Having a period is a part of many people’s life experience. Beginning during the teenage years and making a monthly visit until menopause, having a period is a fundamental part of life for people born female. And yet, many don’t properly understand their menstrual cycle. It might be an ongoing factor of health that lasts for decades, but it’s been demonstrated that there continues to be a lack of awareness and understanding around period matters.
It reflects wider issues within women’s health. Underfunded, underrepresented and under-researched – on a global level. From period myths to hormonal misconceptions, women’s health has for too long been put on the back burner in both the investment space and medical research space, and as a result, many women are left at a higher risk of health issues such as STIs, gynaecological cancers, and fertility and IVF complications.
Against this backdrop, things are starting to change, though. We are now seeing a generation of women who are determined to make their voices heard and bring these issues to the forefront. The startup ecosystem is no exception and there is now a rapidly growing market of startups dedicated to women’s issues, giving women what they have for far too long been neglected.
“Everyone of every age is in need of a refresher – and to be able to access relevant, insightful information when they need it.”
One of these startups is The Lowdown. Founded in 2019 and led by Alice Pelton, the London-based platform is aiming to radically transform women’s health for the better, starting with better dialogue and better transparency – specifically on contraception.
Alice, like many menstruating people, began taking hormonal contraceptives in her teenage years and was met with the rollercoaster of swapping and changing contraceptives, dealing with emotional and hormonal problems and being confronted with the fact there was no one and nowhere to access credible, accurate information from.
It’s reported that about 80% of people get side effects from their contraception, but the lack of clinical evidence and high-quality information in this space makes it really difficult to navigate. Further, in the UK alone, one-third of women don’t have easy or convenient access to contraception – a statistic that is more dramatic when looking worldwide. The Lowdown exists to make it easier, providing a one-stop-shop for menstruating people to choose, access and use the right contraception and reproductive healthcare for them.
“We should not be better at landing a rover on Mars than measuring uteruses in a mother’s womb.”
We talked to Alice to learn more and get her thoughts on how we can empower women and menstruating individuals to better understand and navigate their period life.
Periods, hormones and fertility. What’s it all about?
Firstly, we wanted to be clear on the medical terminology, and identify why we need to know about periods, hormones and fertility.
According to Alice, “Our hormones are the essential ingredients that change the flavour of our day-to-day lives. They can impact our mood, work, appetite, sex life, relationships and ability to have or not have children. Understanding your hormones and reproductive health, and how things like your menstrual cycle or contraception work, can help you feel more in control of your health and life.”
Periods, hormones and fertility are all medical terms, impacting our everyday lives, as Alice points out, yet they are so misunderstood. It’s part of a wider trend of women’s health being under-discussed and under-represented. Alice points out that perhaps one way to tackle that is perhaps to rethink health care entirely.
“I think what ‘healthcare’ is, needs a rethink. We often think of it being a patient-doctor interaction. But what we’re seeing at The Lowdown is that healthcare can mean being part of a community or movement that gives you care and validation through shared experience. That is often the healthcare many of us are looking for.”
What is the period problem?
It goes without saying that there is a problem around awareness and transparency on period problems.
For example, in a recent survey conducted by women’s health organisation, Forth, which saw the participation of 1,000 women, aged 18 and over, who experience periods without using hormonal birth control, HRT, or gel, a staggering problem with the curriculum on women’s health was exposed.
When asked to pick between two definitions for the menstrual cycle, with only one being correct, only 55% of women in the survey selected the correct definition. Similarly, when asked which hormones regulate the menstrual cycle, the women were given 9 choices – including ‘I don’t know’. A staggering 31% of women stated that they didn’t know which hormones regulate their periods.
We asked Alice for her thoughts:
I think there are two main reasons (among many):
- In many parts of the world women and people with vaginas are themselves a taboo. Our bodies are wrapped up in patriarchal norms that find it confusing when we bleed, miscarry or don’t correspond to the ‘norm’.
- Humans are also inspired to change and improve what they experience themselves, and the lack of women in tech and science has meant there are fewer of us to push education, funding and technology forward.
And what are the knock-on impacts?
As Alice, said, there are an infinite number of consequences from the poor provision of care around period, hormones and fertility, too many to name, in her words. But the four key areas that are currently causing the most problems in the contraceptive space are:
- The products themselves aren’t great: Contraception is a great example of this. We’ve seen very little research and innovation in this category for decades
- The information we have is poor: Confusion and misinformation caused by taboo or sensitive topics compounds this and means things are not being addressed or talked openly about
- Accessing healthcare is hard: Products are out of stock, discontinued, not paid for, not available abroad, and no one cares enough to help fix this.
- The advice we get can be poor: Lack of training for healthcare professionals in women’s health, which results in many women not feeling like anyone is listening
Regaining period power
So, just how do we become better-informed and more empowered about periods?
According to Alice, it’s all about community and communication.
“By being a part of a community like The Lowdown – where we can help women get answers to the questions they’re really looking for, and approach women’s health in a non-medicalised, empowering way. Through providing women with unbiased advice and empowering real-life experiences, we can give back control and confidence.”
Enter The Lowdown
“The Lowdown is a community-based women’s health review, advice and prescriptions platform. Starting with contraception, we are on a mission to put women in control of their reproductive health decisions through their unique dataset, digital tools and services.
Our website is visited by over 100,000 women every month and we’ve collected the largest dataset on women’s lived experiences with contraception in the world.
Last year we launched the UK’s first private contraception consultation service via our team of remote expert GPs, and have since expanded the service to include sex coaching and pelvic health physios.
Our team has developed a suite of digital tools that are used by thousands of women every week, including a contraception recommendation algorithm based on our review data and clinical evidence. These tools are combined with seamless next-day delivery of the widest range of contraceptives in the UK including the contraceptive pill, patch, ring, injection and morning after pill.”
What role can startups/innovators have in empowering women to regain their period power?
“Raising money, building amazing technology and advancing this space forwards. We should not be better at landing a rover on Mars than measuring uteruses in a mother’s womb”.
Making a community movement
The gender health gap is not just a UK problem, not just a European problem, and not just a problem for white women. It’s an intersectional issue that impacts people right across the world coming from all different kinds of backgrounds, vulnerabilities and experiences.
Making sure that vulnerable people aren’t left behind is a challenge for any community movement – and it’s one that Alice is taking seriously:
“By making sure our community and content will always be free and open for anyone to access. And by launching initiatives like our Pay it Forward scheme, where women donate towards the cost of another woman’s appointment with one of our doctors. Over 60% of our customers donate to this service, and it’s been fantastic in ensuring that as many women as possible get access to the expert care that we have the time to provide. You can read the incredible feedback from women who’ve used our consultation service here.”
Things are changing
Thankfully, and with a lot of credit due to the hustle of startups and innovators like Alice and The Lowdown, things are starting to change. In terms of sectors, the period care and fertility space is seeing a lot of activity and investors are starting to put more emphasis on this area.
“Like much of healthtech, the trends and models are focussed on sustainability, affordability, data and personalisation. The U.S is about two to five years ahead in terms of commercialising D2C women’s health, and increasingly we’ll see the models from over there replicated in the UK and Europe.”
Further, whilst work on The Lowdown began in 2018, the past 5 years have seen a tidal wave of change. Periods, hormones and fertility are no longer such a taboo, and the movement is growing, and gaining traction. The community movement is spreading, and it’s something that we should all, as a wider community, keep supporting and advocating for. As for Alice, it’s clear their movement is picking up popularity. The Lowdown recently raised fresh funding, and Alice herself is becoming a popular figure in the period movement.
“I was on the tube to an event this summer, and a woman recognised me and came up to me to tell me she loved The Lowdown and we’d really helped her sort out her Hormonal IUS. It was such an amazing moment. Speaking to our customers and getting feedback from them on how we can improve their lives is my favourite part of this job.”