SciBar: A Gynaecologist ‘In Space’

Written by Lucy Eland and edited by Adam Curry and Nicola Simcock

How does space travel affect the human body? Is this different for male and female astronauts? What do female astronauts do about their menstrual cycle in space?

These are just some of the fascinating questions answered by “Space Gynaecologist” Dr Varsha Jain in April’s SciBar. Dr Jain is a registrar in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in London, has a Masters in Space Physiology and Health, and has done research at NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, on the effects of space travel on the female body.

Dr Varsha Jain, Space Gynaecologist
Dr Varsha Jain, Space Gynaecologist

In 1963 the first female astronaut went to space and 20 years later, the second. However, only relatively recently (2013) did NASA select its first a gender balanced astronaut team. In total only 59 women have been to space (out of approximately 561) which has resulted in a limited sample size for a “Space Gynaecologist” to study!

Space is an extreme environment, combining extremes of temperature, low gravity, isolation, nutritional limitations, radiation exposure and of course, distance from aid in the event of a medical emergency! These extremes dictate the rigorous astronaut selection procedure, to pick the healthiest and best-suited candidates for extensive training. Even so, the impacts of space travel on the human body are clear from the vast data sets continuingly collected on the astronauts. Symptoms like motion sickness, isolated hearing loss, visual impairment, immune responses and decreased bone and muscle mass are apparent in many astronauts. Interestingly, some of the symptoms differ between males and females.  Female astronauts tend to experience more space motion sickness, but less hearing loss and stronger immune responses than their male counterparts, the reasons for which we don’t yet understand. So potentially, Man-flu could be a real problem in space!

Dr Jain emphasised that NASA invests a lot of time studying the physiological data to make space flight as safe as possible and to maintain astronaut health.  Continual improvements are made to operational procedures, such as ensuring astronauts complete at least 90 minutes of exercise per day ─ to combat bone density and muscle loss ─ and limiting the total number of days that women can spend in space ─ as they are more prone to cancers caused by radiation than their male counterparts.

Following a brief discussion of space toilets, Dr Jain enlightened us about the menstruation choices female astronauts make in space.  Space toilets require solid and liquid waste to be passed separately, so that the liquid can be treated and recycled. Remember, everything needs to be used efficiently in space!  Any blood in the liquid means that it has to be treated as a solid and the water cannot be recycled. As a consequence, if a female astronaut chooses to bleed in space the water available for recycling is lower, increasing the amount of water needed to be taken on the mission.

There are options for female astronauts to suppress their periods, if they choose, by using hormone-containing contraceptives continually (not recommended or licenced for use in this way). Dr Jain’s research at NASA looked at how different options for period suppression could be used, including coils, pills and implants. She looked at all the data available on female astronauts and whether there is any evidence that physiology is affected by contraception choice. The work particularly focused on whether there is a higher risk of blood clots based on these choices, particularly using the pill.

During the question and answer session, the fascinated audience asked a huge range of questions, from what a baby conceived and born in space would look like? (on account of the many wonderful men and women needed to make up a labour and delivery team, Varsha strongly discouraged trying to deliver a baby in space!). To how small sample sizes affect the study of space gynaecology (small sample sizes and unfortunately small funding opportunities) and whether people wanting to go on the commercial space flights of the future would require health and reproductive status screening before flight?

While still a relatively new topic, it’s hard to deny that space gynaecology is fascinating! We hope that with the help of experts like Dr Varsha Jain (and the rapidly approaching concept of life on Mars!) we’ll be hearing much more about it in the future!

*Please note: for the purpose of this article we use the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ in reference to biological males and females.

Also, the contents of this article are based on the presentation, work, and opinions of Dr Varsha Jain and are not endorsed by NASA. (….but if they would like to endorse our blog that would be pretty cool!)

See you next time at our SciBar on Wednesday 15th May to learn about ‘A brief history of ‘X’: algebra and mathematical notation’ from Dr David Stewart, Lecturer in Pure Mathematics, Newcastle University.

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