Oral contraceptives, also known as ‘the pill’ are a popular form of birth control, with approximately 3.5 million women taking it in the UK alone. There’s no disputing that, when taken correctly, the pill is extremely effective at preventing pregnancy and some even go as far as calling it the greatest invention of the 20th century After all, since its release in 1961, women, for the first time in history, were able control their own reproduction, allowing them to focus on their education and careers – all on their own terms.
Let me be clear.
I’m not against the pill - if it’s being used correctly. My goal is to educate women so that they are able to make an informed decision about which option is best for them. However, there are things that as a Nutritionist and Women’s Hormonal Health specialist, I believe women need to know about being on the pill. In this article, I chat about how the pill actually works as well as some of its more unknown side effects and considerations you should take if you’re not ready to ditch it just yet!
1) The pill does not ‘regulate’ your cycle
There is a massive misconception around this one. In fact, 1 in 3 women are said to be taking the pill for non-contraceptive reasons such as acne, heavy & painful periods, PMS symptoms or irregular periods. While the pill can help in reducing unwanted symptoms, the pill doesn’t fix the underlying issue and these issues can often reappear once women stop taking it.
Many women believe that the pill can be used to regulate their monthly cycle and to induce a normal & healthy period. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth (…ready for the truth bomb?!)
The pill does not balance your hormones, regulate your monthly cycle or induce a healthy/real period.
The synthetic hormones contained in the pill actually suppress your body’s natural sex hormones (oestrogen and progesterone) which blocks ovulation from happening and prevents a natural cycle. These synthetic hormones also thicken the lining of the cervix to prevent sperm from reaching any eggs that may have been released, and can also thin the lining of the womb to make it harder for a fertilised egg to implant.
What about the period-like bleed then?
The bleed you get on the pill is simply a withdrawal bleed, because (depending on which brand you’re taking) you’re either taking a placebo pill for 7 days or are having a 7-day break on the pill. According to Women’s Health Naturopathic Doctor, Lara Briden, pill bleeds are ‘pharmaceutically induced bleeds that are arbitrarily coordinated into a 28-day pattern to reassure you that body is doing something natural.’ The fact of the matter is, while these so-called ‘pill bleeds’ have always been referred to as ‘periods’ by most medical professionals, they actually bear no physiological resemblance to menstruation.
Nope, you’re not having a real period if you’re on the pill.
2) Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
The pill has been shown to lower levels of several nutrients including antioxidants, B vitamins, Vitamin C, E, selenium and zinc (…to name just a few!). Whilst I’m not completely against the use of hormonal birth control as a form of contraception, if you are on the pill and are NOT replenishing your nutrient stores with the right foods and natural supplements, your body could be struggling to function properly. Speak to your health practitioner about boosting your nutrient levels through natural supplements if you are wanting to stay on the pill.
3) Digestive problems
The pill has been shown to affect levels of bacteria in the gut and can create an environment that allows for the overgrowth of bad bacteria and yeast. This can lead to digestive problems such as bloating, IBS, constipation and even thrush, especially if you’ve been on the pill for some time and have also had antibiotics during that time. Some studies suggest a link between oral contraceptive use and an increased risk in developing inflammatory conditions/IBD such as Crohn’s, so is best avoided if you have a genetic link to being diagnosed with the condition.
4) Links to poor mental health
Did you know the most common reason why women either stop or change the pill is the side effects it has on mental health?
I remember being prescribed Microgynon when I was just 15 years old for my painful periods, and within a couple of weeks of taking it, became emotionally erratic and terribly anxious! It terrified the sh*t out of me. I immediately stopped and the symptoms vanished within a couple of days. Research shows a clear link between oral contraceptive use and an increase in depression, with one study in particular finding that those women on the combined pill were 23% more likely to be prescribed an antidepressant by their GP, most commonly during the first 6 months of starting on the pill. The risk was also greatest (a whopping 80% to be exact) for teenagers using progestin-only methods such as an implant or the Mirena® IUD for longer than one year.
5) Issues with future fertility
Although the pill is widely known to be a reversible method of contraception (with many medical professionals reporting that fertility rapidly resumes shortly after coming off the pill), many women report hormonal problems after stopping the pill. Some women experience post-pill amenorrhea and find that their normal periods haven’t resumed as normal after coming off the pill or that their periods have become irregular so that they’re not entirely sure if and when they are ovulating.
If you’re thinking about coming off the pill and trying for a baby, it’s also important to replenish levels of certain nutrients such as folate and zinc which are essential for healthy growth and development. If you’ve been on the pill for a long time, you might want to consider waiting 3-6 months before trying for a baby after coming off the pill to help restore those vitamins and minerals that are essential for regular ovulation and that can help to sustain a healthy pregnancy. Optimising your nutrition before pregnancy can help to give your baby the best start in life and has long lasting effects that go well into childhood.
6) Increased risk of certain cancers
Research shows that oral contraceptive use has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and shouldn’t be recommended for those who have a strong family history of breast cancer. Long-term use of the combined pill (i.e., for longer than 5 yeas) has also been linked to an increased risk of cervical cancer. Although the risk of uterine, endometrial and ovarian cancers is reduced in women who are on the pill, it can be argued that there are far better ways to prevent cancer, without the side effects of the pill.
7) Hair loss
Certain contraceptive pills such as Loestrin and Microgynon can raise your androgen (male hormone) levels which can cause hair follicles to shrink. This can be a slow process so you may have been on the pill for many months or even years before you start to notice hair loss.
8) Relationship satisfaction
It’s been suggested that some women report feeling a change in attraction to their partner if they go on or off the pill during the course of their relationship, according to research. Here’s what lead study author Michelle Russell told Time Magazine in 2014:
“Women who choose a partner when they’re on hormonal contraceptives and then stop taking them will prioritize their husband’s attractiveness more than they would if they were still on it. The effect that it would have on her marital satisfaction would carry more weight.”
The pill can also dramatically reduce a woman’s testosterone, which can affect sex drive and cause vaginal dryness, leading to painful intercourse which can lead to relationship dissatisfaction.
In my private clinic, I’ve supported many of my own clients who choose to remain on the pill through diet and natural supplements.
If unaddressed, hormonal imbalances can continue for years after stopping the pill. I get that for some women, the pill is the most convenient choice though I believe that it’s also important to know that there are OTHER forms of contraception available – click here for a great article on the different methods available to prevent pregnancy.
If you’re considering coming off the pill to get pregnant or want to get to the root cause of your hormonal imbalance or unwanted symptoms, please get in touch consultation and let’s have a chat about how I can help you.