The Divorce Pill: Birth Control Effects Your Doctor Doesn’t Know

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When Karen decided to go off the pill, her relationship wasn’t going well. She had a husband whose depression hung heavy, dampening the air. Karen began noticing a putrid smell, emanating from her husband. “I couldn’t stand to be close to him because he smelled so bad, it wasn’t what we call body odor, it smelled like a soured clothes…so naturally that is what I thought it was.”

But after digging through his laundry, she had a dizzying realization… the smell suffocating her space was her husband.

Karen could no longer muster a simple attraction. Warmth began to dissipate. A divorce ensued. Later, stumbling across research about pheromones and birth control, it clicked.

In Clause Wedekind’s study, women were given t-shirts that had been worn by men. They were asked to smell the shirts to report attraction. They found women were attracted to men with a different MHC level than their own, and repulsed by one too similar. The theory is this delicate difference of pheromones makes the healthiest offspring.

But, oddly women taking oral contraceptives lost this sense of attraction. Not only could she no longer sniff out her best match, she became actively attracted to men with a similar MHC level, closer to her own genes.

When Karen let a male friend vent about a recent break-up, it sounded familiar. “Had she recently gone off the pill?” She asked. When the answer was yes– she was convinced. “That is when I started calling it the divorce pill” Karen says.

Studies on MHC have gained popularity thanks to authors like Jena Pincott of, Do Gentleman Really Prefer Blondes “There is more interest in whether or not birth control is the right thing if you are in your twenties or thirties and haven’t found the right guy yet” Pincott says. She also states she is pro-birth control and doesn’t give specific advice on the pill, “I think what women need to bear in mind when hearing these studies is that effects are statistically significant, but they are generalities.”

But it wasn’t just Wedekind’s study that perked women’s senses. Pincott brings up the “famous lap-dance study” which found that strippers not on birth control made more than those who were on the pill–which suppresses ovulation.  Further, Pincott points out “men tipped women who were ovulating significantly more than they did the same women when they weren’t.  It might be behavioral, the way we look or smell.”

Or it could be the beauty-phenomenon of ovulation. “During ovulation we think we are prettier and independent observers find that we do look more attractive; our faces more symmetrical, lips plumper” Pincott says. This was explained by a study where men rated photos of women with and without make-up. The men consistently rated the women with make-up as more beautiful, except when the women were ovulating. Then the men rated them as the same.

But if you were to ask your OB-GYN about this you’d probably be met with a blank stare. Dr. Duana Welch, a social-psychology professor and blogger explains “Medical doctors are looking only at your physiology, not your psychology.” She advises that women be an advocate for themselves when considering birth control.

I spoke to several medical doctors and none were familiar with the research. Dr. Vanessa Cullins, VP for Planned Parenthoood said in a phone interview: “Ovulation is only important is if you want to become pregnant, in fact not ovulating protects you against ovarian cancer.” On the other end of the speculum, Beth Battaglino-Cahill the executive VP for the National Women’s Health Resource Center finds some value in ovulation: “It is important to know your own cycle.”

Welch and Pincott assert that ovulation has it’s benefits “I do not take an anti-pill stance, but I think birth control changes women psychologically.” She warns, women who have an MHC similar to their partner’s have a very high affair rate, as was found by a study from The University of New Mexico. “ We tend to focus on the more physical changes such as weight gain, but it makes us prefer men who match a genetic profile more like that of our father or brother.”

But nixing birth control is clearly not smart advice. Paranoid singles could sign up for GenePartner or ScientificMatch which pair couples by genetic compatibility. Or take Dr. Welch’s advice, make the date and when you say hello“lean in close and slowly inhale.” As of now, there are only two doctor recommended non-hormonal choices: A non-hormonal IUD or condoms.

The take-away for Dr. Mark Hathaway of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals is more uneasy. “The fact that we divide birth control into hormonal and non hormonal is not helpful, we should help women find methods that are best for them.”

The advent of the pill and hormonal birth control was revolutionary, without a doubt one of the greatest things to happen in the last century. Our birth control options are still evolving and unfortunately, we don’t have a male birth control pill to rely on the guys. We also can’t rely on them to smell our MHC’s. They can’t. The ability to smell your soul-mate is purely a female phenomenon.

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