Oct. 26 2011 12:00 AM

Whiff the wrong man


Q: I admire that you often add
research to your columns, so I thought I’d ask you about an article I
read on birth control pills. Apparently, taking the pill can cause the
“wrong” man to smell good to you —
a man you might not be into once you’re off the pill. Unfortunately, I
experience severe mood swings when I’m not taking the pill —
uncontrollable rages for about a week a month. But, now I’m worried
that I’ll choose a partner I’ll lose interest in reproducing with when
I’m off the pill. Also, I wonder whether being on it is lying about who
I am. Of course, if I can’t control my mood swings, it won’t matter,
because I’ll scare every man away!


A: It seems those health class videos about getting your period — “You’re a woman now!” — were a tad incomplete. One week a month, you’re also Chuck Norris. 

The cause of your rage probably isn’t
all the people saying deeply offensive things to you like “Are you
using that chair?” but a nosedive in your level of “the happy hormone,”
serotonin. Dr. Emily Deans, a psychiatrist with the terrific blog
“Evolutionary Psychiatry” on PsychologyToday.com, explains that your
period gets launched by a drop in progesterone, “which can interfere a
bit with the machinery that makes serotonin. This can lead to hunger,
cravings, agitation, insomnia, irritability, and rage” or, to put it in
relationship terms: “Someday, my prince will run.”

Deans says the pill can help alleviate
these symptoms, and certain variations seem especially helpful: the
24-day pill and the three-monther (meaning Auntie Flo visits only once
every three months). The problem is the issue you brought up. The
article you read references the research of Swiss biologist Claus
Wedekind, who made a bunch of women sniff a bunch of men’s stinky
T-shirts to study the pill’s effect on mate preferences. Women who
weren’t on the pill went for the smell of men with dissimilar immune
systems — men with
whom they’d produce children with a broader set of immune defenses.
Women on the pill preferred the smell of men with immune systems
similar to theirs (the immunologically redundant), probably because the
pill chemically mimics pregnancy and cues a genetic adaptation that
leads women to seek out kin to protect them when they’re pregnant.

If that isn’t enough bad news for you,
the pill’s pregnancy simulation seems to kill the attractiveness bump
women get at ovulation, their most fertile time of the month, when
their faces, scent, and other features become subtly more appealing to
men. (It may also lead ovulating women to dress and act less
provocatively than they otherwise would.) In a study by psychologist
Geoffrey Miller, female lap dancers not on the pill earned an average
of $276 a night whereas those on it brought in only $193, making
pill-using lap dancers $80 less hot and sexy to men per night. 

So, the answer for your mood swings
is…count to 10 when you get angry (because it sometimes takes that long
for your rocket-propelled grenade launcher to warm up)? For a more
peaceful alternative, Deans advises that some women’s PMS symptoms are
alleviated by certain antidepressants (SSRIs, or selective serotonin
reuptake inhibitors, such as fluoxetine and sertraline) but notes their
problematic downside: “Nothing kills sex drive like an SSRI!” Deans has
had some success prescribing bupropion, a non-SSRI antidepressant she
calls “unlikely” to be a sex drive killer, but observes that “it can be
agitating and cause insomnia.”

As a possible non-drug alternative,
Deans suggests magnesium malate supplementation: “Five hundred
milligrams of magnesium malate at bedtime seems to help with anxiety,
rage, and PMS symptoms such as cramps and headaches,” she says.
“Magnesium is typically low in standard American diets and not found in
large amounts in multivitamins and is generally safe if you have normal
kidneys.” Deans adds that cycling from a low-carb diet to a
higher-carb, low-protein diet three days to a week before starting your
period can ease PMS symptoms, possibly by helping with serotonin uptake.

There is a prejudice that you’re a
better person if you just try to meditate yourself out of your rage on
those weeks when you find yourself in the mood for long walks on the
beach followed by a home strangling. But fixing brain problems by
taking a pill is really no different from taking insulin for diabetes
to keep from going into a diabetic coma. You’re just taking a brain
that’s slacking off in the neurochemical department and bringing it up
to par. Especially once you’re in a relationship, a little “better
living through chemistry” (or diet or vitamins) certainly seems
preferable to doing “the little things” to keep your love alive — like sticking Post-its around the house with cute little messages like “Homicide comes with a stiff prison term.”

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