Updated: Apr 22, 2019
As a Fertility Awareness Educator I am dedicated to providing women (and other menstruators) with high quality information about the menstrual cycle and reproductive health - so that they can become body literate, and use their knowledge when making whatever reproductive choices they might want to make.
Many women I meet at my clinic are suffering from or have suffered side effects from hormonal contraception – often without even knowing that their symptoms could be connected to their birth control. I have also understood that we tend to get little to none information from regular healthcare about how hormonal contraception really works, and what effects it can give.
Therefore, I will dedicate this blog to outlining 5 lesser known facts about how hormonal contraception interacts with our bodies.
#1: The hormones in hormonal contraception are not the same as our own hormones The two main sex hormones in the female body are estrogens and progesterone, and they are produced in the ovaries. The substances in hormonal contraception are ethinylestradiol and different kinds of progestins - and they are different from our bodies' own hormones both in chemical structure and function. Hormonal contraception works by shutting down the ovaries' production of estrogen and progesterone, and thereby replacing two of the body's main hormones with other substances, which are foreign to our bodies. By doing so, we loose the beneficial effect from our natural sex hormones.
#2: Hormonal contraception affects more than 150 body functions
Estrogen and progesterone are involved in many more body functions than those connected to reproduction. Some of them being mood regulation, blood sugar regulation, energy production and immune system function. When we modulate our reproductive function with hormonal contraception, we also modulate all of the other systems in our bodies which are influenced by estrogen and progesterone. That is why hormonal contraception can cause such a wide range of side effects, including: depression, chronic yeast infections, nutritional deficiencies, cervical cancer, breast cancer, and a shrinking of the clitoris (!) - just to mention a few.
#3: The bleeding we have on the pill is not a true menstruation
In most cases, hormonal contraception works by suppressing ovarian activity and inhibiting ovulation. A true menstruation only follows an ovulation, therefore the kind of bleeding that we have while taking most kinds of hormonal contraception is not a true menstruation - but is what is called a withdrawal bleeding. A withdrawal bleeding happens when the synthetic hormones are withdrawn and the body tries to "restart" the menstrual cycle. The common statement that "hormonal contraception regulates the menstrual cycle" is therefor a misconception. A more correct explanation is that hormonal contraception shuts down our menstrual cycle.
#4: Hormonal contraception does not cure menstrual cycle irregularities
When we suffer from menstrual cycle irregularities like heavy bleeding, menstrual cramps, irregular cycles, endometriosis or PCOS - it is usually a mirror of something that is going on elsewhere in our bodies. The menstrual cycle and reproductive function are affected by how all other systems in our bodies functions, including; our immune function, gut function, liver function, stress level, etc. Therefore, problems in the menstrual cycle can be early warning signs of problems elsewhere in the body.
Using hormonal contraception to manage symptoms often leaves the underlying problems untreated - and they might even be aggravated during the time we are medicated. As a result, if the root cause has not been dealt with, the same problems will often flare up - possibly with even greater strength - when we discontinue use of synthetic hormones.
#5: There are natural and effective alternatives to hormonal contraception
The good news is that there are actually sythetic-hormone-free options for managing both birth control and reproductive health. With the sympto-thermal method of Fertility Awareness we can learn to read our bodies' signs of fertility and infertility. This information can be used as a 99,6% effective birth control method, when learned together with a certified trainer and practiced correctly. And the only side effect it comes with is greater self knowledge and greater body autonomy. When we learn to monitor our bodies with Fertility Awareness, we also get a mirror of what is going on in our body's hormonal system, which can be used as an effective tool for monitoring reproductive health.
If you are suffering from menstrual cycle irregularities, a Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioner or Functional Medicine Doctor can help you find the root causes behind the symptoms, and guide you towards resolving the problems using strategies including food, nutrition, lifestyle, body-mind work and other holistic approaches.
I want to end this post with acknowledging that in some situations, hormonal contraception might still be the best option. And every person should have the complete and unquestionable right to make whatever choice they deem right for themselves and their bodies.
Any choice that comes from informed empowerment is a good choice, and we should strive for a society where women and other menstruators have all the information they need in order to be able to make such choices.