Friday, July 1st 2011

Summer of the pill: Will the pill mess up my ability to detect my One True Love?

Should I advise recently single ScarJo to stay
off the pill to find her next beau? From here.

Imagine you are a single, heterosexual woman. You meet a nice man at the driving range, or on a blind date. You like him and he likes you. You date, you get engaged, you get married. You decide to have a child together, so you go off the pill. One morning you wake up and look at your husband, and it’s like seeing him through new eyes. Who is this stranger you married, and what did you ever see in him?

After some articles made the news when they suggested mate preferences change on hormonal contraception, this seemed to be the scenario in the heads of many women. Is my pill deceiving me? What if my birth control is making me date the wrong man?

Several articles over the years have demonstrated that women prefer men with more masculine features at midcycle, or ovulation, and more feminine features in less fertile periods. Based on body odor, women and men also often prefer individuals with MHC (major histocompatibility complex) that are different from theirs, which may be a way for them to select mates that will give their offspring an immunological advantage. These findings have been replicated a few times, looking at a few different gendered traits. And as I suggested above, other work has suggested that the birth control pill, which in some ways mimics pregnancy, may mask our natural tendency to make these distinctions and preferences, regarding both masculinity and MHC (Little et al. 2002; Roberts et al. 2008; Wedekind et al. 1995).

On the one hand, I think it’s both interesting and important to consider the implications of the birth control pill beyond just contraception. Hormones are messages, so any cells that have receptors for these messages, like specialized mailboxes, can receive them. The pill is made of synthetic versions of estradiol and progesterone, and there are estradiol and progesterone receptors in your brain. And yes, these hormones do change your brain, both during the natural cycle and on hormonal contraception; Scicurious has written well on this in the past.

Jolie, had she been on the pill and chosen her mate
differently. From here. Yes, looks to be a real pic.

On the other hand, I have a lot of questions: First and most important to me, how does any of this translate to non-straight women? I find the constant focus on mate choice between men and women a bit exhausting, and am not sure we can assume non-straight relationships to work the same way. Next, how well do preferences over the cycle map on to actual choices for mates, short term or long term? If we happen to find Brad Pitt more attractive than Justin Bieber at midcycle, does that mean no one will do but Brad Pitt? And finally, what are all the factors that we need to consider in mate choice besides a deep voice or square jawline (again, especially if you try to expand your thinking beyond straight relationships)?

I’ll start with the last two questions that deal with mate preference versus ultimate mate selection. As you all might expect, women and men choose mates for lots of reasons, not just masculinity or complementary immune systems. Bereczkei et al (1997) looked at singles ads and found women often sought mates with high parental care. In a separate singles ad evaluation, Pawlowski and Dunbar (1999) found that women mostly selected men of high resource potential who were interested in long-term relationships (either unlikely to divorce or unlikely to die within twenty years), where men selected women by markers of fecundity (ability to have babies). In a sample of 18-24 year old straight people in the US, Buston and Emlen (2003) found that most people selected mates who had similar characteristics to themselves. And a speed dating sample showed that people under those conditions selected dates based on easily observable traits, like physical attractiveness (Kurzban and Weeden 2005).

Now on to the fact that all of this research is on straight people. I found very little on lesbian women and the menstrual cycle… but what I found was very cool! Brinsmead-Stockham et al (2008) found that, like heterosexual women, lesbian women are quicker to identify unknown faces at midcycle, as long as they were the faces of the sex they preferred. So straight women were good at identifying male faces, lesbian women good at identifying female faces. Burleson et al (2002) found that sexual behavior in lesbian and straight women was mostly similar through the menstrual cycle, with both peaking at midcycle.

So, mate preference may be about telling a research assistant who is the hottest to you at a particular point in your cycle. And it is a fairly robust and consistent finding. However, when it comes to ultimate mate selection the most important thing to consider is a great point made by Pawlowski and Dunbar: finding a mate is about advertising what you have to offer while making known what you want in a mate. Then it’s all about finding some kind of compromise through a series of trade-offs based on what the individual wants, what they can offer, and what’s available in the dating pool. (So, since neither Brad Pitt nor Justin Bieber are currently in the dating pool, my previous comparison was pointless.)

Those of you who met your mate while on the pill: not to fear. I don’t think that the possibility that you may have some suppression of masculinized preferences at one point in your cycle means you’ve chosen the wrong person.

Who knows, it could have opened you up to the Mr. or Ms. Right.

Bereczkei T, Voros S, Gal A, & Bernath L (1997). Resources, attractiveness, family commitment; reproductive decisions in human mate choice. Ethology : formerly Zeitschrift fur Tierpsychologie, 103 (8), 681-99 PMID: 12293453

Brinsmead-Stockham K, Johnston L, Miles L, & Neil Macrae C (2008). Female sexual orientation and menstrual influences on person perception Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44 (3), 729-734 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2007.05.003

Burleson MH, Trevathan WR, & Gregory WL (2002). Sexual behavior in lesbian and heterosexual women: relations with menstrual cycle phase and partner availability. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 27 (4), 489-503 PMID: 11912001

Buston PM, & Emlen ST (2003). Cognitive processes underlying human mate choice: The relationship between self-perception and mate preference in Western society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100 (15), 8805-10 PMID: 12843405

Kurzban R, & Weeden J (2005). HurryDate: Mate preferences in action Evolution and Human Behavior, 26 (3), 227-244 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2004.08.012

Little AC, Jones BC, Penton-Voak IS, Burt DM, and Perrett DI. 2002. Partnership status and the temporal context of relationships influence human female preferences for sexual dimorphism in male face shape. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B: Biological Sciences 269(1496):1095-1100.

Pawłowski B, & Dunbar RI (1999). Impact of market value on human mate choice decisions. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 266 (1416), 281-5 PMID: 10081164

Roberts SC, Gosling LM, Carter V, & Petrie M (2008). MHC-correlated odour preferences in humans and the use of oral contraceptives. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 275 (1652), 2715-22 PMID: 18700206

Wedekind C, Seebeck T, Bettens F, & Paepke AJ (1995). MHC-Dependent Mate Preferences in Humans Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 260 (1359), 245-249 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.1995.0087

Friday, June 17th 2011

Summer of the Pill: Why do we menstruate?

This is part of my Summer of the Pill series, where I will answer a question about the birth control pill every week for the summer. I will try and make them shorter than my usual posts. Please remember that I am not a medical doctor, so do not use this material to diagnose or treat any condition. I still hope you find these posts informative and useful.

One of the questions I got on my inaugural Summer of the Pill post is one that I have been asked many times over the years: Why do we menstruate, and is it even necessary while on the pill?

Found here.

So first, let me back up and explain the modern birth control pill. Most of the standard, monthly pill packs have three weeks of synthetic hormones that you take daily. These hormones out-compete your natural ones, which is how they suppress ovulation. Over the course of these three weeks your endometrial lining is also building up some in response to these hormones. For many adult women in urban, or industrialized environments, the amount of synthetic hormone is lower than what their body would naturally produce, so the lining of the uterus is less thick than it would usually be.

The fourth week is a placebo week – you don’t have to take these pills, but you are usually encouraged to just so that you keep up the habit of taking a pill every day – and the absence of the synthetic hormones in your body triggers menstruation. Then you slough off the endometrial lining that was thickening and again, if you are one of the many adult industrialized women for whom the pill is designed, then you should actually have a lighter period than what you have in a natural cycle.

The placebo week in your standard pill pack is there because the original maker of the pill thought women would be disturbed by the absence of a period. And there are still many women who would prefer to get their period than not. But what about the women who would just as gladly stop menstruating at the end of each cycle or pill pack? Would this be a safe decision?

In order to get at these questions, I will answer three different ones for you: Why do we menstruate? What did we do back in the day? and What is appropriate today?

Why do we menstruate?

Adapted from Fleagle 1999 by me.

Humans are not the only animals to undergo cycles of growth and regression in our endometrial lining. Yet, only a few animals actually menstruate. Menstruation has occasionally been observed in other great apes (this is the primate group where humans belong, with the chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangs), and a few other animals. As far as we can tell, everyone else resorbs the lining before growing a new one. It seems to be that those animals who menstruate, do so because the amount of lining they have is greater than what they are able to resorb.

Then, even among those few other animals who have been occasionally observed to menstruate, only humans are copious menstruators. That is, we’re the only ones who seem to do it every time a cycle ends, in a large enough quantity that it is visible (and those of us in industrialized environments know it’s more than just visible – there is a whole section of the drugstore devoted entirely to pads, tampons and cups to help us dispose of it).

Most people seem to think that the reason humans have such thick endometria, that produce the byproduct of copious menstruation, is that we have big-brained babies with high oxygen and glucose needs. We have the most invasive trophoblast of all animals, where the selfish little bugger burrows its way right through the endometrium in order to set up shop and start making the placenta. And so the thickness and differentiation of the endometrium, as well as the precise timing of its readiness for implantation and network of blood vessels at the ready to feed that fetus, make it a highly specialized tissue of a rather significant quantity!

What did we do back in the day?

These days the average industrialized woman menstruates about 400 times in her life, and like I said, that menses is copious. Average menstrual blood loss is around 30mL, but anything below about 120mL is considered normal.

However, women in more traditional environments, particularly those who are foragers or pastoralists, menstruate far less frequently, only around 50 times (Strassmann 1997). Part of the reason for this is that their first period is much later in life, say around seventeen years old rather than twelve or thirteen, and that they expend a lot more energy and eat fewer calories each day (Strassmann 1997).

But there is another reason that the traditional environment, the one we assume humans evolved in, leads to far frequent menstruation: these women usually don’t have access to contraception, and thus practice what is called natural fertility. So the average number of live births for these women can be as many as eight, and even with high infant mortality that’s a lot of babies. Add to that the fact that these women will breastfeed through toddlerhood, and you have several menstruation-free years.

Figure 1. The industrial (top) versus nonindustrial (bottom) pattern of menstruation through the reproductive life span. The pink bars represent infrequent menses, the red bars represent frequent menses; breaks indicate no menses due to pregnancy and lactation. Note that the first period begins earlier in the industrialized pattern, and that fewer births, less breastfeeding, and more calories lead to more frequent menses across the reproductive years.

So the industrial pattern doesn’t look anything like the nonindustrial, or traditional pattern. But the pill doesn’t necessarily look like either pattern – in terms of the number of menstruations it is like the industrial pattern, but in terms of ovulations it’s likely closer to the traditional pattern. The question is whether one of these patterns is necessarily healthier. I will partially answer this today.

What is appropriate today?

The placebo week of the pill is not necessary for contraceptive purposes, and the menstruation that occurs during this time may not be important for most women either. The two things worth talking to your doctor about are breakthrough bleeding, and the additional week of hormone exposure per month.

Breakthrough bleeding is when you have some kind of blood discharge at a time other than when you would expect to menstruate: when on the pill this would be any other time than the placebo week. And this can be very common in some populations even when using the normal pill preparations with the placebo week (Bentley 1996, Vitzthum et al 2001, Vitzthum and Ringheim 2005). Young users of the pill (say under 25 years old), athletes, and users from nonindustrial populations may be especially at risk.

If you have breast cancer or other reproductive cancers in your family history that are of the hormone-responsive variety, you may not want to expose yourself to any more hormone than you have to. The amount of hormone exposure in one’s life is correlated with risk of breast cancer (Jasienska and Thune 2001). However, the question of whether taking the pill helps or hurts your breast cancer risk is a very murky issue, and one that I will try to address in its own post later this summer.

Something you’ll read in this Summer of the Pill series is that making decisions about reproduction is about understanding trade-offs. You need to weigh the reasons you take the pill with the side-effects or negative impact of the pill, if you experience any. And many women out there could make up a pro/con list for taking the pill, or changing preparations, or skipping the placebo week, or changing to an IUD, and find that they weight each item very differently. There is rarely a single right answer.


Bentley, GR. (1996) “Evidence for interpopulation variation in normal ovarian function and consequences for hormonal contraception” in Variability in human fertility, eds L. a. M.-T. Rosetta, C.G.N. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK), pp 46-65.

Jasienska, G., & Thune, I. (2001). Research pointers: Lifestyle, hormones, and risk of breast cancer BMJ, 322 (7286), 586-587 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.322.7286.586

Strassmann, B. (1997). The Biology of Menstruation in Homo Sapiens: Total Lifetime Menses, Fecundity, and Nonsynchrony in a Natural-Fertility Population Current Anthropology, 38 (1) DOI: 10.1086/204592

Vitzthum VJ, Spielvogel H, Caceres E, & Miller A (2001). Vaginal bleeding patterns among rural highland Bolivian women: relationship to fecundity and fetal loss. Contraception, 64 (5), 319-25 PMID: 11777494

Vitzthum VJ, & Ringheim K (2005). Hormonal contraception and physiology: a research-based theory of discontinuation due to side effects. Studies in family planning, 36 (1), 13-32 PMID: 15828522

Monday, June 6th 2011

Around the web: belated mother’s day edition

Apologies for the re-post, it was the only way to save the post and comments with the correct tags after the Blogger meltdown the other day!

I’ve been accumulating a lot of mother-y links lately, thought I would share. First two Mother’s Day columns that remind us that we shouldn’t just put Mom on a pedestal and give her some chocolate one day a year, but think in a more systematic way about the oppression of women and children worldwide. Read this one by Esther Cepeda, and this one by Nicholas Kristof.


Women see Georgia O’Keefe art as erotic around ovulation. I’m not sure this really qualifies as evolutionary psychology, or needs that framework to understand that libido is higher near ovulation, which would increase the chances one would find erotic art extra erotic at that time.


Chimps give birth like humans. Very cool. I guess we didn’t notice until now because they are so solitary when they birth?

Cesarean sections are a major factor in maternal death. I don’t like how this article seems to blame the mother, given the way interventions seem to shunt many women towards C-sections whether they want one or not. But there are certainly many factors to consider in this issue, including the mother’s past health and the kinds of protocols used at the location where she is giving birth.

Cutting the cord too soon. This is an interesting piece in Time about the timing of cord clamping and its impact on respiratory issues in infants. Many birth centers and hospitals are advocating for a later time to clamp the cord for this and other reasons.

Mothering of all kinds

Hope for teenage mothers. This was a great story about a great program to help teen mothers have more success in school and beyond.

The amount of time a woman breastfeeds is related to her race and income. Not surprising, given that lactation support services are probably harder to come by, and that women who must earn an income can’t necessarily afford to go without pay for twelve weeks (that is the minimum maternity leave we get in the US, based on the Family Medical Leave Act, and most places give only that minimum). Even those women who do manage to get into a rhythm with breastfeeding lose it when they return to work, not just because of those short twelve weeks, but because few employers have workplaces set up for pumping.

Amy Poehler’s acceptance speech at the Time 100. She discusses the many other women (dare I say allomothers?) who support her as she raises her children and has a career. I may have teared up a little. Okay, I shut my office door and cried.

What measles vaccine refusal really costs. This is something parents should care about.

A hilarious account from a father about all the things you need to worry about — and expect to be judged upon — when having a child.

Finally, while this went around the interwebs when Dr. Isis wrote it the first time, re-read her AGORA post about why it’s all right to not be your mother.

Miscellaneous ladybusiness

The enduring gender gap in pay. Sigh.

Michele Bachelet should be everyone’s hero, if what I read in this story is any indication.

We can no longer escape the reality that BPAs (and other associated bisphenols, which unfortunately are what are being replaced in plastics that claim to be BPA-free) are endocrine disruptors that have negative consequences for health. Well, unless you’re Coca Cola. Then you are going to put your fingers in your ears and go “lalala!”

A lovely post on feminist reactions to street harassment. Another, very powerful read: kill me or leave me alone.

An important read about the use of language in journalistic storytelling, and the sexist way the New York Times originally covered the brutal gang rape of a little girl.

Historic STD posters. Were some sexist? Of course. But it only makes me want one for my office more, if for its ironic value.