If you’re a woman and you’ve ever been in to see a doctor, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve been offered the birth control pill.
Why am I so sure? Because nowadays, doctors prescribe oral contraceptive pills for pretty much every women’s health issue under the sun.
Painful or heavy periods? You get the pill!
Acne? You get the pill!
Migraines? You get the pill!
PCOS or Endometriosis symptoms? Wait for it… you get the pill, too!
According to one study, 58% of pill-users are taking birth control pills, at least in part, for purposes other than pregnancy prevention. Thirty-one percent use it for cramps or menstrual pain, 28 percent for menstrual regulation, 14 percent for acne, 4 percent for endometriosis, and 11 percent for other unspecified reasons.
But are birth control pills actually treating the issues for which they’re prescribed?
If you do just a little digging, you’ll find the answer is no.
When I was 13 years old, I was prescribed the birth control pill as a proposed solution for my severe acne. After having tried every prescription-strength topical treatment and antibiotic my dermatologist had to offer, I was desperate for a solution – any solution.
So it came to be that I started taking birth control pills without having been briefed on any of the risks or potential side effects. I was totally unaware of what the pill was actually doing to my body, and to be frank, I didn’t really care. I just wanted my acne to go away.
It wasn’t until about five years later, when a close friend helped educate me about how oral contraceptives work, that I decided to come off the pill.
And, when I did, all hell broke loose in my body.
It took a year and a half after the final pill for my menstrual cycle to return. In the meantime, I experienced severe changes in mood, weight fluctuations, and worst of all, the eventual return of my severe acne, stronger than it had ever been before.
My experience is hardly an outlier or an exception to the rule. Practically every woman I’ve spoken with who has used hormonal contraception tells a similar story.
I believe a deep injustice is being committed against women through our healthcare system. Rather than developing the expertise and taking the time to address the root causes of our health issues, most medical professionals are being taught to just prescribe the pill.
We deserve better.
We need to be informed, active participants in our own health. My goal is to equip you with all of the information that isn’t being shared as often, so you can make the most educated choice for yourself.
Know The Risks & Side-Effects
As with every prescription medication, birth control pills come with a laundry list of side-effects. This information isn’t meant to cause fear or unnecessary worry – it’s simply meant to educate since, all too often, the downsides of hormonal contraception aren’t being shared.
The World Health Organization classifies the birth control pill as a Group 1 Carcinogen. This means that the pill increases your risk of developing certain cancers.
Studies on the most recent pill formulations show that pill users experience a 20% increased risk of developing breast cancer, with some women experiencing up to 60% greater risk. Also, women who take the pill for less than five years have a 10% increased risk of developing cervical cancer. This increase in risk jumps to 60% for women who use the pill for 5-9 years, and the risk is doubled for women who continue using the pill for 10 years or more.
Many advocates for the birth control pill explain these numbers away by pointing out that pill users experience a decreased risk for certain other cancers such as endometrial, colorectal, and ovarian cancers. Even so, this potential decrease does not cancel out the increased risks of cervical and breast cancers stated previously.
We can’t mix and match these increases and decreases in cancer risk because they’re for different types of cancer. In other words, if using the pill results in a net 100% increase in risk for some cancers and a net 100% decrease in risk for others, those numbers would not cancel each other out. This wouldn’t mean that the pill’s net effect on your body would be zero.
It’s misleading to pretend that the decreased risks cancel out the increased ones. Ultimately, it’s up to you whether going on the pill is worth taking these chances, but it’s important that you’re at least aware of what those chances are.
Physical Risks & Side Effects
Taking hormonal contraception comes with many potentially harmful side-effects and risks.
Research shows that oral contraceptives deplete important nutrients including:
- Vitamin B2, B6, and B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
In addition, Vitamin D levels are shown to drop significantly after stopping use of the pill. Vitamin D is an important vitamin in particular for women because it acts as a hormone modulator, and VItamin D deficiencies greatly increase your risk for developing depression.
All of these nutrients are important for general health, pregnancy, and postpartum.
Additionally, birth control methods that contain estrogen (a key ingredient in birth control pills, patches, and rings) can place a woman at increased risk for blood clots. While the risk may seem relatively low – around 1 in 300 – newer forms of birth control actually pose a greater blood clot risk than older contraceptives. This is especially important to be aware of if you have a clotting disorder, if you have a family history of clotting, or if you’ve ever had a blood clot.
Another important thing to know is that Crohn’s disease, a form of inflammatory bowel disease, occurs more often in women on birth control – perhaps three times as often.
In addition to the physical effects and risks, hormonal birth control can have a negative impact on your mental health.
The body is a deeply integrated whole composed of several different systems. For this reason, it’s pretty much impossible to manipulate an isolated portion of the whole without affecting other parts of the body.
Your natural monthly cycle involves hormonal interactions that take place between your brain and your ovaries. When you take hormonal contraception, the synthetic hormones don’t just impact your ovaries – they disrupt the natural network of communication that begins in your brain.
It’s no surprise, then, that birth control can have detrimental effects on your mind.
Hormonal contraceptive users, in contrast with non-users, are found to have higher rates of depression, anxiety, fatigue, neurotic symptoms, sexual disturbances, compulsion, anger, and negative menstrual effects.
Some studies have been conducted on how birth control pills influence our decision-making when it comes to attraction, relationships, and sexual partnerships. The science is a bit hazy, so I won’t mention those studies here. I think it’s worth mentioning, however, that birth control pills and other hormonal contraceptives have been shown to lower sex drive.
In fact, the Depo-Provera shot has been administered to criminal sex offenders to effectively lower their sex drive and to reduce their likelihood of reoffending.
Again, it’s up to you whether or not you choose to accept “treatments” for your health issues that require 22 pages just to explain their side-effects. I refuse to do it because I believe my body deserves better than that.
Birth Control is a Band-Aid
Now that we’ve gone through a lot of the scientific reasons why birth control is a problematic excuse for medicine, I’d like to emphasize the main point of the personal story I told at the beginning of this article.
Birth control is not a permanent solution to medical problems – it’s a band-aid.
Having struggled with severe hormonal acne for years, I understand and empathize with the pain and frustration countless women undergo as they experience life-interrupting symptoms. When you’re experiencing a medical issue, finding relief from pain and other symptoms becomes your top priority. If the issue persists long enough, you’ll do pretty much anything to achieve that relief.
Unfortunately, we don’t have reliable cures for PCOS or endometriosis or hormonal acne. The amount of research and funding for women-specific health issues is lacking. I would argue the reason for that, at least in part, is because we have the birth control pill, and that’s been good enough for us.
But is it really good enough?
We live in a culture of instant gratification. If there’s something wrong with my health, I want it gone yesterday. But instead of resolving the problem, birth control simply kicks it down the road.
And taking the birth control pill to relieve menstrual symptoms is not the same as taking an Advil for a headache. While pain-relievers work to return the body to its normal functioning, birth control pills hijack the body’s normal functioning. Rather than addressing the imbalance in the system, birth control shuts down the system altogether.
What To Do Instead
If you’ve come this far and you see the validity in any of the points I’ve made, you may be thinking, “Ok, so birth control isn’t great for me, but what’s the alternative? Having terrible pain or severe acne every month?”
Coming off of birth control can be scary, especially if you don’t have a plan for managing the health issue that caused you to go on it.
Thankfully, there are doctors out there who never prescribe birth control as a final solution to medical problems. These medical professionals, while they can be difficult to find, care enough about the health and wellbeing of their patients to work on uncovering the root of their symptoms. They may prescribe targeted hormone replacements when they discover deficiencies, or they might recognize your symptoms as signs of a deeper, treatable health issue.
I recommend finding a doctor who is trained in FEMM (Fertility Education and Medical Management) in your area, or you can use FEMM’s Telemed services. You can also look for alternatives to traditional Medical Doctors like Naturopaths, Doctors of Osteopathy, or Functional Medicine Specialists.
The fight for better healthcare begins with the choices we make as individuals.
Understand what your body needs and deserves, and don’t accept anything less!