Paleo Plan

Is The Birth Control Pill Worth It?

After being told three times in the last two months by a gynecologist or otherwise vagina-related medical person that I should go on the pill, I decided to write a post on this ubiquitous pharmaceutical. My PA, MD, and med tech’s heavy-handed suggestions to start taking hormonal contraception came as a surprise to me every time, especially because my visits to these people had absolutely nothing to do with potential babies.

I think I actually made them slightly angry, or at least surprised them back, by telling them that I would “rather get pregnant than take hormones.” With that – and only with that – they all left it alone. I know that other women have similar experiences, but many of them walk away from a simple pap smear with a package of pills they suppose are harmless and necessary, instead of declining the offer. What many women don’t know is that the pill may not be so harmless.

And we’re talking about a LOT of women taking the pill. According to the Guttmacher Institute, of the 67 million women in the U.S. of childbearing age in 2010, about 20% – or 13.2 million of them – were taking some sort of hormonal contraceptive, whether it was a pill, an injection, or a ring. The pill is the most popular form of contraception, the second being female sterilization.

Side Effects

The pill is not only prescribed for anti-baby-making purposes. It’s also given to women for endometriosis, skin problems, PCOS, PMS, pelvic inflammatory disease, heavy periods, and moodiness to name a few. It’s effective for assuaging the symptoms – not the root cause – of most of those things if you find the right dose and cocktail of hormones. (Hmmm… I think I know of a diet that might help with those symptoms, too…) But it’s long been known that the pill often comes with side effects, not the least of which is stroke. Among the other side effects are acne, mood swings, weight gain/loss, decrease in libido, increase in breast size, increased yeast infections, depression, cancer, and problems conceiving after stopping the pill.

Mark Sisson at marksdailyapple.com recently did a really great job of rounding up the pros and cons of the pill in this blog post. I highly suggest you read it. However, I think he left out a few important points. Let’s discuss these.

Cancer

Mark goes over cancer in his post, but here’s an interesting addition to what he said. In a 2010 article in the journal, Human Reproduction Update, they reviewed the research involving cancer and oral contraceptives (OC’s from now on) and found that the use of OC’s increased the chances of breast cancer, cervical cancer, benign liver tumors, and liver cancer. They found a decrease in ovarian and endometrial cancers. However, they conclude that, “Women wishing to use combined OC [OC that contains both progesterone and estrogen] can be reassured that their decision is unlikely to place them at higher risk of developing cancer.” Huh?

Infertility

Sometimes women find it difficult to conceive when they get off the pill. When you introduce synthetic hormones into your body, you stop creating your own progesterone and estrogen. You indefinitely trick your body into thinking you’re pregnant (that sounds weird, doesn’t it?). So after a stint on the pill, some people’s periods don’t come back for a while or they come back erratically, which means they have unreliable ovulation. This can last months or years. Some people have problems conceiving after they go off the pill because they went on the pill in the first place for erratic or abnormal periods. So for those people, there’s probably an underlying problem that the pill only masked. For them, I suggest cleaning up their diet and trying to heal that issue naturally. Getting the proper amount and types of fats, not creating a super insulin and sugar-charged environment, and having good hormonal balance are the things pregnancy calls for. You know where I’m going with this.

Candida (Yeast Infections)

Here’s the deal. Candida albicans is a nasty little fungus, or yeast, that lives in your body all the time. It’s only when the environment is just right that it can take over and start causing problems, not the least of which is an itchy, burning vagina. The hormonal changes during pregnancy increase the amount of glucose in the vagina, and yeast runs rampant when there’s plenty of sugar for it to eat. According to the book, Biology of Women (pg. 253), by Ethel Sloane, it’s thought that the same thing happens when you’re on the pill. It’s also believed by some that estrogen stimulates the yeast to glom onto the vaginal walls and wreak havoc, whereas in the absence of estrogen it just kind of harmlessly hangs out in there. Whatever the cause, it’s been shown that the risk for yeast overgrowth doubles for women on the pill. By the way, if you suffer from yeast infections, I can tell you from personal experience that eating Paleo can work wonders for this life-wrecking problem.

Insulin Resistance

A lot of studies, including this one, are pointing to the pill as a cause of insulin resistance. Do we really need anything else in our daily lives tempting us to create insulin resistance? Aren’t the donuts enough?

Conclusion

To be clear, I’m not saying that everyone should get off the pill immediately. Well, if I dared to be politically incorrect, I would actually say that, but that’s like me saying I want all pitbulls to be removed from Boulder, and I would never say that… But seriously, my main message here is this: Think before you take the oral contraceptive your doctor shoves into your hands. Maybe even accept them and then go home and do some serious research on the topic before you actually put them in your mouth. It may not be worth it. Yeah, you may have cramps or swollen breasts before your period. You may even have terribly painful periods, zits, or even PCOS, but that’s just your body telling you that the food you’re eating isn’t optimal. As you improve your diet, you can use those symptoms as a gauge for how much you’re improving your health. Yes, I realize that the pill is a good way to avoid pregnancy, as well as improve those symptoms. And no, I don’t want millions more unplanned babies on this planet. But I also hate to see a woman suffer needlessly just because her boyfriend doesn’t want to wear a condom. Or because her trusty doctor says she should take a pill.

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26 Comments

  1. I used to do the pill, but stopped because it was just so damn annoying to remember. I recently opted to get an IUD, which comes in two flavors – hormones and copper. I went for the copper, since adding extra hormones to your body always seems a bit sketchy, and it’s been working out great for me.
    I’d be curious to hear what you guys think of the IUD.

  2. Stephanie Midkiff

    Infertility is the #1 reason why I started eating paleo 5 weeks ago. I was on the pill for about 3 years and went off late April of last year. Since then, I have only had 2 periods. Oh, and I am very healthy and active, (although until 5 weeks ago yes I was eating the “healthy” Western diet…but still…) I would like to start trying to have kids and it’s heartbreaking that we can’t start trying yet because my body is so wrecked. Paleo is my hope that things will turn around soon… does anyone else have a similar story? Any encouraging news after months of Paleo?

  3. IUD…

  4. Thanks for writing this article. I think this should be spoken of more.

    Natural Family Planning (temperature & discharge tracking) takes me 30 seconds a day to log and works awesome. I’ve been married 1.5 years and am so thankful for this alternative because I didn’t want to be on birth control. By tracking daily with my temp, there’s even an iPhone app (via http://www.fertilityfriend.com/) that tells me when I’m fertile. The book “Taking Charge of your Fertility” by Toni Weschler was a huge help to me. It’s a bit overwhelming at first, but after a few months it’s so easy and fast.

  5. I was on the pill for EVER, I just recently came off when I found crossfit and the paleo lifestyle. Now that I am ready for kids I am finding it very difficult to get pregnant. I wish that I wasnt so nieve about putting hormones in my body at such a young age.
    All I can say now is always question and educate yourself about what “doctor’s” want you to put in your body, its your body.

  6. So glad to hear I’m not the only one shocked by the speed and ease at which the pill is prescibed! I’m a nurse and I work in nutrition and lifestyle medicine. The pill routinely blocks my ability to help many of my patients. The biggest problem I see associated with it, is it destroys gut health as most prescriptions do. Gut health is so important in immunity! I also see a lot of estrogen toxicity and the pill just contributes to it. You couldn’t pay me to take the pill, I’ll use nutrients to balance out my chemistry thank you very much.

    Sincerely,
    The nurse who decided working in a chiro office was a better fit ;) No prescriptions here!

  7. lbgardener

    Thanks for this article. I’m 47 and was on the pill for 22 years minus a few years of childbearing. I didn’t seem to have any problems and it was convenient. However, looking back, I wonder if that’s why I have hypothyroidism and gluten sensitiviy. I too would like to hear more about an IUD. I am due to have my IUD with hormones removed next month and the dr. suggested getting it replaced. I like not having periods but I think it would be freeing to not have those synthetic hormones in me. My fertility should be used up by now but apparently I need to worry about it until I’m in complete menopause which could be another five years.

  8. I have also chosen to steer clear of artificial hormones. Also very curious to know your thoughts on the copper (non-hormonal) IUD.

    • @Heather – The IUD is a good choice for some people, but for those with heavy periods or endometriosis, it will on make them worse (probably). And I’ve heard of a number of people having problems with them, even when they didn’t have bad periods to begin with. I’m not going to get one any time soon…

  9. I have a copper IUD, thinking this was the best option out there, since i didn’t want hormones. But I recently went to get an ionic foot bath were they pull heavy metals and other toxins from your body, and she told me that having copper in your body has just as many bothersome side effects as taking hormones. Copper affects your PMS negetively by hightening it or making you feel just crazy or more emotional or depressed than you would without it. Copper draws blood from your body so heavier flows can occur. She also said that copper toxicity can aggravate acne and a couple other things I can’t remember. I would research not just the copper iud if you are considering it but also do a google search of “copper toxicity” or “side effects of too much copper in the body”

  10. I’m 22, currently on birth control and recently converted my vegan diet to a more paleo focused diet. (I’ve never felt better and am loving the switch)While I agree that we shouldn’t naively believe in the promise of pharmaceuticals and everything doctor’s say.. I do believe that birth control is completely necessary in my life, at this point in time and can offer women an alternative to using condoms. Of course infertility and cancer are a major concern which is why I try to eat a diet that is reflective of these concerns, but for me birth control (the pill) is the best available solution for a busy college lifestyle (or any active lifestyle for that manner) and an active sexual lifestyle.

    The side effects far outweigh the risk of getting pregnant at this moment in time. Period. I would be devastated and completely unable to care for a child at this point in my life. Condoms are uncomfortable, irritating, and expensive. I do not suffer needlessly because of my partner’s unwillingness to use condoms whatsoever. I don’t think its fair to suggest that this is the case for all women and to offer no alternatives to birth control. It makes practical sense for me in my life currently and honestly the pill makes intercourse much more intimate. I think exploring your contraceptive options and creating an honest, equal, and non-confrontational discourse with your partner is of primary importance if healthy bodies and minds are our end goals.

    I came to this website hoping to be inspired by recipes and success stories, not lectured on why I shouldn’t be on birth control. Suggesting that everyone stop taking birth control (which you inadvertently did despite your best attempts not to) isn’t realistic for every woman and there are many benefits to taking it that are hardly mentioned here.

    • @J – Point taken. If you know about the potential side effects and it’s still worth it to you, then that’s great. My main concern is that women don’t usually know about the potential harm it can do to them because their docs don’t tell them and they assume their docs would. They’re just told to take them no questions asked. Thanks for writing in about this side of the story.

  11. The problem with going off progesterone-only pills for endometriosis is that I wouldn’t know if it were getting worse until I tried getting pregnant, or got another cyst.

  12. I went on the pill because my natural period is torture. My pains are SO bad that I puke my guts out, have explosive diarhea and curl up in a ball crying. I can’t even drink a little sip of water cause I’ll start puking again and if nothing is left, I’ll puke up bile. Then on top of that I have extremely heavy blood flow, I’ll soak through a thick bad. Solution: the Pill! I love it. Mom demanded the doctor put me on the pill. I’ve been on it since I was 13. I am a little bit worried about eventually trying to conveive though. I thought about putting a copper IUD, but then I’ll stil have my natural period and then something in my uterus on top of that, I’d probably black out from the pain O.o

  13. Thank you for a well-thought-out, concise round-up of the pros and cons of taking the Pill. It’s so common nowadays for women to be sent home with the handy-dandy packet of contraception that not many women take a minute to really consider the implications of eating synthetic hormones every day.

    Thanks for a great article.

  14. Wow! This the article I needed at that right time. I have been doing paleo for 8 months now and feeling great. I was on the pill for several years and just recently started again. I was saying the other day that it made me feel so awful, my symptoms were worse then ever, I felt like blah…. The only thing I could attribute it to was the pill. I never related that feeling to the pill before because I wasnt eatting right. I get it now! Thank you for the info. It makes complete sense and its time to kick the pill :)

  15. thanks for this. I know it wasn’t a popular post to write. It is so much easier to fix the pain symptoms of so many gynocological diseases with a pill rather than make lifestyle changes. Natural cures take time to really heal underlying problems… something our Instant Culture doesn’t tolerate. Plus, admitting that you just shouldn’t do things you find pleasureable – eating tons of sugar, or drinking large quantitities of alcohol run totally counter cultural. Living Paleo to find your health is a commitment to go the other direction – and often alone.
    I find it equally upsetting that the Paleo community in general seems to think that lots of good sex is somehow healthy. Yes of course it does a body good, but it is infuriating to see the blatant ignorance of the social context around hunter gatherers and their sex lives. To think HG’s had casual sex every night with whomever they met on the hunt is not true. To live a Paleo lifestyle would necessarily mean giving a bit more thought to the social unit you live in, instead of the neolithic habit of clubbing of another sort. Yep that probably means that the HG’s looked at sex as being tied to chilldren, which weren’t a burden and disease to be avoided or aborted. So I realize this is equally unpopular, but if you claim to live a paleo lifestyle, without putting some abstinence and monogamy and commitment into your sexual relations, well then you really aren’t living paleo. And the beauty of it is, IF you really do commit to it, the number of women who really NEED hormonal intervention is so, so small.

    And if we got to where we were only treating those women with hormones, maybe our fish wouldn’t be sucking up all the excess estrogen in our water supply and becoming genetically altered. OC’s are a choice, but they aren’t Paleo. Period.

  16. McKenna

    Great post. I did the same research several years ago after my 1st child and I’ve been a happy Paraguard IUD users for 15+ years. No hormones. No problems. No (unplanned) babies. The IUD can be used now in women who haven’t had children. Just something to consider.

  17. Interesting that you mentioned PCOS. PCOS is most often connected with Insulin Resistance as the underlying issue. OC’s make IR worse.

    Therefore, the medication which is prescribed to control a medical issue is actually making it worse, while making the women taking it feel like it’s making them better…

  18. Good article!
    I thought I should add one more reason to not use birth control pills .http://users.wpi.edu/~ldery/documents/sciencefairreport.pdf
    The link talks about ways to remove estrogen from drinking water supplies. It is needed because birth control pills cause our bodies to excrete the hormone which then goes into our drinking water system. Apparently causes sterility in animals and humans who drink the water.
    I used birth control pills for 4 years before kicking them out for good . Mostly used it for my unbearably painful period caused by estrogen dominance. I had uterine fibroids that cause painful period. On moving to a paleo diet – I now have 3 day periods that are light and almost pain free. I can bear it without the 2 advils I needed before.
    If I’d had the knowledge then of what hormones could do to your body – I would never have spent 4 years doing pills. :(.
    But when you are young…*sigh* :(.
    I’d gladly support a campaign to end birth control pills amongst young ones :(.or To atleast educate the more health conscious young people about it.

  19. As a pharmacist – and a natural health advocate – I can tell you that one of the most common complaints of women on hormonal birth control is the drop-off in libido. Remember, these hormones are designed to inhibit ovulation – which is when a woman’s sex drive is generally at it’s peak.

    My wife and I have been using a fertility monitor called Lady Comp for the last two years with good results. It’s not perfect, but it is an option that some women may want to look at. It also allows a woman (and a man) to get a much better appreciation for the natural changes in a woman’s cycle.

  20. 2burpeeornot2burpee

    The very first time I was offered birth control was when I was 13! I have never forgotten it, because my Dr told me she could supply me birth control at no cost and my parents would never know. When I said no as I had no interest in sex before marriage, she insisted as sex can be quite enjoyable during one’ s youth! unbelievable that Dr’s are encouraged to push these and I found out years later it is because they receive money for it from the pharmaceutical companies per instance. Gross!

  21. O I wish I could follow this so much but two advil a day does not suffice I require oxcy as many as 8 just to get through some shifts. As I have endometriosis. I would greatly like to Conceive but fainting at work is not a desirable work skill. Not to mention my body over produces estrogen normally. .Very much interested in what causes endo or extra estrogen and if its possible to go off of male cancer drugs I am on without my issues coming back
    All my husband and I more than anything is to stop the miscarriagesand be able to function normally. Is it possible

  22. I had an unwanted pregnancy at the age of 16. It was not a pleasant experience, which left an emotional print. I’ve been on the pill for over 20 year and got off it for a few years because I was contemplating having children. I am 38 and leaning more towards not having children. I doubt that anyone would rather get pregnant than take a pill…I am also a proud pit-bull owner. There is a lot of research on the web regarding the pill, which in my opinion is much better option than abortion or an unwanted baby.

  23. I also have huge qualms about taking birth control. I have PCOS (polycystic ovaries) and some other fun disorders, like PTSD (an anxiety disorder that may worsen if b/c affects it badly.) Doctors have been pushing all manner of pills at me since I was fifteen (am 23 now.) So far I’ve avoided them. I don’t have the very best diet but I do try. And I take carefully researched vitamins and natural over the counter progesterone cream – which helps with symptoms somewhat but does nothing to prevent pregnancy, actually causes me to be more fertile. Anyway I’m pretty confused about what the environmentally friendly, healthy-happy-body choice is here. I absolutely can’t have a child at this time for all sorts of reasons, and have had two miscarriages in the last year. I need to figure something out, obviously. My guy and I are willing to use condoms, but I’m allergic to all types and they fall off too easy. But open one of the birth control pamphlets, and read about the blood clotting and interesting possible death scenarios? Hmm. I wish articles like this would have some discussion of possible alternatives to hormonal b/c. Natural family planning is great for people who can use it, but it’s not too highly effective. And for people like me, who don’t have regular cycles to chart, it’s just not an option. By the way I agree with one of the other comments – I didn’t understand where the pitbull prejudice was coming from or why it was included in an article about women’s health. Not cool.

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