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5 Ways ‘The Pill’ May Be Affecting Your Health

The birth control pill comes with many benefits – it gives you sexual freedom, decreases the pain associated with your cycle, reduces heavy periods, clears your skin, and reduces the risk of certain cancers. But these chemically altered, synthetic hormones also have some nasty side-effects, most likely some you had no clue about! Let’s dive right in and discuss 5 ways the pill may be keeping you from reaching your highest health potential.

Nutrient Depletions

Nutrient depletions caused by the pill are an important topic to discuss since they contribute to many of the side effects caused by the pill and the lasting effects too. Compared to other drugs, it is difficult to diagnose nutrient depletions caused by the pill, as depletions happen slowly over time, and the consequences, like fatigue or low energy, are common female complaints. But we know that when we compare blood samples of pill-users to non-users, there are significant depletions of certain nutrients, such as:

  • Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, CoQ10
  • Minerals magnesium, selenium, zinc
  • The amino acid tyrosine

These nutrients are critical for creating neurotransmitters, balancing hormones, supporting liver detoxification pathways and for thyroid hormone synthesis. Deficiencies in these nutrients may result in low energy, depression, impaired immunity, muscle cramps, anxiety, etc. This is an easy fix, but women need to know that it is happening!

Disruption of Hormone Balance

Next, it is important to discuss the disruption in hormonal control, beyond estrogen and progesterone. Because progestins, one of the hormones found in the pill, are structurally different than our natural progesterone, they not only bind to the progesterone receptors, but can also bind to many other types of receptors. By binding to androgen receptors, the pill causes less testosterone to be produced at the ovary. It also affects the liver at a genetic level causing increased production of a protein called sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG). SHBG binds up free testosterone in the blood. This is why the pill is really good at controlling acne outbreaks. But, this also causes a huge decline in libido, which is one of the most common complaints from women on the pill.

  • A study from the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that women on the pill have levels of SHBG 4x higher than normal non-pill users
  • But what’s even more interesting is that even after 6 months of discontinuing the pill, SHBG was still 2x higher – which explains why we see LONG TERM sexual dysfunction in women who have been on the pillT

Thyroid Dysregulation

Thyroid function may also be disrupted by the pill and may be why some women on the pill exhibit hypothyroid-like symptoms. The pill is known to upregulate the protein called thyroxine-binding globulin, which binds free thyroid hormones. Lower thyroid hormone levels are associated with a decrease in metabolism, weight gain, sluggishness, fatigue, increased cholesterol along with other physiological symptoms. This may also be due to the elevated estrogens inhibiting the conversion of thyroid hormones into their active form, and compounded by the depletions in selenium and zinc, two key nutrients required for thyroid health.

Inflammation & Adrenal Function

The pill is also pro-inflammatory since estrogen has a strong influence on immune and inflammatory processes. When we test the blood of women on the pill and compare it to women who have never used the pill, C-reactive protein, a marker of general inflammation, is 2x higher! When we have higher levels of inflammation, our adrenal glands must up-regulate the production of cortisol. Since the pill is taken every day, our adrenals never really get a break. Over time this can lead to dysregulation of the HPA axis, which basically means miscommunication between the brain and the adrenal glands. This is compounded by the fact that most women in the modern world already struggle with chronically elevated stress, thus this can easily lead adrenal dysfunction.

Microbiome Disruption & Leaky gut

Lastly, let’s talk about the impact of the pill on the health of the gut. Studies dating back to the 1960s have shown an association between pill-use and intestinal disease. The female body was not designed to put synthetic hormones into our digestive system, and thus we are seeing disruptions in the microbiome, intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut), and inflammation in the gut. The research actually shows that women who use the pill have almost a 50% increase in the risk of developing Inflammatory Bowel Disease. The health of the gut has been implicated in a whole host of other conditions, so it is really important to understand the effect of the pill on the digestive system.

Clearly the pill is having effects throughout the entire body, even if a woman is not demonstrating specific symptoms. Here are a few key strategies to reduce the impact the pill is having on your health:

  • Follow a Hormone Friendly Diet:
    • This includes a diet high in nutrient dense foods to restore the nutrient depletions, good fats to support hormone production and anti-inflammatory foods so your gut can heal
    • Include: brightly coloured veggies, leafy greens, good quality oils (coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil), avocados, grass-fed meats and nuts and seeds
    • Avoid: processed foods, sugar, conventional dairy and meats, alcohol, too much caffeine
  • Restore Deficiencies:
    • If deficiencies are present, a change in your diet may not be enough. Use a high-quality multi vitamin or a prenatal to improve your nutrient status
    • A high-potency B complex and Magnesium supplement are recommended to get therapeutic doses of these key nutrients
  • Combat Inflammation:
    • There are many ways to reduce inflammation from eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting adequate sleep, and reducing daily stress
    • Fish Oil provides anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids that have also been shown to fight inflammation and reduce SHBG
    • Curcumin is another potent anti-inflammatory that can be taken to reduce the inflammation cause by the pill
  • Heal the Gut:
    • A multi-strain probiotic can be used to restore the microbiome, but you can also include gut friendly foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha
    • Supplements like L-glutamine and zinc carnosine are essential for repairing gut tissue
    • Botanicals like chamomile, DGL, slippery elm and marshmallow are also really great healing and soothing options

These are strategies that you can use as long as you wish to remain on the pill to reduce the negative health effects it can have on your health. By addressing nutrient deficiencies, inflammation and gut health now, you will be giving yourself the best shot at coming off the pill symptom free!

To your highest potential, on or off the pill,

Dr. Bronwyn

Illustration by @duvet_days

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WRITTEN BY:

Dr. Bronwyn is a naturopathic doctor in Toronto, Ontario with a clinical focus in Women's Health. She works with women transitioning off the oral contraceptive pill and those with specific fertility concerns, to reach a state of hormonal balance or in preparation for a healthy pregnancy. Dr. Bronwyn is passionate about empowering women to reclaim their hormonal health, to enable a full and vibrant life.

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