Hormonal birth control is a hotly contested topic. A quick google search will bring up masses of negative side effects which women have experienced due to taking it, even resulting in big pay outs by pharmacuetical companies in compensation. Thankfully many women also stay on the pill relatively hassle free, but the fact that hormonal birth control has only been around for about fifty years, and widely used for much less, makes me uneasy. There are plenty of studies (sources below) which suggest that there are long term health risks to taking the pill for prolonged periods of time, particularly cancer and blood clots which can lead to strokes and heart attacks. I was always more comfortable using condoms carefully as a method of birth control however a health issue three years ago led me to begin taking the pill, and now I have made the decision to take the hopefully not too rocky road towards being pill free again.
I started taking hormonal birth control in January 2011. I had always had pretty regular, easy to deal with periods. Suddenly one night I woke up with excrutiating pain in my left lower side, around where my ovary would be. This pain was accompanied by extremely heavy bleeding which I could barely control and I was on the verge of going to the emergency room. Thankfully the pain subsided gradually but the bleeding continued, very heavily, for over two weeks. My GP at first suspected that I had miscarried an early pregnancy which I was unaware of, but a pregnancy test soon ruled this out as the hormone levels would still have been detected by the test. I was referred for a scan at my local hospital, and then to a gynaecologist who did an ultrasound scan to try to detect a reason for the sudden change in cycle. She could find nothing out of the ordinary. I questioned if it could have been a cyst that burst, seeing as the pain was sudden, localised, and the bleeding started shortly afterwards, but she stated that there would be some residual signs of this on the scan if so. I was still bleeding heavily and continuously, but for an unknown reason. My doctor recommended that I go on an oral contraceptive to stop the blood flow. I felt uneasy about this, as the cause of the problem had not been sourced, and this would simply cover up the issue. However I had recently been considering going on the pill myself for contraceptive reasons so I decided to go on it, as the heavy flow was hell!
I was prescribed Ovranette and was incredibly lucky to have absolutely no side effects at first. No weight gain, no weight loss, no skin problems, no mood swings. This continued for about a year and a half until around summer 2012 when my skin began to get a lot more spots. Being someone who had always had clear skin, even in my teens, this annoyed me! I wondered if it was hormonal acne linked to the pill as my skincare regime or diet had not changed. In the following three months I began to get very ‘hormonal’. I was overly sensitive and would cry at everything and take things personally. I found it really hard to control my emotions and would get so worked up over a tiny issue. I felt like I was like having PMT every single day, which was strange as I had never suffered from this even when my periods were normal. I eventually knew that I had to do something as I did not feel myself anymore. I knew I was being unreasonable and at times crazy but it was like I was powerless to control my emotions and reactions. I was anxious that my relationship would begin to suffer because of it, although this was my own self imposed worry as my boyfriend was amazingly understanding and supportive. Looking back I don’t know how he put up with me during those crazy few months!!
I went back to my doctor and she suggested that the mood swings and poor skin was as a reuslt of the pill. She stated that it was probably an excessive build up of certain hormones in my system, and that I could either take a break off the pill, or switch brands to alter the hormone combinations. I was dying to get these horrible synthetic hormones out of my system, but I was worried about getting pregnant. I decided to give the pill another chance and switch brands. My doctor suggested that I start taking Dianette, as she stated that it was good at clearing acne. I was surprised at this recommendation because there is a fairly famous controversy surrounding this brand and depression, and given that my doctor was very familiar with my own battle with this, I was surprised that she would prescribe this pill to someone who is vulnerable to it. I also felt that my spots were nowhere near the level that might justify trying such a strong, controversial pill. I told her that I wouldn’t be comfortable using that brand so she suggested Yasmin, as she said that it is a lighter pill and tends to also work wonders for clearing skin.
Almost instantly after beginning Yasmin my emotional turmoil stopped and I was back to my happy, relaxed self. It was only then that I relaised how severely my personality and outlook had changed during the past few months. I was so greatful that I recognised it as a hormonal issue. Having suffered depression in the past I knew the difference between these hormonal tears for no reason, and feeling down due to depression. I worried about the potential women who may think they are depressed when really the pill had caused their emotional distress. I worried how often this might be undetected or misdiagnosed, with women left to suffer as a result of their birth control. After switching brands I again got no side effect in terms of weight, and my skin did clear up a massive ammount, but it never returned yet to it’s pre-pill state.
Over the past few months, given my natural life style, I am feeling that the pill is really not for me. I was always the type of girl who actually enjoyed getting my period each month, probably in part becuase I used to get off lightly with the side effects! I love how our monthly cycle is linked to nature and to the moon. I love being able to tell what phase my body is in and how I should treat it accordingly. I am reassured by more easily being able to note my more fertile days in a regular cycle to avoid getting pregnant. I worry about the potential unknown side effects of hormonal birth control that may be discovered in years time, and those that we already know about. I worry that if I decide that I want to try to have a child in the future, that my fertility will have been effected if I stay on the pill long term. I therefore have made the decision to come off it and try to get back to my normal cycle. It will be interesting to see how my body and emotions will react and adapt. I really feel like I am jumping off a huge cliff into the unknown and I am nervous of the potential problems which may arise. In particular I’m worried about the possibility of going back to the heavy bleeding which caused me to begin the pill in the first place, as the underlying problem was never detected or fixed, just hidden by the pill. I am however also excited about taking back control of my body and learning how to balance my hormones naturally rather than pumping it full of synthethic ones, which could be creating long term future problems, as well as messing up and surpressing my own natural hormone cycle, and even at times my mood and personality.
There is a wealth of information out there about the benefits of coming off hormonal birth control and the ways in which you can make this process as smooth as possible. I have found the following websites particularly useful, containing information on medical studies in relation to the risks of hormonal birth control, as well as information on how to smoothen out the process as much as possible
The relieving news for me is that most of the diet and lifestyle tips reccomended for naturally balancing your hormones after going off the pill are already part of my daily routine so I am already on the right track. Although I had issues with heavy, prolonged bleeding before beginning the pill, there is a chance that this issue will not return because my lifestyle has greatly changed in the three years since I have been on it. I am healthier now, getting a better diet and more exercise. I have gathered the following tips to hopefully combat withdrawl symptoms, mostly from a combination of the the above websites -if you visit these sites they explain the deeper reasoning and the original sources:
Why? – The production of processed foods can produce endochrine disruptors which can wreak havoc with your hormones -for example pesticides in your fruit and vegetables and hormones and antibiotics if you consume animal products. Like any other system in our body, our endochrine system can’t function properly if we are not fueling our body correctly.
Why? – Your diet, including some small doses of ‘superfoods’ should be giving you all the nutrition you need, but some specific supplements geared towards hormone health will be beneficial during this transition. Maca is reported to do wonders for normalising hormonal health and the functioning of the endochrine glands, improving and balancing reproductive health for both women and men. It is an adaptagen, which means it compliments what the body itself needs and will only do it’s work where it’s needed. Rather than introducing additional hormones, it regualtes the levels of the body’s natural hormones to a balanced level. Remember to keep the doseage low, about 2 tsp should be all you require, reducing this at a maintenance stage. B vitamins and vitamin C help the liver to process hormones, so if you think your diet is not giving you enough, you might consider supplementing it. Zinc and magnesium are also crucial to endochrine health.
Support your liver to detox
Why? – The liver processes all of the hormones in our body and birth control hormones make it work extra hard. The sudden flood of natural hormones after stopping the pill makes it work even harder. Concentrating on cleansing the liver for the first month or so after stopping hormonal birth control can help your body to clean out excess hormones more quickly. Examples of some liver supporting foods are brocolli (especially brocolli sprouts), dandelion greens, cabbage, kale, onions, leeks, garlic, parsley, brussels sprouts and radishes. Lemon water in the morning can help to kick start your detox. There are also many great blends of liver support teas available containing great liver detoxers such as dandelion root, liquorice root, centuary, milk thistle and peppermint. Avoiding alcohol and sugar and limiting caffiene will be useful during this period. Also, water water water!
Be mindful of good fats and avoid unstable, chemically altered trans fats
Why? – Saturated fats are essential for hormone health as they stimulate the thyroid and create cholesterol which is the building block of all steroid hormones. Without cholesterol, your body cannot produce estrogen, testosterone, or progesterone. Avoid unstable transfats such as margarine, shortening, vegetable oil, canola oil, and soybean oil. These oxidise easily creating havoc in our bodies. As I have mentioned here before, two of the best fats are organic cold pressed coconut oil, for cooking (as it remains stable at high temperatures) and organic cold pressed extra virgin olive oil for salads. Forget low fat diets, eat a balanced, healthy diet including saturated fat.
Why? -This helps to maintain a healthy weight for your own body, decreases stress and helps the body to operate at it’s optimum, healthiest function.
Get plenty of sleep
Why? -Sleep repairs your body, removes toxins and allows it to fuction at it’s best. It also helps to produce melatonin which in turn helps to make progesterone. Sleeping in complete darkness can also help with balancing the bodies hormone function.
Why? -Over secretion of stress hormones adversely effect body function. Long-term stress can have a serious impact on the adrenal glands and cause them to shrink and reduce production. Exercise is a fantastic stress buster, as well as an addictive path to a healthier, happier, life. Yoga and meditation can offer a lower impact, more relaxing way to reduce stress.
Avoid endochrine distruptors and eostrogen mimicers
Why? -Be mindful of your exposure to chemicals and certain plastics, and be aware of what’s in your cosmetics and cleaning products. Just like in processed food, more nasty endochrine disruptors are present in man made compounds such as plastics and other sythesised chemicals. Endochrine disruptors mimic our natural hormones and disrupt the normal function of the hormones in your endochrine system. Stop consuming unfermented and highly processed soy products such as tofu, soymilk, and other processed soy products. As sad as I am to say goodbye to my ocassional tofu, studies have shown that 100g of soy can have the eostrogen dose of a single birth control pill! While the pythoeostrogens in soy can be beneficial for menopausal women, it is best to avoid or reduce consumption if you are not in this category. The fermenting process of soy to create foods such as tamari, tempeh, miso, and soysauce almost completely eliminates the phytates, so these can still be consumed in balanced amounts.