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How Do Female Astronauts Manage Their Periods in Space?

A new study has found that LARC may be the safest and most reliable method for menstrual suppression - something very important for female astronauts (and women in the military) who have specific needs when it comes to managing their periods.

Question of the month:

How do female astronauts manage their period in space?

As space exploration reached new heights in the 1960s, one of the popular (and widely believed) reasons for keeping it a male-dominated field was that female astronauts could become an emotional liability during their period.

Apparently, a number of plane crashes in the 1930s had involved menstruating female pilots, and it was thus suggested that putting a woman with “menstrual disturbances” in space should be avoided[i]. A report published in 1964 worried about the “potential for the menstrual cycle to alter performance during space flight”[ii].

Once these claims were disproved by science – and although it’s still a male dominated field[iii] –astronauts moved onto the question of how best to control their period while in microgravity (which occurs when people and objects appear to be weightless). Menstruating in space, it’s now known, has absolutely no negative effect at all – except when it comes to packing.

Legendary US astronaut Margaret Rhea Seddon has spoken about[iv] how she and her female colleagues struggled to figure out how many pads and tampons to pack for a long space flight – and how the men on board worried about the space they would take up (and we thought packing enough for a 2-week holiday was annoying).

Luckily, an easier option for female astronauts already exists. A new study[v] exploring the options for avoiding menstrual bleeding in space has found that long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) may be the safest and most reliable option.

The study authors looked at all available contraceptive devices, including those currently being used by aviation and military personnel. (Background information in the research paper states that for short duration space missions, menstrual cycles can also be timed according to mission dates - but for longer missions, menstrual suppression is often preferred).

LARCs (such as IUDs and beneath-the-skin implants) are safe and reliable methods for menstrual suppression; however, they are not extensively used by astronauts.

“Opting for a LARC would remove the upmass, packaging, waste and stability issues (associated with menstruating in space), as a device could be inserted prior to a mission and replacement would not be required in-flight,” the authors write. “LARCs would not interfere with the ability of the astronaut to perform her tasks.”

They conclude that astronauts should be provided with up-to-date, evidence-based information to make informed decisions about menstrual suppression should it be desired.

This research would also be of interest to women working in the military, as well asto female pilots – both professions where menstrual suppression may be desired by women.

According to Dr Varsha Jain, Visiting Researcher at the Centre of Human and Aerospace Physiological Sciences (CHAPS) at King's College London: "With more women going into space, we need to ensure they have the most up-to-date information on reliable contraception and means of menstrual suppression. It is ultimately the woman's choice to suppress, but options should be available to her should she decide to do so."

You can learn more about the benefits of LARCs here.

 

 

 

[i] http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/564734/scitech/science/study-proposes-solution-for-menstruation-during-space-flights

[ii] http://advan.physiology.org/content/33/3/157.short

[iii] http://www.space.com/21562-women-space-history-anniversary.html

[iv] http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/SeddonMR/SeddonMR_5-21-10.htm

[v] http://www.nature.com/articles/npjmgrav20168

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