We are experiencing a critical time, especially in the United States, when harmful laws are being crafted around human reproduction and women’s bodies, threatening to push us further and further back in time. Because of this environment, we are also seeing a plethora of “wellness” charlatans tout unstudied and unregulated claims about the menstrual cycle (among other health issues), flooding the digital space with misinformation that can cause shame and confusion.
If there is one person who is sick and tired of the medical misinformation being allowed to thrive, it is obstetrician and New York Times bestselling author Dr. Jen Gunter – known for her expertise in all things reproductive healthcare, and taking on the internet trolls and their trove of medical mythology.
Her new book, ‘BLOOD: The Science, Medicine and Mythology of Menstruation’ (on-sale Jan. 23, 2024) delivers normalized advice, therapies, and matter-of-fact answers to this biologically complex process in language that’s accessible, frequently hilarious, frank, and fascinating.
Viral claims and deeply embedded cultural biases and deliberate obfuscation about the menstrual cycle can carry real risks to short and long-term health and safety. From untested pharmaceuticals and understudied products to hypocritical fear-mongering and patients dismissed by their healthcare providers, ‘BLOOD’ is a clarion call to action, investigation, and self-advocation for the best care you can get.
Ahead of the book’s release, we had the chance to go deep with the Doc to get more (medically accurate) info about the science behind menstruation, why it is important to call out and reject misinformation, and how we can educate ourselves on this topic.
What was the catalyst for making you want to write ‘Blood’?
I touched on the menstrual cycle in The Vagina Bible and The Menopause Manifesto, and in both books, my editor kept asking me to include more information because she said after reading what I submitted that she realized she didn’t know much at all. And that stuck with me. As I was thinking about the next book, it became clear that social media was rife with disinformation about the menstrual cycle and menstruation.
Period coaches, naturopaths, and functional medicine providers were taking advantage of the lack of knowledge and the gaps in the system and exploiting those who menstruate for financial gain. So, I put those two concepts together and decided to write an accessible textbook about the menstrual cycle to help people get better care in the office and to help them stay clear of misinformation online.
You are known for the expert way you pushback on medical misinformation and call out social media posts for promoting bad science. Why is this important to you as a woman, a mother, and as a Doctor?
Calling out medical misinformation is vital because it can really harm people. It is especially important with the reproductive tract, because weaponizing fears here gets press and traction on social media more than other areas. I am sure there is misinformation about ingrown toenails online, but I’d never seen that make any headlines, ya know?! I think the fact that 100% of pregnant people are not vaccinated against COVID-19 is perhaps the best and saddest example.
Here we have a very safe intervention that saves lives and reduces bad outcomes for the fetus (the vaccine helps you have a healthier pregnancy and outcome), and yet we can’t get everyone to take the vaccine because they are afraid, almost certainly because of what they have been exposed to online by agents of misinformation, people who, I will add, will never actually care for a pregnant person, fetus, or baby harmed by COVID-19. I see this real impact, and I think, how can I not speak up? This affects me at a human level.
But also, as a mom, I’ve been there. When my children were born extremely prematurely (26 weeks), I had questions medicine couldn’t answer, and I found myself swayed by misinformation online because I didn’t know much about pediatrics. And I made decisions for my kids I wished I had never done. And I just don’t want anyone else to be in that position.
Menstruation is such a taboo topic, and often instills fear into people (including the people who menstruate themselves). How do you hope your book will change the narrative and approach to this topic socially?
When we don’t talk about things, it implies they are shameful. So, I’m here to talk about menstruation in a non-sophomoric, educational way. It’s just a bodily function, like breathing or sleeping. Some people, men mostly, are so squeamish about menstrual blood, and so I knew the title had to include the word blood. It’s so strange that we can say nosebleed, and no one freaks out, but menstrual blood evokes a visceral response. It shows how we have all been impacted by patriarchal constructs from society, religion, or both.
Why is important for people who menstruate to know how their bodies work, and in what other ways can knowledge about menstruation impact the rest of our lives?
It’s your body! You might menstruate 400 times a year if you don’t take hormonal contraception. But even if you menstruate 10 times a year, I think you should know how the whole process works. And then, there is the impact of hormonal fluctuations and conditions that affect the reproductive tract. When you know what is typical and not typical, you can advocate for quality care. Also, knowing what is happening makes people not feel broken. Because of the stigma, people don’t talk about flooding with periods or skipped periods or cramps as they should, and so when people are suffering, they often think they are uniquely broken. I want to put and end to that.
You have been intentional about using inclusive language in your book, talking about how transgender and non-binary people also menstruate along with women-identifying folks. Why is it imperative more medical doctors be inclusive in this way?
Everyone deserves access to care. And we know that trans and non-binary people often have even more difficulty accessing care than cisgender women. I wanted the book to speak to everyone. Also, there is way too much “womanhood” discourse about menstruation, which marginalizes people who can’t get pregnant and who want to. And, of course, this idea that you are a woman because you menstruate is harmful because an 11 or 12-year-old is most certainly not an adult; they are a child. Also, a lot of the “womanhood” discourse is directly tied to purity culture, which is so harmful.
What are some of the most bonkers myths that you break down in your book, and that you have come across quite regularly on social media?
The one that baffles me the most is the idea that if two or more people who menstruate are in close proximity, their cycles will sync up. Science aside, what would be the evolutionary advantage? None. But it reinforces the tires trope that women are feral beasts not in control of their bodies (and here I will use gendered language because this reflects thinking from thousands of years ago that the uterus was basically a wild animal within a wild animal, meaning women are lesser beings, physically and mentally).
We don’t have pheromones (it shocks people that this has never been proven), so there is no biological way this could happen. And it’s been studied, and we know it doesn’t happen. And yet, every time I write or tweet about it, I get some angry replies about how I am clearly wrong. It’s an anathema to me that this myth is so ingrained. Also, the color of menstrual blood reflects hormone levels. It just reflects the quantity and the amount of oxidization.
Why do you think the wellness world/industry has become so popular, where medical misinformation can often be spread unchecked?
Whenever there are knowledge gaps, predators are waiting to step in. Medicine has clear gaps when it comes to menstrual health; compared with other bodily functions, it is understudied, so this creates gaps, as do the systemic impacts of patriarchy. Instead of closing those gaps, wellness seeks to exploit them. People want answers, but wellness makes those answers up.
Also, this ties into a lot of conspiracy theory thinking, the idea that medicine is hiding things from you, things you can only get from wellness. Interestingly, people who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to buy supplements (which people should think of as unregulated, untested pharmaceuticals).
How can the everyday person become more rigorous about separating fact from fiction when they are presented with medical information that goes viral on social media?
You need to pause and fact-check. Every single time. If you see a viral video or post, don’t read the comments. Close the platform. Some ways to start are to Google the question and add the words “fact check.” Look to see what professional societies have to say, for example, Google the topic and add ACOG (American College of OB/GYN), and content from them will rise to the top. And you can fact-check in my book Blood or on my blog, The Vajenda, where I often address viral claims.
Look at the source. Is this a physician or registered dietician, or is this from a celebrity, chiropractor, or naturopath, people who are not medical experts? How does the person profit? Do they sell supplements, do ads for them, or offer IV therapies? If so, block and move on.
We can think of a number of politicians, leaders, and public figures who would learn a lot from ‘Blood’ and ALL your books, especially those who are in positions of power to determine healthcare legislation and access! Do you have any impact plans for your book as you prepare for its release?
Politicians who seek to weaponize the reproductive tract don’t care about facts. They care about power. And facts get in the way of oppression. I hope that everyone in the media who interviews these politicians reads BLOOD, so they can be better able to hold them accountable in real time and expose their lies.
We love that you are described as “The world’s most famous and outspoken gynecologist”. What do you want to be known for the most as you continue your impactful work?
Someone who cares about medical facts and getting them to people. Knowledge is power. I want to be known as someone who empowers people.
You can order a copy of ‘BLOOD: The Science, Medicine and Mythology of Menstruation‘ by clicking HERE. Be sure to follow Dr. Jen Gunter on all her platforms for all the medically-accurate healthcare information you need, and to watch her expertly dismantle the harmful myths online in real time!