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Possibly bad side effect of taking a birth control pill... - Zer Netmouse
February 8th, 2008
04:22 pm

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Possibly bad side effect of taking a birth control pill...
I was reading an article in Time magazine today and was curmuzzled to note research indicates that the birth control pill could mess with a woman's ability to detect a compatible mate by smell. According to this article as well,

The first study to indicate that chemical signals play a role in attraction was conducted by Claud Wedekind over a decade ago. Forty-four men wore the same T-shirt for three days. They refrained from deodorants and scented soaps so they wouldn’t interfere with their natural smell. Women then sniffed the shirts and indicated which ones smelled the best to them. By comparing the DNA of the women and men, the researchers found that women didn’t just choose their favorite scent randomly. They preferred the scent of man whose major histocompatibility complex (MHC) -- a series of genes involved in our immune system -- was most different from their own.

[...]

An interesting exception to the MHC attraction is for women taking the pill. Wedekind found that pill-takers responded in almost the exact opposite manner than would be expected. Because the pill tricks your body into thinking it is pregnant, it chemically alters your sense of attraction. Instead of finding the scent of genetically dissimilar men attractive, women on the pill found the scent of men with MHC’s similar to their own to be attractive.


Note that picking a mate whose MHC is different from your own is important in reproduction--couples with similar MHC suffer more difficulty in conception, higher rates of spontaneous abortion, and underweight babies (and possibly other effects of inbreeding) (see also this psychology today write-up on smell and attraction and MHC detection/compatibility). So to find a mate with whom she has high chances of successfully bearing children, a woman needs to be attracted to MHC-dissimilar men.

The Time article actually went one step further, suggesting that use of birth control could be partly responsible for high divorce rates. E.G. a couple meets while the woman is on the pill, and she is attracted to him, and then they settle down to have kids, she goes off the pill, and suddenly he's not the one for her. I guess to confirm that we'd need research on how many divorces do and do not involve going off the pill, and with what sort of correlation.

But anyway, this is all very interesting, and may call for the modern woman to apply a technological test to see if she is in fact MHC compatible with the man of her choice. Or she can take a break from birth control in order to have a "Sniffing" date, but unfortunately none of the research reported how long a break someone would have to take for the instinctual attraction to reverse back to normal.

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From:autopope
Date:February 8th, 2008 09:53 pm (UTC)
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Or she can take a break from birth control in order to have a "Sniffing" date, but unfortunately none of the research reported how long a break someone would have to take for the instinctual attraction to reverse back to normal.

Might be a bit difficult over here: I gather the pill is going out of favour (at least with the medical fraternity), as they're shifting women onto depot injections and implants instead. (Same effect, but just one injection every couple of years, rather than needing to remember to take a pill at the same time every day ...)
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From:mishamish
Date:February 8th, 2008 10:13 pm (UTC)
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Not only that, but if we're specifying "a" sniffing date... then what happens when the woman goes BACK to the hormone therapy (pill, shot, what-have you)? Now she knows that - from a genetic perspecitive - she SHOULD be attacted to this man... but isn't.
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From:netmouse
Date:February 8th, 2008 11:08 pm (UTC)
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I'm assuming the woman would only arrange for a "sniffing date" if she thought the guy was attractive in the first place.
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From:shekkara
Date:February 9th, 2008 04:22 am (UTC)
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I've avoided the injections because if you have bad side effects, you're stuck with them for months on end. As for implants, the norplant is no longer available in the US. (I saw the norplant in someone's arm once and... ew! Creepy.) What we're seeing here are some doctors being willing to prescribe continous pills (i.e. no one week off) so women go without periods for months on end.
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From:_earthshine_
Date:February 8th, 2008 10:20 pm (UTC)
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This is interesting. I think we're only just beginning to understand the real ramifications of social modifications to natural processes. Everything from this kind of thing to nutrition to sleep/work cycles... we've departed from the environment in which we evolved in many many ways, next to none of which are we even remotely near fully understanding.

What can be done? I'm not sure, really... i don't think there's any easy answer. Just get by until we learn more, i suppose...
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From:netmouse
Date:February 9th, 2008 01:08 pm (UTC)
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nodnod.

I've started watching certain types of reproductive health more closely, since I'm hoping to start having kids sometime in the next few years. Another issue for me is that due to a virus I carry it's probably safest for the baby if I have a cesarean. But immunologically there's evidence that certain processes in the baby are triggered as part of the birth process and a cesarean will lack that... I've heard of at least one technique to try to alleviate that, but it's amazing to me how much of this is still a mystery to science.
From:benniedevenin
Date:August 11th, 2008 12:46 pm (UTC)
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When we accept this, we can focus on what can be done to continue our existence. Grow your own food.
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From:cherylmmorgan
Date:February 8th, 2008 10:32 pm (UTC)
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It may not be that simple. I found this article a few days back which suggests that there's a genetic component to whether you find male sweat sexy. If you have the wrong gene, you may not smell it at all, or it may smell foul.

As far as I'm concerned, this whole smelling guys thing is a bust. Either I don't have the gene, or my nose is useless (or possibly both). Have I ended up with entirely the wrong man as a result? I don't think so.
From:kitschicat
Date:February 8th, 2008 11:21 pm (UTC)
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I read the same article while at my ENT appointment a couple of weeks back. Interesting stuff. Of course, I wouldn't advise telling your partner about it if you are on the Pill because it will just cause them to worry that should you go off of it, your relationship will be dooooomed! ;)
From:brooksrueckes
Date:August 11th, 2008 01:19 pm (UTC)
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My partner goes to all of the appointments with me and I would tell them if they were to stop her from coming in with me.
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From:grimfaire
Date:February 9th, 2008 03:12 am (UTC)
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Well then you also have to take into account that shere amount of time, energy and money that both men and women spend trying to cover up or get rid of their natural body odor.

From:tlatoani
Date:February 9th, 2008 04:35 am (UTC)
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Plus, not all couples want kids in the first place, so reproductive compatibility may be irrelevant.
From:tlatoani
Date:February 9th, 2008 04:41 am (UTC)
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Let me also add that none of these sources are peer-reviewed journals (the quoted website looks like a seriously Newage piece of fluff), and that people who believe in reproductive freedom should be deeply suspicious of articles in the popular press that seem to be designed to make them reluctant to use birth control. There appears to be a propaganda and disinformation campaign going on.
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From:netmouse
Date:February 9th, 2008 01:03 pm (UTC)
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According to the wikipedia article on Claus Wedekind, the original research was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, which I believe is peer-reviewed, along with "Proc Biol Sci" which probably is, too. They also cite a follow-up study published in 2005 in Horm. Behav. and a 2006 paper in Trends Neurosci.

From:tlatoani
Date:February 9th, 2008 01:55 pm (UTC)
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Right -- but what you've cited above is popular press and blog discussion of the original research, which often distorts and exaggerates scientific findings.
From:tlatoani
Date:February 9th, 2008 01:56 pm (UTC)
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(For example, we don't know how good the original research was, whether anyone's been able to replicate it, or even whether the broader conclusions are actually supported by what he did.)
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From:netmouse
Date:February 9th, 2008 05:51 pm (UTC)
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I suppose, but the abstract here suggests to me that his line of research is not being misrepresented by these articles.
From:tlatoani
Date:February 10th, 2008 10:47 pm (UTC)
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I agree -- and thanks for looking that up -- but there are a lot of unproved assumptions to get through from "in one study, people said the preferred the scent of these t-shirts" to "if you take the pill, you'll wind up with a partner you aren't attracted to." That's a hell of a leap from one study conducted in a controlled environment which asks a very narrow question ("Which smells better") to a generalization about human behavior and relationships.

How strongly did they really prefer one t-shirt over another? Would that still be true in the real world, where people wear deodorant and other stuff, and the local environment isn't controlled for smell? Would the preferences be consistent for the same person over time? Is it true for all people?

In real life, does the smell thing, which is only one factor, really matter that much? Or do people just say "I love him, but I make him shower before we make love because he can really reek"?

Wedekind's abstract doesn't over-claim (as far as I know), but the popular articles about it do, by implication. They imply a lot more weight than it should be given as a guide to real life. And all too often the concealed message of the popular media is one that reinforces traditional gender roles for women. Particularly having children.
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From:netmouse
Date:February 10th, 2008 11:13 pm (UTC)
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well, I don't think it's saying "you'll end up with a partner you're not attracted to", I think it's saying "you'll end up with a partner who may not be a good genetic mate, specifically with regards to the whole having babies thing. As in you may have a higher chance of complications than with a more MHC-different mate (and even then, many of those complications are not show-stoppers, but some are). I used the words "possible" and "mate" very consciously in my title there, to acknowledge both that the research is not very thorough so far, and (my intention, anyway), that it's only really relevant for purposes of reproduction.

I would certainly never argue that people should stop controlling their reproduction, but I also think it's important to try to understand how our biological systems work, as a whole. Whether or not it's all completely good news, politically speaking.
From:tlatoani
Date:February 10th, 2008 11:37 pm (UTC)
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I'm not criticizing you for overclaiming, I'm criticizing the two sources you cited for it.

I would certainly never argue that people should stop controlling their reproduction, but I also think it's important to try to understand how our biological systems work, as a whole. Whether or not it's all completely good news, politically speaking.

I agree, but with a caveat: people like us who care about social justice should be VERY VERY sure of the evidence before propagating ideas that have horrible political or social implications. I put studies that say some variant of "taking the pill can screw up your life" right up there with claims like "there are racial differences in intelligence" as things we shouldn't be presenting as truth without extremely clear proof -- which does not exist for any of these claims at present.
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From:_earthshine_
Date:February 11th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC)
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(Just a friendly interjection cuz this is something i find i'm always thinking about.)

I think your caveat is something that needs to be considered on a much larger scale, in general. I work in science, and feel i have a good understanding and respect for it, but also feel that -- on the massive scale -- people vastly overstate its application to day-to-day life.

In this case, i see a key point that is often forgotten about most studies and analytical results: they don't speak of absolutes, only probabilities. A study can prove that such-and-such holds true for the statistical majority of certain cases, but asserting that it's "true" makes people think that it's true for everyone, which is not what the study is saying.

As netmouse and i were musing above, the real truth is that we really don't know much about this kind of thing, especially when it comes to how the knowledge we have about trends maps into individuals.
From:tlatoani
Date:February 13th, 2008 04:21 pm (UTC)
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I agree completely. Couldn't have said it better.
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From:naturalfractual
Date:February 9th, 2008 04:54 am (UTC)

a bit late

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The 'smell' factor and the pill is not new news.

I was taking the pill in the 70's - and while on it, I couldn't stand the smell of my husband. Poor guy - it didn't really stop our intimacy, but I didn't enjoy myself as when I was off the pill.
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From:netmouse
Date:February 9th, 2008 01:05 pm (UTC)

Re: a bit late

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Well, that's a good sign for you, as far as picking a good husband if you wanted to have kids. I assume you two initially hooked up at a time when you were not taking the pill?
From:tlatoani
Date:February 13th, 2008 04:23 pm (UTC)
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And, wherever there's overblown reporting on science, there's someone who sees it as a business opportunity...

Dating agency will match couples by their SMELL

Not cheap, either.
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