There is no doubt that the birth control pill was a huge player in the feminist revolution. First released in 1960, the pill allowed women to delay pregnancy and focus on their career, transforming the lives of women and society. While the pill may be a political powerhouse, and be effective at preventing pregnancy, my belief is that it is being overprescribed, and women are under-educated on the impact that the pill can have on their health.
This article will share some of the concerns that I, as a naturopathic doctor and women’s health expert, have regarding the pill. The purpose is not to convince you to give up the pill, but to empower you with information so that you can make an informed choice as to whether this medication is the right choice for you.
Problems with the Pill
The Pill Depletes Nutrients
One of the biggest problems with the pill is the nutrient deficiencies that result from use. From B vitamins to essential minerals, the pill changes the absorption, utilization and metabolism of a number of different nutrients. These nutrient depletions are the underlying cause of many of the negative side effects of the pill – things like weight gain, moodiness, fatigue and blood clots. You can read all about the nutritional problems with the pill in this article.
The estrogen in birth control pills can cause an increased appetite and fluid retention, leading to weight gain, especially in the first few months on the pill. Long term weight gain on the pill is more likely due to the decreased levels of B vitamins, necessary for carbohydrate and fat metabolism (i.e. burning fat for energy).
No glory for our guts
The pill is known to alter the balance of healthy bacteria in our guts. Estrogen affects gut permeability (a risk factor for autoimmune disease) and bacteria balance, a condition known as dysbiosis. Healthy bacteria are incredibly important for our overall health – especially our immune, mood and digestive health. The pill has been linked to symptoms of gas, bloating, IBS, and an increased risk of Crohn’s disease in women with a family history of the digestive condition.
The change in healthy bacteria balance, combined with the estrogen in the pill, also makes women more susceptible to vaginal and digestive yeast infections. If you get frequent or recurrent yeast infections, or significant gas or bloating symptoms, consider if your pill may be part of the problem.
Any woman can tell you that hormones can have a significant impact on your mood. The rises and dips in estrogen and progesterone that occur over a woman’s monthly cycle can lead to moods and behaviours that foster relationships, encourage sexual intimacy, and make women weepy, emotional and volatile. While some women on the pill notice very little difference in their mood states, other women find their normal emotional states become heightened in intensity and more difficult to manage. The reasons for this are very individual – some women don’t tolerate the high levels of estrogen and others find the high progesterone problematic. In either case, if the pill makes you moody switching to another pill is unlikely to help.
Possibly the most well known side effect of the pill, the risk of blood clots is highest in women who are obese, are smokers or who have a family history of blood clots. The estrogen in the birth control pill is the most likely culprit, increasing the production of clotting factors and increasing a woman’s risk of blood clots by three-to-four fold. Deficiencies of key nutrients can also contribute to an increased risk of blood clots, most notably vitamin B6, vitamin E and magnesium – all of which are depleted by the pill.
Thin endometrial lining
The endometrial (or uterine) lining is necessary for a successful implantation and pregnancy. In women wanting to have a family, long term use of oral birth control pills could thin the endometrial lining, leading to difficulty conceiving or maintaining a pregnancy. The underlying cause of this change is thought to be a down-regulation of estrogen receptors in the uterus, resulting from long term use of synthetic progesterone. The upside to this situation, is that this same mechanism is thought to be the reason why the pill reduces the risk of endometrial cancer.
No sex drive
Never mind a thin endometrial lining if you can’t get up the urge to have sex at all. Many women report a low libido as a major issue they have with taking the pill. The pill lowers androgens and the lowered testosterone is likely responsible for the lack of sex drive. Around ovulation women typically experience a small, but significant, testosterone surge, causing them to seek out sex. On the pill you don’t experience this testosterone surge and your urge for sex can all but dry up. On a positive note – this decrease in testosterone is the reason why the pill can improve acne. But there are other ways to clear acne than giving up your lusty libido.
Ignoring Mr. Right
Some of the most intriguing research on the pill surrounds a woman’s decision making around possible partners. Women who are on the pill tend to be attracted to more masculine, macho men with more ‘manly’ physical characteristics, and ignore men with softer, more ‘feminine’ features. Dr. Julie Holland, in her book Moody Bitches, refers to this as the “dad-or-cad” dilemma – women on the pill are more likely to be attracted to the bad-boy, rather than the more sensitive man who may be more acceptable as a long term partner and father to her children. Dr. Holland suggests it might be a good idea to get off the pill if you’re entering the dating pool, to prevent later regrets!
As if that wasn’t enough, another study found that women on the pill tend to seek out men with more genetic similarities to themselves, increasing their risk of miscarriage and genetic issues in their offspring. Women off the pill tend to choose men that are more genetically dissimilar – a pairing that tends to result in healthy pregnancies, happier relationships, more satisfying sex, and an increased likelihood of female orgasm.
One of my biggest concerns with the pill is that it is used by conventional doctors as a band-aid for every female reproductive issue. Got PCOS? Take the pill! Got endometriosis? Take the pill! Got fibroids? Take the pill! PMS or menstrual cramps? Take the pill! Perimenopausal? You get the pill too! In no way does the pill address the underlying issues of these women’s health issues. The pill just provides a steady state of synthetic hormones, suppressing and masking the symptoms of the underlying imbalance. When you get off the pill you are no better than when you started – but you are older. And if you want to try and start a family you still have to address the underlying imbalance. The use of the pill as a way to suppress and deny the imbalances in women’s hormones is a disservice to women and I deplore it.
The pill is a carcinogen
Ok. I get it, this sounds scary. But it’s true. The International Agency for Research on Cancer includes oral birth control pills as a carcinogen on its list of known human carcinogens. Studies have shown that birth control pills can increase the risk of breast cancer, cervical cancer and liver cancer. It can reduce your risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers, however. In general I’d suggest using the pill for as short a duration as possible and consider other forms of contraception for the majority of your reproductive years.
We have to keep in mind that the pill is not without problems. It contains synthetic hormones at levels much higher than our body produces on its own. Some of the side effects like acne, breast tenderness, or moodiness might be manageable, but I think women need to be empowered with knowledge to decide if the pill is the right choice for them.
If you have concerns about using the pill, want to balance your hormones naturally, or discuss natural forms of non-hormonal contraception, book an appointment now. Your hormones are in your hands – strive for hormone harmony!
The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.