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3 Facts about bears and lady business

Good news for ladies who like the woods—your period is (probably) not something that attracts (most) bears.

There are not a lot of studies addressing this particular topic, but a National Park Service paper published this year took a look at all of them and put the scattered pieces information together into a single puzzle. It's probably not a complete picture, but it's certainly better than hearsay and random, sexist stories you heard from your grandpa's drinking buddy. More importantly, even when there is a documented risk between menstrual blood and bears, that shouldn't be construed as a reason to keep women out of the wilderness. After all, bears are attracted to food, and we don't tell people they shouldn't eat while backpacking. Instead, we have practices that reduce risk. Same thing applies here.

Here's what we learn:
1) You can menstruate freely and without fear in the contiguous 48 United States. Grizzlies, and particularly black bears, don't seem to be interested in what's happening in your pants. Evaluating hundreds of grizzly attacks found no correlation between menstruation and risk of attack. In the case of black bears, this has actually been tested experimentally, with researchers leaving used tampons from various stages of menstruation out in the wilderness and watching how the bears respond. (Science!) The bears completely ignored the tampons.

2) Yellowstone data suggests food is a much bigger risk than menstruation. Analysis of bear attack data from Yellowstone National Park doesn't even consider attacks that happened before 1980. Why? Because that was before stringent rules on in-park food storage and bear feeding. The vast majority of pre-1980 attacks are already known to be related to bears seeking out human food. Meanwhile, between 1980 and 2011 only 9 women have been injured by bears in Yellowstone. Of those, six were incidents where women and bears ran into each other unexpectedly on hiking trails. In the other three incidents, which didn't rely on the element of surprise and are, thus, more likely to have attraction factors involved none of the women were menstruating at the time of the attack.

3) Polar bears are a whole 'nother story. Two different polar bear studies, one in captivity and one in the wild, have shown that those bears are attracted to human menstrual blood—even more than plain old human blood that wasn't related to menstruation. They are also attracted to the scent of seals and (again) human food.

Big picture: Food still seems to be a bigger issue in bear attacks than menstruating ladies. And, as with food, the Park Service has guidelines that you can follow for how to best deal with tampons while in the wilderness.

Read the full National Parks Service report, including the safety guidelines for women on their periods

Via Mother Nature Network

Going medieval on the female reproductive system

Speaking of Todd Akin, Cory posted yesterday about the history of the bogus idea that women who were raped (excuse me, "legitimately" raped) can't get pregnant from it, citing a medical/legal text from 1785. In a story at The Week, we learn that this particular bit of misinformation is, in fact, even older than that, dating back to 1290. So Akin is propagating a belief that has been spread—despite a complete lack of evidence to support it—since the 13th century. Good times. Maggie

Science, rape, and pregnancy

Kate Clancy is one of my favorite bloggers. An anthropology professor at the University of Illinois, she studies the evolution of female reproductive anatomy. Her blog covers science I don't see anywhere else—the human evolution, cultural anthropology, and behavioral science behind ladybusiness.

So Clancy's blog was one of the first places I looked yesterday after reading about Missouri Rep. Todd Akin thoughtful commentary on female biology. In a long, well-written, and (fair warning) rather graphic post, Clancy talks about what we know about rape—think of it this way, you know way more people who have been raped than who have a gluten intolerance—and the way that emotional trauma affects conception and pregnancy.

First off, there is absolutely no difference in the rate of conception between women who have been raped and those who had consensual sex. Clancy breaks this down nicely in her blog post, and even offers a surprising tidbit from the research literature that all people should consider—at any given day in a woman's cycle (even days when she is supposedly "infertile") there's about a 3% chance of unprotected sex leading to a pregnancy.

The impact of stress on miscarriage is a lot messier. I've mentioned here before that we know very, very little about miscarriage, relative to a lot of other medical issues. To paraphrase my family practice doc, when you start talking about conception and miscarriage you very quickly wander past the small amount of hard evidence and straight into voodoo. And also into the counter-intuitive nature of reality. For instance, from reading Jon Cohen's excellent book on miscarriage science, Coming to Term, I know that one of the very few miscarriage interventions that's ever performed better than placebo in multiple trials is something called "Tender Loving Care". The idea: For whatever reason, women who have had recurrent miscarriages have a greater chance of carrying the next pregnancy to term if they have regular access to mental health services, stress-relieving practices like meditation, and doctors who listen and respond to their fears. But that's not the same thing as saying that stress, or a scare, or a severe mental trauma will, inevitably, cause a miscarriage. Here's Kate Clancy:

Yes, psychosocial stress is associated with fetal loss in some samples. That is not the same thing as saying that stress causes fetal loss. Some women are more reactive to stress than others, and this seems to be based on genes and early childhood experiences. As I pointed out in my post, it certainly isn’t something women have conscious control over. And so it is irrational to link the stress of rape, while awful and severe, to fetal loss, when we understand the mechanism of the stress response and its relationship to pregnancy so poorly, and when we know next to nothing regarding how variation in stress reactivity is produced.

Basically, while stress (and the associated hormones) are correlated with a higher risk of miscarriage in some (but not all) studies, that seems to have more to do with an individual's biological makeup than it does with the source of the stress. And, frankly, we barely know enough to even say that.

Read the rest of Kate Clancy's post on the rape and pregnancy

Read Clancy's earlier (excellent) post on miscarriage

Read Jon Cohen's book, Coming to Term. (I keep recommending this, but, seriously, it's wonderful. And a hugely sane-making force in my life.)

Image: Uterus Embroidery Hoop Art, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from hey__paul's photostream