Birth control can feel as empowering for women as burning bras on the street. The freedom granted by hormonal contraceptives is a badge of honor cherished by millions of ladies; feminist or otherwise. We take birth control pills for many reasons: to prevent pregnancy, regulate menstrual cycles, avoid the dreaded PMS symptoms, improve skin conditions, etc. But very few women are fully aware of the side effects these little pills can have on the body and mind, making this desired freedom an illusory concept – there is no freedom in ignorance.
And I don’t mean ignorance in a pejorative manner. Ignorance is simply a lack of knowledge about all facts of an issue. When it comes to birth control we may have been sweet talked on the advantages while the side-effects were being brushed under the carpet. It’s about time we do some deep cleaning.
Research has linked oral contraceptives with vitamin and mineral deficiencies such as folate, vitamins B2, B6, B12, vitamin C and E, magnesium, selenium and zinc (1; 2). All of these nutrients play major roles in vital physiological processes.
B vitamins play a role in DNA synthesis and methylation; energy production through the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins; detoxification processes; antioxidant activity; production of red blood cells; and maintaining a healthy nervous system.
Vitamin C has complex functional roles in the body, including collage synthesis and neurotransmitter synthesis, carnitine synthesis (think fat burning), and acting as an important antioxidant.
Vitamin E plays a role in maintaining the integrity of the cells’ membranes by acting as a powerful antioxidant. It is particularly essential to avoid the oxidation of cholesterol and subsequent development of the inflammatory cascade that can lead to the formation of plaque in the arteries. Furthermore, vitamin E may play a role in the prevention of cancer, cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration, which are major causes of blindness.
Magnesium is involved in hundreds of functions in the body, including healthy bone development and maintenance, energy production, blood sugar control, dilation of blood vessels (contributing to a healthy blood pressure), and an optimally functioning nervous system.
Selenium offers protection from oxidative damage and infection, and also plays critical roles in reproduction, thyroid hormone metabolism, and DNA synthesis.
Zinc is an important mineral for proper immune system function, wound healing, fertility and reproduction, DNA synthesis, gene expression and enzyme function.
Increased Inflammation and Decreased Insulin Sensitivity
Inflammation and decreased insulin sensitivity (= higher blood sugar) are key underlying mechanisms in diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. A 9-week trial (3) found that three different forms of birth control (oral, transdermal and vaginal) were associated with decreased insulin sensitivity, increased levels of inflammation (measured by CRP) and increased sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which decreases the availability of sex hormones (decreased testosterone levels = bye bye libido).
Another study analyzed data from three independent population-based Finnish cohorts consisting of 5841 women on birth control. It was found that combination oral contraceptives (estrogen and progestin) was associated with systemic metabolic abnormalities, including increased triglycerides, IDLs and cholesterol remnants, smaller VLDL particles, and higher CRP levels (inflammation) all of which are associated with higher risk of cardiometabolic issues (4).
A study published in the prestigious JAMA Psychiatry revealed that the use of hormonal contraceptives (including the pill, hormonal patches and vaginal rings) was associated with a first diagnosis of depression and subsequent use of antidepressants, particularly among adolescents (5).
Specifically, researchers found an increased need for antidepressants 1.2-fold higher with combined oral contraceptives; 1.3-fold higher if you with progestin-only pill or transdermal patch; 2.0-fold higher with vaginal ring; and 2.1-fold higher with an implant.
Another clinical trial conducted with 34 women with previous history of adverse mood induced by combination oral contraceptives (COC) revealed that in comparison to the placebo group (no birth control pills), women taking COC had higher scores of depressed mood, mood swings, and fatigue as well as changes in emotional brain activity that supported this dampened mood states (6).
This findings urge further research to look into depression as a potential side-effect of hormonal contraceptive use.
Does it mean every single women will experience these side-effects? Certainly not. However, just because not all women are equally negatively affected it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be cautious. When considering whether to start or stop birth control we need to assess our lifestyle, food choices, family history, and risk factors that can predispose us to the harmful consequences that may arise from the use of hormonal contraceptives.
Remember: each person is unique in its biological constitution and environmental exposures, and must be treated as such.
We should, however, be concerned with the imprudent and liberal delivery of birth control to young girls that from an early age are bombarded with a cocktail of hormones that may increase the risk of adverse health consequences. We ought to be more respectful of our hormonal intricacies and its implications on physical and mental health.
Instead of treating your cycle (and its accompanying symptoms) as an inconvenience that needs to be silenced, I invite you to think of it as a feedback mechanism from your body.
If you’re experiencing PMS symptoms, acne, bloating, mood swings, heavy and/or painful periods (or other unpleasant gifts of Aunt Flo) there may be different root causes that need to be addressed, which I’ll get to in another blog post. If your main goal is to prevent pregnancy, there are other effective alternatives, such as male and female condoms, and fertility awareness through tracking of the cycle, measuring body temperature, and mucus changes.
It’s all about choices. Knowing and pondering the pros and cons of any given intervention, particularly one that affects so many systems in the body, is the only legitimate way to truly make an informed decision. As Denis Waitley wisely put it:
“There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.“