Menstruation: a nonadaptive consequence of uterine evolution.
Although adaptive explanations for menstruation go back at least twenty-five hundred years, in the last decade two new hypotheses have been advanced. The first suggests that menstruation evolved to cleanse the uterus of pathogens introduced by sperm, and the second argues that the function of endometrial regression (with the associated menstruation in humans) is to save energy by getting rid of tissue, rather than maintaining it in the absence of an available blastocyst. Both these suggestions may be questioned on the grounds that they do not take into account the physiology of the reproductive processes involved. Menstruation is not an independent physiological process and is unlikely to have been selected for independently of the evolutionary events that led to it. Furthermore, most primitive menstruating animals would have menstruated infrequently, and many may have reproduced or died without ever menstruating. In order to provide a context for understanding how menstruation may have come about, the evolution of the female vertebrate reproductive tract is briefly reviewed. In later stages, the coevolution of the embryo and uterus resulted in an intimate association between the trophoblast and the uterine blood vessels. As the embryo became more invasive, the uterus responded with increased cellular growth and differentiation of the endometrium to accommodate it. This reached its peak in mammals (such as rodents and humans), where the embryo passes through the epithelium into the endometrial stroma, which responds with differentiation of cells and blood vessels. Progesterone, secreted after ovulation, plays a crucial role in preparation for pregnancy. In addition to its well-known effects on the uterus, progesterone may be important in suppressing the inflammatory reaction that would be expected in response to the presence of a foreign body, such as an embryo. It is also suggested that vascular and cellular differentiation of the endometrial stroma has evolved by adaptation of the inflammatory (granulation tissue) reaction. When progesterone levels fall at the end of the cycle, there is tissue breakdown and bleeding. The uterus then reforms for the next ovulatory cycle. It is shown that the female reproductive tract has multiple functions that must occur in sequence. The coevolution of the embryo and maternal tract thus led to the close contact of two genetically different tissues, and problems such as the inflammatory reaction had to be overcome. Menstruation is a necessary consequence of these evolutionary changes, and needed no adaptive value in order to evolve.