It’s not easy being a woman. I know. After all, I have studied the gender. All those hormones flooding back and forth, the hot flashes and moods swings, the greater than 2:1 odds compared to males of contracting auto-immune illnesses such as multiple sclerosis (MS), scleroderma, lupus, arthritis, migraine headaches, Raynaud’s syndrome, to name but a few. On top of that, how would you guys like to live with the specter that one out of every eight women in America will get breast cancer. Or consider the injustice of having to put up with menstrual cycles for decades and then, upon the “change of life”, trade the chronic anemia (fatigue) and inconvenience of menstrual cycles for a cardiac risk (heart attack, stroke and hypertension) that equals or exceeds that of men their age. On top of all that biological hassle, women also have to get along with men who don’t have a clue what’s going on.
Why don’t men have a clue? Well, in large part due to the same reason that women are relatively ignorant about men: human narcissism involves finding ourselves and those who look like us to be somehow inherently more fascinating than that which differs. (Now you know why your kids seem so neat…) We have to stretch more to even perceive, let alone appreciate, differences in others. I remember a splendid Kodak commercial where a little girl is talking to a little boy and asks him: “Are you the opposite sex or am I?” But aside from the human tendency towards self-engrossment, one reason men don’t have a clue is that they never ask the question. In science this equates to a lack of funding. Not until Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland gained power was the shameful and short-sighted lack of funding for medical research on women brought to light. Until Senator Mikulski called the National Institute of Health (NIH) to task, the vast majority of health research was done on men and the findings were simply and care-lessly applied to women. Can you believe it? That’s criminal.
This disinterested attitude towards the uniqueness of female health issues was rampant in medical school where questions specifically targeted towards understanding the significance of differences were side-stepped by defensive professors. “That’s a female problem” was proffered as if to suggest that such categorization were sufficient. PMS, for example, never “existed” prior to the mid 1960’s. I sometimes inquire of my elderly matrons as to whether they are pleased that they grew up at a time when PMS didn’t exist. Many of them will smile ruefully and recall a time when medical doctors’ attitude towards “female problems” mimicked that of My Fair Lady’s Rex Harrison in his famous kvetch: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” They recollect that the term “hysterical” derives from the Greek word for uterus and is related to “hysterectomy”. Since the dawn of medicine, men have all to easily dismissed women’s complaints as hysterical and groundless.
Let’s take pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) for example. (Here’s an inside tip: The word “syndrome” is a clue that doctors don’t understand what is going on.) In the case of PMS, most doctors don’t understand why women get PMS and will mutter something about hormones. The switch here though, is that it is the husband, not the patient, who is told with deep concern and compassion to “learn to live with it”.
What is the “curse” and why? Well, recent research points to failure of adrenal capacity as being a significant physiologic cause. Specifically, PMS is consequent to chronically low levels of the adrenal hormone, dehydroepiandrosterone or DHEA. Simply speaking, the ovaries make hormones throughout the month but, in the premenstrual time before the period begins, they call on the adrenal glands to kick in and produce additional hormones to accommodate the potential pregnancy. Now, if the adrenal glands are worn out, they can’t produce DHEA. DHEA is known as the “mother hormone” from which women make their own appropriate levels of many other hormones. Show me a woman with PMS and I’ll show you a woman with low levels of DHEA. Blood or salivary tests confirm the diagnosis but remarkably, despite Stanford University and other prestigious medical centers demonstrating success in treating auto-immune illnesses such as lupus, fibromyalgia etc. with DHEA, still most doctors and clinical laboratories don’t consider low levels of DHEA to be significant.
Natural progesterone is another hormone to befriend when bloating, tender breasts and “pelvic congestion” start to cloud the sensorium and put you on edge. I am still astonished that some medical doctors continue to prescribe artificial pseudo-hormones which wreck havoc in the delicate female physiology. Take Provera© (not!) for example. This substance thought often incorrectly described to patients as “artificial progesterone” is in truth not progesterone at all but rather is an entirely new substance called a progestin. Designed to be similar in some ways to progesterone, progestin remains nonetheless different enough from the real thing (natural progesterone) in order to merit that “license to profit” called a patent. Want more details? You can always read the package insert and learn for yourself but consider these comparisons: Progestins cause bloating and water retention (water is retained between and within cells “intra and inter-cellular edema). Progesterone is a diuretic meaning it helps you shed retained water. Progestins causes hirsutism (unwanted facial hair) but progesterone reduces unsightly facial hair in women. Progestins increase risk of thromboembolic and thrombophlebitic events (stroke and venous damage) whereas progesterone protects against these serious risks. Progestins cause acne and skin rashes whereas progesterone does not (many women tell me it improves their skin). Progestins cause depression and disrupt sleep patterns in general and REM sleep in particular but, as patients taking natural progesterone will tell you, the real thing lightens mood and, if taken at night, improves sleep. Feeling good is one thing but living long and prospering is another. Drs. Chang, Lee and Fournier published a nice article in the scientific journal Fertility and Sterility 4/95 demonstrating that progesterone, when applied to the breasts of forty premenopausal women who were going into surgery for removal of a breast lump, had the beneficial effect of lowering their both the number and the activity of their cancerous cells. Hmmm. Progestins, on the other hand (you guessed it!) have been shown to increase cancer risk. So, if your doctor tries to tell you the Provera© or any other progestin is a “synthetic progesterone”, you might want to have a more in depth discussion….
Now, you won’t be surprised to learn that natural human estrogens differ just as significantly from commonly prescribed estrogens (horse estrogens and artificial estrogens but that would be another entire column. Suffice it to say that the scientific studies released last year, which embarrassed prescribing doctors almost as much as they terrified formerly trusting patients, involved progestins and artificial estrogens and NOT natural hormones. The studies which described HRT (hormone replacement therapy) offering more risks than benefits did not surprise the handful of medical doctors who have insisted all along on offering only natural hormones.
So much for the biology of PMS. That’s the easy part to understand. What interests me though is the spiritual perspective on PMS. Bear this in mind the next time your wife bites your head off when you do something insignificant like driving over her flower bed or forgetting to tell her you will be staying 5 hours late at the office on her night out and she hasn’t been warned in a timely manner to find a babysitter.
The spiritual perspective on PMS might be as follows. The substance of women is different from that of men. Substance, from the Latin “sub stare” literally meaning “to stand under”. I think of substance as a sort of chalice – that which holds something much as a chalice holds wine. From this point of view, all substance is the bearer of spirit. What is spirit? It is (at the very least) that which is literally insubstantial hence needing a chalice of sorts in order to become manifest or material. For example, this article you are reading manifests on paper and ink which is therefore the substance of my ideas. Ideas though, indeed all acts of creation, derive from the realm of spirit. Thought itself is a spiritual process. Especially free or non-habitual thinking is an exercise of the spirit. (Try free thinking sometime. That is, think for yourself. It is tougher than we usually “think”).
Now why is the substance of women different from men (or visa versa a la the Kodak add!). Perhaps the reason for this difference in human substances is that women come into this world capable of bearing children. Everything about the female anatomy and physiology, right down to their higher percentage of body fat, their lower levels of iron, their pelvic girdle and their female intuition, is designed to harbor incarnating (i.e. “coming into flesh” from the Latin “carne” like “carnivore”) spiritual beings born to us as children. Women are designed to be the chalice for these incarnating spiritual beings who need a safe haven within which to pause as they manifest from a twinkle in one’s eye to a conceptus to a growing embryo to a bouncing baby. Pretty neat trick to pull that transition off, eh?
How do women do it? Well, plainly stated, by cheating. Take the uterus, for example. The uterus or womb breaks all the rules of physiology. Everyone knows that, after reaching their maturity, nerves cease growing. Consequently, spinal injuries leave lifetimes of tragedy in their wake due to the perplexing and stubborn refusal of nerves to regenerate after being severed. But nerves do grow in the pregnant uterus. The nerve tissue grows to accommodate the swelling uterine tissues and this perplexing physiological phenomenon has led scientists to study the use of progesterone in the treatment and prevention of neurological diseases. It is now known that progesterone can play a significant role in preventing and treating demyelinating diseases like multiple sclerosis.
What else “magic” happens in the pregnant uterus? What other “rules” are broken? Well, Blood clots differently in the uterus. Oxygen flows at different saturation levels in the uterus. Muscle tissue stretches beyond comprehensible capacities in the uterus. And finally, the uterus swings fore and aft in the pelvic girdle with the phases of the moon. Yup… It really does! The uterus id the only human organ that tracks the moon like a satellite dish tracks the satellite. Can you guys out there imagine that? Probably not. In fact, I probably lost you a few paragraphs ago. Football season and all.
Now, bear with me ladies. I’m not saying your sole spiritual task is bearing children. It may be. Or it may be writing computer programs or running large multi-national corporations or teaching skydiving or practicing law. But your “substantial” task is that of childbearing. Your substance allows for that opportunity. Your womb is a crossroad between matter and spirit. Not only does the uterus tilt with the moon phases, but in a very real sense, rhythmically, at every pre-menstrual time of the month, it inclines towards the spiritual world. In doing so, it becomes physiologically receptive to an incarnating spirit that may chose to engage in the arena of the womb where the dense crystalline sperm meets the vast oceanic egg. The womb is the only place on earth where conception and embryonic development can take place. Why so? Because it is not quite on earth. Nestled within the woman, the uterus remains a little freed from gravity and earthly forces. Somehow on the earth but not of the earth. Truly a mystery. A cosmic stepping-stone of sorts.
Do we wonder then that women describe “brain fog” or “distractibility” or “irritability” during this phase? That they complain of being ravaged by erratic mood swings or that they sulk under dark clouds of depression. After all, more than at any other time, during PMS, they serve two masters: spirit and matter. Biological imperatives and free will. Consider how stretched between spirit and matter women are at this particular premenstrual period of their monthly cycle. At this time, in trying to fulfill material and immaterial, earthly and cosmic tasks, women are like the hapless mariner who, while trying to disembark, finds himself caught spread-eagled over the water with one foot on shore and on his un-tethered boat. To avoid plunging into the water requires reserves of strength and balance beyond most of our capacities.
Therefore, men, rather than talk of “the curse” or of her being “on the rag”, when the woman in your life with PMS throws a knife at your head for reasons inexplicable, instead, why not pause and reflect upon the holy communion taking place at that extraordinary time every month when fertile women are drawn between imponderable forces and the substance of woman. Then, of course, beat a hasty retreat and maintain a safe distance.
BSW © 1985