With recent confirmation that periods have no health benefit, an increasing number of women are using contraception to stop them altogether
For some, it is about bringing an end to debilitating pain or dark thoughts. For others, it is as simple as being liberated from the sinking realisation that you need a tampon but you left them in your other handbag.
When a new wave of feminist authors and activists are calling on women to embrace their periods, the idea that some do not want a monthly bleed and are seeking to avoid having them altogether can seem radical.
The technology is there, in contraceptives. They dont only prevent pregnancy. A recent drop in tampon sales has been linked to women using contraceptive methods that stop, or lighten their periods. About a fifth of women using the contraceptive implant no longer bleed (myself included), while many who take contraceptive pills without a break often achieve the same result and they are not the only methods.
The impact can be life-changing. I started taking the mini-pill purely for the fact it would stop my periods, says Jaimi Kendall, 25, from Exeter. For years, I had extremely heavy periods that would drag on for eight weeks or so and left me severely anaemic to the point where I started experiencing pulsatile tinnitus. Not having periods any more is a blessing.
She is not alone. Catriona Clarke, 25, from Cambridge, was thrilled when she realised she could stop having periods thanks to her contraceptive pills. My periods werent even that bad, she says, just uncomfortable and a mess. And, given how expensive period products can be, an expensive mess.
Lets be clear: removing stigma around a normal bodily function should be celebrated. Proposals to end the tampon tax, distribution of free sanitary products, better education for boys as well as girls, and the introduction of menstrual leave are all positive moves towards ensuring women are not held back by their periods. But seeing them as a fundamental part of the bodys rhythm something to be endured, or even celebrated each month (the author Maisie Hill writes in her book Period Power of embracing their natural high) is only one side of the story. The other is a tale of pain, bloating, bad skin and mood swings. Many women feel trapped in a cycle that can be unpredictable, inconvenient and unpleasant.
Menstruation is the process by which the body sheds the lining of the uterus and unfertilised egg, triggered by fluctuating levels of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. Not having periods does not create a backlog, nor are they necessary to cleanse the body. Menstruation can, however, exacerbate incapacitating physical or mental health problems including endometriosis and depression; it can also be distressing or problematic for people with gender dysphoria. According to a recent survey of 7,500 women by Public Health England, half those aged 16-64 reported menstrual issues in the last year, rising to 75% of those aged 16-24.
Dr Jane Thomas, a consultant gynaecologist at Homerton university hospital in London, says that having so many periods is a modern phenomenon: historically, women would spend much of their time pregnant or breastfeeding (which can delay the return of periods). It would be a minority of people who had a couple of children only and menstruated all the way through their lives.
So, if women do not want a period, is there a medical reason that they should? Many may be surprised to learn that the short answer is: no.
While Thomas notes that regular periods are an indicator of good health, Dr Anne Connolly, the clinical lead for Womens Health for the Royal College of GPs, says there is no health benefit to them: Ninety-nine per cent of women dont need to bleed.
Judith Stephenson, the Margaret Pyke professor of sexual and reproductive health at University College London, says the same. In some ways, it seems like one of Gods great design faults It is not helpful to have these periods in fact, if you dont have them, one of the biggest benefits would be reducing iron deficiency anaemia.
The option not to have periods is rooted in hormonal contraceptives, which use synthetic versions of oestrogen and progesterone to interfere with the menstrual cycle. This prevents pregnancy (meaning the decision to stop bleeding is not compatible with trying for a baby), sometimes with other effects including lightening bleeding or stopping it altogether. Many new forms of contraception including the contraceptive implant and injection, intrauterine system (the hormonal coil) and the progestogen-only mini pill are designed to be taken continuously, meaning many users can safely go months or years without any bleeding.
The benefits can be myriad, from saving money to mitigating health problems, including polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), in which there is a risk of problematic cells building up in the lining of the womb. While regular natural periods prevent this buildup, and thus can be beneficial for the condition, so too are hormonal contraceptives (even if they stop periods), because they keep the lining of the womb thin.
The idea that bleeding is necessary has been fuelled by decades of advice that women on the combined pill should take a break for one week a month. This results in a withdrawal bleed, or fake period (which is why the combined pill is often referred to, somewhat misleadingly, as regulating periods). Some claim that this was contrived by the pills inventors to make it acceptable to the Catholic church; others argue it was chiefly a practice to reassure women that they were not pregnant and to give them a break from the high doses of hormones.