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Doctors look into the best ways to deal with periods in space

Engadget Engadget 22/04/2016 Mariella Moon
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Two doctors have explored female astronauts' options when it comes to suppressing their periods in space, especially for long-haul missions. While we already know by now that there are no menstrual issues associated with microgravity, some (if not most) might still consider it a huge hassle. Who'd want to deal with a heavy flow in the middle of a spacewalk? According to Varsha Jain, nobody. Jain, one of the two doctors who already works closely with NASA, told The Atlantic: "The women that I spoke to, for short duration flights, when they went up on shuttle missions, they chose either to suppress or they chose to time their cycles, so they didn't have to deal with their menstruation..."

So, she and her colleague, Dr. Virginia Wotring, looked into the feasibility of using oral contraceptives and IUDs or implants to control periods during deep-space missions. Their conclusion is that oral contraceptives, which astronauts already use for short missions, aren't that practical for, say, a three-year trip to Mars. That would entail packing thousands of pills, which would take up cargo space. Plus, NASA will have to figure out the best way to dispose of their packaging. Long-acting reversible contraceptives (IUDs and patches) are more viable, since they're already inside the body. Not to mention, the astronauts wouldn't have to worry about taking one everyday. Jain and Wotring warn, however, that more research is needed on the effects of contraceptives on bone loss in outer space.

Menstruation was one of the reasons why it took NASA almost two decades after the moon landing to put a woman on a space shuttle mission. For instance: a paper published in the 1960s said it's a bad idea to put a "temperamental psychophysiologic human" -- that's supposed to be a woman on her period, if you can't tell -- in a complicated machine. Scientists also used to believe that period blood would flow inward in microgravity, causing severe health problems.

NASA has sent a lot of women to space since Sally Ride's time, including Cady Coleman who we interviewed about every day life aboard the ISS. As they all successfully proved that female astronauts won't set spaceships on fire then they're on their periods, it's safe to say that future deep space missions will include women. In fact, NASA announced last year that Sunita Williams, the same astronaut who fixed the space station with her toothbrush, is part of the first commercial spaceflight crew.

As Jain said, we "need to ensure [we] have the most up-to-date information on reliable contraception and means of menstrual suppression" if we're sending humans to places farther than the ISS. Someday, traveling to the moon or to Mars might be more accessible, and it's important that spacefaring women have safe options to consider if they decide to suppress their periods.

King's College London, Nature

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