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Are birth control pills dangerous?

November 17, 2011

Last week as I was writing about my history with chronic pain, something dawned on me.

I first started experiencing chronic pain about midway through my freshman year of college. What dawned on me is that this was only a few months after I started taking birth control pills. That connection probably wouldn’t mean a lot to most people, except that lately I’ve been recognizing the connection between the pain I experience and my hormones. For the most part I’ve learned to manage this pain so it is relatively minor, but I’ve noticed over the last few months that it gets really intense right before I start my period. And almost immediately after I begin my cycle, the pain on the right side of my body shifts to cramps in my low belly for a few hours, before fading away.

What’s more is that the chronic pain on my right side hasn’t always been there… for the first few years it was on the left side. Interestingly enough, that was while I was taking birth control pills. Around the time I stopped taking them, because I was about to begin a year of travel and didn’t feel they were necessary, the pain shifted to my right side.

Is this a coincidence? I searched “birth control pills” and “pain” online. I found some forums where women were asking if the pill can cause low back pain, but most of the replies refuted this idea. And I found, interestingly enough on the University of Iowa Healthcare website (where I went to school) the following warning signs associated with the pill: severe chest pain with shortness of breath, worst headache of your life, visual changes, numbness, tingling, weakness of arms or legs, severe abdominal pain, and severe leg pain with swelling.

When I was in college, I was actually diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome due to numbness in my arms. I had frequent headaches that seemed to stem from neck pain. If these symptoms are “warning signs” that you’re having a reaction to the pill, isn’t it possible that the symptoms can occur to varying degrees? And that the pill is still damaging your health?

Upon further research, I found that the World Health Organization actually classified birth control pills as carcinogenic! HELLO! That’s kind of a big deal. How many women who take birth control pills are aware of this?

According to a study by Loyola University Health System neurologists, taking the pill nearly doubles the risk of stroke. In 2007, Nicole Dishuk McKeon, a 31-year-old psychology professor, died of a stroke. Doctors said her only risk factor for a stroke was that she was on the pill. According to Dr. Sidney Wolfe of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, “We’re sacrificing every year hundreds of women who have blood clots, have to be hospitalized, and in some cases die” due to the widespread use of birth control pills.

Additionally, the pill is likely causing an abundance of estrogen-related diseases in our population, including thyroid dysfunction, allergies, depression, insomnia, infertility, gallbladder disease, breast cancer, and prostate cancer in men, to name a few. In men? Right, because widespread pill use is also contaminating our water supply (and is apparently causing fish to change gender).

If that’s not enough to make you want to throw out the rest of your pill packets (please don’t flush them down the toilet), the pill is also responsible for increased mood swings, weight gain, and decreased sex drive, according to Dr. Christianne Northrup (author of the bestselling book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom). That last one kinda defeats the purpose.

Dr. Northrup also explains how birth control pills inhibit women’s intuition, through numbing our emotions, which deliver messages to us via our hormones. No wonder when I quit taking the pill I felt like I was going crazy. Four years’ worth of suppressed emotions surged, and I felt incredibly emotionally reactive as my hormones attempted to re-balance themselves (yoga helped, a lot).

So back to the question that prompted this post: did birth control pills cause the chronic pain I have dealt with for over 10 years now? I can’t say for certain. But I suspect a correlation — at least that’s what my intuition tells me.

*****

Do you have a story about the effects of birth control pills on your health? Leave a comment below, or share your story with Debby.

Debby Andersen is a Yoga Teacher/Healer in San Antonio, offering private and group classes in yoga and breathwork. For more information on Debby’s work and her offerings, visit her website and sign up for her newsletter.

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  • This is exactly why I quit taking the pill last year.  I was really bothered by the fact that women have to seriously risk their health to avoid getting pregnant, and I was experiencing negative side effects from the pill .  I talked to a doctor about it and she said that I have anxiety, and starting throwing statistics at me to convince me that if I was pregnant my risk of a blood clot or stroke would be higher, and seriously gave me another pack of pills which I threw away later that night.  I would rather just stick to condoms.

  • Lydia

    Everyone reacts differently to birth control, so you can’t paint everyone with a broad brush. I have friends who react very badly, and others who don’t notice it at all. 

    Don’t ignore though that there are health benefits to birth control pills. Endometriosis, something that many argue is a direct result of environmental estrogens in our world from plastics and who knows what else, is curbed by BCPs. Women on the pill have a lower incidence of many estrogen-related disorders, like cysts, breast fibroids, ovarian/endometrial cancer, etc.
    Women were not designed to have as many periods as we now have — our uteri weren’t supposed to start working at age 12 and stop at age 50. A few generations back, menstruation began at 19, babies usually started quickly thereafter, and women breast-fed for up to 2 years between children (of which they had many, until they either went through menopause or died during childbirth). A few generations ago, women had, on average, 8 to 10 periods in their LIFETIME. And now, we have that many before junior high. 

    So, we need to return more to nature, but our environment makes it impossible. BCPs is one way to do it. I’m sure there are other methods, but it’s a very individual choice — the pill works for me, I know that much.

  • RxRebel

    As a pharmacist, I often get asked this same question from patients, family & friends. The answer, however, is not black & white & really depends on numerous factors:  the individual patient’s values, the reason they are using it, the side-effect profile they actually experience & whether or not they have risk factors for the development of cardiovascular disease.

    Since others have already touched on many of these subjects, I would like to focus on one in particular — one that is often not taken seriously enough & that can be very dangerous in certain populations — smoking cigarettes while taking oral contraceptives (OC).

    Cigarettes by themselves can wreak havoc enough on the body increasing blood clotting, blood pressure/heart rate, & damaging coronary artery cells by decreased oxygen to the heart — all of which directly increases the risk of heart disease. In unison with the hypertensive & coagulative effects of synthetic estrogens, this combination can be quite deadly. The risk is highest for female smokers over the age of 35 who are 40 times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than nonsmokers. But I, personally, have seen many female patients in their early 20′s come into the hospital with venousthrombosis when the only discernible cause is that they were on birth control.

    Furthermore, smoking has been shown to induce/increase the transcription of CYP-450 enzymes that are responsible for the metabolism of the estrogens. With less estrogens remaining active in the system, this can reduce the effectiveness of OCs & increase the occurrence of breakthrough bleeding. Therefore, a higher dose of OCs is often required which then increases incidence of CV disease even more.

    So ideally, if you absolutely must be on birth control, then you should make the decision for your health to stop smoking. However, if this is not possible, consider asking your doctor to switch you to a formulation which does not have the estrogen component — the progestin-only “mini-pills”. 

    Other birth control alternatives include hormone shots such as Depo-Provera, implants like Implanon, male and female condoms, diaphragms, the Intrauterine Device or the contraceptive sponge.

    Thank you for writing this informative article of caution for everyone, Debby!

  • Debby Andersen

    I respect where you are
    coming from, and absolutely am not saying that my experience is everyone’s. However, I still question whether the limited health benefits
    are worth the risks, especially since many of the ill effects aren’t
    immediately apparent…specifically with breast cancer, thyroid disease, strokes, and (in my case) varying degrees of pain.

    While I was on the pill, I would have said it worked for
    me, too. It’s taken me 10 years to see the connection between my chronic
    pain and the pill, and even though I went to numerous doctors, not one
    (even the naturopaths!) asked me about a correlation.

    As for the benefits
    of the pill, Dr. Northrup (who is an OB-GYN, btw) states in Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom (p.
    176), “The problem with these approaches (taking BCPs for endometriosis)
    is that they don’t really cure the disease, they simply shut down the
    hormonal stimulation of it for a while.”
    And although BCPs may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, it increases risk of others. On the WHO
    decision to classify the BCP as carcinogenic: “After reviewing the scientific
    literature on the pill and cancer, the group pointed to evidence for an
    increase in cervical cancer, breast cancer, and liver cancer in making
    its decision, while also stressing that convincing evidence existed for a
    protective effect against endometrial and ovarian cancers.” p. 396I think it’s really important that women (and their doctors) understand all of the risks and potential downsides of taking Birth Control Pills, and I just wish I would have been more informed in making my decision and connecting the dots. Because in my experience, it was easy to say that “it works for me”…until I realized that it doesn’t.

  • C.C

    After having been on Beyaz for over four years, I can honestly say that getting off of it was the best decision I have EVER MADE. I wondered why I have had chronic stomach pain and fatigue for so long, never making the connection that it could be my birth control because these chronic symptoms are not listed. Needless to say, after getting my thyroids tested, blood sugar, ect… with countless specialists, I finally made the decision to stop taking Beyaz in the hopes of feelings better. The first week was complete HELL — I thought I was going to have a heart attack from the anxiety attack withdraws (insane, huh? Withdrawing from BIRTH CONTROL…just…wow.) but I got through it, and I can honestly say that I have never felt better. My concentration is back, I can eat a meal now without feeling like I am going to vomit, and I am no longer so chronically tired that I feel useless in school and at work. Hands down, best decision I have ever made to stop taking that synthetic hormone crap. The doctors convinced me to start taking birth control in the first place because of my ovarian cysts, but little did I know that cysts are very common in teenage girls and go away naturally most of the time. -_- Anyways, best decision I have ever made to stop taking birth control. Don’t be scared to make the change!