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Q & A period

Dear Lezlie,

I read with interest your column in last week's Coast. I'm one of those women you talk about, one of the wacky bunch who second-guess Mother Nature's plan for us ovary-bearers.

Contrary to the belief of women and doctors in the industrialized world, women aren't really meant to cycle every 28-35 days. This artificial timeframe was born, if you will, out of the evolution of society: both the increasing popularity of population control and the rise in infant nutrition independent of its mother (first wet nurses and then artificial infant food) contributed to the dramatic shortening of a woman's menstrual cycle.

Drs. Elsimar Countinho and Sheldon Segal wrote Is Menstruation Obsolete?, a book detailing how menstruation affected early woman. They contend "incessant ovulation is a relatively recent and unnatural phenomenon" and cite research showing that cavewomen menstruated about a hundred times during their life, compared to the approximately 400 times a modern woman will.

In the late 1980s, anthropologist Beverly Strassman carried out research among the Dogon tribe in Mali. She found Dogon women—whose tribe functions under pre-modern conditions—begin to menstruate around age 16. "From her first period to the age of 20, she averages seven periods a year. From 20 to 34, she averages slightly more than one period per year. During the less fertile years from 35 until menopause, she averages four periods a year. She gives birth eight or nine times in her lifetime. During Strassman's years with the tribe, the only women who made regular visits to Strassman's menstrual hut were the village's two sterile women." (From features /01/01/18/MONTHLY.html).

Strassman's findings bear out those of Countinho and Segal: Women who menstruate less have fewer health problems—including endometriosis and lower incidences of endometrial and ovarian cancers.

Is it wrong to menstruate every 28 days? Of course not. But it's not a sacrosanct biological function. In fact, the "period" occuring during the placebo week of a 28-day birth control regimen isn't a true period at all: no ovulation has taken place, the uterine lining did not build and there is no shedding required. Rather, the bleeding occuring is withdrawal, or breakthrough, bleeding caused by the sudden absence of regular hormones the body had been accustomed to.

Scheduling one's periods is the logical step following scheduling contraception. I too am a granola-eating, Birkenstock-wearing, happy-hippy menstruator; I've used sea sponges, keepers and moon rags, and am contemplating purchasing a Diva. But if I can decrease the amount of time I need them, I'm all for it, especially since it might be closer to what Nature intended.

Cycles may be the innate wisdom of the body, but research shows they once spoke less often—and with greater health benefits—than they now do.

By Beth Johnson

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