[14 min read – 3554 words]
Through working with women and having taken the Pill for 14 years, I acknowledge this is a highly emotive topic.
Some take it for birth control. Some take it to help alleviate severe menstrual cycle symptoms. I innerstand that for some, hormonal contraceptives appear to be the best option. I respect and honour that choice.
My intention with this article is to share my research on hormonal contraceptives and their impact on the menstrual cycle. I also offer alternative methods to explore along with further resources.
I hope you have the correct information to make a conscious and informed decision about taking hormonal contraceptives. This is information I wish I had before I was prescribed the Pill at 18.
Table of contents
- What is happening in your body and why do you have a cycle?
- How do hormonal contraceptives work?
- Side effects, risks and long term effects
- Imbalanced hormones, regulating the cycle and reproductive health issues
- Alternative methods of birth control
- Coming off hormonal contraceptives
Hormonal contraceptives have been cited as a symbol of the sexual revolution and women’s liberation. The Pill was a welcome addition in the 1960s because for the first time, preventing pregnancy was in a woman’s hands. She had full control over if, and when she wanted to have a child.
The Pill meant that women could embrace their sexuality in a way that had never been experienced before. Without the worry of becoming pregnant, women had more freedom to choose their partners. They too were able to decide when and how often they wanted to have sex. Condoms and diaphragms were widely available since the 1840s, but no method was as simple and effective as the Pill.
Experience has shown me that the Pill has become a Rite of Passage in our modern society. It is credited as the thing that has enabled women to do everything that they supposedly couldn’t do before.
On the other side of the coin, hormonal contraceptives stop the natural working order of our physiology. When we pause and think about this, is this really a good thing for our overall health and wellbeing?
2. What is happening in your body and why do you have a cycle?
Our cycle is split into four distinct phases/seasons:
Menstrual/Inner Winter: This is the first stage of the menstrual cycle and when our bleed arrives. Inner winter is our gateway to the Divine and we are being called to receive during this time.
Follicular (pre-ovulation)/Inner Spring: This starts on the first day of our bleed and ends when we ovulate. Inner Spring represents new beginnings and is a time for moving tenderly.
Ovulation/Inner summer: This starts when our ovaries releases a mature egg to be fertilized. Inner Summer is the blossoming of ourselves. It’s a time for us to celebrate all that we are and what we can offer to the world.
Luteal (premenstrual)/Inner Autumn: If we don’t become pregnant, this causes the onset of our bleed. Inner Autumn is a time of inward focus and for us to learn how to hold ourselves.
A hormone is a messenger that transports a signal from one cell to another. Hormones associated with your menstrual cycle regulate more than 150 essential functions. These range from memory to sense of smell to nutrient absorption, to healthy digestion.
During our bleed, two hormones estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest point.
As we move into inner spring, these two hormones slowly rise until we reach inner summer where our estrogen levels are at an all-time high.
They peak and cause a sharp rise in the level of luteinizing hormone (LH). LH causes the mature follicle to burst and release an egg from the ovary, which is ovulation. Testosterone gets a slight surge during and immediately after ovulation making us feel more sexual.
Once ovulation occurs, our progesterone level goes up for about five days, then comes back down. If pregnancy doesn’t happen, our estrogen and progesterone levels start to fall as we enter into inner autumn.
We then step into our inner winter once more to end our previous cycle and to start a new one.
Our menstrual cycle is critical to our overall health and wellbeing. So much so that medical bodies across the world state the cycle is the fifth ‘vital’ sign. Vital signs are measurements of the body’s most basic functions. The other four vital signs routinely monitored include body temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate and blood pressure.
Our menstrual cycle provides us with essential information into how our body is functioning. It acts as an early warning sign when things may be going wrong under the surface, whether that be psychologically, physically or spiritually.
3. How do hormonal contraceptives work?
The Pill, injections, implants, vaginal ring and the patch, are made up of synthetic hormones estrogen (estradiol) and progestogen (progestin).
They suppress the signals from our brain to our ovaries. In replacement, approximately four times the natural estrogen and progestogen that we create is produced. Therefore altering the natural function of our reproductive system.
When taking hormonal contraceptives, they change the cervical mucus to make it difficult for sperm to go through the cervix to find an egg. They also change the lining of the womb, which makes it unlikely the egg will be fertilised.
Hormonal contraceptives lower the amount of testosterone produced by the ovaries and adrenal glands, which may impact our libido. Vaginal lubrication can be reduced, therefore making sexual intercourse painful.
From a biochemical point of view, hormonal contraceptives induce a state similar to pregnancy in order for us not to become pregnant.
These contraceptives prevent us from creating your own hormones which means that ovulation doesn’t occur. If ovulation doesn’t occur, a true menstruation doesn’t happen. The bleed experienced when on hormonal contraceptives is not our unfertilised egg leaving our body. It is a withdrawal bleed from the drug.
The Pill was first made available in the 1960s. During this time, pharmaceutical companies decided that in order for women to trust it, it should mimic the menstrual cycle. While on hormonal contraceptives, there is no medical reason for us to bleed.
4. Side effects, risks and long term effects
Unfortunately, there are many short and long term side effects of taking hormonal contraceptives which I’ve highlighted below. In addition, I’ve referenced the study or book in order for you to read more should you wish.
Jayashri Kulkarni is the Professor of Psychiatry and Director of Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre. During a 2017 study, she said that “Depression is one of the most prevalent and debilitating illnesses affecting the female population today. Many times we have seen young women come in with depression who have not had any other changes in their life particularly. She will say things like ‘it wasn’t until I started this particular brand of pill that things started to fall apart.”
A review of multiple studies into the Pill found that depression was a side effect of taking oral contraceptives. In addition, an ongoing study into 23,000 oral contraceptive users found that over a third of the women stopped taking it because of depression.
Our liver is your largest internal organ which detoxifies our blood. It synthesizes proteins, processes nutrients and produces biochemicals necessary for digestion and growth. Hormonal contraceptives put a lot of strain on our liver because it’s the liver’s job to break down the synthetic hormones before they’re sent to the rest of our body.
Online tool the Liver Doctor states “It is known by doctors that long term use of the Oral Contraceptive Pill (OCP) can increase the incidence of liver tumors such as adenomas and hemangiomas. Hemangiomas are tumors made from blood vessels and adenomas are round shaped tumors. These are usually benign (non- malignant) tumors, but occasionally can become cancerous.”
Barbara Seaman is a women’s health expert and author of The Doctors’ Case Against The Pill. She said “The Pill also has serious adverse effects on the gallbladder, and women who take the Pill face an increased risk of someday facing surgery for gallstones. Pill use causes higher levels of cholesterol saturation in the bile, according to a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1976. This high level of fate in the bile is considered ‘an early chemical stage of gallstone disease,” according to Dr. Donald Small of the Boston University School of Medicine. The risk of gallbladder disease rises with the length of time a woman has been on the Pill. In some studies, Pill users are two and a half times as likely to suffer from gallstones as comparable women who were not on the Pill.”
Weight gain, mood swings, headaches/migraines, fluid retention, nausea and brittle bones
Due to the added strain that processing hormonal contraceptives place on our liver, various symptoms can occur. Weight gain, mood swings and migraines can start to appear. If we already suffered from them prior to taking hormonal contraceptives, they could become exacerbated.
Alexandra Pope is the co-founder of the Red School and author of The Pill: Are you sure it’s for you? She said “Studies have shown that some hormonal contraceptives cause significant loss of bone mineral density which may not be completely reversible when a woman stops taking hormonal contraceptives. Research has found that ‘third-generation’ oral contraceptives that have been available since 1985 carry a higher risk of blood clots.”
Cancer, stroke and blood clots
In 2002, the US government published a report on carcinogens; cancer-causing substances. Synthesised estrogen used in hormonal contraceptives and estrogen replacement therapy was added to the official list of known human carcinogens. A large study on hormone-replacement therapy discovered that taking synthetic estrogen increased incidences of breast and uterine cancer, stroke and blood clots.
In 2014, the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health published a report: 50 years of hormonal contraception — time to find out what it does to our brain. Literature suggests that synthetic steroids in hormonal contraceptives may affect brain structure, function and behaviour. Hormonal contraceptives have been linked to masculinizing as well as feminizing effects on brain and behavior.
At the time of this publication, hormonal contraceptives had been on the market for more than 50 years. At this point, 100 million women were on hormonal contraceptives worldwide. Hormonal contraception is being made readily available to girls as young as 10 years old. The aforementioned behavioral changes could cause a shift in society dynamics. Researchers have recommended further studies should be carried out to find out more.
5. Imbalanced hormones, regulating the cycle and reproductive health issues
More girls and women are being prescribed the Pill to ‘balance’ their hormones or to ‘regulate’ their cycle. People diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are being prescribed the Pill as a way to alleviate symptoms.
Although the Pill can help to reduce symptoms, it will only mask the issue and won’t get to the root cause. If and when we stop taking the Pill, our symptoms are likely to reappear and could potentially be worse than before. Despite what we are told, the Pill does not balance or regulate your hormones. It isn’t a real treatment for any type of reproductive health issue.
Getting the right support you need
When we suffer with menstrual cycle problems, it can often feel like nothing will help to alleviate the physical and emotional pain. We may feel a sense of hopelessness which I innerstand and empathise with. I’ve been there too.
Much of our menstrual cycle problems could be due to our cycle having been shamed and suppressed for many years. When we ignore our cycle, it can put psychological and physical stress on us.
Lisa Higgins is a fellow Menstruality Mentor and trainee Counsellor. She said “Removing the shame [around the menstrual cycle] would save lives.” This is one of the most powerful and truthful statements I’ve ever heard. When we bring awareness to our cycle, we re-establish a relationship with it. In time, we’re able to transform our experience of our cycle for the better.
Experience has taught me that women feel less than satisfied with the support and guidance they receive from doctors. Many say that it’s just something they have to live with for the rest of their life and prescribe hormonal therapy. This doesn’t have to be the case and there are ways to get over these issues though natural methods.
If you suffer from severe reproductive health issues, I suggest working with a naturopath. A naturopath is someone who employs no surgery or synthetic drugs. Instead they use special diets, herbs, vitamins and massage to assist the natural healing processes. It’s by no means a quick fix. But with effort and dedication, it will be possible to restore balance to your hormones and live a normal life.
You may wish to check out the work of Naturopath, Homeopath & Life Coach Gosia at Healthy2Gether. She works with women with reproductive health issues and may be able to support you.
6. Alternative methods of birth control
You may feel you are ready to come off hormonal contraceptives. There are many effective non-hormonal contraceptives available. Methods such as condoms, the copper IUD and the diaphragm. Alisa Vitti is a women’s Hormonal Health Specialist. She provides a breakdown of seven non-hormonal birth control options should you wish to learn more.
Natural fertility awareness is something that is becoming increasingly popular but understandably, can seem a little daunting at first. In theory, there is only a short time when you can become pregnant. Natural fertility awareness teaches you to recognise your body’s natural signal of fertility — cervical mucus.
While our reproductive system is complex, it does provide us with signals to indicate the fertile and infertile times in our cycle. Natural fertility awareness calls for us to become very aware of what our body is doing on any given day. As well as being empowering, it really is so much fun learning about and innerstanding your body on such an intimate level! I recommend Billings Life to learn more about natural fertility awareness.
It goes without saying that natural fertility awareness does not protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). When engaging in sexual activity with a new partner, please ensure you both get checked prior to using this method of contraception.
7. Coming off hormonal contraceptives
When you come off hormonal contraceptives, there may be a transitioning period for your cycle to return to a rhythm that is normal for you. In most cases, it can take around three months or more for your cycle to return. Pooja Mahtani, functional nutritionist provides detailed advice on what to know before you transition off hormonal contraceptives.
As well as your physical cycle returning, you may also have to contend with how it affects you on an emotional and psycho-spiritual level. I spent three years noticing the rush of excitement, self-love, and sexual energy and the downward spiral of low energy, sadness, and self-criticism. I thought this was just a part of my personality and something I would have to contend with throughout my life. However, once I started to track my cycle on a daily basis, I noticed these very clear patterns coincided with the first and second half of my cycle.
Through this awareness, I was able to transform my relationship with my cycle by practicing radical self care. I’m delighted to say that I no longer suffer with those extreme moods. I’m learning how to navigate my life with more innerstanding and precision which has opened up a consistent state of flow. Read my article Menstrual Cycle = Magic to learn more about my menstrual cycle awareness journey.
By acknowledging and honouring your cycle, in time, it will return to a normal rhythm. When it does, it will start to support you in more ways you could ever have imagined possible. If you feel called to dive deep into your cycle, please do find out more about Homecoming, my 12-week menstrual cycle awareness course.
In order to help you make more sense of your cycle, I’ve included two simple, yet powerful practices below:
Place one hand over your heart and the other hand over your womb.
Bring awareness to your breath for two minutes.
Feel your breath moving into your chest, as if your heart is breathing. Allow your breath to nourish your heart. Invoke a feeling of gratitude in your heart and lay still for a moment.
Feel your breath moving into your womb, as if your womb is breathing. Allow your breath to nourish your womb. Invoke a feeling of gratitude in your womb and lay still for a moment.
Open yourself up to receiving any messages, visions and insights until you feel a sense of calm wash over you.
Some days may be a challenge, some days it may effortlessly flow. You are a cyclical and dynamic being. Absolutely perfect and the way nature intended.
Journaling is a therapeutic approach. Writing what you notice about your cycle helps you make much more sense of what is going on for you. Having an uncensored outlet to write your thoughts and feelings freely can help you to gain control over your emotions. It can also give you a different perspective about your issue. Journaling helps you to identify different triggers and patterns. Over time it allows you to see when you’re at your best and when you’re at your worst.
I’m brought back to the title of this article: ‘Is the Pill good for our overall health and wellbeing?’
I acknowledge that hormonal contraceptives have had a major impact on the liberation and the freedom of women.
However, hormonal contraceptives are designed to shut down the natural working order of our cycle. This has a knock on effect on other essential bodily functions which creates a myriad of health issues. When taking hormonal contraceptives, we are denied our natural rhythm which stops us from innerstanding ourselves on a deeper level. Just by hormonal contraceptives being in existence, they can subconsciously make us believe there is something wrong with us.
There is nothing wrong with us.
There is something wrong with a society that makes us believe our menstrual cycle is a problem that needs to be fixed.
Our menstrual cycle does not need to be fixed.
What needs to be fixed is society’s perception of the menstrual cycle and the relationship we have with our own cycle.
A vision for the future
Having a healthy and intimate relationship results in us having a healthy and intimate relationship with ourselves. When we fully love all parts of us, we are at ease in our own skin. When we are content in our own being, this has a tremendously positive effect on our loved ones.
Becoming acutely and intimately aware of our cycle has infinite benefits. We begin to innerstand the multi-layered, biological, psychological, and spiritual system of evolution that lies within our body. This sparks a journey of self-discovery, intimacy and healing.
Our body is magnificently intelligent and at any given moment, it’s giving us messages about how we’re feeling. Whether this be emotionally, physically and psycho-spiritually. It’s just a matter of tuning in and becoming aware of what it’s saying to us. When we listen, we learn how to optimise our life depending on where we are in our cycle. We are able to truly take control of all aspects of our life.
Since time immemorial, women have been conditioned to disconnect from their bodies. As a result, many feel that being able to connect with their bodies in this way is not something that they can achieve. That it sounds like a challenging spiritual journey that only few are destined to experience. This is not so. This is accessible to every single women. Once we take that first step, in time, our body will unravel itself to us.
Read my article “Red tents and their link to spirituality’ to learn how the Native American culture viewed women and their menstrual cycle.
My prayer for you
I developed a number of health issues in my 20s and early 30s. These ranged from heart palpitations to digestive problems to loss of sex drive to depression. Over the course of around 14 months, my smear tests were coming back with abnormalities and showing pre-cancerous cells. This resulted in me having surgery to have a small part of my cervix removed where the abnormal cells were located. Not once did I put any of these symptoms down to the Pill. No nurse or doctor suggested that the Pill may have been causing my troubles despite all the medical evidence out there. I do wonder to what extent my taking the Pill had a contributing factor to all my health issues.
My prayer is for you to have the correct information about hormonal contraceptives. I hope you make an informed decision about whether they are right for you. I certainly wish that I had been given this information before I started taking the Pill at 18.