Typically, women choose to take oral contraceptives, also known as “the pill,” for one (or both) of two reasons: to prevent pregnancy or for medical indications, for example to manage menstrual or other hormonal irregularities.

While this can be an empowering choice for women, and many don’t have any overt health issues on the pill, these pharmaceutical drugs are by no means benign. They come with numerous short-term and long-term health risks and side-effects. Rarely are women fully informed by their providers about these concerns before making their decision. These drugs also do nothing to heal the underlying health conditions prompting their frequent prescription.

A closer look at why we use hormonal contraceptives

No one today will dispute that the arrival of the pill was a milestone for women’s rights, allowing women to have more control over if and when to have children. It can also be used discretely. One of the common arguments in favor of the pill is that it is more reliable than other methods of birth control. Unfortunately, once you take a closer look at the numbers, you realize that a lot of women still fall pregnant even if they are taking the pill as prescribed. Other available options are only marginally less reliable but have a better risk profile than the pill. On the other hand, more invasive and permanent interventions, such implants, intrauterine devices, and sterilization have considerably higher prevention rates than oral contraceptives. One major variable is how diligently couples apply the chosen method.

Hormonal contraceptives work by suppressing a woman’s natural hormonal fluctuations responsible for the ripening of an egg and thickening of the uterine lining to receive and nourish an embryo. These interdependent hormonal levels and peaks are very complex and finely tuned. Aside from the ovaries, the pituitary, thyroid and adrenals are also involved. The availability and interactions of regulating hormones from the brain (GnRH, FSH, LH) and estrogens, progesterone, thyroid hormone, stress hormones, and insulin affect every tissue in the body, including your brain. Just how profound and far-reaching these effects are could fill a book.

What happens to your body on the pill?

While you’re taking a hormonal contraceptive, this symphony of natural ebb and flow is suppressed and flatlines. If you don’t ovulate, you also don’t produce progesterone, which is so important for good health and well-being. Opting for a barrier method, such as male or female condoms or a diaphragm, doesn’t interfere with your body’s hormonal regulation but still allows you to have protected sex on days when you may be fertile. Even better, learn more about the fertility awareness method (FAM) and combine it a barrier. You should also look at the many technological innovations allowing you to monitor your cycle and identify the times when you’re most likely to conceive. These strategies can be used both to prevent pregnancy and for optimizing your chances of conception if you are trying for a baby.

One of the most disheartening myths perpetuated by many conventional physicians is that women who take the pill will easily become pregnant once they’re ready and discontinue using it. This is often not the reality at all, for two reasons: For one, a woman’s endocrine system has been so profoundly disrupted by the artificial hormones in the pill that she often doesn’t start ovulating again, sometimes for several months. It can take even longer in women who took hormonal birth control for years or decades. For another, more than half of women prescribed oral contraceptives are taking them in the hopes of alleviating uncomfortable period problems like PMS, heavy menstruation, cramping, pain, acne, and on and on. Unfortunately, the pill is no way to get to the bottom of these symptoms and signs of hormonal dysregulation. So, they persist and can potentially be even more severe after you discontinue taking the pill. For example, some women develop a PCOS-like condition even so they didn’t have PCOS before they started using hormonal birth control.

Your liver will thank you, too

Aside from the many potential side-effects you’ll read about on the package insert of your hormonal contraceptive, these artificial hormones also create a considerable burden on your liver’s detoxification pathways and deplete your body of numerous important nutrients. This is something you should be aware of if you are now using a hormonal contraceptive method and are planning to continue using it, at least for the foreseeable future.

What you can do to take back your health

Every women who is currently using the pill, recently discontinued using it, or never used it but experiences hormonal imbalances, should consider working with a natural medicine professional who can evaluate her needs and guide her in her use of nutrition, supplementation, and botanical therapy to support and balance her physical and mental health naturally. Of course, regular acupuncture can be a powerful strategy to alleviate menstrual pain and improve hormonal imbalances. I can attest to this based on my experience working with women who seek my care for these reasons. A range of clinical research studies supports this approach.

I would also like to give a shout-out to Jolene Brighten, a naturopathic physician who’s poured her heart into creating a wonderful resource for patients and practitioners in her book “Beyond the Pill.” Where ever you find yourself on your health journey now, being armed with information and knowledgeable supporters provides you the best chance of enjoying optimal reproductive health and well-being.

© 2020 Christiane Siebert