We are on the verge of a hormonal revolution. Women are asking more questions and are starting to take their health into their own hands. I see this every day in my practice, with women asking me about the birth control pill. Today I’m sharing everything you need to know if you’re planning to get off the pill.
The Pill & Your Symptoms
The menstrual cycle is like a window into the health status of a woman. It can tell us so much about our hormone balance, other symptoms we may be experiencing, and our overall vitality. Men can go on for a while before realizing that something may be off, but women are reminded monthly, and this is one of the reasons women seek care more often. When a woman is on the birth control pill, the communication between the brain and the ovaries is shut down. Our body relies on this external source of sex hormones to dictate the cycle and then the “period” you get when on the pill is merely a “withdrawal bleed”, and not a true period. This means that it can be very challenging to understand a woman’s symptoms because the entire menstrual cycle has been hijacked. Now, I do have to say, the birth control pill has its place and there have been many positive outcomes attributed to its use, but that will be left for another post.
Like many women, I was on the birth control pill for over 10 years. Although the pill and I got along just fine, I was sick of having this tiny pill dictating the way my body was running. I was ready for my body to find its true rhythm on its own, and this is exactly the statement I hear from my patients. Women want to understand their bodies like never before.
Before You Come Off The Pill
Remember way back to when you first started the birth control pill, what was happening with your body? Did you get prescribed the pill for any other reason than to prevent an unwanted pregnancy? Well, we know that almost 60% of women who are on the pill are using it for symptoms like acne, painful or heavy periods, irregular periods and PMS. The problem here is that the pill does not treat these underlying symptoms of hormonal imbalance but merely manages them for the time being. This means that when you remove the pill, these symptoms will likely return – and they can even be worse after being suppressed for so long. Even in women who did not have symptoms before going on the pill, long-term use depletes many nutrients, disrupts your microbiome, and alters your hormones, meaning the transition coming off the pill may not be so easy. When symptoms arise after stopping the pill, we call this Post-Birth Control Syndrome.
Post-Birth Control Syndrome
Post-Birth Control Syndrome (PBCS) is a collection of symptoms that many women experience about four to six months after stopping the pill. Some of the common symptoms include: Amenorrhea (the loss of your period), heavy, painful periods, infertility, hypothyroidism, acne, migraines, hair loss, depression or anxiety, gas or bloating, the list goes on. Even if you are not affected by these specific symptoms, if you weren’t addressing the nutrient depletions and the health of your gut while you were on the pill, you still have some work to do! This becomes especially important if you have come off the pill to get pregnant. Many of the nutrients that are depleted from the pill, like folic acid, are super important when it comes to growing a healthy baby.
So, What’s a Girl To Do?
The good news is, it is possible to restore your hormones post-pill. Here are some steps you can take to find your rhythm after ditching the pill:
- Address any underlying nutrient deficiencies: The pill depletes things like vitamins B6, B12, B1, B2, B3, C, E & folic acid, and minerals like magnesium, selenium & zinc. Women should be eating a diet high in nutrient dense foods to restore the nutrient depletions with good fats to support hormone production
- Include things like brightly coloured veggies, leafy greens, good quality oils (coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil), avocados, grass-fed meats, nuts and seeds
- I like to put all women on a good quality multivitamin to ensure these depletions are corrected
- Catch some Z’s: A regular sleep-wake-cycle is so important for regulating our hormones. Disruptions of sleep patterns, seen in frequent travellers and night shift workers, are linked to significant impairments in reproductive function like altered hormonal secretion patterns, decrease conception rates, increased miscarriage and increased risk of breast cancer. To regulate your circadian rhythm, here are a few easy tips:
- Maintain a consistent bedtime and wake time – yes, even on weekends
- Ensure the room you sleep in is completely dark
- Limit bright lights at night & say goodnight to screens 30 minutes to one hour before bed
- Show your liver some love:The liver is the most important organ for detoxification; it is where your hormones are broken down to be eliminated. Your liver must be functioning optimally to ensure healthy hormone levels.
- Include liver loving foods every day like beets, dandelion root tea, garlic, and cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, kale, Brussel sprouts, etc.)
- The liver generally needs some extra support during this phase, and I encourage women to work with a healthcare provider to create an individualized plan
- Heal your gut: The gut takes a beating from the birth control pill. Some evidence suggests the pill disrupts the normal gut flora that allows for overgrowth of harmful bacteria and yeast, and may even lead to something we call Leaky Gut. Every day there is more evidence that associates the health of the gut with our overall health.
- We need to reduce any inflammation and restore the microbiome. This can be done by taking a good quality probiotic or including gut friendly foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha
- Supplements like L-glutamine and zinc are essential for healing the gut
- Botanicals like chamomile, DGL, slippery elm and marshmallow are also really great healing and soothing options
- Manage your stress: When we are under constant, high stress, our body goes into survival mode and produces cortisol. Cortisol actually prevents us from making other sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, which can further disrupt any imbalances that are going on. Under stress, the last thing our body wants to do is make a baby, so our reproductive function is shut down.
- I strongly encourage all of my patients to explore stress reduction. Some things to consider adding into your daily routine include meditation, deep breathing, moderate exercise, yin style yoga, etc.
- It is important to find something that fits your lifestyle, as we never want methods of stress reduction to cause even more stress!
Ditching the pill allows you to learn about your body on a whole other level. Body literacy is so important, and I commend anyone who is searching for a deeper understanding of their body. Everyone responds differently to the pill, and thus, everyone has a different experience when coming off. If you are experiencing symptoms after discontinuing the pill, other investigations may need to be done to get a better understanding of your symptoms. This may include things like hormone testing, a thyroid panel, nutrient status, and other tests depending on your concerns. You are unique, and your health care should be too. It is best to work with a naturopathic doctor or functional medicine provider to determine the right treatment course for you. If you are in the Toronto area, I’d love to chat! Book in here.