Note: This blog is about how to protect women’s health in light of contraception. If you are a man reading it, there are some key take-away points for your own life and actions.
Three major studies
A tidal wave happened in women’s health in 2002. The Women’s Health Initiative, an NIH study on the effects of taking synthetic estrogen and progestin in 16,000 healthy women was abruptly stopped. Research was due to run for three more years, yet investigators found that women taking the estrogen-progestin supplement had strikingly increased risks for breast cancer, heart disease, blood clots and strokes, compared to the control group on a placebo. Ethically they could not go on. In the 17 months after results were publicized, a million women stopped hormone replacement therapy, and the incidence for the most common form of breast cancer dropped 15%. (Welch)
A far less famous study published the year before tracked the well being of young women’s bones in relationship to exercise. It was found that over the course of two years, sedentary young women lost 1 to 2 % of their bone density. This was striking as young women usually build bone steadily through age 25. Yet here, they were losing ground. In contrast, young women who did regular aerobic exercise and weight lifting, increased their bone density by 1 to 2% – with a single exception. Young women using birth control pills did not increase bone density, even if they exercised regularly. (Welch)
Current studies on the injectable drug Depo-Provera give it the following “WARNING: LOSS OF BONE MINERAL DENSITY: Women who use Depo-Provera Contraceptive Injection may lose significant bone mineral density.” In studies with teenagers using Depo-Provera, young women lost significant density in their hipbones, which they had not fully recovered five years later.
The first study was done with women 50 and over, the second two with women under 30. Yet all demonstrated negative health effects for women on synthetic hormones. This is an old picture in women’s health care in the U.S. And in younger women in the US, oral contraceptive use continues to grow.
As a teenager in the 1960s, I was put on the Pill for adolescent acne. I probably desperately needed the mineral zinc, yet I didn’t know that then, nor my health care providers. When I arrived at Stanford University as a freshman in 1970, one of the first speakers I got to hear was the chemist Carl Djerassi, later called “the father of the Pill”. I was fascinated.
Forty years later, in 2005 the same Pill was declared a Class I carcinogen by the World Health Organization, right up there with asbestos and tobacco. (Welch) It also depletes the body of B vitamins, affecting mood now and long term heart health later, for many women.
In response to this problematic reality, august bodies like the CDC support long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) as the first choice for women of any age. LARCs include IUDs, which have an effectiveness rate over 99%, compared to 88 – 94% for the Pill. Yet in moving away from oral contraceptives, this shift hasn’t yet extracted us from synthetic hormone use. The IUD ParaGard Copper T is the primary LARC that does not have hormones. Mirena, Shyla, and Liletta IUDs all have levonorgestrel, progestin. (One advantage of these low dose progestin-releasing IUDs is they can reduce excessive bleeding by up to 90%.) Yet another LARC is the fore mentioned Depo-Provera, hardly a bone friendly or hormone free alternative.
In the US, the drift has been strongly toward hormonal based methods, from the Pill, ring, patch, injectables, to over the counter emergency contraception pills. In most of these cases, the hormone release is steady state, or as Dr. Lesley Miller of the University of Washington at Seattle said, “Every day becomes the same hormonally.”
Ayurveda and Hormones
Let’s look at this idea of steady state sameness. In Ayurveda, we are interested in a healthy flow of energy throughout the body. This relates in Western physiology to natural biological feedback loops. In response to change, hormones shift. When one is taking synthetic hormones, the body’s ability to shift and respond stagnates. The same levels are there every day. From an Ayurvedic perspective, there is more to balance, more tissues to protect when someone is on synthetic hormones. (There are times when a woman does need to take hormones as the most efficacious response to her specific conditions. In these situations Ayurveda can be supportive of balance.)
Dr. Claudia Welch, DOM, in Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life, addresses these issues most articulately. To protect bone and breasts, women need the support of healthy diet (yin) and exercise (yang). At the same time we need to be cognizant of how our lifestyles promote the production of excess stress hormones like cortisol.
How can you protect your breast health now?
It has been said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. How do we ensure a healthy flow of prana through our breasts? Choose a golden and dark leafy vegetable and fruit rich diet that emphasizes beta carotenes, rejuvenative to the liver and tender membranes. If you feel like you’re in a rut, check out the Easy Healing Drinks Renee Lynn and I have been creating for each season. The spring ebook is almost here! Invite in Omega 3 rich foods, whether flax, chia, hemp, walnuts, or clean cold-water fish, to enhance flow of healthy fats through mammary tissue. Indulge in exercise you enjoy, swinging your arms freely. The fat tissue in breast doesn’t get the work out that many more muscular parts of your body do. Stimulating them with breast massage supports localized lymphatic flow. Minimize exposure to hormones, chemicals, coffee, antiperspirants and underwire bras. Reconsider your contraceptive choices as needed.
Both yoga and walking can relax the nervous system, improving the ability of our endocrine and immune systems to respond to stress. They improve lymphatic flow, and give us a chance to reconnect with our bodies and nature around us. (Welch)
How to protect your bones?
Many of the suggestions above do hold true for supporting asthi dhatu, bone tissue, as well. In order to nourish tissue effectively, our digestion and plasma need to be functioning well. Liquid nourishment is important, especially heading into summer. Calcium, magnesium, manganese, and boron rich foods must be absorbed before they can reach bone. Our thyroids help the uptake of calcium into the bone via the hormone calcitonin, stimulated by magnesium. Here we circle back to dark leafy greens as a great source of all of these minerals. (Weed) Calcium rich dairy also gives you saturated fats and a higher dose of chemicals. (Welch) Yet if you are a lean wiry Vata or blood type B, organic dairy is likely to be needed to keep yourself in balance. Pitta and Kapha can indulge in more dark leafies than Vata can.
How can you revision your contraceptive choices?
If you are interested in taking charge of your fertility naturally, Toni Weschler’s website is an invaluable source of information about fertility awareness. Once you learn these practical skills of body observation, they can serve you for a lifetime. You have greater confidence about just when you’re ovulating and how to handle body shifts. Savvy couples in particular have engaged in the Fertility Awareness Method, which can be combined with barrier methods during peak fertility. This method can also be integrated with any other hormone-free contraception method (synthetic and bio-identical hormones block the processes you want to track). Yet FAM has to be used consistently, or its effectiveness rate plunges to 76%.
If you’re an American woman looking for effective contraception without hormones, you might look abroad. A new one-size-fits-most silicone contoured diaphragm is being introduced in Europe; it’s latex-free. The effectiveness rate of diaphragms is 94%, comparing favorably with the Pill. Yet, the Caya is not available in the US. We need it here.
I think it’s time for new research for both women and men!
Change can arise with this new moon
To create long term healthy patterns for you, call on the help of the new moon in Taurus this week.
The Sabian symbol for this new moon relates to the Wise Woman at the Well. It is about “the meeting of the traditional past (with) the creative spirit pointing to the future.” Respected Western astrologer Dane Rudhyar wrote that this symbol is about the fact that old orders are rarely open to new ways of doing things. Chaos offers an opening to the creative future through love. “A NEW QUALITY OF BEING is revealed which renders the old patterns obsolete” through love. May this be so.
Returning to the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, in this upcoming series of workshops May 18 – 20, Manjula Spears and I will work with the pound of cure, focusing on freeing stiff joints and supporting breast cancer recovery. If you’re up for healing and can join us, we’d love it.
Good fortune to us all in trusting what is new and healthy for us in the midst of chaos and change!
Dane Rudhyar, An Astrological Mandala: The Cycle of Transformations and Its 360 Symbolic Phases (1973)
Susun Weed, Breast Cancer? Breast Health!, 1996
Claudia Welch, Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life (2011)
Spring Blossoms photo thanks to Renee Lynn