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Menstruation in Microgravity: What Having Your Period is Like in Space

Apr 22, 2016 01:15 PM EDT
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ISS astronauts display how to construct a pizza in zero gravity

A lot of women aspiring to be astronauts must eventually come across a few very basic physiological questions, such as, "How does it feel like to have your period in space?" or "How does one manage menstrual cycles during long missions?"

Dr. Rhea Seddon, a female astronaut of NASA who has already flown three space shuttle missions, mentioned in her oral history that female astronauts who have gone before her told her that having a period in space is just like having a period on the ground.

According to a new paper published in the journal npj Microgravity, female astronauts can choose to menstruate in space, but, even with the availability of full amenities, having one's period in space can be challenging for longer missions. This is the reason why menstrual suppression is preferred during longer missions, while for shorter missions menstrual cycles can be timed according to mission dates.

Some of the impracticalities of having one's period in space include the limited water supply and the difficulty of changing hygienic products in microgravity. Bringing up lots of tampons can also increase the mass of payloads and might also add to the amount of garbage to be disposed.

Another reason why menstrual suppression is preferred during space missions is the inability of the waste disposal systems onboard the U.S. side of the International Space Station to handle menstrual blood. The waste disposal systems of ISS are only designed to reclaim water from urine.

With the logistical challenges, astronauts can choose several methods of menstrual suppression. The most common method is the intake of combined oral contraceptives, but this could also add up in the payload of the flight and packaging disposal problems during long missions.

Another method, which is not generally employed, is using implants or long-acting reversible contraceptives. It can reduce the additional baggage problem of the pill, but could rub off or catch on equipment or specialists' attire.

Another issue female astronauts could face during long space missions is the possible effect of hormone treatments on bone mineral density (BMD). This means that BMD-reducing contraception choices such as progestin only injection (DMPA) is out of the picture due to its possible impact on the irreversible spaceflight related bone changes.

"With more women going into space, we need to ensure they also have the most up-to-date information on reliable contraception and means of menstrual suppression. It is ultimately the woman's choice to suppress, but options should be available to her should she decide to do so," said Dr Virginia Wotring, Assistant Professor at the Center for Space Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine and author of the new paper, in a statement.

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