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The Hormone Myth? Robyn Stein DeLuca Visits the NYC Skeptics

“Nothing seems to have the power of good and evil like women’s hormones,” said psychologist Robyn Stein DeLuca. While a less-than-optimal testosterone level might just turn a man into a “schlumpy, low-T guy,” any change in a woman’s hormone levels is often thought to cause legitimate physical or mental illnesses.

“There’s the ubiquitous PMS joke,” DeLuca told the packed house of New York City Skeptics at Baruch College on October 22. It’s usually about what the abbreviation actually stands for, whether that’s “Pardon My Sobbing” or “Pissy Mood Syndrome.” DeLuca’s personal favorite is the answer to a riddle – what do you get when you cross PMS with a GPS?

“A bitch who knows how to find you,” DeLuca said.

But despite the idea’s saturation in our culture, and after five decades of research, there is still no consensus on whether “premenstrual syndrome” even exists, DeLuca said. Proposed symptoms run the gamut from the familiar mood swings, depression, hostility and weight gain to either increases OR decreases in hunger and libido – over 150 possible symptoms in all. And researchers didn’t always agree on how soon before (or even after!) menstruation they have to occur to justify a diagnosis of PMS.

Depending on how you looked at it, then, anywhere from 3% to 97% of women may have suffered from PMS. The condition, now called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), was finally codified more precisely in 1994’s fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. To qualify, sufferers now must present one of four main symptoms (mood swings, irritability, depression or anxiety), plus four others, within the final week before menstruation. Under this new definition, less than 9% of American women can be diagnosed with PMDD.

“Your distress has to affect your functioning,” relationships or work, DeLuca put it more plainly. Just being grouchy isn’t enough.

And those afflicted will find some relief from PMS once menopause begins – unless that’s a disorder in need of treatment, too! The time of a woman’s life that officially starts after 12 months without menstruation wasn’t much talked about in medical journals until the 1950s, when doctors began to warn of women “getting annoyed with their husbands” and *gasp* “refusing to make dinner”! Conversely, most women who have undergone menopause rate it as not that big a deal. So why do some fear it?

DeLuca says much of the early blame can be placed on Robert Wilson and his 1966 book Forever Feminine, which she calls “a compendium of misogyny and chauvinism.” The book characterized menopause as a sort of living death that required hormonal replacement therapy. Good thing the drug company Wyeth, who helped Wilson write Forever Feminine, made a pill just for that.

“It’s like PMS all over again,” DeLuca said of the shift to treating menopause like a disorder. Many still believe that menopausal women are more likely to suffer from depression, something that statistics simply don’t bear out. And there’s a good, non-biological reason older women might get depressed. “When you get into your 50s and 60s, people start dying,” DeLuca said, “which is really depressing.”

The pharmaceutical industry’s motivation in medicating women’s hormones is clear – “You can [buy] some Midol to be a human being again,” DuLuca said – but women themselves can perpetuate the myths when using them as convenient excuses. It’s easy to blame momentary lapses and outbursts on hormones, and not just ordinary stress, when there’s familial pressure to keep the “good woman crown.”

But the hormone myth is more damaging than just a few pills and a Betty Crocker image. DeLuca thinks it has something to do with women’s continued underrepresentation at the top levels of business and in other occupations that are considered to be more “rational.” On a personal level, it’s hard to address any kind of issues when their origins are misattributed.

 “You kind of lose the opportunity to understand what’s going on with you and to do anything about it,” DeLuca said.

For more discussion on the hormone replacement drug Premarin, check out the Facebook Live video of DeLuca's lecture. Her book The Hormone Myth:  Junk Science, Gender Politics, and Lies About Women will be available in May.

Report by Russ Dobler, photos by Jonathan Nelson