I love that women can choose when and if to have children, while still exploring their sexuality. I love that women can have careers, develop their passions and create whatever life they envision. What bothers me is that the consequences of hormonal birth control go beyond controlling reproductive capabilities, and that very few of these issues are ever properly conveyed.
How can anyone make an informed decision without knowing all the potential risks?
Some of the risks associated with hormonal birth control include blood clots, high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, certain types of cancers, as well as changes in cholesterol. 1 But understanding the full effects of hormonal birth control is far more complex.
Any synthetic hormone, regardless of how it enters your body, hijacks or overrides your own natural hormonal patterns. Even a hormonal IUD can affect your entire hormonal system, even though most women are told the hormones in the IUD affect only the uterus.
In addition to governing our reproductive capabilities, hormones direct the healing process throughout the body. So, when hormones are out of balance or synthetic hormones are being used, our body’s ability to function, breakdown and repair is jeopardized.
Hormone imbalance is widespread. Our hormonal system is fragile and we are surrounded by chemicals and stressors that easily interfere with, or take over, our own hormonal rhythms. Sadly, all synthetic birth control options fall into this category.
Hormones are chemicals that move throughout the body. There are many different hormonal glands. Beginning from the head and working down the body there is the pineal gland, hypothalamus gland, pituitary gland, thyroid and parathyroid glands, pancreas and adrenal glands, plus the mammary glands (breasts), ovaries and uterus in women, and testicle and prostate gland in men. It is a highly interactive system and the action of each gland affects the function of other glands in the system, sometimes dramatically.
The hormonal communication pathway begins in the brain. The brain sends a message, or request for something to happen to keep the body running well, to the hypothalamus gland, which then amplifies the message and passes it along to the pituitary gland. The pituitary makes and releases hormones that go out into the body, signaling all the other hormonal glands to make specific levels of their unique hormones. As the glands are making their specific hormones, the pituitary is monitoring the level of hormones in the body and continuously adjusting its signaling to ensure all the other glands continue making the correct level of hormones – not too much, and not too little.
As chemical messengers, hormones affect changes throughout the body by delivering their messages to the cells. The hormone connects to a cell receptor on the outside of a cell – picture a key fitting into a lock or a boat pulling up to a dock – and the cell then carries out the instructions that started in the brain.
Hormonal signaling is connected to mood, memory and the brain’s ability to learn, understand and retain information. Hormones control the stress response, flooding your body with hormones that press your body into action when your life is in danger and you need to move fast to protect yourself. They help balance blood sugar, shuttling fuel into and out of cells and organs, ensuring the brain and all the cells of the body get the fuel they need to keep functioning. They control your metabolic rate, how fast your body breaks down and utilizes food, and your ability to gain, lose or maintain weight. And they control reproduction, not only providing the ability to conceive, but also the reproduction of you – the constant breakdown of old cells as they’re replaced by new cells. The trillions of cells that make up your body are constantly being turned over and your hormonal system is running the show by signaling the whole process.
This is a very brief and simplistic explanation of what your hormones do for you, but it showcases how powerful and critical hormones are to whole body function and your ability to be and feel healthy. When synthetic hormones, like the ones in birth control pills enter your body, they disrupt and take over your hormonal patterns. They are very effective at birth control because they suppress ovulation (no egg, no fertilization) but they also suppress all the other important functions your hormones perform for you each and every day. And that’s the huge downside to hormonal birth control that’s not recognized or discussed nearly often enough.
Many women know, from private experience or from women they know, that hormonal birth control methods can cause mood changes, weight gain and other unwanted, unpleasant symptoms. Beyond what is felt, there is a lot more happening inside the body that has the potential for significant risk, especially when hormonal birth control is used for an extended period of time.
Interfering with whole body hormonal signaling can lead to long term health challenges, some of which can be significant. In my private practice, I see all kinds of hormonal issues such as PMS, irregular periods, fertility issues, endometriosis, PCOS, mood challenges, energy issues, brain fog, memory struggles, autoimmune responses to the thyroid gland, sleep problems, hot flashes, fatigue, and so much more. Sometimes hormonal birth control is still being used, but often it’s been discontinued and the symptoms of hormone disruption are still active, even years or decades later.
Because synthetic hormones suppress normal hormone function, it can be difficult to recover natural, healthy hormonal patterns without holistic intervention. Sadly, many women are not aware that holistic support options exist and are told that their symptoms are normal and just something they need to live with. Symptom are your body’s way of telling you something is off. Menstruation, and even menopause, are meant to be easy and comfortable. PMS is a sign of hormone imbalance – you should have regular periods without any discomfort, and transition to not having periods without misery!
Is there a way to have the best of both worlds? To have contraception that gives you the freedom to choose if and when you have children, and explore your sexuality in a healthy way that works for you without risking your health? Yes there is! Non-hormonal barrier contraceptive methods report levels of effectiveness similar to what hormonal birth control methods report, without the risks of synthetic hormone exposure. Your options include condoms, diaphragms and cervical caps.
Choosing your preferred method is a personal issue and all birth control methods need to be used correctly in order to achieve the effectiveness you need and deserve. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly and you need to do your homework. You may need to try out a few options to discover what works best for you. Your health is your greatest asset, and your efforts to understand your choices are an essential part of a health lifestyle.
1 http://www.winchesterhospital.org/health-library/article?id=88973, May 2018