewer used pads, tampons, etc - most of which are not biodegradable.

Better performance. Anecdotally, are you going to do better on the GMAT, MCAT, finals, sports performance, music performance, pitch, etc. on your period or off your period? I’m betting the latter. This epiphany came to me in the middle of a chemisty final. My period started, and I was like, do I finish the final or do I run to the bathroom before blood gets my clothes all messed up? The guy next to me was oblivious and was just blissfully working on his final. Not fair.

Lower risk of pregnancy. The fewer days you are off your “active” birth control pills, the lower the risk of pregnancy. Some people feel that the seven days withdrawal may be too long because that was based on pills with higher estrogen dosing and now we are at ⅓ the original dosing. And we are seeing “escape ovulation” which is the egg coming out of the ovary on days five and six, which puts women at risk of pregnancy.

What are the potential risks to fewer periods, if there’s any?

The risk comes from the exposure to more estrogen and not from “not having a period.”

Per my respected Ob/gyn colleague, research has not shown increased risk of breast cancer with skipping your period on the birth control pill or ring. Theoretically, extra exposure to estrogen could result in [an increased number of] blood clots, but that has not been seen in patients who skip their periods. Unfortunately, this cannot be done with patch users because the estrogen builds up to high levels if you use it more than 3 weeks in a row.

Why do you think so many people are unaware of the fact that periods are optional?

This is relatively new information to the general public since the “pill without periods” (Lybrell, now off market) or “pills with fewer periods” (Seasonale, Seasonique) just came out in 2007 or so. Though skipping the sugar pills and having no periods has been known since the pill was invented in 1960.

Also, the medical establishment has worked so hard to make sure women know they should have a period every month, that it is confusing to then say “well you don’t have to have a period every month if you are on the birth control pill or ring.”

For more information on opting out of periods:

https://bedsider.org/features/290-a-quick-guide-to-skipping-periods-with-birth-control

http://gladwell.com/john-rock-s-error/

*None of the images are owned by Her Campus or the author.