My functional MD and ND friends always say that the pill is the worse thing medicine invented for women. I could relate, to some degree, to this strong statement based on my own experience of being on the pill for a short period until I realized how sick it made me feel. But, writing this article and investing several hours to further research on this topic, I’ve realized that this statement is far from exaggerated. When you finish reading this article, you will know that the pill is simply a robber of women’s health.
Since the 60s, the contraceptive pill has promised us greater control over our bodies and fertility, but this “freedom” may come at an enormous cost to a woman’s health. Unfortunately, several generations of women have been used as guinea pigs, and many of the dangers of birth control pills are only just coming to light.
These birth control pill dangers are particularly concerning, given that an estimated 100 million+ women worldwide are currently using oral contraceptives yet are largely unaware that it can pose many health risks because it upsets natural hormone balance.
And the harmful effects of birth control pills go beyond whether birth control pills and strokes or cancer. Also concerning is the pill’s increasing use to treat issues like acne or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, without addressing the cause of these problems (such as food intolerances, high sugar levels, lack of sleep and stress).
The Normal Menstrual Cycle
Each month your levels of progesterone and estrogen fluctuate at different times of your cycle. In a nutshell, your estrogen peaks right before ovulation and after that your estrogen drops while your progesterone peaks to ready the lining of the uterus for pregnancy.
How The Pill Works
– Birth Control Pills disrupt your body’s normal hormone production with synthetic versions of estrogen and progesterone (called progestin) which suppresses ovulation, tricking your body into thinking it is pregnant all month.
– Is taken in a cycle of 21 – 24 active days of hormones, followed by 4 to 7 days of no hormones, when a withdrawal bleed occurs – but this is not like a regular period.
The combined pill (which comes in pills and patches) contains synthetic versions of both estrogen and progesterone (progestin). Some birth control hormones like Depo-Provera and mini-pills contain progestin only (and one form of this called drodrospirenone, appears to cause more problematic side effects than the others).
Why Do Birth Control Pills Contain Estrogen?
As I’ve mentioned, combined birth control pills with estrogen and progestin, trick your pituitary gland into thinking you are pregnant. The constant doses of estrogen each day are pivotal to this trickery because of the estrogen:
– Prevents your pituitary gland from producing the follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone so that ovulation doesn’t take place.
– Thickens the lining of your uterus, making the environment more hostile to conception.
Progesterone Only Birth Control Pills
There are some birth control pills without estrogen. These are called “mini-pills” and contain synthetic progesterone called progestin. Some women use these because they are breastfeeding or they can’t take estrogen in the combined pill because they suffer migraine headaches or have a high risk of blood clots or heart disease.
Taken daily, the synthetic progestin:
– Suppresses ovulation by stopping the production of the Luteinizing Hormone (LH) in your pituitary gland.
– Triggers changes in the lining of the uterus, so that it is harder for an egg to implant there.
– Causes a thickening in cervical mucus, which then makes it difficult for sperm to travel far enough to fertilize an egg.
Unlike the combined pill, the progestin-only mini-pill gives shorter birth control protection. If you miss a dose or even take it later than usual, you may not be covered for contraception, and you may also experience breakthrough bleeding.
Your Body On Birth Control Pills
Doctors rarely discuss side effects with women when they prescribe them the contraceptive pill, adding to the myth that the birth control pill is completely safe and barely impacts on your mind and body. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, many women first start taking the pill as teenagers and don’t realize that as they get older that their health could be impacted from these hormonal imbalances over time.
What are the effects? I drilled down into the research on the pill and what it shows about health fallout is staggering.
- Hormonal Effects of the Pill
By utilizing synthetic hormones that change a woman’s levels of estrogen and progesterone, the pill can have potent hormonal impacts. It can:
1.1: Lower Thyroid Hormones: Women taking birth control pills release more of a substance called Thyroid Hormone Binding Globulin (THBG), which binds to your thyroid hormones so that less for your body to function well (such as have energy, healthy hair, skin and the ability to lose weight). As a result, combination oral contraceptives have been shown to cause an increase in total T4 but a decrease in the percentage of free T4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4442279. Free T4 is the version of the thyroid hormone that is bioavailable for the body to utilize.
BCPs also cause depletion of nutrients needed for healthy thyroid function and thyroid hormone production.
Get more delicious healing recipes and learn how to rebalance your hormones with food in Cooking for Hormone Balance.
1.2: Lower Testosterone: Women on the pill experience an increase in Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG), a glycoprotein mostly made in your liver. SHBG binds to testosterone, so when levels go up, testosterone levels go down. In fact, free available levels of testosterone can drop by as much s 61% in women taking BCPs.
As testosterone is necessary for energy, mental clarity, healthy bones, confidence as well as strength and muscle building – this can be bad news for your body. Lower testosterone may also explain why many studies confirm that women who are taking a contraceptive pill may experience diminished sexual interest and arousal, reduced frequency of sexual intercourse and reduced sexual enjoyment.
Stopping the pill doesn’t magically fix the hormonal imbalances. In women who report a decreased libido from the pill, elevated SHBG in “Oral Contraceptive Discontinued-Users” did not decrease to the levels of “Never-Users of Oral Contraceptive” after they went off the pill.
After coming off the pill some women can still experience an elevation in sex-hormone binding globulin levels, shows research published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
Often leaving them with long-standing hormonal problems from low values of “unbound” testosterone (which can impart ongoing sexual, metabolic, and mental health consequences).
1.3: Shutdown Natural Hormone Production: Your body has inbuilt mechanisms to try to maintain homeostasis (a natural body balance). It also has many feedback systems letting you know when levels of chemicals in the body are getting out of balance. For this reason, you will become insulin resistant if you eat a diet high in carbs and sugars, which can often trigger elevated blood sugar and insulin. The same thing happens when you are taking antidepressants that affect serotonin. Registering your body’s serotonin levels that have suddenly shot up, your brain will start shutting down your serotonin receptors, (thereby producing less serotonin naturally) to ensure that you don’t have issues from excess serotonin.
This protective mechanism also applies to your reproductive hormones. When you are taking daily doses of synthetic hormones, your body registers that you are getting unusually high levels of estrogen and progesterone throughout your cycle. As your brain perceives an upset in your hormone balance, it will try to correct any excess by shutting down production of your natural estrogen and progesterone. This shut-off may be why some women complain that their menstrual cycle takes years to return to normal after they come off the contraceptive pill.
1.4: Compromise Fertility
Danish research shows that the birth control pill significantly affects ovarian reserve – the number of immature eggs in a woman’s ovaries – which can be a predictor of future fertility. Also, the pill can cause the shrinkage of the ovaries, which becomes between 29 and 52% smaller, with the biggest reductions seen in women aged 19- 29.9 years.
In younger ovaries levels of anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH) and antral follicle count (AFC) tend to be high, but in women taking the pill, they can be 16-19% lower – also indicating that synthetic hormones have an aging effect on the ovaries.
According to research from the University of Liverpool, the pill may also disrupt a woman’s ability to choose a partner genetically dissimilar to herself, potentially increasing the risk of having a child with genetic abnormalities:
1.5 Reduce Serotonin and Melatonin
The pill can interfere with your body’s methylation process by reducing methyl donors, thereby, leaving women deficient in hormones like serotonin (which can improve mood) and melatonin (for better sleep). An estimated 20% of people are slow methylators anyway so adding the pill to that mix can be disastrous for their well-being, leaving them edgy and anxious all day long, then unable to get a good night’s sleep.
1.6: Help Trigger PCOS: Some integrative practitioners believe that the hormone disorder, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) can be triggered by the use of birth control pills. This is because excess insulin and inflammation are known triggers of PCOS, and both of these states can be caused by being on the contraceptive pill.
Estrogen Dominance and Birth Control Pills
Natural hormone balance is the foundation of a woman’s emotional and physical health. During a woman’s natural menstrual cycle her estrogen levels rise and fall at different times of the month. The pill disrupts this cycle altogether – keeping estrogen levels high all month.
Continuously elevated levels of estrogen can overload the liver, which can’t perform its essential function of detoxification. As a result, these unhealthy estrogen metabolites go back into your bloodstream and get circulated in your body — quickly leading to Estrogen Dominance (ED)
ED from the pill also leads to too much estradiol (E2), also known as an “aggressive estrogen,” compared to estriol (E3), which is the “protective estrogen.” This imbalance can be behind tender breasts, mood swings, hair loss, weight gain, fibroids, endometriosis, breast and ovarian cysts, and even breast and ovarian cancer.
High estrogen levels can also cause a rise thyroid binding globulin, which binds up thyroid hormones making less available to do its work in your body. ED has also been linked to the development of thyroid nodules and cancer.
To learn more about estrogen dominance and what you can do to reduce it, read my other blog post on the topic.
2. Synthetic Hormones and Emotional Wellbeing
For a small and seemingly innocuous tablet, the contraceptive pill may have huge negative health impacts, causing:
2.1: Depression: The University of Copenhagen in Denmark has studied more than one million girls and women aged between 15 and 34 over a 13 year period. They found a very clear link between using the bill control pill and suffering depression. Adolescent girls using combined oral contraceptives had an 80% increased risk of antidepressant use and those using progesterone-only pills had a 120% higher risk of being in antidepressants.
2.2: Anxiety: When scientists at UCLA compared brain scans of women using the oral contraceptive pill to scans of women who were experiencing their natural menstrual cycle. These researchers then found shrinkage in two key regions of the brain, called the orbitofrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex: The researchers believe that these changes may explain reports from some women who complain of feeling greater anxiety after they start using the birth control pill.
Do Birth Control Pills Cause Cancer?
The link between birth control pills and breast cancer risk cannot be ignored. BCPs can increase breast cancer risk, particularly in women who take the pill before they have had children.
The figures are startling. Research from the Women’s Lifestyle and Health Study in Sweden and Norway has shown that the risk of breast cancer in women taking the contraceptive pill rose by:
– 26% in women who had used the pill but had ceased to take it.
– 58% in women still using the pill compared with never-users.
– 144% in women aged 45 or over who were still using the Pill.
According to the National Cancer Institute, BCP’s may also increase the risk of benign liver lumps which have the potential to turn into cancer.
Plus women on BCPs are also at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. The good news? The risk lessens after 10 years of no longer taking the pill.
What about ovarian cancer and birth control pills? In this case, studies suggest that BCPs have a protective affect.
But when you consider the many other negative impacts of these tiny pills, you would do better to reduce cancer risks naturally and avoid the other dangers of birth control pills.
There are plenty of steps you can take to reduce the risk of estrogenic cancers such as breast and ovarian cancer. I discuss them here in my post about 15 Ways to Prevent and Manage Breast Cancer Naturally.
3. Other Health Problems Caused By The Pill
BCPs cause many other hormones imbalance symptoms and health problems including:
3.1: Weight gain: For years women who have complained that being on the birth control pill made them gain weight were told this issue was all in their heads. Now it is well established that BCPs compromise insulin sensitivity and increase inflammation. Both of these factors are known triggers for weight gain.
Research of hormone patches and implants has also shown they cause up to 50% weight gain in some women.
3.2 Nutrient Deficiencies: Women on the pill use up more of their nutrients when their liver is forced to metabolize these synthetic hormones while trying to filter excess estrogen from your body. This could cause a chronic drop in vitamins levels C and E as well as B complex vitamins including B1, B2, B5, B6, B9 (folate), B12.
A drop in essential minerals including selenium, zinc, and magnesium can also occur. Meanwhile, copper levels may become elevated, potentially increasing catecholamines (hormones produced by the adrenal glands), which can cause edginess and a feeling of being over-stimulated (wired).
To help boost levels of deficient nutrients try eating for hormone balance and get off the pill when you are ready.
3.3: Gut Issues: According to results of the Harvard Nurses Health study, women who take the birth control pill for more than five years have a 3x chance of developing the autoimmune inflammatory bowel condition, Crohn’s disease.
Excess hormones from the birth control pill can adversely affect healthy gut bacteria. For tips on how to improve your gut bacteria and health, read my post on How Your Digestion Impacts Your Hormone Imbalance and Weight Gain.
3.4: Candida (yeast infection) overgrowth: Estrogen can be candida fertilizer, helping the yeast population to grow.
In a lab, if certain types of estradiol are added to candida cells, this estrogen has been shown to increase the number of germ tube and length – developments that support candida overgrowth.
After starting the birth control pill, many women complain of developing chronic thrush and bloating and flatulence due to the candida overgrowth in their belly.
Because many hormones and their balances originate from the gut, this can then affect the levels of other hormones such as serotonin. For advice on how to deal with this problem, check out my blog on the Top 10 Ways to Conquer Candida.
3.5: Liver overload: Like all drugs, birth control pills are processed using enzymes in your liver. This process, known as “first-pass metabolism” can overtax your liver if it is dealing with drugs and is then also tasked with filtering out sugars, alcohol, and excess estrogen metabolites.
3.6: Lowered muscle gain from exercise: When the pill causes a drop in testosterone, many women find that their strength and ability to build muscle is compromised – even if they are exercising regularly.
Some scientists think this is because progestin binds to androgen receptors, inhibiting their muscle-building function.
3.7: Higher risk of stroke and heart disease: Taking the birth control pill almost doubles a woman’s risk of experiencing a stroke.
It also increases the buildup of arterial plaques in the veins, which can rupture, causing a heart attack, according to research at Ghent University.
This research found that women taking BCPs have 20 – 30% more arterial plaque in some parts of their body. Meanwhile, an English study has found that the pill that causes the least amount of heart risks is one that has 20 micrograms (mcgs) of estrogen combined with an older synthetic progesterone called levonorgestrel.
3.8: Increased blood clots: The link between estrogen use and an increase in the risk of developing blood clots (thrombosis) has been known for around 20 years. Additional research continues to show that the risk of thrombosis is higher in women taking the birth control pill.
3.9: Reduced bone density: Birth control pills may reduce a woman’s bone density, but the impact will not show up in lab results until about two years of use.
3.10: Changes to immunity: The pill’s synthetic hormones can cause you to develop an imbalance between the Th1 branch and Th2 branch of your immune system. Th1 cells can release inflammatory chemicals in response to viruses and some bacteria while Th2 cells kickstart the production of antibodies. If your immune system is functioning well both types of cells work hand in hand to protect you.
But when either Th1 or Th2 cells become dominant due to use of BCPs, one branch of immune cells are overactive and the other branch can be underactive. This can stimulate autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease in some women.
Or it may trigger other autoimmune conditions such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, or psoriasis. To check if you have these immune issues you can organize blood panel checks via integrative doctors.
3.11: Epilepsy Seizures
Research from Texas A&M University Health Science Center suggests that ethinyl estradiol, the primary component of oral contraceptives, could ramp up electrical brain activity in women who have epilepsy and potentially trigger epilepsy in women who are susceptible.
3.12: Gum Disease
Pregnant women often experience issues with inflammation of their gums and bleeding. As BCPs mimic the pregnant state, they can trigger periodontal disease.
This can increase inflammation in your bloodstream, which can interfere with efforts to naturally balance your hormones.
Low Estrogen Pills
When contraceptive pills were first released in the 1960s, they were high estrogen birth control pills containing doses of 150g of estrogen. Most modern pills contain far less. Birth control pills with more estrogen – of between 20 to 50mg – include:
– Yasmin: Drospirenone and ethinyl estradiol
– Levora: Levonorgestrel and ethinyl estradiol
– Estrostep or Ortho-Novum: Norethindrone and ethinyl estradiol
– Ortho-Tri-Cyclen Lo: Norgestimate and ethinyl estradiol
– Lo/Ovral-28: Norgestrel and ethinyl estradiol
In my late 20s, I remember taking Yasmin and even though I was assured by my doctor that it was the lowest dose, I developed unbearable side effects in the form of depression and mood swings. I also gained a few pounds which felt odd as I used to be a highly athletic and active.
Birth control pills with low estrogen contain only 20 mg of synthetic estradiol or less and include:
– Mircette: Desogestrel/ethinyl estradiol and ethinyl estradiol
– Yaz: Drospirenone and ethinyl estradiol
– Alesse: Levonorgestrel and ethinyl estradiol
– Lo Loestrin Fe: Norethindrone and ethinyl estradiol
Though a lower dose estrogen pill is clearly better, the daily doses of estrogen in both the higher and lower combined pills can still trigger the barrage of side-effects I discussed in this article.
In a normal woman’s cycle, the levels of estrogen rise and fall – your body is not designed to have constantly high levels of estrogen. So when you take birth control pills they can quickly lead to Estrogen Dominance.
4. Natural Alternatives To Birth Control Pills
So what’s a girl to do? After all, we grew up accustomed to the pill being The Solution to our sexual freedom and family planning.
To good news is: Hormone-free birth control methods do exist. They use these to determine their fertile windows during their menstrual cycle and then use condoms for contraception during those days.
If you want to learn more about this, it is well worth reading a book like Taking Charge of Your Fertility.
Once you are familiar with the menstrual cycle and signs of fertility, you can consider different methods of fertility tracking, which include:
4.1: Basal Temperature Method: Three days before you start ovulating, your body temperature rises slightly, so taking your basal temperature over many cycles can help you work out you are most likely to conceive in your cycle (plus a few days to create a safety net). A number of devices are available to help you track this temperature (and many of them can be used with fertility apps like Glow and Ovia and Clue). The devices include:
– Digital oral thermometers such as wink, ONDO and Daysy
– Digital ear thermometers, such as Yono, which can be worn overnight
– Wearable bracelets and sensors such as Ava and tempdrop
– The Lady-Comp range (https://www.lady-comp.com/). This offers features like an ovulation calendar and a super sensitive temperature sensor that you place under your tongue every morning and it feeds your temperature data to the cycle calculator.
The Daysy device is the most recent version and it comes with an app so that you can view all your cycle statistics.
4.3: The Standard Days Method: In research by Georgetown University, this has been shown to be as effective as a natural contraceptive method and equal to the diaphragm and condom.
When you use this approach you identify the 12-day “fertile window” in your menstrual cycle, taking into account other fertility factors such as the variation of ovulation timing from one cycle to another, the lifespan of an egg (about 24 hours) and the lifespan of sperm (about 5 days).
4.4: The Sympto-Thermal (STM) Fertility Method
This natural method of fertility awareness identifies the fertile period and patterns of fertility in a woman’s cycle using the double tracking method of recording both body temperature measurements and cervical secretions.
According to research – the pregnancy rate for women who use the STM method correctly is 0.4%, or one pregnancy occurring per 250 women per year – so it is as effective as the contraceptive pill for avoiding unplanned pregnancies.
4.5: Ovulation test kits: These may use:
– Urine: Samples: With this method, you collect mid-stream urine samples and use strips to detect luteinizing hormone (LH) that occurs one to two days before ovulation, when you are at your most fertile.
– Saliva Samples: These test for the rise in estrogen that occurs near ovulation. When estrogen levels increase, the salt level in your saliva also rises too and this indicates that you are in your more fertile high estrogen time of the month. This can be detected via the saliva sample when it dries to reveal the fern-like crystalized salt pattern.