I recently listened to an amazing podcast interview with women’s health expert, Dr. Jolene Brighten where she discussed the dark side of the pill. Did you know that an estimated 100 million women take birth control pills worldwide? Yet, there are many alarming side effects that doctors fail to inform us of before writing a prescription.
The data is shocking! There are so many adverse effects caused by the pill that you probably are not aware of. It goes way beyond weight gain, moodiness, and bigger boobs. Some of the side effects can be life threatening and many take years to recover from.
Keep in mind, this is not an anti-birth control post. We all have to do what’s best for ourselves and our bodies. I was on birth control for almost a decade, myself. But awareness is key. If back in college I knew what I know now, I would have seriously thought twice about taking the pill.
Beyond Birth Control
The pill is an oral contraceptive–its purpose is to prevent pregnancy. But would you believe that in the US over 60% of women using the pill state their primary reason for taking it to be symptoms, not pregnancy prevention?
These could be irregular periods, painful PMS symptoms, mood swings, acne or even more serious conditions like PCOS or endometriosis.
The pill has become a catch-all for almost every hormone-related issue. You see your doctor for relief from cramps and walk out with a script for birth control. Before you know it years have gone by and you’re still taking birth control to prevent symptoms, never having addressed the root cause.
This story is true for so many women, myself included.
My Pill Experience
When I started taking birth control in college I knew nothing about it other than my friends were taking it and it could help with acne. At the time I was breaking out with painful, cystic acne that made leaving my dorm room a daily struggle.
My doctor happily wrote me a prescription and I was on my way to clearer skin.
Yes, it helped my skin. Yes, I loved the convenience of shorter, lighter, more predictable periods. Honestly, I thought it was the best thing ever! I thought I would be on it forever.
Fast forward about seven years…
I started having vision issues and was diagnosed with severe dry eyes.
Random, I know! And you might be thinking, dry eyes…what’s the big deal?
Listen! Anyone who has had dry eyes knows how frustrating, uncomfortable, inconvenient and costly it can be. Imagine feeling like there’s sand in your eyes and wanting to keep them closed whenever possible. I couldn’t wear contacts and had to use eye drops every hour just to get through the day. I had to buy humidifiers and prescription eye drops. Take my word, it’s not fun.
My optometrist recommended I talk to my doctor about changing birth control methods because dry eyes is actually a symptom of hormonal birth control…Yup!
That diagnosis sent me down a rabbit hole of research on the side effects of birth control and guess what…in addition to dry eyes, I had experienced quite a few over the years:
- headaches (was seeing a neurologist)
- yeast infections
- depression (was prescribed anti-depressants/anti-anxiety medication for 2 years)
- gut issues and more
With all I was learning I realized that it was time for me to consider quitting the pill.
How Do Birth Control Pills Actually Work?
All the years I was taking the pill I never understood exactly how it worked. As long as I knew it was safe (at least I thought it was) and effective, I really didn’t care.
This was a mistake. If I had better understood how it operated in my body, I could have made more informed choices. When it comes to health you have to empower yourself with as much information as possible so you can work in partnership with your doctor.
When you take hormonal birth control, your reproductive system basically shuts down. You take a high dose of synthetic hormones, which stops communication between the brain and ovaries. A signal is sent to the brain saying that there’s enough hormones and your body doesn’t need anymore. As a result the ovaries never receive the message to ovulate. No eggs are released.
Another way to think of this is hormone levels are kept at such unnaturally high levels that your body is tricked into thinking it’s pregnant. Hence, stopping ovulation.
Let’s think about this…not only is this completely unnatural, but do we really think it’s possible to shut down a whole system of the body without impacting any of the others? Doubtful.
Does the pill balance hormones?
When I started taking the pill, I was told that it would help balance my hormones and as result improve hormonal acne.
That makes sense…but it’s not quite accurate.
Remember, hormonal birth control suppresses your hormones by shutting down the line of communication between your brain and ovaries. Once you stop taking the pill, whatever hormonal imbalances you had before will come right back. You’ll experience the same symptoms and likely worse than before.
It’s not fixing the problem. It’s just a bandaid. Whatever symptoms you have are not being cured by the pill. They’re being masked.
Not only this, but it’s creating more damage that you will have to recover from once you stop taking the pill. This is known as Post Birth Control Syndrome (PBCS), and it is real.
I can speak from experience. My acne did improved while I was taking the pill. But it came back with a vengeance once I got off the pill. And I am currently in the midst of healing by finally addressing the root cause of my acne. I’m done with the quick, temporary fixes.
7 Surprising Side Effects of the Pill
Let’s talk about the side effects of the pill. Some of the milder ones that you are probably familiar with if you are or have ever been on birth control include:
- Larger breasts
- Weight gain or loss
- Reduced or increased acne
- Slight nausea
- Emotional sensitivity right before your period
- Mood swings throughout your cycle
- Irregular bleeding or spotting
- Breast tenderness
- Decreased libido
For some women, these side effects alone are enough to dissuade them from taking the pill. For me, it wasn’t until I learned about the more serious risks that things started to click. That 1) many of the mysterious health issues I was experiencing were likely connected to birth control use and 2) there were more scary side effects that I did not want to put myself at risk for.
1. Increased Risk of Cancer
On the bright side, according to the National Cancer Institute, the pill lowers the risk of endometrial and ovarian cancer. However, studies also show that hormonal birth control increases the risk of breast cancer by 20%. There is also evidence showing links between hormonal birth control and cervical cancer and liver cancer.
2. Compromised Gut Health
Similar to antibiotics, hormonal birth control disrupts the gut microbiome, throwing off the balance of good and bad bacteria that affects everything from digestion to mental health. This ultimately results is a state of leaky gut (or intestinal permeability), which sets the stage for autoimmune disease. It lowers your immunity, leaving you more susceptible to infections, as well as other conditions like candida overgrowth, yeast infections, SIBO, IBS, and Crohn’s disease.
3. Blood Clots, Stroke, and Heart Attack
Birth control can trigger blood clots, stroke, and heart attacks, especially in women over 35. Because many women are prescribed birth control in their teens and early twenties, doctors neglect to discuss these side effects. But more women are staying on the pill for years on end, often well into into their thirties when the risk becomes more serious, without being properly informed.
4. Nutrient Deficiencies
The pill depletes your supply of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that your body needs to function. To effectively metabolize the synthetic hormones in birth control, the liver needs an extra supply of vitamins including zinc, magnesium, selenium, B vitamins and antioxidants. So unless you’re properly supplementing this vitamins while on the pill, your body will pay the price. This nutrient deficiency sets off a domino effect of symptoms including digestive issues, hormonal imbalances, inflammation, adrenal fatigue, thyroid dysfunction including hypothyroidism, mood disorders, cardiovascular disease, infertility, weight gain, and the list goes on.
The additional estrogen that is introduced when you start taking the pill triggers an inflammatory response in the body. If you don’t already know, inflammation is extremely damaging to the body and is involved in the development of conditions like depression, autoimmune disease, cancer, and chronic pain.
6. Mood Disorders
Many women go on the pill in hopes of stabilizing their mood swings. However, things like inflammation, blocked ovulation, and nutrient depletion can actually trigger or exacerbate anxiety, depression, and other mood issues. One study found that women who use hormonal birth control were at a greater risk of suicide (3 times) compared to women who had never been on birth control.
7. Fertility Issues
The impression most of women are given is that when you’re ready to go off the pill things will immediately go back to normal. But this isn’t usually the case. After going off of the pill, it’s common for women to experience irregular periods or temporary amenorrhea (loss of menstruation). In fact, 3-6% of women may never see the return of their period after quitting birth control. And studies suggest that women with a history of irregular periods are at higher risk. This is very disconcerting, especially for women who intend to have children later on.
Birth control is a very personal topic and of course you have to do what’s right for you.
What’s right for me is to stay away from hormonal birth control. I want take a natural approach and let my body do what it was designed to do. I also want to address the root cause of my health concerns instead of just covering them up with a bandaid. And I don’t want to put myself at risk for harmful or life threatening conditions.
But that’s just me!
My goal isn’t to persuade you to throw your birth control down the toilet as soon as you finish this post. In fact, don’t do that! It could have damaging effects on your body and hormones.
I do encourage you to continue to research the topic. If you’re interested in learning about how to safely and smoothly transition off the pill check out this article. If you want to learn how to best support your body while you’re on birth control try this article.
So tell me, what are your thoughts on the pill?