According to the 2018 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), almost one in three people with periods take the pill because they’ve been advised that it will regulate their cycles. It makes sense when you consider that 80% of women have life-interrupting period problems and over 30 million people in the US have cramps so bad that no amount of drugs will tackle their pain.
When your period sucks, nothing’s working, and you’re suffering from unbearable pain, your doctor will likely tell you that taking oral contraceptives (aka birth control) will make you feel better. It seems so easy to just take a pill and magically make it all go away, right?
We get it. There are millions of people using the pill to suppress their periods in the hopes of controlling symptoms like PMS, cramps, anxiety, heavy bleeding, and irregular cycles. When we’re desperate for relief, we will do almost anything to feel better – especially if it comes doctor-recommended.
Oral contraceptives are effective at controlling symptoms and making your period less painful. But here’s the thing: what birth control is really doing is masking the symptoms. It does not have a corrective effect on your period problems – the underlying issues don’t go away, and in many cases, they worsen behind the scenes.
The risks of using birth control
Earlier this year, Holly Grigg-Spall, the author of Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control, shared data on the links between oral contraceptives and the following issues:
Depression. Taking oral contraception can increase your chances of depression and even suicide. Two large-scale studies from the University of Copenhagen revealed that for users of the combined pill, the likelihood of a diagnosis of depression is increased by 23 percent, and for users of all hormonal contraceptive types, the risk of suicide is increased threefold. And for teenage women, the diagnosis of clinical depression is 80 percent higher and the suicide risk doubles after just one year of use.
Cancer. A systematic review of twenty-eight scientific studies revealed that the risk of cervical cancer doubles for women who use the pill for a decade or longer. Another study evaluated data on about 1.8 million Danish women and found that the use of any hormone-based contraception, including progestin-only pills and hormonal IUDs, was linked with a higher risk of breast cancer.
Blood clots. Compared to older combined oral contraceptives, many newer contraceptives carry a higher risk of developing blood clots – which come with potentially serious or even fatal complications.
Fertility. Some women are under the misconception that taking hormonal birth control actually preserves your fertility by preventing ovulation. It’s a logical conclusion since we’re born with all of our eggs and preventing ovulation could be a means of extending our fertile lives. But the data simply does not support this. Being on the pill can affect your fertility in multiple ways, including:
- AMH: Oral contraceptives can negatively impact your Anti-Müllerian hormones (AMH) levels, which are measured to assess fertility and ovarian aging. Essentially, AMH refers to the number of eggs in your ovaries and the higher your level of AMH, the more eggs you have left. A 2015 study showed that AMH was 19% lower in people taking oral contraceptives, suggesting their overall fertility was reduced.
- Uterine health: Long-term oral contraceptives have been linked with a thin uterine lining, something that can significantly impact your ability to both become and stay pregnant.
- Absorption of essential vitamins and minerals: Taking the pill can significantly impact your absorption of vitamins and minerals that are essential for regular ovulation, as well as conceiving and sustaining a pregnancy. This is linked to the concurrent side effect of thinner uterine linings, mentioned above. If you can’t break down the food you are eating, turn it into energy, and absorb it to make the building blocks of bone marrow, you aren’t going to be making much of a uterine lining, either.
While the risks mentioned above may be concerning for anyone, oral contraceptives are especially risky for:
- People who have or had breast cancer
Hormonal contraception can encourage the growth of some types of breast cancer. If you have breast cancer now or have had it in the past, the WHO recommends you don’t go on the pill.
- Smokers over 35
Hormonal contraceptives that contain estrogen and progestin increase the likelihood of blood clots, stroke, and heart attack. Smokers over 35 are especially susceptible to these risks.
- Anyone with uncontrolled high blood pressure.
The heart-related downsides of birth control pills outweigh the benefits.
- People with factor V Leiden
This inherited blood-clotting disorder is considered very common and hormonal contraception increases your risk for developing blood clots. If you’re considering going on the pill, ask your doctor to test for it first – all it takes is a simple blood test.
We know. It’s a lot. But don’t get us wrong, we’re not against oral contraception. It’s great when it’s used for, well, contraception – it makes birth control easy and effective. We know there are other legit uses for it too (like the ones covered in this study) and we believe that oral contraceptives should be readily available to the millions of people who rely on them each year, whether it’s for contraception or other health reasons. We just don’t think that it’s the best way, or the safest way, to deal with period problems, and we know there is a solid alternative.
Studies have shown how effective contraceptives can be at “controlling” some of the more bothersome symptoms, such as dysmenorrhea, menstrual migraines, PMS, menorrhagia (super heavy periods), ovarian cysts, endometriosis, and pelvic pain. What those studies leave out is that these conditions have also been shown to respond to modifiable lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, stress management, and herbal supplementation. And when you tackle your period problems with lifestyle changes and herb supplementation, you’re actually addressing the underlying issues and improving your overall health – not just masking the symptoms while the issues stew under the surface.
If you’re thinking that your period problems are SO bad that a few lifestyle changes and herbs couldn’t possibly help you, know this: in our founder’s 20+ years of clinical experience, 90% of the people she worked with were able to fix their periods and the underlying causes this way. If you’re not sure where to start, check out our Healthy Period Handbook.