Birth Controlled: Hormonal Contraception and the Alternatives

Birth Controlled: A look at the health impacts of hormonal contraception - janny: organically.

I recently saw the headline "Bride Says Birth Control Caused Stroke" and I nodded, thinking, yep, sounds about right. Why was I not surprised? Well, let's see how many women rely on hormonal birth control.

Nearly 30% of American women (aged 15-44) are using a form of hormonal birth control. That's just under 17 million women. Over half of them are not even using it to prevent pregnancy!

More than half of pill users, 58%, rely on the method at least in part for purposes other than pregnancy prevention. Thirty-one percent use it for cramps or menstrual pain, 28% for menstrual regulation, 14% for acne, 4% for endometriosis, and 11% for other unspecified reasons (Source).

So what's the big deal? Well, the most common side effects include: acne, PMS, PMDD, heavy and painful periods, weight gain, migraines, decreased libido, blood clots, nausea, water retention, mood swings, breast tenderness and so on...not to mention the long lasting hormonal disruption to the body.

To take it a step further: Progesterone-Estrogen hormonal contraception is now classified as the worst type of carcinogen: Group 1 - a known cancer causing substance. You simply cannot administer artificial hormones without a countless list of minor or severe side effects. 

Additionally, a 2016 study from the University of Copenhagen has confirmed a link between hormonal contraception and depression.

If you are taking a hormonal form of birth control for reasons other than preventing pregnancy, I encourage you to have a read over these findings. Don't worry, I'll address alternative forms of pregnancy contraceptives as well. 

We all know the only true form of pregnancy prevention, right? Say it with me: Crocs

Birth Controlled: A look at the health impacts of hormonal contraception - janny: organically.

Note: I get it. I understand the need for birth control. I get that there are countless reason why a woman would not want to get pregnant, including death. These aren't my calls to make, I'm simply want to share my findings and alternatives. Personally, I feel like my body would not recover from another pregnancy, and work to avoid it, but not at the cost of doing additional damage to my body...my body that is continuing to heal and recover from the damage done by the birth control itself.

History

By now you know that I, along with many of American women, have a history and ongoing battle with hormonal imbalance. I have talked about my miracle baby, Sawyer, and natural ways to combat the endocrine disorder, PCOS along with my views regarding links to the uptick in hormonal disruption from our food, environment and household and beauty supplies. 

Years ago, I backtracked my health issues trying to determine when it all started to fall apart. I had been asthmatic and allergic from the age of 4 and spent Christmas with pneumonia every year as a child. Conventional medicine, including steroids, allergy shots and countless prescriptions, seemed to make me dependent on more medication every year while I developed additional issues.

But then there was a shift. I can pinpoint the time my hormonal disruption began to be apparent: When I started The Pill. 

The doctors put me on a variety of different pill brands as my body reacted to each one by weight-gain, mood swings, irregular periods, PMS, and acne, even my stick straight hair became curly. Prior to birth control, I had my period every 30 days like clockwork with no cramps or PMS. 

One doctor suggested I take the NuvaRing. A vaginal form of birth control that stays inside your vaginal walls releasing their synthetic hormones on a regular basis. He said it was great because I didn't have to worry about taking a pill every day, and I could remove it at the 3 week mark to have a period or keep it in an extra week if I didn't want to have a period at all! Yikes.

After a few days on the Ring, my body revolted. My breasts grew astronomically. I'm talking several cup sizes in a matter of days that left me with deep, bleeding stretch marks that I'm left with to this day. I cringe when I see their commercials. I can't believe they are still on the market. 

I was young and naive. There is so much I would have done differently if I had known just a little bit more. 

Take Caution

Women and especially mothers of young girls, I urge you to take note. It may come as no surprise that doctors are suggesting birth control pills to girls under the age of 10 already!

Many young girls are starting puberty by age 7 due hormonal disruptions, while PMS, irregular and painful periods are considered the norm, and doctors are continually pushing hormonal birth control to "regulate" cycles, clear up acne, relieve pain and in the more recent years, allow women to schedule or skip their periods out of convenience.

This is serious stuff, guys and gals. Your body is designed to work within the proper ebbs and flows of hormones, but when we suppress problems instead of address them, our systems become monumentally jacked up.

What is a period?

A period, mense or menstruation is the monthly vaginal shedding of the uterine lining during a female's reproductive age. Your body's hormones fluctuate throughout the month starting with lower estrogen and progesterone as your cycle begins with a period. The estrogen gradually increases during the Follicular Phase, then peaks, stimulating ovulation. The progesterone and estrogen then balance together during Luteal Phase, then drop together causing the onset of your period.

How Does Hormonal Birth Control Work?

Hormonal Contraception: The Pill, Patch, Ring, Shot 

Hormonal birth control works by administering doses of artificial hormones in order to maintain a high level of estrogen and progesterone, mimicking pregnancy, and therefore suppressing ovulation AND your period.

Wait. I know you may think you are actually getting your period on the pill, but you're not. Keep reading. Your period occurs approximately 14 days after ovulation if pregnancy does not occur. If ovulation is irregular or non-existant, chances are your period is delayed/missing as well. 

Too often the irregularities are blamed on the period itself, when in reality, it is ovulation that needs attention. When ovulation is healthy and regular, so are your periods. 

A healthy, regular period tells me that all is well with her underlying health. If a woman does not have healthy periods, then I keep working with her until she does. We use her period as a helpful, useful marker guiding her health decisions. We think of it as her monthly report card.
— Laura Briden, MD http://www.hormonesmatter.com/heal-with-friends-podcast-4-period/

Unfortunately, when doctors recommend hormonal birth control for regulation, the synthetic hormones are temporarily masking the symptoms and compounding the root problem. The bleeding you experience while on the pill is not an actual period, it technically "withdrawal bleeding", caused when you start the inactive pills in your birth control pack (or remove vaginal hormonal contraception), and will stop bleeding once the active artificial hormones are reintroduced 5 days later.

In addition to the typical side effects to hormonal birth control, they also lower free thyroid hormones and testosterone, depletes B vitamins. and raise SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin), a protein that binds free testosterone and may make it biologically inert.  

Every hormone eventually impacts another, which impacts another, which impacts another and so on. It took me years to figure this out. I was so sure that once we fixed my progesterone production, everything would be fine. But guess what, my thyroid, cortisol, adrenals, DHEA, testosterone - all awry! Throw in my reversal of FSH and LH levels, I was a hormonal wrecking ball! And it wasn't necessarily because every single hormone had a problem; perhaps one or two were an issue and they all ultimately affected the entire hormonal balance. 

I should note that many doctors will run a few tests on their patients, but it's rarely an entire hormone panel and almost never done at the right time. For example, when testing Thyroid, typically a TSH is run. But you also need to know T3 and T4 levels as well and how all three relate to each other. These should tested within a day or two of the start of your cycle to get a proper baseline. (I discuss full hormone panels in more detail here.)

 

It's Not Just The Pill, Patch, Ring and Shot

There are other forms of hormonal birth control available that can be even more dangerous:

  • Birth Control Implant: A plastic device inserted under the skin to release artificial progesterone in order to suppress ovulation
    • Side effects include nausea, stomach cramping/bloating/pain, dizziness, headache, mood changes, depression, breast tenderness or pain, acne, hair loss, weight gain, problems with contact lenses, sore throat, flu symptoms, back pain, nervousness, menstrual cramps, changes in menstrual periods and vaginal irritation or discharge. Pain, bruising, numbness, infection, tingling, minor bleeding and scarring may occur at the site where rode is placed.  
  • IUD (Intrauterine Device): A T-Shaped plastic device inserted inside the uterus with artificial progesterone to suppress ovulation or copper to irritate the uterine lining to obstruct sperm transport, though conception can still occur, the IUD then can prevent implantation (early abortion).
    • IUD's can cause uterine perforation which may lead to a hysterectomy, and infections, such as a pelvic or tubo-ovarian abscess. 
    • Other side effects: Ectopic pregnancy, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), back aches, anemia, bleeding between periods, cramps, vaginal inflammation, pain during sex, severe menstrual pain, heavy bleeding, vaginal discharge. 
    • Copper IUD's can cause copper toxicity, symptoms of which can be: Feelings of doom, fatigue and exhaustion, hypothyroid, foggy mind, headaches/migraines, mood swings, weepiness, cold hands and/or feet, depression, dry skin, feeling of loss of control, paranoia, despair, suicidal feelings, hopelessness, arthritis, calcium spurs, constipation, racing heart, pounding heart, adverse reaction to vitamins and minerals, problems with concentration and memory, short attention span, eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia or overeating, panic attacks, high anxiety, free floating anxiety, yeast infections, aching muscles or muscle cramps, hypoglycemia, insomnia, interrupted sleep, PMS, mononucleosis, low blood pressure, obsessive thoughts

Dangerous Forms of non-hormonal birth control

I'm glad we didn't take the vasectomy route with my husband. Yikes!

Non-Hormonal Alternatives

Condoms and Diaphragms

  • Obviously, as with any form of birth control, these also do not guarantee to prevent pregnancy.
    • Condoms have a 18% failure rate
    • Diaphragms have a 12% failure rate
  • While condoms help protect against STDs, Diaphragms do not
  • Spermicide is recommended for use with both products but
    • Spermacide disrupts vaginal bacteria and can cause itching, irritation, UTI, bladder pain and even Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), 
      • There was no difference in effectiveness using the diaphragm without spermacide

We currently use Sustain's Fair-Trade, Ethical, Vegan non-GMO condoms or GLYDE's Ethical, Fair-Trade, Vegan condoms which are certified ethical, vegan & fair trade. They are plant-based without any harmful additives or chemicals, and NO spermacide. Even the packages are crafted with recycled materials and soy and vegetable ink. I mean, if there was a product out there like this, you had to know I'd be using it, right?? ;)

There is also a lubricant called Good Clean Love which is 95% Organic and uses simple ingredients (Aloe juice, xanthan gum, seaweed, lactic acid). A lube like KY jelly uses nasty chemicals, parabens and preservatives. Blech. 

Natural Family Planning

And Basal Body Temperature

While my husband and I used the Rhythm Method with great success, except that one time we forgot what day it was and said 'screw it' (Oh hey, Sawyer! So glad we threw caution to the wind!) my body has been less predictable postpartum, so my next venture will be into the world of tracking more trends, like Basal Body Temp as recommended by Natural Family Planning. 

  • Websites like Fertility Tracker can help monitor and graph trends
  • Products like iBasal or Ovacue can be used to measure BBT to predict ovulation and are reusable
  • Products like ClearBlue Easy Monitors track the Luteinizing Hormone to predict ovulation but require additional strips
  • Upcoming tech inventions like YONO wearable thermometer - see below!

YONO Wearable BBT

Update 8/21/15: Since this was posted, I came upon a KickStarter Campaign for a wearable Basal Body Thermometer.  This is the first in-ear wearable thermometer and captures the real core body temperature instead of skin temperature, providing reliable Basal Body Temperature (BBT) for women trying to conceive. 

Though this isn't marketed as a contraceptive device, I will be using it to be aware of fertile days to avoid pregnancy.

I met with the CEO, Vanessa Xi to discuss the project and play around with the device! (The perks of living in Silicon Valley!)

YONO The First Wearable Basal Body Thermometer #bbt #nfp #ttc #kickstarter
  • Place YONO in the ear before bed and remove in the morning
  • YONO comes in three sizes, fits snugly and comfortably in the ear without falling out
  • Measures core body temperature and syncs to the corresponding app with real BBT with usually happens between 2am-6am during sleep
  • Data transmission occurs once you are awake and place YONO on it's base
  • Data charting is synced to the corresponding YONO app informing your results and fertility predictions

G I V E A W A Y

I'm hosting a giveaway for one of these devices for December delivery - see my instagram page for more info! (This giveaway is now closed)

Women use NFP methods to achieve pregnancy, while in my case, I will be trying for the opposite. It will take time and commitment but I'll take that over all the dangerous, potentially lethal side risks of the other options.

These methods are about an awareness of what is going on with your body. Getting a baseline of your body's temperature throughout your entire cycle and predicts when ovulation will occur based on patterns. This investment of getting to know your body can be priceless - you could uncover endocrine conditions like PCOS or endometriosis simply by paying attention to your hormonal cues. 

Additional Help

This article is a great resource for coming off the pill the right way, what supplements to take and what to expect.

The Hormone Cure is a great place to start if you are having hormonal difficulty. The book starts with helpful quizzes to help you determine which hormone(s) may need addressing and how to start the process with food, vitamins and exercise.  If you know you have PCOS, my article about natural treatment might be helpful. 

I'll share my experience with BBT once I get some traction. Anyone with experience, please share!

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