For centuries, women have used a variety of methods to help prevent themselves from unintentionally getting pregnant. Homemade concoctions would be applied or drank to help stop ovulation or fertilization, sometimes with success but often not. Canadian frontier women in the early pioneer days were even known to drink a home brew of ground up beaver testicles in a moonshine beverage, a stout Canuck choice but sadly without any reproductive effects except to the poor beavers! Since the 1960s women have had the choice to use oral birth control pills to help stop pregnancies. Birth control pills are taken regularly by over 100 million women worldwide but unfortunately, there is little information given to these women about some of the risks that can be associated with long-term use.
When oral contraceptives became available to women in the 1960s it ushered in a time in women’s health where there was more sexual freedom and choice. Women were suddenly able to decide when and with whom they might want to start a family. Over 80% of women have been on birth control pills sometime during their lifetime. It is an important topic in women’s health to understand the side effects that can be related to the nutrient depletion caused by the Pill and the disruption of normal hormone levels caused by its use.
Many of the side effects that are well known about using the Pill are listed on the warning inserts. Most women understand that smoking, having a history of blood clots, or having liver disease increase the risks associated with being on the Pill. But how many women think that their depression, insomnia, poor libido, or fatigue might be linked to the Pill? A study published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine in 1980 discussed the concerns about nutrient deficiencies of six key nutrients in women using the Pill: vitamins B2, B6, B12, folic acid, vitamin C and the mineral zinc. They outlined that using the Pill for more than six months would also lead to abnormal tryptophan levels because of the depletion of B6 and this would lead to lowered serotonin levels. These women had a greater chance of becoming depressed. The Pill doesn’t necessarily cause depression but due to the metabolism of synthetic hormones it can use up normal levels of nutrients or cause deficiencies to occur. Even with improvements in lowering hormone levels in the modern Pill there are still concerns about depression. A 2006 medical journal article came out in Australia about the risks of depression for women who used the oral contraceptive and showed similar results.
Nutrient deficiency commonly seen with the use of the Pill can lead to fatigue. Vitamins such as folic acid and B12 are often depleted with oral contraceptives and these nutrients are required to make red blood cells. Low levels of red blood cells means less oxygen being carried around in the body which contributes to low energy, anemia, and fatigue. There are also many studies showing that magnesium can also be depleted with the use of the Pill and that affects the body’s ability to make ATP, the body’s energy storage molecule. Magnesium has many important functions in the body, especially with the heart and muscles. Running low in this mineral can cause muscle cramps, headaches, insomnia, and increases in blood pressure.
The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published an article in 2006 about a decrease in antioxidants seen with using the Pill. Nutrients such as CoQ10, selenium, and vitamin C can be lowered with long-term use of the Pill. These antioxidants have a powerful role in prevention of cancer, heart disease, and neurological and thyroid illnesses. Running low in these nutrients can have a significant impact on future illnesses and risk factors.
The physical side effects of using the Pill are numerous and can often be poorly understood. Using a synthetic progestin or estrogen can cause other significant changes in a woman’s sexuality and libido. Long-term issues with testosterone and sex hormone binding globulin can occur and studies have shown altered libido levels even after six months of discontinued use. Ovulation is suppressed by the Pill (hence you don’t get pregnant) and is being studied as a possible concern with future fertility issues in younger women. Our normal hormone levels are greatly affected by the Pill and need to be supported properly during and after its use.
Make a Plan
So what is a girl to do!? The Pill is a medical marvel for sexual freedom but does come with risks and side effects. Investigate healthy food choices and nutritional supplements to help off-set the depletions that the Pill can create. Consider a plan of how many years to use the oral contraceptive and a plan of recovering optimal hormone health for fertility and aging after using the Pill. Discuss with your naturopathic physician or general practitioner the benefits and risks for you as an individual with this method of contraception and research options to keep yourself as healthy as possible during the years you use the Pill. Being knowledgeable and informed can help you choose the best way to support your reproductive choices and future health.