Disclaimer: Let’s just get this out of the way. I’m not a doctor and I can’t tell you what is best for YOUR body and lifestyle! The following post is my personal experience that should be taken as information, and not personal medical advice.
Please do your research and be sure to meet with a doctor or healthcare provider you trust before making any changes to your medications. And remember: you deserve to be heard - don’t let them push you out of their office with a method that is not right for you.
I’m also not anti-birth control. It’s a good tool for some women who want to avoid pregnancy. However, I believe all women should know all of their options and understand the side effects of various contraception methods.
My story with the hormonal birth control pill
I did not take my decision to ditch the pill lightly - in fact, I waffled on it for months. After all, taking a pill daily for 11 years was ingrained in my routine, and SO easy. I am also intentionally child free, so I didn’t want any room for an unplanned pregnancy. What if something happened? And how would I adjust to actually having a monthly cycle? I took the pill continuously for several months at a time, mostly so that I wasn’t “inconvenienced” by a period.
I started taking the Pill when I was 16, like many women, to “regulate” things - my cycle, my cramps, PMS, and my cystic acne. For awhile it seemed to improve those concerns. But by the time I started college, I had tried several pills to find one I liked. One made my mood volatile and I was very emotional, another gave me difficult cycles - I felt like Goldilocks. And all the while none of my OBGYNs suggested anything but a new pill when I complained about side effects. I figured they knew my body best.
In 2015 my cystic acne made a major comeback, and I started experiencing hormonal migraines before every “period” on the pill. I know there were other factors at play, but I started to realize that the pill was not the fast, easy fix that I thought it was.
I remember sitting in front of a physician in tears over my acne and recurring migraines and he told me that “Some women just get these migraines before their period. We don’t know why.” He barely listened to me, and ushered me out of the office with a prescription. I wanted to feel heard, and I knew in my gut it was just another bandaid solution.
Quitting hormonal birth control
I stopped taking hormonal birth control in the midst of my nutrition program one year ago. Before doing so I spent several months researching and supporting my body through nutrition and targeted supplements to help ensure the transition was as smooth as I could control.
Now, it would be irresponsible of me to recommend specific supplements here, and against my philosophy of bio-individuality. Every body and story is different, so I’d need to know more about you first! However, I want to share some key takeaways about hormonal birth control from my personal research and what I learned through studying nutrition.
If the pill (or another form of contraception) is working for you - great! You do you. But if you’re frustrated or experiencing any of the side effects I’ve described, maybe this information will be useful in your health journey.
9 Side Effects of Hormonal Birth Control
Below are a just a few ways that hormonal birth control can impact your wellness. This is not an exhaustive list!:
1. It’s a bandaid, not a solution. If you had a rock in your shoe, you would probably take it out, not just pop an Advil, right? The pill is like Advil in that it temporarily masks symptoms (acne, PMS, irregular periods, etc.) without addressing a root cause. By supporting overall health with diet and lifestyle changes that support foundations (digestion, blood sugar, fatty acids, minerals, and hydration) symptoms improve. Taking synthetic hormones for extended periods of time can lead to more hormonal imbalances and, in turn, symptoms like lower libido, weight gain and bloating, mood swings, and depression.
2. It can impact long-term fertility. Your period is a monthly reflection of your health. Although many women who choose the pill do so to prevent pregnancy, your cycle may not regulate immediately after stopping hormonal birth control. Depending on your overall health and how long you were on the pill it can take months for your body to replenish depleted vital nutrients. Folate/folic acid (see below) in particular is critical in maintaining a healthy cycle and pregnancy.
3. It depletes vital nutrients. Especially if you take hormonal birth control for years. B Vitamins and key minerals like magnesium, zinc, and selenium that are used by the liver to metabolize the pill are depleted. If you are on the pill or considering quitting, maintaining a nutrient-dense, colorful diet (eat the rainbow!) is very important in replenishing those nutrients. I don’t typically make multi-vitamin suggestions because the quality and sourcing of most over the counter varieties aren’t great - so start with food! You’re buying it anyway, and whole foods taste good ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
4. It affects mood. Depression, anxiety, mood swings, and low libido are common side effects of the pill. Studies covering depression and the pill were few and far between until 2016 when the JAMA Psychiatry released their study “Association of Hormonal Birth Control with Depression” that followed 1 million women over 13 years. Women taking hormonal birth control (especially progestin-only pills and Mirena IUD) were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with depression. There are other factors to depression and creating a quality study was difficult because many women are prescribed antidepressants or simply don’t report their depression to their doctor.
5. It can affect your libido. This one is a real bummer! There aren’t enough studies about it, so many women think it’s normal or blame themselves. Or they’ve been on the pill since early teenage years and aren’t really sure what a normal sex drive is supposed to be. Hormonal birth reduces testosterone and DHEA in women that are needed for libido. These androgens may remain depleted for months or years after the pill is stopped without proper support. In her book Period Repair Manual Dr. Lara Briden points out that even if you are not planning on having sex, your libido is important for other things like vitality and motivation in life!
6. It may cause acne. Yup, I knew this one well. Certain types of hormonal birth control pills called “progestins” mimic testosterone in the body and can cause acne. We need testosterone to be healthy (yes, even women!), but this androgen in excess is a cause behind hormonal acne, especially on the chin. Others may experience increased acne from digestive issues caused by the pill.
7. It may cause hair loss: Another symptom I was familiar with! Some pills use synthetic forms of progesterone called “progestins”, which damages hair follicles and causes hair loss.
8. It impacts digestion and may cause fungal overgrowth. Hormonal birth control affects digestion (remember those B Vitamins and zinc, mentioned above? They’re important components of the digestive process) through altering intestinal and vaginal flora. By disrupting the balance of good and bad bacteria some women experience more digestive problems and/or candida overgrowth - the fungus that can lead to yeast infections. If you are on the pill and experiencing recurring infections, the pill and your compromised digestion are likely culprits!
9. It may cause weight gain. The pill can worsen insulin resistance - basically that means that your body’s cells aren’t using the “sugar storing hormone” effectively, and blood sugar rises. Sugar cravings rise and, in turn, weight gain. The pill also interferes with the ability to get those muscle gains. To mitigate these effects, try reducing sugar (bonus: kicking added sweeteners altogether), implementing relaxation and mindfulness exercises to reduce stress - stress burns through your glucose/energy stores!
It’s worth repeating - please consult your healthcare provider before making changes to your medications. I used the following resources to educate myself about the effects of hormonal birth control, transitioning off the pill, and other contraception methods and found them really helpful!:
Learn more about quitting hormonal birth control
Period Repair Manual (2nd Edition) by Lara Briden: Start here! I want to give this book to every woman I know. It’s a fast, easy read that breaks down all forms of contraception and their side effects, explains your monthly cycle and physiology, how to talk to your doctor, how to recover from hormonal birth control and address hormonal imbalances. It was a major eye opener. For example, did you know your “period” on hormonal birth control is not actually a period? (Mind blown). It’s a withdrawal bleed from synthetic hormones. This book is full of facts and references.
Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler: Don’t let the title fool you - this book is amazing for all women, whether you intend on starting a family or just want to know more about your body. After all, your fertility is a reflection of your hormonal health! This book is THE resource for understanding fertility awareness method (FAM). I don’t know many women who chart on paper any more (see resources below for modern, digital alternatives), but it is helpful, science-backed resource that gives a baseline understanding of this method.
Dr. Jolene Brighten: is passionate about root cause women’s medicine with a ton of great blog posts and lots of valuable information in her newsletter. You can also listen to her interviews on the Balanced Bites podcast here and here.
What I use now for natural birth control
MyFlo App: MyFlo is a free functional medicine period tracking and hormonal balancing app that tells you how to support your health (mental/emotional/physical) throughout the four phases of your cycle. Alisa Vitti, creator of MyFlo, also wrote Woman Code - another great read if you want to learn more about your cycle and improving your libido.
Kindara App: This fertility awareness app lets you chart your cycle, digitally. I personally use it to input custom data. That feature is especially helpful for recording my daily symptoms and supplements. Kindara often promotes their Wink thermometer/device, but that is not the device that I use.