Part I – Being There
I can’t think of another instance where men have so eagerly shirked their responsibility as with birth control. This is my first installment in what may become a recurring series addressing some of the ways men need to change their approach to reproductive discussions.
Women experiencing problems with hormonal birth control need advocates, not because of any inherent weakness, but because of the herculean resistance they’re likely to encounter from their doctor. Beyond migraines, strokes, or even cancer, birth control’s biggest danger may be overconfident doctors – those medically trained men and women who either don’t know about or refuse to acknowledge the robust science linking The Pill to devastating complications ranging from depression to death.
A Father Takes Charge
As a father, I know how much we long to protect our daughters from all pain and suffering. So I understood the distress and helplessness when my friend posted this on Facebook, “Sitting with my daughter who has been dealing with a migraine and blurry vision for several weeks…Asking for prayers. We all need relief. If you are not a praying person, eat a bacon cheeseburger and think good thoughts.”
Knowing him, I would have been really concerned if he found a way to include vegan atheists. As it was, my concern led me to message him immediately, “If your daughter is on any kind of hormonal birth control, have her stop right away!”
He thanked me, and said they were looking at that. Doctors had inserted a progesterone-only IUD three months earlier to help with her PCOS. She began experiencing the migraines about five weeks after the IUD was inserted.
They ended up admitting her to the hospital. My friend told me a couple of days later that the doctor, “who seems to be really on top of things,” decided her problems weren’t caused by the synthetic hormones at all. Instead, he gave her Topamax, the off-label cure-all (to be read with more than a hint of sarcasm), and sent her home. Oddly, the doctor didn’t offer an alternative suggestion as to what else might have caused the sudden, unrelenting bout of migraines.
One week later (still seeing no change in the brutal symptoms), my friend and his daughter returned to the ER, and he demanded they remove the IUD. The doctors complied and she began to feel better, although the improvement was gradual. As an interesting aside, it was daith piercing that ultimately provided instantaneous relief. Her father later told me, “The piercing took away her headaches, but I still have no doubt that the IUD caused them.”
Women Need Health Advocates
Fathers naturally advocate for their daughters, but in other relationships, we men forget that women sometimes need our advocacy. I’m not talking about limiting a woman’s reproductive rights, or taking away her voice. I’m talking about adding more voices to the choir. Too many men translate the women’s health movement as a complete abdication of responsibility. They are more than happy to allow women to bear the entire burden. I’m challenging men to be there when a woman in your life needs you to be.
We can easily carry the “it’s her body” mentality to a comfortable end, and remain completely disinterested. But, even the most fiercely independent woman may want to share with you her frustrating experience with a stubborn doctor who didn’t want to hear about her side effects. She may need encouragement to trust her instincts when she runs into what Barbara Seaman called the ‘don’t worry your pretty little head’ mentality.
You can also encourage her to empower other women by sharing her story. The Real Risk Study, currently being conducted by Lucine Health Services, would be another great way to expand the message. (Men, if you’ve lost a loved one, and suspect it might have been caused by hormonal contraceptives, I urge you to click here and share that story as well.)
“To the crazy ones. Here’s to the misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The people who see the world differently.”
Apple Computer’s iconic ‘Think Different’ campaign reignited the brand with a salute to ‘the people crazy enough to think they could change the world.’ Outliers willing to fly in the face of conventional wisdom are especially rare in the overly dogmatic medical industry. However, a few courageous doctors are beginning to question Western medicine, and their numbers may be growing.
In my recent article on migraines, I linked to a document posted on the University of Virginia student health services website. Afterwards, I decided to track down Zach Bush M.D., the doctor who originally created that migraine warning 15 years ago. He told me that he created the document around the time the National Institutes of Health halted the women’s health initiative study on hormone replacement therapy because of safety concerns.
“I think the industry as well as practitioners were overwhelmed by the idea that maybe we were doing the same thing with birth control pills… We didn’t even have the first clue what the long term ramifications were of women being on birth control for 9, 10, 20 years. I think the long-term consequences are definitely going to be cancer and heart disease. The issue is it’s hard to measure those long-term consequences. Whereas with migraine and stroke, that risk factor is real within a year of use. So, in some ways, that was a much easier tackle”
Actually telling women about the risks they faced with hormonal contraceptives could very well have been Dr. Bush’s first venture outside the walls of the medical norm. He explained the typical thought process:
“I understand the fear of it. What doctor has not prescribed progesterone and literally told the woman, ‘This is the same hormone your body makes. Therefore, it’s completely safe, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t take it.’ That line comes out of a doctor’s mouth probably five times a minute in this country… The reality is we are not delivering these hormones like the body would deliver them, either in dose, delivery curves, or location. The small intestine is not where you want high progesterone levels, and these hormones in the wrong place can be just disastrous.”
I won’t split hairs because I’m ecstatic to find a medical professional willing to say these things. But since he didn’t point it out, I would like to add a reminder that this is a common fallacy. Synthetic hormones are not the same as your body’s natural hormones. The very fact that they are synthetic has disturbing consequences of their own.
Dr. Bush continued unpacking his thoughts on prescription hormones:
“There’s a huge misunderstanding among physicians about the hormones estrogen and progesterone. These are steroid hormones.
“We have a healthy respect for prednisone and Medrol dose packs and all these steroids that we are willing to call steroids… Doctors keep telling the patient, ‘These have really bad effects on your bones, your skin, your brain. These are damaging steroids, but the only reason we’re using them is a last ditch effort to help you out of your pain’ or whatever it is.’
“We could give exactly that same pitch for estrogen or progesterone because they are steroid hormones. “This is a female steroid hormone. I’m going to give it to you, but my gosh, it screws up your liver metabolism. It’s going to screw up the way you manage insulin. It’s going to affect the way cancer cells can grow. It’s going to screw up all kinds of things in your body, but we’re going to use it as a last ditch effort for your hot flashes or to prevent pregnancy until we find a better solution.” That way, at least the woman has an understanding of what she’s getting into.”
Shifting the Paradigm
Dr. Bush no longer resides on the faculty at the University of Virginia. The triple board certified practitioner also broke away from academia in the way he set up his practice. At his new facility in Charlottesville, they treat patients with a foundational approach to medicine – focusing on health and nutrition rather than illness and pharmacology. His break from traditional medicine (at least in the Western sense) is rooted in the belief that we are not born with a pharmaceutical deficiency. He explained:
“[Doctors] are definitely trained by the pharmaceutical industry these days. We have completely departed from any understanding of physiology outside of the pharmaceutical realm.
“When we designed women’s health, we did it from a complete disease management standpoint. At no point did we really ask what would be healthy for women. We started managing birth and pregnancy as disease, and that really hasn’t stopped. Probably most obviously, we turned a child into a surgical procedure with C-Sections. It’s just an unbelievably slippery slope that we hit from the 1960s on. Women got burdened with the brunt of the experimentation and disease management mentality, and I think they’ve really suffered enormously from a health standpoint.”
Bringing Outliers into the Fold
Dr. Bush frequently receives invitations to speak at medical gatherings around the country. At these conferences, he encounters numerous doctors from varied backgrounds who express discontent with the medical industry, and are receptive to his paradigm-shifting message.
We could be on the cusp of a major shift. If enough of these seeds of discontent catalyze a new breed of doctors willing to think different, it could lead to a groundswell of fresh new women’s health advocates on the other side of the stethoscope. For now, all we can do is pray – and maybe eat a bacon cheeseburger.
A Simple First Step
Woody Allen famously said, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.”
Women have been schlepping the entire reproductive burden for nearly six decades. Until and unless more doctors acknowledge the dangers of synthetic hormones as both contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy, men need to get off the La-Z-Boy and do more to pull their weight. I’m suggesting a pretty simple first step – be there.