Since 1961, of all the people who have flown into space, only 11 per cent have been women. Dr Varsha Jain is the world’s first ‘space gynaecologist’. She specialises in how women’s bodies react in space and has published a new paper in Microgravity which talks about options for period suppression in space.
While menstruating in space isn’t dangerous (and is the same as having periods on Earth), Dr Varsha Jain found that a number of female astronauts chose to suppress their periods in space, or time them so that they did not have to deal with menstruation
The women who suppress their periods manipulate their oral contraceptive pills to do so. They skip the placebo pills which allow them to bleed naturally (there are no detrimental effects to this).
The astronauts who don’t suppress their periods say that the International Space Station is not designed to deal with menstrual blood. Just one of the toilets on the Space Station can accept blood.
Jain’s research shows how implants and intrauterine devices could be more effective in suppressing menstruation. These could be more useful in longer missions, says Jain, such as a hypothetical three-year trip to Mars. They require no extra attention after insertion, says the paper.
Jain says that these kind of long acting reversible contraceptions (LARCS) will help women who don’t want to remember to take the pill at the same time each day, especially if they are going through multiple time zones.
But she says that they should start using the LARC at least two years beforehand because it takes time for the bleeding to settle down.
People once thought that if a woman went into space, her period blood would reverse its flow into her body — a phenomenon known as retrograde menstruation. This was used as an argument against women becoming astronauts
Studies have shown that retrograde menstruation does not happen, but there is still a long way to go in terms of researching women’s health in space.
“I think a lot more research is needed with regard to women’s health in spaceflight,” says Jain.
“This work is so important because women are human beings, and women can go into space as professionals behaving like normal, functional adults. People need to get more information, get informed, and get over these gender stereotypes.”