When you use a hormone-based birth control method like the pill, the patch, or the ring, your body receives a controlled dose of two hormones: estrogen and progesterone. Together, they have the power to prevent ovulation while thinning the uterine lining (endometrium) to make it harder for the fertilized egg to attach. They also produce thickening of the cervical mucus, preventing sperm progression into the uterine cavity.
The constantly elevated hormone levels that result from taking the pill prevent ovulation by inhibiting the release of the brain hormones that control the ovarian cycle. You can say that the pill “tricks” the female body into not having the normal 28-day cycle, preventing the normal hormone secretion that leads to ovulation. Nevertheless, women will still have a hormone-controlled monthly bleeding.
These hormone-based birth control methods are highly effective in preventing unwanted pregnancies, with pregnancy rates at lower than 1 percent.
Even though they are very effective, and can have some beneficial effects on your body, they may pose health problems for some women. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of taking two popular hormonal contraceptives, the pill and IUD devices.
- Acne: The progesterone in some hormonal birth control methods decrease androgen levels, including testosterone, so they may improve acne.
- Polycystic ovaries: Low-dose oral contraceptives are safe to use in patients with polycystic ovaries, as they have minimal metabolic effects and may decrease the size and number of ovarian cysts.
- Cancer prevention: Protection against ovarian cancer (the most lethal of female reproductive tract cancers) is one of the most important benefits. Ovarian cancer risk is reduced by 40 percent and persists even after you stop taking the pill. Oral contraceptives may also protect against endometrial cancer, especially in high-risk patients (for example, patients with no children). A protective effect is also seen for thyroid and colorectal cancers in some long-term users.
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS): Some low-dose hormone pills are useful in preventing PMS symptoms like bloating, pelvic pain, and mood swings.
- Heavy bleeding and anemia: Hormonal methods may reduce the amount of menstrual bleeding, helping to prevent anemia.
- Thyroid function: The estrogen component of the pill may interfere with thyroglobulin (the protein that binds thyroid hormone), thus affecting thyroid function.
- Cancer risk: Although data is still inconclusive, researchers have found a link between oral contraceptives and an increased risk of breast cancer. This may be due to an accelerated growth of pre-existing malignancies. There is also an increased risk of cervical cancer and dysplasia that is related to long-term use of oral contraceptives.
- Thromboembolism: Because pharmacologic estrogen increases the production of clotting factors, there is a two-fold increase risk of venous blood clots associated with oral contraceptives. This risk is mainly seen among obese or overweight users, smokers, and women over 35 years of age. Venous thrombosis, or blood clot formation in the venous system, can lead to serious health problems like pulmonary embolism and stroke. Although this may sound scary, the probability of having a thromboembolism is very low, the risk being higher in pregnant women than in those who take the pill.
- Other conditions: Some health issues have been linked with the use of oral contraceptives, but studies have failed to demonstrate a real cause-effect. These include vitamin B depletion, migraines, weight gain, and metabolic problems like an increase in unhealthy fats.
Hormone-Containing Intrauterine Devices
A hormone-containing intrauterine device has one type of hormone, a progesterone called levonorgestrel. The device releases small amounts of hormone into the uterine cavity, preventing pregnancy by inhibiting migration of sperm through the uterus. Poor-quality cervical mucus also prevents sperm transport.
This type of contraceptives has many pros:
- They are a safe long-term use method (five years), so you don’t have to think about contraception every day.
- They’re reversible.
- They have very low pregnancy rates.
- They can be used to treat some types of abnormal uterine bleeding
As any other hormonal method, they also have cons:
- Small amounts of progesterone can pass to the blood stream every day, producing side effects like an increase in acne or worsening of migraines.
- They produce amenorrhea, or absence of menstruation, in most cases. From an allopathic point of view, this is considered an advantage and many women see it as a pro. From an Ayurvedic perspective, it’s a con because it produces a blockage in an important energy channel. The absence of menstruation prevents communication with the monthly changes that occur in your body.
It’s important to remember that hormonal birth control must not be taken without professional advice. Each case must be individualized as everybody has unique health conditions and risk factors. What may be a good choice for you, may be contraindicated for another person.
Hormonal birth control methods are very effective and can be safe if you use them correctly. If you have concerns regarding contraindications or side effects, ask your doctor about them. It’s important that you make a well-informed decision in order to prevent health problems.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
Author’s Note: All information and data was obtained from these two books: “A Clinical Guide For Contraception” by Leon Speroff, fifth edition and “ The Hormone Cure” by Sara Gottfried, first edition.