Let’s Talk About Periods and a New Type of Panty

Millions of girls in Africa skip school because of their periods. But menstruation is still a shameful topic even in the Western world and it doesn’t attract many entrepreneurs and innovators to tackle the problems surrounding it. 

We live in a world where a human-created spacecraft landed on an asteroid, yet millions of girls in Africa alone, have to skip school each month, because of their periods. They use sticks, leaves, paper, or dirty rags as feminine “hygiene” products, or even “sitting in the sand until that time of the month is over.”

UNICEF estimates that one in 10 menstruating African girls skip school every month or drop out completely. Water Aid further found that, “95 percent of girls in Ghana sometimes miss school due to menses and 86 percent and 53 percent of girls in Garissa and Nairobi (respectively) in Kenya miss a day or more of school every two months. In Ethiopia, 51 percent of girls miss between one and four days of school per month because of menses and 39 percent reported reduced performance.”

Menstruation is a taboo in many countries of the developing world, which makes the work of organizations trying to help girls more difficult. But it is still a shameful topic even in the Western world and it doesn’t attract many entrepreneurs and innovators to think about how to tackle the problems surrounding it. 

This doesn’t apply to entrepreneurs Miki Agrawal, her twin sister Radha, and friend Antonia who are committed to "eliminate shame, empowering women and girls around the world." The three women are co-founders of THINX and are producing a new type of underwear to replace pantyliners, serve as backup for tampons and pads, or to completely replace them on lighter period days.

The panties, made in a family-run factory in Sri Lanka, have four different layers that make them anti-microbial, absorbent, leak-resistant, and provide a dry feeling for the wearer. The undies are washable (rinse them first and put them in the washing machine) and good for two years use, according to the makers. The most “heavy-duty” style — the hiphugger — can absorb the equivalent of two tampons.

THINX works with AFRIpads, a social business based in Uganda that manufactures and sells cost-effective cloth sanitary pads. For every pair of THINX that a customer buys (for a price between $24 and $34) the company sends funds to AFRIpads, enough to produce seven reusable pads and to provide one woman in Uganda the supply she needs.

THINX is one of few alternatives to the use of environmentally unfriendly tampons and pads. Another, some may argue, even better product in this category, is the menstrual cup — a reusable silicone cup that is economical, eco-friendly, and, according to users, more comfortable than a tampon.

Agrawal, a serial entrepreneur, does not shy away from the daily inconveniences other natural bodily functions cause as well. Her latest venture is called Tushy and can turn any toilet into a bidet that gives cleaner tushes for everyone and reduces the use of toilet paper. 

Photo: THINX

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.