Monday, August 31, 2009

Like candy

When I got home from Asda I got to googling Yasmin. I discovered it was the most discussed pill on several forums, including askapatient.com and medications.com. The same phrases appeared over and over, 'panic attacks', 'brain fog', 'uncontrollable anger,' 'chronic fatigue' and the experiences matched up right down to the more specific details - many women reported an 'overwhelming sense of fear,' 'distrust of my partner, my family, my friends,' 'constant insecurity.' I came across a forum named 'Yasmin Survivors' that gathered news reports, and gave out recovery advice to women who claimed the effects of Yasmin had lost them their relationships, their jobs.

But I'll stop there with Yasmin - although it's the most popular pill in Europe currently - there are plenty of people taking others and I want to first place this thought in the bigger picture.

As I noted in my introduction side-bar, most women don't know what their pill contains and what those components do to their bodies in order to stop them getting pregnant. In fact, according to one study, only 15% of us have a proper grasp of this information. More and more of us are actively taking an interest in where their food comes from and what's gone into it, or where their clothes were made, by whom and at what price. But we have no idea what this medication actually does that we take, every day, frequently for decades, a medication strong enough to shut down our bodies to pregnancy.

A medication. A medication. Mull that over

Speaking of the bigger picture, where is the male pill?

The female pill was released in 1960. Every year there's a flurry of newspaper stories about the male pill being right around the corner. I've spent some time trawling through these pieces, and have noticed how the first few paragraphs are always filled with concerns and queries regarding the possible side effects of such a pill - side effects like lower libido and mood swings. These articles are generally followed with a flood of columns arguing that there's no way women would trust men to take a pill every day. As though women set the alarms of their watches, take the pill like clockwork and never, ever find themselves popping two the next morning just in case, right? We treat it so casually, of course we take it somewhat casually.

In the last near five decades the male pill has been researched extensively. The World Health Organisation has funded a six country wide study into it's possible effect on the male libido alone. The male pill hasn't even reached the market and already there's stacks of statistics on whether it'll put men off sex.

Completely understandable, of course, it's a rather cruel con to create a contraceptive that stops you wanting to do the very thing it is meant to make a whole lot more enjoyable. That's madness. So, what about us?

You can count the number of studies into the female pill and sexuality on one hand, and that research has occured entirely after its 1960 release.

When the female pill's effect on libido hit the headlines in 2005 it was a story based on the research undertaken by Dr Claudia Panzer, an endocrinologist from Denver, Colorado. She was quoted as saying she felt the pill was 'handed out like candy.' As part of my research, I tracked her down for an interview.

Testosterone is most often linked with male sexuality, but it also plays an important role in women's desire and sense of well being. Dr Panzer conducted research into the connection between the pill and women's loss of libido which showed that the pill's impact on the body reduces the amount of the 'free' testosterone. That is, the kind that effects libido and well being.

The role of testosterone has been explored in post-menopausal women with symptoms of low energy, libido, and well-being. When treated with injections of the hormone, Dr Panzer claims, they often experience 'higher sexual desire, increased frequency of orgasms, decreased stress levels, improved well being and more energy.'

Her study discovered that this effect on 'free' testosterone levels did not reverse immediately when women came off the pill. In fact, she found that the damage could be permanent.

Not to worry, the pharmaceutical company BioSanta has come up with Pill Plus -an oral contraceptive containing added testosterone and they're set to launch in 2011.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

How this all got started

Let's start at the beginning, why am I writing a blog about the birth control pill? More importantly why am I writing a blog that will be criticising the birth control pill? I'm not a Catholic, a silver-ring-thing enthusiast, a Christian fundamentalist or a prude. I'm not writing this to scaremonger you into abstinence. In fact, let's get the plus-points for the pill out there right now. The pill reduces the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers. It helps with heavy and horrible periods. It prevents unwanted pregnancies. All good things. It's simple, effective and easy. Actually it's a little too easy, and not that simple, and as far as effective goes...Here's where the criticism bit comes in. As I said, let us start at the beginning.

Laura and I were sitting in the Asda car park in her silver beemer. We were there to buy leggings. Although we knew it was likely we'd come out laden, that was our story. Laura had been talking about how she'd been feeling down lately, like nothing excited her anymore. She felt directionless, bored, and very, well, blah. She'd got more excited about leggings than anything else that month - including her long term boyfriend. Her head felt like it was full of cotton wool, she couldn't think straight. She had no sex drive to speak of, but not just that, she had no drive at all. No desire to do anything, not really, not like she used to.

I said I had been feeling very similar. All my confidence and interest in life had evaporated somewhere along the way. I felt flat. Just plain empty of the varied feelings and interesting thoughts I could remember being part of my every-day a year ago.

I guess it was the sex drive bit that got us thinking. We'd read the newspaper articles linking the birth control pill to low libido. That week I had listened to an episode of the US radio show This American Life containing two stories - one about a woman who had wanted to become a man and took testosterone shots, and another about a man who suffered from an illness that rid his body of all testosterone. The latter had explained that without testosterone he wasn't only uninterested in sex, he was uninterested in life. He had no preferences, no desires, no motivation.

Laura and I were both taking Yasmin. A relatively new birth control pill at that time that had been discussed in all the magazines we read. The magazines had never before recommended one pill or another, but Yasmin was supposed to give you great skin and help you lost weight. Two very important facts to the world of women's magazines, and the women who read them. Many of our friends had deliberately asked their doctors to prescribe them Yasmin. The doctors all did so, despite it being the most expensive pill on the market. Out in the US, the pharmaceutical company Bayer Schering had launched an aggressive marketing campaign making the weight loss, acne clearing claims alongside assertions that Yasmin would stop PMS. All this hype had trickled down to the UK.

Well, our skin sure did look great, and we'd definitely lost a few pounds - but in that Asda car park Laura and I realised we no longer felt right. We figured it could be down to Yasmin.