A drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration promises to be the first of its kind to make "that time of the month" a thing of the past.
This afternoon, the FDA approved Wyeth Pharmaceuticals' Lybrel as the first continuous-use drug for the prevention of pregnancy. Its intended use is as a birth control measure, but it also has the side effect of halting women's periods indefinitely.
While Lybrel is the first drug approved to halt menstrual bleeding for good, "we have used birth control pills in the off-label fashion for a long time," said Alison Edelman, a researcher at Oregon Health and Sciences University, who has studied birth control. "I think a lot of women are already doing this on their own."
Even though Lybrel is approved for everyday use, it is simply an adjustment of the same formulations of estrogen and progestin used in birth control pills for decades, according to several leading doctors.
Edelman said that Lybrel's approval would likely lead to wider legitimacy for a practice already going on — a step some women regard as essential.
Shannon Eley, 30, of Harrison, Ohio, has taken oral contraceptives since she was 13 because she suffers from endometriosis, a condition in which uterine tissue grows elsewhere in the abdominal cavity, resulting in excessive bleeding and pain during the menstrual cycle.
Eley sees Lybrel as a great alternative, as even birth control regimens that limited her cycle to four times a year were painful and still resulted in a great deal of bleeding.
"I would love to try it so that I don't have to have a period," she said. The only cure for endometriosis is a complete hysterectomy. I'm too young for that."
Her physician, Eley said, did not prescribe taking oral contraceptive drugs every day — a practice not FDA-approved before today.
But while some question the safety of avoiding periods, doctors in the field appear nearly unanimous in supporting the safety of Lybrel.
"You've already thwarted nature," said Dr. Leslie Miller, an associate professor of women's health at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "The menstrual cycle's purpose is ovulation" — a process halted by use of any birth control pills.
The bleeding, said Miller, is simply a side effect of the menstrual cycle.
When birth control pills were first designed in the 1950s, physicians felt they might gain wider acceptance if they mimicked a woman's natural cycle. For 21 days, the pills would block ovulation; then, when the oral contraceptives were stopped for seven days and replaced with sugar pills, the uterine lining would be shed, causing menstrual bleeding.
Lybrel takes the dosage and the process a step further.
"With this type of pill ... the lining of the uterus stops growing and, in fact, goes into hibernation," said Dr. Bob Barbieri, head of obstetrics and gynecology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "For those women who don't want to have their period, and for those who have a specific symptom ... this is a good option."
Barbieri said that, early on, most women would probably still prefer to have periods, although that number would decline as not having periods gained more widespread acceptance.
Some fear that acceptance could turn to pressure.