Birth control pills scare the crap out of me. I recently researched the lower dose combination pill options and discovered that a single pill contains over 20 times the amount of estrogen your body normally produces. The pill’s job is to suppress progesterone, the pro-gestational hormone needed to get and stay pregnant. Taking this amount of synthetic estrogen– often for decades or more– leaves a women estrogen dominant.
Estrogen dominance is a precursor to many hormone-related cancers, such as breast cancer. Studies on the link between hormonal birth control and increased breast cancer risk do show that the pill increases breast cancer risk. It’s no wonder the pill comes with a packet of side effects a mile long. Side effects of birth control pills include the following:
- spotting, breakthrough bleeding
- breast tenderness
- weight gain
- decreased sex drive (the irony)
- mood swings, depression, irritability
- yeast infections
- blood clots
- decreased lubrication, painful intercourse
- altered levels of gut bacteria
- vitamin and mineral deficiencies
- increased risk of cervical cancer
- increased breast cancer risk
I should also mention a big side effect: DEPRESSION. Studies are showing the pill increases risk for depression, especially in teens. This was me. I started taking the pill in high school and experienced such severe depression that I would lock myself in the laundry room every night to cry. I had no idea why or what was happening to me. It was terrifying.
I took the pill on and off (mostly on) for a little over 10 years before I finally stopped. I desperately wish I’d known then what I know now. I started taking them in my teens and developed a yeast infection the first week I took them. I didn’t even know it was a yeast infection, having never had one before. I now know that’s a common side effect, because all that extra estrogen feeds candida that’s already present in the gut and vaginal canal, causing it to multiply and grow to unhealthy levels.
I would later experience chronic UTIs that disappeared for good once I quit the pill. A big cause of UTI is overgrowth of dysbiotic bacteria in the gut. I had no idea how profoundly birth control pills can adversely alter the gut microbiome. Once I stopped the pill for good, I went over a year with no period, despite taking prescriptions from my gynecologist to restore it. Fortunately I was studying women’s hormonal health at the time, and I stopped relying on conventional pharmaceuticals, turning instead to natural therapies to rebalance my hormones with great success.
One more noteworthy piece of info about hormonal birth control is that it changes the way you’re attracted to potential partners. Think about that for a moment. We are naturally attracted via pheromones to mates that have compatible immune systems to ours, meaning they’re different and will provide our offspring with more robust immune health. Women on the pill lack the ability to “sniff out” immune system compatible mates and end up choosing partners that aren’t biologically the best match or the most compatible. Disturbing. You can read the study here.
Types of Hormonal Birth Control Pills
The pill works by preventing ovulation and implantation, typically by thickening cervical mucous so the sperm can’t get to an egg. Though hormonal birth control is effective– 95% and up–it’s not without drawbacks.
- Combination pills contain synthetic estrogen and progestin. They may raise the risk of heart attacks, stroke, and blood clots. The FDA states that it has concluded that drospirenone-containing (a form of synthetic progesterone) birth control pills “may be associated with a higher risk for blood clots than other progestin-containing pills.” Pills containing drospirenone include Beyaz, Gianvi, Loryna, Ocella, Safyral, Syeda, Yasmin, Yaz, and Zarah.
- Progestin-only pills or injections (AKA the mini-pill) do not contain estrogen and are used by those over 35, cannot tolerate estrogen, and/or have risk factors that are exacerbated by combination pills. A “range of bleeding disturbances” may occur with progestin-only pills: amenorrhea, irregular, frequent, or prolonged bleeding.
- Extended-cycle pills and continuous-cycle pills (also combination pills) can be taken to suppress periods altogether. They include Introvate, Jolessa, Lybrel, LoSeasonique, Seasonale, and Seasonique. These alarm me the most, as you’re getting a dose of continuous hormones.
In my practice, I often see women on the pill struggling with migraines, weight gain, and deficiencies in B vitamins (including B12 and folic acid) and zinc. But the biggest issue I see is amenorrhea and infertility post-pill. I have many women clients who experience irregular or absent periods post-pill. Or they’re not ovulating and want to get pregnant. Most are estrogen dominant and/or struggling with GI issues. Taking synthetic hormones has a widespread impact on your body and hormone balance. Here’s all the info you need to transition off the pill and rebalance your hormones naturally.
How to Stop Taking Birth Control Pills
First off, although I am horrified by the long list of complications the pill may cause and the changes it imparts in the body, I understand first hand how difficult it can be to choose a healthy and sustainable birth control option. My favorite and most recommended method is the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM), which is, when used correctly, 95 percent effective. Highly recommend this book (it changed my life!) to learn more about it. Non-hormonal IUD is my second recommendation.
That said, if you’ve decided hormonal birth control is not for you, here’s how to rebalance your body post-pill. Your main objectives are to support liver detox, rebalance gut flora, and establish healthy estrogen-progesterone levels.
Remember that it is possible to get pregnant the first month you stop birth control, so make sure to use a backup method during this protocol! If you choose the fertility awareness method, use backup contraception for the first three months until you get the hang of it.
Some symptoms you may experience after stopping the pill include the following:
- Loss of menstruation (amenorrhea)
- Hypothyroidism (this happened to me)
- Hair loss
- Depression, anxiety
- Blood sugar swings
- GI issues like yeast, gas, bloating
Step one: Don’t stop taking the pill in the middle of your pack. Wait until you’ve had your period or until you finish the pack, then don’t start a new one.
Step two: your first day of bleeding counts as day 1. When you get your period, begin tracking your cycle. Use an app like Kindara, or simply chart the days.
Step three: begin taking a probiotic to restore gut health. The pill greatly alters your microbiome, making you more susceptible to yeast, malabsorption, and even weight gain. I recommend this probiotic, which has specific strains to rebalance flora in the gut and vagina. Include plenty of fermented foods rich in probiotics to rebuild your inner ecosystem. I recommend this coconut water kefir and plenty of raw kraut/cultured vegetables. Aim for 1/4 cup daily at least. Also consider a complete gut reset, especially if you’ve noticed a worsening in digestive issues.
Step four: liver detox support. (click here for my recommended plan). It’s a great way to detox excess synthetic hormones and estrogen and support the liver, which is in charge of metabolizing all your hormones. A happy liver = healthy hormones. If you don’t want to do a full cleanse, take a liver detox supplement, and I also recommend taking DIM for a few months to support estrogen detox. Also get plenty of cruciferous vegetables; they’re superior for detox support and for detoxing excess estrogens.
Step five: take vitex for a period of 6 months to normalize progesterone levels. This was a crucial step that helped me get my period back. I sometimes also recommend bio-identical progesterone from days 14-28 of your cycle if progesterone is very low. Evening primrose/borage works great too for overall hormone balance and to combat PMS symptoms. Bonus: it’s great for skin.
Step six: make sure you are getting plenty of good fats such as butter, coconut oil, olive oil, avocado. Fats are the building blocks for hormones. Include foods that support liver detox and add plenty of fiber to bind up excess estrogens in the gut and assist in their excretion. I also recommend a multi to address any nutrient deficiencies. Critical vitamins and minerals for hormone balance are vitamin C, vitamin A, the B vitamins, zinc, and magnesium, so beef up (so to speak). The pill also depletes your B vitamin and zinc stores, so including grass fed beef, lamb, egg yolks, and oysters (you can get them canned and eat for a snack; they’re pretty good) can help restore levels. And get plenty of veggies of all types, especially leafy greens and cruciferous.
I recommend getting blood work to check thyroid hormone levels, estrogen and progesterone levels, vitamin D, B vitamins, iron, ferritin, and zinc to help you more accurately determine what your body needs.
Be aware that it may take several months to re-establish balance, or you may get regular cycles right away. How long you stay on this protocol depends on how your cycles return and how regular you are. If you want to get pregnant, begin charting your basal body temperature daily to see if and when you’re ovulating. Taking Charge of Your Fertility is an excellent resource for how to do this.
Consider saliva hormone testing after a couple months on this protocol. You want to get an accurate picture of where your hormones are so you’ll know if you need to adjust anything in the future.
Finally, a word about unpleasant periods: many of my female clients begin taking the pill initially because they have very heavy or painful periods. If that’s you, aim the figure out why. Estrogen dominance, fibroids, and poor diet are main causes. (more on how to make your period pleasant here)
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.