Since the 1960's, birth control pills have been a popular form of contraception.
They've also been widely used as a treatment for menstrual disorders.
Many women are offered birth control pills as a simple family planning tool or something to help their irregular and painful cycles.
However, many women aren't told that the pill isn't as simple as it sounds.
Recently, a Kickstarter campaign began for the production of Sweetening the Pill — a film created by Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, makers of The Business of Being Born. The new documentary has received criticism from those who believe the film's negative perspective about birth control pills is ‘anti-feminine’.
Isn't the real anti-feminine issue providing women with a product that regulates their hormones and reproductive cycles, without transparent disclosure about the true effects of that product?
Here’s what you need to know about the birth control pills:
How Do Birth Control Pills Work?
If you've been prescribed the pill, chances are you were told that birth control pills stop ovulation and provide regular menstrual cycles. This is essentially a half truth.
Birth control pills are made from synthetic hormones, progesterone and estrogen (the mini-pill contains only progesterone). The pill disrupts the endocrine system and mimics hormone levels like that of a menopausal woman. While this does suppress ovulation, it isn't without having an impact on the entire endocrine system and body.
A woman on birth control pills is likely to experience a very regular ‘cycle' with predictable menstrual like bleeding. This can be deceiving. The bleeding isn't actually the result of a typical menstrual cycle, it is simply a withdrawal bleed from the pill's hormones.
When you take the pill, you have 21 days of pills containing hormones and 7 days of sugar pills, placebos. During the 7 days of placebo pills your body experiences hormonal withdraw which triggers the bleeding.
Should Women Stop Using The Pill?
Every medication, everything we ingest and every wellness decision we make has an impact on our body. Even the decision not to use medications can impact our health and wellness. These decisions should be made after weighing the benefit and risk of each option.
This article is not to be used in place of medical advice from your healthcare providers. This is to help you weigh the benefits and risks of utilizing the hormonal birth control pill.
Due to short appointment times or assumptions about our interest in how medications work, we are often prescribed things without having a full understanding of how they work. Being an active participant in your healthcare, family planning and wellness often means seeking out extra information to make fully informed decisions.
Many of us are aware of the most common mild side effects such as spotting, headaches, nausea and the more serious but rare risk of stroke (especially if you smoke). In addition to the well-known side effects, there are other problems with the pill that often go unspoken.
The Problem With Birth Control Pills
Here are 6 problems with the pill that you might not know about:
#1: Birth Control Pills Interrupt The Entire Endocrine System
Our endocrine system is made up of several glands. These glands produce the hormones that regulate our metabolism, growth and development, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, mood, and other things.
When we add hormones to our body we impact our release of natural hormones. This interference can impact our entire endocrine system.
We'd be hard pressed to find someone that hasn't read or heard about endocrine disruptors in our food or hygiene products. Many of us try to eat whole foods, limit our use of plastics and utilize natural hygiene products. Yet the pill, by its very nature, is an endocrine disruptor.
Some problems with endocrine disruption:
- Thyroid disorders
- Sleep regulation
- Energy levels
- Concentration and memory problems
- Mood swings
- Skin issues such as acne, dryness and coloring
- Immune system function
#2: The Pill Masks True Menstrual Disorders
Many women are prescribed birth control pills to stop or control irregular bleeding, endometriosis symptoms, painful ovulation, painful periods, painful fibroids or cysts, PCOS and other concerns. While stopping the regular menstrual cycle can alleviate symptoms, it doesn't actually treat these disorders. See BellyBelly's article: Rust Never Sleeps… Nor Does Endometriosis.
Alleviating symptoms sounds helpful, but it can delay necessary effective treatment. Many young girls and women who present with painful cycles are simply prescribed the birth control pill. The relief of symptoms can delay an accurate diagnosis while a condition can continue to progress.
For example, endometriosis is a serious medical condition. When the pill eliminates the heavy bleeding and pain associated with endometriosis it can continue to progress causing serious future health issues. It is estimated to be present in 50% of women experiencing infertility. There is an average of 7 years from symptom onset until a woman is properly diagnosed. Many cases of delayed diagnosis and treatment involve being prescribed the pill to treat what’s labeled as severe but ‘normal' menstrual pain.
Cervical erosion is also more common in women taking the contraceptive pill.
#3: Birth Control Pills Can Impact Mental Wellness
Our endocrine system, responsible for hormone production, plays a big role in our mental health. When we are exposed to endocrine disruptors, like birth control pills, our mental health can be affected.
A recent study found 4-10% of women reported adverse mood effects while on combined (progesterone and estrogen) oral contraception. The study found the pill impacted brain activity which caused mood swings, depressive symptoms and other negative emotional feelings.
A cohort study found women using hormonal contraception had higher rates of depression, anxiety, fatigue, neurotic symptoms, sexual disturbances, compulsion and anger.
One study even found women with higher levels of ethinyl estradiol were more likely to report relationship jealousy. This isn't a side effect many would think of. It makes you wonder about the overall impact hormonal contraception can really have in our lives.
Many women may take the pill without reporting any emotional or mental health concerns. It is, however, still important to be aware of the possible impact the pill can have on our body as a whole.
#4: Birth Control Pills Can Result In Less Sex
A common complaint of women on the pill is a lack of sex drive. Our culture might downplay the role of female libido, but the reality is it is an important part of wellness and relationship health.
While there are many causes and risk factors when it comes to female sexual dysfunction (FSD), the pill can play a big role. A recent study found that using hormonal contraception, including the birth control pill, put women at a much higher risk of developing FSD.
Sexual dysfunction can obviously have a very negative impact on relationships. FSD can cause high stress levels and negatively impact emotional well-being. FSD can add a hurdle to the marathon of building a healthy relationship.
The emotional and physical side effects from the pill (left undealt with over time) could even go so far as to result in the end of your relationship.
#5: Withdrawal – Stopping The Pill Isn't Always Easy
Stopping the birth control pill might not be like ending a highly addictive narcotic, but our body can go through significant changes when we stop taking synthetic hormones. The endocrine system is disrupted with the pill and can take a while to get back to normal.
It isn't uncommon to experience acne, weight and appetite changes, irregular bleeding, mood swings and even delayed ovulation for several months after ending the pill. These changes show just how much the pill affects our hormone levels.
Fortunately, once the body adjusts many women report feeling better. When our body is able to cycle normally and maintain normal hormone levels we are likely to feel our best. If we began the pill to mask symptoms of menstrual disorders, seeking real treatment is likely to help us feel even better than when we were on the pill.
#6: Birth Control Pills Can Impact Fertility
In a study presented to the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, Dr. Katherine Birch Petersen expressed concerns about the use of birth control pills and a woman's fertility.
A woman's ovarian reserve is most accurately assessed by two measurements: levels of anti-Mullerian hormone (AMH) in the blood, and by the number of early follicles in the ovary (AFC).
Of 833 female participants between the ages of 19 and 46, researchers found the AFC was 16% lower in those who took the pill. Anti-Mullerian hormone (AMH) levels were down 19%.
The study also found those who used birth control pills had ovaries that were between 29 and 52% smaller than those of non-pill users. The greatest difference was found in the youngest of the subjects, between the ages of 19 and 29.9.
“The Pill may mask a severely diminished ovarian reserve… and this is important to recognize,” she said.
If You Do Decide To Use Birth Control Pills
If you decide to take birth control pills, women's health and reproductive specialist, Dr Andrew Orr, says that it's important to consider the following recommendations:
“Just remember that anyone with migraines or bad headaches should not be taking the combined pill, or any pill containing estrogen — it's contraindicated. You'll need a progesterone only option. You should also be screened for hereditary blood clotting disorders, because they put you at high risk of DVT (deep vein thrombosis) and other blood clotting disorders — including stroke — if you take the combined pill. Just remember, the pill does not fix gynaeocological issues, it merely masks the symptoms. This is why people should be seeing a proper women's health specialist, not just a GP, to identify any medical health issues prior to going on the pill. Lastly, know that a bleed on the pill is not a true menstrual bleed. It's a withdrawal bleed.”
You should also be aware that certain medications alter the effectiveness of the pill, as does illness, so always check with a pharmacist or your doctor before taking any medication. If you have any gastrointestinal upsets, for example vomiting or diahorrea, you may not absorb the pill, in order to prevent ovulation. This can result in pregnancy. Also, be sure to thoroughly read the instructions in the box, as you wont be protected as soon as you start taking the pill – it takes some time for the hormones to be able to prevent a pregnancy.
Many would say birth control pills were one of the most important scientific advances of the 20th century. I don't think we can argue with the fact that the pill had a significant impact in our lives. We can, however, question if all the benefits of the pill outweigh the risks. Being fully aware of the short and long term impact the pill can have on our bodies is an important part of deciding if the pill is right for you.