So common that they are often referred to simply as “the Pill”, hormonal birth control pills are used by over 100 million women around the world, and that’s not counting the number of women who are instead using hormonal contraceptive devices such as the IUD that also work by suppressing hormones.
Though an undeniably effective method of birth control when used properly, birth control pills and other hormonal contraceptive methods come with a number of possible side effects and risks, from mood disturbances to nutritional deficiencies to increased risk of certain types of cancer.
These risks are often not discussed– or even understood– by the doctors who prescribe them, leaving millions of women in the dark.
How Do Birth Control Pills Work?
BCPs contain synthetic forms of the naturally occurring hormones estrogen and progesterone, or sometimes, the synthetic form of progesterone (progestin) alone.
During a normal cycle, progesterone is released during ovulation (the release of eggs from the ovaries). Progesterone is critical for menstrual cycle regulation, conception, and pregnancy, but it is also important for overall hormonal balance and wellbeing.
The Pill is designed to stop ovulation in order to prevent unwanted pregnancy, which means it stops the release of eggs from the ovaries– and it stops the release of progesterone. It fools the body into thinking this is okay by giving it progestin, the synthetic form of progesterone, instead. Progestin, though, is not interchangeable with the natural hormone progesterone. Progestin serves its intended purpose in the Pill, but it doesn’t offer the same hormone balancing and wellbeing benefits as progesterone.
The lack of a release of natural progesterone can lead to estrogen dominance, which can lead to a number of side effects and serious health problems.
Other Uses of Birth Control Pills
BCPs are popular for a number of reasons. They are, of course, an attractive form of birth control (easy to use and effective) when the risks are not discussed.
It is also alarmingly common for doctors to prescribe BCPs for reasons besides birth control: painful or irregular periods, migraines, cramps, even acne. Many girls and young women are taking BCPs for these reasons before pregnancy is even a worry on their minds.
Can BCPs help with symptoms of PMS, like cramps? Yes. But this ignores the real question: what’s causing these symptoms? Often, it’s an underlying hormonal imbalance. Why isn’t that the problem we’re trying to solve when someone complains of irregular or painful periods?
We would serve girls and women of all ages much better by investigating the root cause of their symptoms and/or hormonal imbalances, rather than using BCPs as a band-aid (especially when BCPs can further complicate matters, and create health problems of their own).
Side Effects & Risks
Common side effects of birth controls pills include changes in mood or depression, weight gain, brain fog, hair loss, decreased libido, bloating, bacterial and yeast overgrowth and deficiencies in a number of vitamins and minerals.
Many of these side effects occur because of estrogen dominance due to the lack of natural progesterone, or changing levels of other circulating hormones including testosterone and thyroid hormone (both can be lowered when synthetic hormones are taken).
Testosterone has been found to drop by an average of 61% with BCP use (1). This testosterone-lowering effect is actually one of the reasons why the Pill is sometimes prescribed for conditions like acne or hirsutism, however, such a big drop can be problematic in a number of ways.
What’s especially troubling about a number of the common side effects related to the Pill is that many women don’t know that they’re experiencing a side effect of the Pill, especially if they’ve grown accustomed to taking it, and their doctors haven’t made the connection either. Many women continue to take BCPs for years and are shocked to find what they’ve thought of as unrelated symptoms clearing up when they eventually discontinue use.
Side effects related to mood, including depression, are among the most common (2). Despite decades of research on the possible mood effects of the Pill, the dots often remain unconnected when women who are taking BCPs experience depression. They may be given a prescription for antidepressants, which come with their own impressive array of side effects, especially when an underlying cause or imbalance has not been addressed or even explored.
Birth control pills have long been linked to an increased risk of blood clots (3), and have been classified as carcinogenic.
Nutritional Deficiencies Linked to Birth Control Pills
The list of possible nutritional deficiencies that have been linked to the Pill is (or should be) a major concern. BCPs have been found to deplete a whole slew of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants (6, 7, 8).
Though not an exhaustive list, birth control pills have been linked with lower levels of multiple B vitamins including B1, B2, B5, B6, B9, and B12; magnesium; zinc, vitamins C and E; and selenium. BCPs have also been linked with higher levels of certain minerals, including copper, which can be problematic when elevated. The Pill may disrupt the balance of magnesium and calcium, which may be part of the reason for the increased risk of blood clots (not to mention the dozens of other problems that can occur as a result of magnesium deficiency).
One of the most significant links is the depletion of vitamin B6. B6 is required for the production of the “feel good” neurotransmitter serotonin, and a B6 deficiency caused by the Pill is likely one of the driving forces behind the increased risk of depression and mood imbalances.
The lowering of zinc, an essential mineral that is necessary for brain health, immune system function, hormone health, and a number of other functions, is also a major concern. BCPs have been shown to inhibit the absorption of the mineral.
If you are currently taking a BCP and are not ready to discontinue use, you may want to look into supplementing these critical vitamins and minerals. It is worthwhile looking into your levels of these micronutrients even if you’ve already discontinued use, as deficiencies may have persisted.
Hormonal contraceptives may cause side effects for anyone, but some factors may increase your risk. A personal or family psychiatric history can increase the risk of mood-related side effects. Past or current hormonal sensitivities or imbalances, chronic inflammation, and existing micronutrient deficiencies should also be considered.
In order to avoid the possible side effects, hormonal imbalances, and nutritional deficiencies associated with the Pill, you may want to explore non-hormonal forms of birth control including Natural Family Planning (NFP), Fertility Awareness Method (FAM), or even something as simple as non-toxic condoms.
If you don’t feel that discontinuing the Pill is the right choice for you, be aware of signs or symptoms of hormonal imbalances, and keep in mind that your micronutrient requirements may be higher. Eating a balanced diet made up of a variety of whole foods will help.
If possible, though, avoid the Pill and other forms of birth control that interfere with your natural hormone production!
Looking for more personalized guidance? Request a consultation.