What You Need to Know Before Taking Birth Control Pills
Picture this scenario: a 15 year-old girl walks into her doctor’s office complaining of acne and painful, irregular periods. Her doctor is quick to write a prescription for birth control pills. She tells her that it will help balance her hormones and regulate her cycle and stop the acne. While on the medication, her skin clears and her periods are regular and pain-free, she’s thrilled and remains on the pill without a second thought until she’s ready to start a family.
In another case, a woman in her late 30s or early 40s is experiencing perimenopausal symptoms of mood swings, irregular bleeding, hot flashes, and night sweats. Her OB/GYN wants to put her on the birth control pill to alleviate her symptoms instead of working to figure out the root cause of her hot flashes and mood changes.
These women would hardly be a rarity, in fact, they would be in the company of 9.7 million other women currently taking birth control pills. After all, the birth control pill is so ubiquitous that is is typically referred to simply as just “the pill”. So it must be pretty harmless right?
The truth is that birth control pills are not harmless. For one, when a doctor immediately jumps to birth control pills to alleviate a woman’s symptoms she is not addressing the root cause of the symptoms, but rather masking them with a medication, leaving the root cause untreated. What’s more, birth control pills themselves pose several health risks. In this article, we’ll look at what birth control pills are, how they affect your body, and the Functional Medicine approach to balancing your hormones naturally.
What Are Birth Control Pills?
Birth control pills are a type of hormone replacement therapy. They contain synthetic (man-made) hormones that disrupt the natural hormonal cycle to stop ovulation. In a woman’s natural hormone cycle, estrogen and progesterone fluctuate. Estrogen peaks right before ovulation, and progesterone right after.
Birth control pills work by providing the body with synthetic hormones (either estrogen and progesterone or just progesterone) to keep them consistently high, fooling the body into thinking it’s pregnant to prevent your ovaries from releasing an egg.
The original purpose of birth control pills, of course, was to stop pregnancy, but conventional doctors are all too quick to prescribe the pill for other reasons, such as acne, PMS, painful periods, ovarian cysts, fibroids, mood swings, and perimenopause, just to name a few.
What Are the Problems with Birth Control Pills?
The main problem with birth control pills is that instead of estrogen they contain synthetic hormones, such as ethinyl estridiol and norethindrone, which are not recognized or broken down by the body in the same way natural estrogen is. Birth control pills also disrupt your natural hormone levels, since they keep estrogen levels artificially high, which has a ripple effect across your endocrine system. These factors can cause a whole myriad of health issues.
1. Increased Risk of Cancer
Synthetic estrogens like the ones found in birth control pills can increase your risk of developing certain types of cancers, such breast, uterine, and cervical cancer. Studies show that women who take birth control pills, and even women who have recently stopped taking the pill, have a 20 to 30% higher risk of developing breast cancer than women who have never used the pill.
2. Candida Overgrowth
As you may already know, most of us are already carrying around Candida in our digestive tract. When we’re in good health – and following a healthy diet and lifestyle – the yeast doesn’t cause any problems; however, when our internal ecosystem becomes imbalanced, it can lead to an overgrowth of Candida and all of the unpleasant symptoms that come along with it. Birth control pills disrupt our internal balance by causing something called estrogen dominance – meaning too much estrogen in the body.
In one study, researchers found that the use of birth control pills can double the risk of developing a Candida overgrowth.
If you suspect you have Candida overgrowth, you can take this quiz to find out!
3. Increase in Sex-Binding Hormones
The synthetic hormones in birth control pills increase thyroid and sex hormone binding globulin, mimicking pregnancy. This decreases the amount of testosterone and thyroid hormone available in your blood, which can leave you hypothyroid, constipated, depressed, overweight, foggy, and with an almost non-existent sex drive.
4. Liver Toxicity
Birth control pills are processed through your liver and go through what is called the first-pass effect or first-pass metabolism. During this process, the pills are metabolized by the liver and the concentration of the medication is greatly reduced before it reaches the bloodstream. This process can significantly tax the liver leading to increased inflammation, tumors of the liver, and a decreased ability to properly detox.
The metabolism of birth control pills by the liver also requires extra amounts of B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc. If you’re not getting extra amounts of these nutrients, it can lead to nutritional deficiencies that present as weight gain, fluid retention, depression, and changes in mood.
5. Cardiovascular Risk
Studies have found that birth control pills (specifically combination pills that contain both synthetic estrogen and progesterone) increase blood pressure, raising your risk for heart attacks, blood clots, and strokes.
The Functional Medicine Approach to Balancing Your Hormones Naturally
While birth control pills may seem like the quick fix to numerous health problems, they are anything but. A functional medicine approach looks at all aspects of your lifestyle – and your individual biochemistry – to get to the root cause of your symptoms, and put you on the path to finding long-term relief. In my own clinic for example, I look at possible food sensitivities and gut issues for women battling acne, and I use functional lab hormone testing to determine if hormonal imbalances are at play in women with early menopause, or painful or irregular periods.
No matter what your underlying cause is, the first step is to make the necessary diet and lifestyle changes. I always recommend starting with The Myers Way® Comprehensive Elimination Diet – to identify personal food sensitivities and determine the diet that is best for your individual needs. You’d be amazed at how many issues can be resolved using diet alone. Following The Myers Way® will also allow you to start healing your gut, which contains bacteria and enzymes that help re-circulate estrogens.
Next, it’s essential to take a look at the personal care products you’re using. Many personal care products contain parabens and phthalates – chemicals that mimic the activity of synthetic estrogens in your body. You can read more on that here.
While following The Myers Way® program, supplementation can also help reduce symptoms and provide some relief naturally, while working to fix the underlying issue. For women who are going through early menopause, I recommend herbal formulas that help to stimulate progesterone.
One of these is Hormone Balance – the AM formula increases energy, reduces anxiety, and improves mental clarity, while the PM version helps alleviate night sweats, restlessness, and anxiety. Another supplement I often recommend is Femmenessence Pro Peri, which uses maca to stimulate your body’s natural hormone production, rebalancing your hormones and reducing symptoms such as night sweats and hot flashes.
Other Contraception Methods
I’m well aware that in many cases, women turn to birth control pills as a way to avoid unwanted, unplanned pregnancies rather than just for relief of lingering symptoms. While this is one of the most common contraception methods, there are other options available.
My top recommendation is a non-hormonal copper IUD. The copper IUD is approved for 10 years of use, although some studies have shown it to be effective for up to 20 years. You may also want to consider male condoms (if you’re not in a committed relationship definitely always use condoms). You can also use the rhythm method, where you track your cycles and avoid sex on the days you are fertile. There are a number of fertility apps designed to help you conceive via the rhythm method that can be used in the opposite way to prevent pregnancy. Or, if it makes sense for you and your family, your partner can get a vasectomy.
It is important to weigh the pros and cons of different contraception methods to figure out what works best for you for your stage of life and marital status. Keep in mind that the only birth control method that is 100 percent effective is abstinence.
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