Time After Time
We aren’t terribly far removed from doctors promoting the health benefits of smoking cigarettes. Nor, in the grand scheme, has it been that long since leeches and bloodletting passed for cutting edge technology – or perhaps sucking edge.
Reflecting on errors of the past shouldn’t imbue today’s doctors with a sense of supreme knowledge. Instead, it should give them pause to wonder what tomorrow’s doctors may find laughable about their current practices.
The modern doctor may laugh at the doctor who promoted cigarettes, while that doctor laughed at those who promoted lobotomies, as those doctors laughed at snake oil salesmen.
While today’s doctors may have largely discarded lobotomies and leeches, the part that sucks most is that we seem to have lost the art of doing away with antiquated medical dogmas once they’ve been proven unsafe… at least, until lawsuits and settlements tip the balance.
The drug companies sit in the shadow of a well-documented history of business practices which promote profits-over-people. Examples like thalidomide, DES, and Vioxx should be enough to call into question this industry’s trustworthiness. Whether it’s greed or hubris, the industry consistently releases new drugs with authoritative assurances regarding their safety, and it’s rare to see them back down from these assertions – even as the courts begin to say otherwise.
So, consider how rare this admission was from Dr. Harry Rudel, one of the developers of The Pill:
The pill is something we entered into with the best of faith, something we truly believed affected only ovulation and fertility. It was a relatively small dose of a drug, and it appeared that it was not affecting anything except fertility. Then as we began to look, we began to see that we are influencing many systems in the body.
Change Is in the Air (Or Is It?)
Hormonal birth control remains the one persistent drug that seems to be made of Teflon – nothing sticks. It has been linked to dramatic rises in diseases affecting everything from the heart to the liver. With each newly identified risk, ‘experts’ assure us the benefits still outweigh the risks, and, somehow, that seems to be enough to just make it go away.
At some point, we (meaning ALL of us around the world) need to stop accepting this myopic minimization of all these disparate negative consequences. Sincerely, we are all stakeholders in this fallout, which has grown to a scale that would now be impossible to measure.
Recently, thoughts about the sheer magnitude of this tragedy hit me like a gut punch. I’ll explain what happened and share three scenarios that should be enough to make us seriously rethink our position on hormonal birth control.
Changes in Lupus
I recently participated in a webinar with Sara Harris and Rebecca Asquith from Follow Your Flow, during which I discussed the dramatic evolution of lupus in a relatively short amount of time. I explained how lupus used to be an old person’s disease. Then, with the rollout of birth control, doctors were alarmed that they began to see young women coming into their clinics with lupus.
Fifty years later, lupus is thought of primarily as a young woman’s disease. The tides have shifted so significantly in such a short amount of time that what used to be the norm is now called ‘late onset lupus.’ Women in their 40s and 50s are surprised to learn they can even develop lupus at ‘such a late stage of life.’
Shortly after the webinar, I encountered one of the attendees, who told me that her husband’s sister had been diagnosed with lupus in 1966 at the age of 17. Her specialist had been “so in awe of her condition that she attended presentations/lectures with him.” She died at the age of 24. While it isn’t certain that she was on The Pill, the timing in relation to the wave of young women who suddenly began developing this old person’s disease makes it very plausible.
Thinking of this 24-year-old woman who died so many decades ago struck me. Her family never even knew that her lupus could have been connected to birth control. How many other young women have been struck down so young because of these potent drugs, and nobody was ever the wiser? Please – pause for a second and ponder that – what is the potential body count of young women who have died in the past 60 years from lupus, a stroke, a pulmonary embolism, a heart attack? How many of them were buried with their family wondering why she had the misfortune of being taken so young – without ever knowing how easily it could have been prevented?
Changes in Breast Cancer
Unfortunately, lupus isn’t the only disease that looks different today than it did when hormonal birth control was introduced. Just as expert testimony at the Nelson Pill Hearings (1970) revealed concerns about changes in lupus, other experts testified about how The Pill would likely contribute to breast cancer numbers. One of those experts was Dr. Max Cutler, who warned that The Pill should never be used chronically. He called it a cancer time bomb whose fuse could be 15 to 20 years.
Dr. Cutler practically guaranteed we would see a dramatic rise in breast cancer. At that time, 1 in every 20 women would be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life, which equated to about 75 to 80,000 diagnoses each year.
This year (2021), we expect to see over 281,000 breast cancer diagnoses, and 1 in every 8 women will be diagnosed at some point in her life. That’s an increase of over 250-percent!
Many doctors now dismiss the breast cancer scare as old news attributed to the first-generation pills. They assume the newer ‘low dose’ formulations resolved that problem (because that’s what they’ve been taught). However, a recent Danish study confirmed that women on these newer formulations still faced a 20-percent greater risk of developing breast cancer than women who didn’t take hormonal birth control.
Changes in Multiple Sclerosis
As I’ve written previously on Hormones Matter, multiple sclerosis is a naturally discriminatory disease in terms of gender because of how particular cytokines within the immune system interact with estrogen. This is true of many autoimmune diseases.
So, if the disease has a natural gender bias, how do we know what role birth control is playing in its incidence?
In 1940, well before the introduction of hormonal birth control, twice as many women as men had multiple sclerosis in the US. However, by the year 2000, as the number of overall cases grew, the gender gap also widened – 4 out of every 5 diagnoses were women. That represents a 50-percent change in the gender bias over each decade.
Epidemiological studies from other developed countries revealed similar shifts in the gender ratio over the same timeframe. For example, a Danish study found that men experienced a 30-percent rise in their cumulative incidence rate (CIR), while the CIR for women more than doubled.
The Epidemiological Significance of Rapid Change
Commenting on some of the multiple sclerosis studies mentioned above, Sreeram Ramagopalan, Ph.D., research fellow at University of Oxford, said this:
A change that occurs within a century is too short a time for a genetic cause. This suggests that environmental factor(s) are at work in a sex-specific manner.
Any of these examples alone should be enough to make us feel as if we’ve been collectively punched in the gut. Hopefully, it will eventually spark an epidemiological curiosity in a researcher somewhere.
If you happen to know of an epidemiologist who’s trying to figure out what the sex-specific environmental factor(s) might be, could you direct them my way? I’ve got a thought or two I’d be willing to share.
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