Get to know the Pill

Although there are many upsides to using hormonal birth control, many women don’t think about the impact it may have on their bodies

Dr. Sonya Nobbe, a naturopathic doctor in downtown Kingston, says hormonal birth control impacts the body in ways scientists and doctors are only starting to understand.
Dr. Sonya Nobbe, a naturopathic doctor in downtown Kingston, says hormonal birth control impacts the body in ways scientists and doctors are only starting to understand.
Photo: 

Ever since it was introduced in the 1960s, the birth control pill has been hailed for its positive impact on women’s sex and sexuality. But it’s only recently we’re starting to consider what hormonal contraception may be doing to women’s bodies.

Dr. Stephanie Palerme, a specialist in reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Queen’s, said all hormonal birth control methods work by delivering a combination of the female sex hormones progestin and estrogen to the body.

“Progestin stops monthly ovulation, makes the cervical lining thin and increases the production of mucous, while estrogen stabilizes the cycle,” she said. “The differences between methods and even between different pills lay in the estrogen dosage. A lower dose of estrogen does not decrease the effectiveness of the contraceptive, and also means fewer and less severe side effects.”

Palerme said the future of birth control involves much more choice today than it ever has before.

“Now we have the transdermal patch and vaginal ring, which bypass the liver in delivering hormones to the body; the copper IUD which does not inhibit ovulation; as well as barrier methods such as condoms, diaphragms and sponges,” she said. “With so many options out there, both natural and chemical, there really is something out there for every woman.”

Tamara Redwood, CompSci ’10, said she started taking birth controll pills when she was in high school. But rather than looking to the Pill for birth control, she uses it as a way to help keep her skin clear.

“It was actually … prescribed by my dermatologist,” she said, adding that the Pill she takes is Cyestra-35, a Pill combining antiandrogens and estrogens to treat acne in women with the added bonus of acting as hormonal birth control.

Redwood said the Pill has helped to both improve her skin and regulate her period, and has had almost no side-effects.

“I used to be really prone to migraine headaches, so for a while at first it started to conflict with that because it makes you more sensitive,” she said, adding that she was sensitive to headaches before starting the Pill and has since stopped getting them.

Because Redwood still gets her prescription for Cyestra-35 through her dermatologist, she said she hasn’t really talked to her family doctor about the potential risks involved in taking hormonal birth control over an extended period of time.

“That’s something that I didn’t really look into when I first started,” she said. “[But] I haven’t had any problems with it.”

Dr. Sonya Nobbe, a naturopathic doctor working in downtown Kingston, said hormonal birth control impacts the body in ways scientists and doctors are only just starting to understand.

“Sex hormones affect everything from stress hormones, to neurotransmitters and blood sugar,” she said. “Changing the production of one of these factors affects them all. Many women don’t understand just how much the Pill can affect their mood until after they’re off it.”

Nobbe said the use of hormonal birth control can also lead to the depletion of B vitamins, iron, magnesium and folic acid.

“A lot of hormonal birth control depletes nutrients by way of using the specific corresponding enzyme pathway in the liver for metabolism on a daily basis,” she said. “The B vitamins especially are cofactors for many of the enzyme pathways. The liver has three main detox pathways that each use hundreds of enzymes to metabolize everything you eat and inhale.

“Being deficient in these nutrients can actually increase PMS symptoms and lead to many other problems down the road,” she said. “When choosing a form of contraception, a woman needs to be aware of how many things she is doing to her body. There are so many other ways to lessen PMS symptoms that don’t include hormonal birth control.”

Nobbe said there is a cyclical problem with birth control.

“Many women go on the Pill to alleviate symptoms associated with menstruation but end up developing new symptoms because of the medication,” she said. “To help their bodies deal with the stress of menstruation and the Pill, a healthy diet high in anti-inflammatory foods such as leafy green vegetables and berries can do wonders.”

She said other options for relieving pre-menstral tension include taking a good quality B vitamin complex, cutting out foods containing processed wheat and sugar for part of the month and drinking a tea made with herbs such as chamomile and ginger to minimize stress and contain sedative properties.

—With files from Angela Hickman

Hormonal birth control

Birth Control Pills

The Pill combines varying amounts of estrogen and progestin and is taken orally for three weeks, with a one-week break between cycles. When taken correctly—at the same time every day—the pill stops ovulation, preventing normal fertility and is 99.7 per cent successful.

Birth control pills regulate periods, often making them lighter and less painful. They’re also proven to reduce the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer, and may treat acne and endometriosis.

Risks include nausea, bloating, breast tenderness, headaches, strokes and blood clots. The pills don’t protect against STIs, HIV or Hepatitis and are less effective if the user is a smoker.

Transdermal Patch

A patch placed on the skin three to four weeks each month that works the same way as the pill with equal effectiveness. It regulates periods and decreases menstrual cramping and only has to be applied once a week.

Possible side effects include irregular bleeding or spotting, breast tenderness, headaches and possible skin irritation where the patch is applied. It does not protect against STIs, HIV or Hepatitis.

Intrauterine Device (IUD)

An IUD is inserted into the uterus by a doctor and remains in place for the duration of the time pregnancy isn’t desired. There are two types of IUDs—copper-based and hormonal. An IUD can stay in place from five to 12 years, depending on the type.

Hormonal IUDs do not interfere with intercourse and have a failure rate of less than one per cent. Copper-based IUDs are also available but are only 99.2 per cent to 99.4 per cent effective.

IUDs may lead to heavier, more painful periods and a very low risk of pelvic inflammatory disease. IUDs don’t protect the user from STIs, HIV or Hepatitis.

Non-hormonal birth control

Diaphragm

A diaphragm is a soft silicone or latex dome with a spring molded into the rim so that, upon insertion, the dome seals itself to the walls of the vagina. The diaphragm must be inserted into the vagina—with spermicide—prior to sex and should remain in place for six to eight hours after the man’s last ejaculation.

Diaphragms must be fitted for the individual by a doctor. They also require cleaning after use. Latex diaphragms should be replaced every one to three years, depending on storage. Silicone diaphragms can last up to 10 years. Although diaphragms can prevent some STI transmission, they shouldn’t be relied on as a barrier against STIs, HIV or Hepatitis.

Cervical Cap

Similar to the diaphragm, the cervical cap is inserted into the vagina before sex and should remain in place for at least eight hours after the man’s last ejaculation. Cervical caps can be made from either latex or silicone and are fitted over the cervix—the entrance to the uterus—preventing sperm from entering the female reproductive tract. A cervical cap must be fitted by a doctor and replaced every two years.

Foam

Contraceptive foam contains the spermicide nonoxynol-9 and is inserted into the vagina with a syringe-like applicator. Foam is water-based and will break down inside the vagina and simply leak out. Foam should always be inserted before sex, including between multiple sexual encounters.

Condoms

Condoms cover the erect penis and act as a physical barrier, preventing the male’s ejaculate from entering his partner’s body. When used correctly, condoms protect against pregnancy and STIs, HIV and Hepatitis transmission.

Condoms are most commonly made from latex and therefore, oil-based lubricants can damage them, lowering their effectiveness.

Female Condoms

The female condom is worn inside the vagina. It is a physical barrier, preventing male ejaculate from entering the woman’s body. Female condoms are usually made from either polyurethane (the FC Female Condom) or nitrile polymer (FC2).

When used correctly, female condoms protect against pregnancy and STIs, HIV and Hepatitis transmission. However, recent tests have found the female condom to be less effective than the male condom.

Dental Dams

Dental dams are latex sheets that can be placed over the vulva or anus to prevent STI, HIV and Hepatitis transmission during oral sex.

—Madison Bettle, Angela Hickman and Kathryn McDonald

Sources: clubs.myams.org/shrc, yourtotalhealth.ivillage.com, sexualityandu.ca

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.