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, telling her that it will support hormone balance, regulate her menstrual 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 of long-term effects. That is until years later when she tries 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 a 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’s stories are more common than you might think. In fact, they’re simply examples of the 9.7 million women currently taking birth control pills. After all, the birth control pill is so ubiquitous that it 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. I will talk more about that later and how birth control pills affect your body, and the functional medicine approach to natural hormone balance. First, let’s discuss what are birth control pills.
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 hormonal 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, however conventional medicine doctors are quick to prescribe the pill for other reasons, such as hormone balance, acne, PMS, painful periods, ovarian cysts, fibroids, mood swings, and perimenopause, just to name a few.
How Do Birth Control Pills Work?
There are two types of birth control pills: combination and progesterone-only. Combination pills contain synthetic forms of estrogen and progesterone, while progesterone-only pills contain progesterone without estrogen. Let’s discuss how each type of hormone replacement therapy works to prevent pregnancy.
Combination pills work to prevent the body from ovulating by inhibiting the signal that triggers the two key hormones involved in ovulation: follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). FSH and LH begin to produce if your body notices a shortage of estrogen and progesterone.
Normally, the hypothalamus in your brain detects when your estrogen levels are low, which typically happens during the first days of a woman’s menstrual cycle. During certain menstrual phases, your hypothalamus signals your pituitary gland to make FSH and LH.
Because combination pills prevent your hypothalamus from triggering this process, your pituitary gland does not produce FSH and LH. Without the release of FSH and LH, there is no signal to trigger the growth and development of egg follicles in the ovaries, halting ovulation.1
Progesterone-only pills, also referred to as minipills, work in a few different ways. Their primary purpose is to thicken a woman’s cervical mucus, the fluid surrounding your cervix that helps a man’s sperm travel to your uterus and fertilize an egg. Ultimately, the thickened mucus helps prevent sperm from reaching the uterus.
They also work to thin your endometrium, which is the lining of the uterus where an egg implants after it’s fertilized. If this lining is thinner, it’s harder for an egg to implant in it, which will prevent a pregnancy from growing.2
Why The Pill Is Prescribed To Regulate Hormone Balance
While some women begin taking the pill to help them avoid getting pregnant, others are prescribed the pill to regulate hormone balance. Nearly 14% of pill users take the pill for other reasons than birth control. Remember, conventional medicine doctors prescribe the pill to help alleviate symptoms of hormone imbalance such as acne, PMS, painful periods, mood swings, and hot flashes.
Before we discuss why the pill is prescribed to regulate hormone balance, it’s important to understand your hormone levels during a typical menstrual cycle.
Hormone Levels During Your Period
You likely know bleeding associated with “getting your period” is actually the shedding of the lining of a woman’s uterus. As the bleeding ends, FSH and LH peak above their normal levels, leading to a thickening of the uterine lining and maturing of the egg-containing follicles in the ovary. Meanwhile, estrogen is steadily rising and peaks a few days before ovulation, after which FSH and LH peak once more.
For the next two weeks, levels of progesterone go on the rise to prepare the uterine lining for implantation of an embryo. If no implantation occurs (i.e. the egg has not been fertilized), levels of both estrogen and progesterone drop sharply, triggering menstruation.
Your hormonal cycle is so delicate that simply altering one or two hormones can affect the entire cycle. Increasing your body’s levels of estrogen and progesterone suppresses the need to release FSH and LH, causing the entire sequence of events that lead to ovulation to come to a screeching halt.
How The Pill Regulates Hormone Balance
As you can see, menstruation sends your hormones on a winding rollercoaster. For many women, this process is relatively brief and painless. For others, however — especially those with autoimmune or thyroid conditions that can affect the delicate hormonal cycle I mentioned above — menstruation can result in painful, prolonged periods, extreme pelvic pain, acne, and mood-related symptoms of PMS and PMDD.
Taking the pill keeps your estrogen and progesterone levels consistently high, preventing your body from sending you on that uncomfortable rollercoaster. Regulating hormone balance can also promote regular, consistent menstrual cycle patterns, improve acne, and even protect women from ovarian and uterine cancer.
The Problems With Taking Birth Control Pills?
At this point, regulating hormone balance by taking the pill may seem like a good thing, right? Well, as with any medication, taking the pill can cause harmful side effects and disrupt your hormone balance, especially for those with autoimmune or thyroid conditions.
The main issue with birth control pills is that instead of natural estrogen, they contain synthetic estrogen, which is actually ethinyl estradiol and norethindrone. This does not provide a natural hormone balance. Instead, these synthetic hormones are not recognized or broken down by the body the same way natural estrogen is.
Taking the pill can disrupt your natural hormone balance, 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 including:
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
Most of us already carry Candida in our digestive tract. When we’re in good health, the yeast lives in harmony with the good and bad bacteria in our gut. However, when our internal ecosystem becomes imbalanced, it can lead to an overgrowth of Candida albicans and all of the unpleasant symptoms that come along with it.
Taking the pill can disrupt your internal balance by causing estrogen dominance. Research shows that exposing Candida albicans to estrogen increases its virulence. This is why yeast infections are more common for women taking the pill or other hormone replacement therapy.
3. Increase in Sex-Binding Hormones
The synthetic hormones in birth control pills increase sex-binding hormones such as sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG). SHBG is a protein that binds sex hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and DHT in men, making it easier for them to travel through your bloodstream.
SHBG regulates the amount of testosterone produced in a woman’s ovaries. While it binds a good majority, SHBG still allows a small amount to play critical roles of developing reproductive tissue and bone mass. However, as SHBG levels rise as a result of taking the pill, testosterone levels decrease to alarmingly low levels, resulting in fatigue, hair loss, poor concentration, low sex drive, and a decrease in muscle mass.
4. Liver Toxicity
Birth control pills are processed by 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 and lead to increased inflammation, benign tumors of the liver, and a decreased ability to properly remove toxins and waste.
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
One of the most important things to consider before taking the pill is your risk factor for heart disease. Your age, weight, and whether or not you smoke can put you at risk of having a heart attack while taking the pill.
The chance of blood clot is the primary reason for the increase in heart attack risk. Estrogen and progesterone affect blood clotting by increasing the activity of coagulation in your blood. Higher estrogen levels means more coagulation, which can cause your blood to clot easier. Blood clots can cause a heart attack if the clot blocks blood flow to the heart and a stroke if the clot blocks blood flow to the brain.
A recent major study on the risk of heart attacks for women who take birth control pills shows an 80% increase in risk for those taking traditional combination pills. Studies show that the risk of heart attack drops back to normal after a woman stops taking the pill.
Alternative Contraceptive Measures
While birth control pills may seem like the quick fix, they do more harm than good. The two primary reasons women take birth control pills are to prevent pregnancy and hormone balance. I’ll discuss the functional medicine approach to natural hormone balance in just a second. First, let’s talk about alternative ways to prevent pregnancy.
My best 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.
A copper IUD stops sperm from meeting an egg by creating a toxic environment for sperm by releasing ions to change the lining of the uterus and the makeup of the cervical mucus, creating an inhospitable environment for sperm. What’s more, sperm is actually repelled by copper, so the copper ions also change the swimming pattern of the sperm to swim away from the uterus.3
Condoms are a “barrier” method of contraception designed to stop pregnancy by physically stopping the sperm from meeting the egg. They can also be used to protect against sexually transmitted disease if used correctly during sexual intercorse.
You can also use the rhythm method, where you track your cycles and avoid intercourse 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. However, this method of birth cortrols holds the highest risk of an unplanned pregnancy.
The pill may offer you some benefits beside pregnant prevention, however they may not be the best birth control option for you. It’s important to weigh the pros and cons of different contraception methods to figure out what works best for you, your partner, and your family.
The Functional Medicine Approach to Hormone Balance
While birth control pills might seem like the quick fix to balance your hormones, they do more harm than good. Rather than using harsh medications that come with a myriad of side effects, there are plenty of natural ways to help relieve the symptoms of hormone imbalance.
Eat foods that balance your hormones naturally
Cruciferous vegetables are rich in fiber, which feeds your good gut bacteria. Research shows that a friendly gut flora may play an important part in helping your body process and eliminate excess estrogen so you can avoid estrogen dominance and reduce your risk of hormone-dependent cancers such as breast, ovarian, and endometrial.
What’s more, eating foods that are rich in vitamin C such as cherries, strawberries, and broccoli can help maintain hormone balance. Vitamin C is essential for creating and regulating estrogen and progesterone. It can also enhance the effects of hormone replacement therapy and work alongside estrogen to promote bone growth, which is particularly important for postmenopausal women whoa re at an increased risk of osteoporosis due to low estrogen.
Choose non-toxic body products
Your skin is your biggest organ, and what you put on it, you absorb! Many personal care products contain parabens and phthalates, which are chemicals that mimic the activity of synthetic estrogens in your body. Once applied to the skin, they travel through your bloodstream, appearing to the body as estrogen. This incognito approach causes the body to react as if true estrogen is present in excess.
Luckily, you can replace any toxic products you may have in your cabinets with safer alternatives such as those found at Beautycounter or Thrive Market.
Engaging in regular exercise can strongly influence hormone health. Exercise has shown to increase estrogen production. Women experiencing menopause symptoms caused by low levels of estrogen can find relief by engaging in daily activity, particularly high-intensity exercising such as running, spin classes, or even jumping rope.
In addition to these lifestyle changes, certain supplements can help reduce symptoms and provide some relief naturally while working to regulate hormone balance. One of the best ways to support a healthy balance of estrogen and achieve natural hormone balance for both men and women is EstroProtect. EstroProtect contains a blend of natural ingredients that support optimal estrogen metabolism and detoxification.
It features calcium-d-glucarate, which binds estrogen that would otherwise be recycled and reabsorbed by your body and flushes it out of your system. It also includes N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine (NAC), milk thistle, and Alpha-Lipoic acid to support your liver as it works to safely detoxify and clear excess estrogen.
For women, menstruation is simply a fact of life. While it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of different contraception methods to figure out what works best for your stage of life and partner, there ARE natural solutions that you can incorporate into your everyday life to find relief from the troublesome symptoms of hormone imbalance.
Taking The Pill For Hormone Balance FAQs
What are the symptoms of hormonal imbalance?
What are the symptoms of hormonal imbalance?
Symptoms of hormone imbalance that you might experience during your menstrual cycle may include hot flashes, brain fog, mood swings, cramping, pelvic pain, and chronic fatigue, to name a few.
What are the disadvantages of taking the pill?
What are the disadvantages of taking the pill?
Potential risks of taking the pill include Candida overgrowth, increased blood pressure, liver toxicity, and an increased risk of breast, uterine, and cervical cancer, to name a few.
- Does Birth Control Stop Ovulation?. Dawn Stacey, PhD, LMHC. Verywell Health. 2020.
- Birth Control Pills: Are They Right for You?. Healthline. 2018.
- Everything You Need to Know About the Copper IUD (ParaGard). Gabrielle Kassel . Healthline. 2020.