The Birth Control Pill: Benefits and Side Effects
Not only do birth control pills prevent pregnancy, they also provide a host of other benefits like reduced PMS symptoms and lighter periods. Learn about the advantages of contraceptive pills and the possible side effects.
When you pop a birth control pill, your baby-making parts aren’t the only thing getting a treatment. That's because each of those little pills contains hormones that change the make-up of your body, says Toni Stern, M.D., Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Coney Island Hospital.
While some birth control pill side effects are good, others are less-than-ideal or downright dangerous. It’s important to note, however, that everyone responds to pill formulations in a different way. The drugs' concentration, type, and hormonal blend impact your body's reaction.
"Birth control can be very beneficial, and not just in terms of preventing pregnancy," Dr. Stern says. "But you must be proactive about it." Talk to your doctor about possible side effects and mention other medications (including supplements) that you're taking. If you have any problems with your birth control, your doctor can often prescribe you a different dosage or formulation. The simple switch might be all it takes to find your perfect pill and get your whole body in tip-top shape.
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Read on to learn about the benefits and potential side effects of birth control pills.
Benefits of Birth Control Pills
"Oral contraceptives have been around for 50 years. They've undergone many improvements, including decreasing the amounts of hormones put into the pills and using different forms of progesterones," says Wendy C. Wilcox, M.D. Vice Chairperson of the North Bronx Healthcare Network Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. "All that makes them safer." Here are five benefits of the contraceptive pill.
All women produce some testosterone, and while it's probably not enough to take your alto to a baritone, it can cause sebum (oil) production and breakouts. Decrease your levels of testosterone, and you often can decrease levels of acne, too, says Lisa M. Keder, M.D., Director of the General Division of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Ohio State University Medical Center.
Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Estrostep, and Yaz are the only birth control pills approved by the FDA to help reduce acne. What's the difference? They contain norgestimate, a form of skin-friendly progesterone, which can decrease levels of testosterone—and your investment on pore strips.
Alleviated Symptoms of PMS and PMDD
Birth control pills ease hormonal swings, meaning they can ease mood swings, too—especially those associated with PMS (premenstrual syndrome), or the more severe PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder), says Dr. Stern. That's because birth control pills supply your body with a constant level of estrogen and progesterone hormones. Some oral contraceptives, such as Yaz and Yasmin, can even decrease the frequency and severity of premenstrual symptoms such as bloating, water retention, breast tenderness, and cramping.
Oral contraceptives inhibit the growth of the endometrial lining, which sheds itself during your monthly flow. Less lining equals lighter (probably less painful) periods. More good news: Extended-cycle pills such as Seasonale, Seasonique, and Amethyst can slash the number of periods you get per year—just four with Seasonale and Seasonique, and zero with Amethyst.
Decreased Menstrual Migraines
About three weeks into your monthly cycle, your estrogen levels plummet. That's what brings on your period—and your headaches. Since most women experience shorter periods on the pill, they also have fewer headache-prone days. If menstrual migraines are still an issue, ask your doctor about extended-cycle pills such as Seasonale.
Better Gynecological Health
Contraceptive pills drastically reduce the lifetime risk of ovarian cancer—and the longer you take them, the better. Researchers from Harvard Medical School found a 10- to 12-percent decrease in risk after one year of use, and approximately a 50-percent decrease after five years of use. What’s more, birth control pills contribute to lower instances of endometrial cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and ectopic pregnancies, says Aleksandr M. Fuks, M.D., Director of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Queens Hospital Center.
Birth Control Pill Side Effects
Sometimes, birth control pills can have unpleasant or dangerous side effects. Learn about them here.
Hormonal pills slash libido-friendly testosterone in two ways: First, they quiet the ovaries, halting their production of testosterone. Second, they cause the liver to pump out a protein called the sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), which attaches onto sex hormones (including testosterone). But while contraceptives lower testosterone levels in all women, they only lower libido in some, Dr. Keder says. And even if the pill does affect your mojo, plenty of other factors—like anxiety about pregnancy—affect it, too. If you have serious problems below the belt, ask your doctor about switching to a different medication.
Increased Risk of Blood Clots
Chances are, you've heard this warning during more than one birth control pill commercial. But let's put things into perspective: Each year, 7 in 10,000 women experience blood clots. Birth control triples your chances, while pregnancy and childbirth raise your chances five- to ten-fold. As long as you don't have cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or a pack of cigarettes in your purse, the increased risk shouldn't be too serious," says Dr. Keder. But if you experience any signs of a blood clot, such as chest pain or a swollen leg, immediately stop the pill and see your doctor for an evaluation.
Spotting isn't fun, but don't worry—it isn't very serious, either. Most commonly occurring with low-dose birth control pills, it's believed to be caused by hormones making the endometrial lining thinner and more fragile, and more susceptible to wear, tear, and falling out. Studies have shown that the longer you take the pill, the less likely you are to experience breakthrough bleeding.
Decreased Milk Supply
If you're breastfeeding, steer clear of pills that contain estrogen; they can decrease breast-milk production by up to 5 percent. Progestin-only “mini pills” like Nor-Qd or Ortho Micronor don't interfere with lactation, but have to be taken at the same time every day, since they are slightly less effective than combination pills.
Birth control pills are a mood-saver for many women, but a mood-killer for others. Pill users are twice as likely to be depressed as nonusers, according to research from the Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre in Australia. "It's really pretty unusual," says Dr. Keder. "But any emotional side effects can generally be alleviated by using a different pill formulation." So don't suffer; tell your doctor if you have any worsening of depression symptoms.
Faux Premenstrual Symptoms
Headaches, breast tenderness, water retention, mood swings, nausea... While none of these are signs of health gone awry, they can all make you pretty miserable. Women who experience these side effects usually notice that they go away after they've taken birth control pills for a few months. If you feel like there's no end in sight, ask your doctor about a pill with drospirenone, a progesterone with fewer antiandrogenic properties, Dr. Wilcox suggests. The switch might be all you need to start feeling like yourself again.