How The Birth Control Pill Can Interfere With Your Body

by | Aug 30, 2017 | Health

By Elizabeth Svoboda

The tiny tablet does way more than just prevent pregnancy

The first females to take the birth-control pill—way back in 1960—were amazed by its life-changing strength (yay, reproductive freedom!). But today’s women don’t give the ultra-common contraceptive much thought. They should: Turns out, the Pill can affect everything from your bones to your brain to, yes, your sex appeal.

The Pill works by tricking your body (via artificial versions of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone) into thinking it has already ovulated. In other words, your ovaries don’t release a monthly egg (sorry, eager-beaver sperm). The process sounds deceptively simple, and it works. But the steady levels of excess hormones floating through your bloodstream are doing much more than pushing the pause button on reproduction.

READ MORE: “My Birth Control Gave Me A Blood Clot” — Here’s What You Need To Know

How the Pill Changes Your Looks

Recent studies confirm the contraceptive can alter your appearance—but not as much as you might think, thanks to new types with lower doses of hormones.

The Skin Solution

It has long been rumoured to clear up a pimply complexion, and indeed, studies show that artificial oestrogen can spur the production of a protein called sex hormone–binding globulin (SHBG), which, in turn, tamps down testosterone levels. Because testosterone ups your body’s output of sebum—the pore-clogging stuff that can lead to zits—the less you have of the hormone, the clearer your skin might look.

READ MORE: 12 Contraceptives You Should Think About Trying — Other Than The Pill

The Weight-Gain Debate

Used to be, if you took the Pill you could expect to pack on a few. Early versions were full of high doses of oestrogen, which may prompt the kidneys to step up the body’s water retention. The result: big-time bloat. Lots of artificial oestrogen may also encourage breast tissue growth, leading to a bumped-up bra size. Recent research, however, shows that low-dose Pills (some with less than half the amount of hormones in the original kinds) are just as effective at preventing pregnancy. And a University of Massachusetts study found that women on low-dose Pills didn’t gain any more pounds than women in a control group. Despite this reassurance, weight gain remains a top concern for would-be Pill takers, says Dr. Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz, a gynae in Beverly Hills.

READ MORE: 9 Struggles All Women Who Take The Pill Can Relate To

How the Pill Changes Your Health

News reports have made much of the contraceptive’s effects on bones and blood clots. Here’s what the science really says.

The Bone Truth
A 2010 study found that young women on low-dose oestrogen Pills had a 6 percent lower spinal bone density than nonusers. What’s happening? Natural oestrogen peaks can stimulate bone growth, but the contraceptive keeps oestrogen levels steady, says study author Dr. Delia Scholes, senior investigator at Seattle’s Group Health Research Institute. “What we don’t know,” says Scholes, “is what happens to your bones when you quit the Pill.” In other words, though it might negatively affect bones, there’s no proof that taking the Pill leads to osteoporosis or bone fractures.

The Blood Clot Connection
It’s true that Pill users are at a slightly higher risk for venous thromboembolism (VTE), blood clots that form in the legs. But your risk depends on the kind of Pill you take: A study in the British Medical Journal found that women on kinds with drospirenone—a new type of artificial progesterone—were about three times more likely to develop certain VTEs than those who took Pills with an older progesterone called levonorgestrel. Still, even with drospirenone, the rate is only three in 10,000. That slim possibility “shouldn’t be a deal breaker or paralyse someone from taking the Pill,” says gynae Dr. Ashlesha Patel, a Women’s Health advisor. If you have a family history of clots or if you smoke—a major no-no when you’re on the Pill—be sure to talk with your ob-gyn about all the ingredients in your potential prescription.

The Cancer Risk
Whether or not the Pill’s artificial oestrogen increases a woman’s breast cancer risk is still up for debate. A recent Boston University study found that some Pill takers had a 65 percent higher risk of developing oestrogen receptor–negative breast cancer than non-takers; however, a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found the opposite—that past or current Pill use did not affect breast cancer risk. (The current bottom line is that if you’re already at high risk—if you have a family history, for instance—you should always get a second opinion before taking the Pill.) Some much better news: Studies evaluating Pill users’ risks of developing other cancers are clear-cut. Taking the Pill may decrease your risk for ovarian cancer by 50 percent, as well as slash your risk for endometrial cancer by more than 40 percent.

READ MORE: What Happens To Your Body When You Stop Taking The Pill

How the Pill Changes Your Mind

You probably know hormones rule your moods. Those in the Pill are no exception.

The Potential Brain Boost
New research shows that Pill users might have increased grey area in brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex (your memory and decision-making hub). Study author Dr. Belinda Pletzer, cautions, however, that it’s too early to speculate whether this bigger brain volume could lead to better brain function.

The Desire Dampening
That spike in SHBG (the protein that zaps acne) can knock down the testosterone levels that put you in the mood. Fortunately, some women make sufficient testosterone to counteract the effect, says sex medicine physician Dr. Irwin Goldstein. If you rarely feel frisky, he says, ask your gynae about non-oestrogen birth control such as the IUD.

The Attraction Factor
Women typically go for guys whose immune systems differ from theirs (it’s an evolutionary thing). But gals on the Pill might actually prefer men whose systems are similar to their own, per a University of Liverpool study. Some experts speculate that by halting ovulation, the Pill essentially mimics pregnancy, a condition that compels women to seek support from genetic kin. What’s more, new science shows men might subconsciously pick up on Pill-induced hormonal changes and find women with low odds of conceiving less attractive.

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