If you follow women’s health, you may have noticed a trend in the past few years when it comes to the most highly-prescribed contraceptives. Some women are starting to ditch pharmaceutical birth control due to undesirable side effects. In a 2018 Cosmo survey, 70% of young women said they’d either stopped taking the Pill or had considered doing so in the past three years.
The Cut published this headline, “Yes, Your Birth-Control Pills Really Might Be Making You Feel Awful, Study Says.” For years, studies have been documenting a connection between birth control and increased depression, lowered libido, and migraines. But for a long time, these studies haven’t been heard over the din of the latest birth-control advertisements. Perhaps as a result, we are finally starting to hear women sharing their own experiences publicly.
As a woman named Gena Steffens shared at Huffington Post last year, “Going Off Birth Control Cured My Depression And Gave Me Back My Sex Drive.” Steffens explained, “like a lot of women, I was put on birth control pills shortly after starting my period. If you had asked me at any point in the past, I would have told you I had never experienced an adverse side effect from my birth control.” But only after stopping the drug did Steffens realize how long she put up with the undesirable side effects, which, at the time, she didn’t know were due to the Pill. "I struggled with depression, mood swings, and a truly lackluster sex drive for years," she said. "The notion that these conditions are ‘normal’ for women is reinforced so constantly in our society that I simply accepted that I was naturally a slightly sad, sexless lady."
As another woman shared at Huffington Post, “I started taking birth control pills in January 2011. By May of that year, my doctor discovered that a blood clot had developed in my right leg and spread to my lungs.” In 2014, Vanity Fair covered the story of athlete Megan Henry who almost died of blood clots due to the NuvaRing.
In 2017, journalist Sabrina Debusquat published the results of a survey of 3,616 French women who chose to stop taking the Pill. She found that the majority of women had stopped at least one time due to “minor but problematic side-effects,” including loss of libido, weight gain, and mood disorders. What’s telling is that after dropping the Pill, 71.5% of the respondents said they experienced positive effects, including improved libido, feeling reconnected to herself and her body, fewer mood swings, depression or unexplained anxiety, weight loss, and more energy.
The side effects of birth control can be devastating. This year, a systematic review of research revealed that as many as 300 to 400 U.S. women die of blood clots due to their birth control choice. And there are new studies linking birth control use to depression and suicide, and autoimmune diseases, such as Lupus, Crohn's Disease, and Multiple Sclerosis (MS). For 16 years, the permanent birth-control device Essure caused side effects ranging from headaches and back pain to perforated fallopian tubes for many women before the FDA announced new informed-consent requirements for the drug, and Bayer took it off the market just this past year. And this isn’t the first time women weren’t fully informed of the risks of hormonal birth control.
Pharmaceutical companies have tried to create different birth control methods that minimize symptoms and side effects, such as the hormone-free copper IUD (ParaGard). But the side effects women report about the IUD can be just as bad and less subtle than those of oral contraceptives. As one woman shared at The Everygirl, “I handle pain extremely well, but it was the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life... I returned to work still trembling from the pain. The next 12 months were awful.” That’s a long time to endure painful side effects.
It’s Not Just Women’s Health
Hormonal birth control may also affect women’s relationships. Some research has shown that the artificial hormones in the Pill may influence mutual attraction, altering the qualities that a woman uses in picking a mate, as well as how men perceive their partner's attractiveness.
Additionally, when formerly birth-control-using women seek to start a family, many encounter challenges to getting pregnant that can be emotionally straining, both personally and for the relationship. Unfortunately, since hormonal birth control depletes women of many nutrients and natural hormones that facilitate pregnancy, many women have a hard time trying to conceive later in life or carrying a pregnancy to term. Another study found an increased risk of miscarriage among some women due to reduced levels of progesterone—an essential hormone for conception that the Pill suppresses.
Another reason some women have trouble conceiving after getting off hormonal contraceptives is due to undetected fertility issues beforehand, the symptoms of which can be covered up by the artificial hormones and simulated monthly period that comes like clockwork with the Pill.
Serving Women’s Family Planning and Health Needs Without the Risks
One reason some women suffer years of side effects from artificial birth control is because they have “not felt heard” when they mention the problems they are experiencing to their doctors. Others may not have been informed about the side effects at all.
As a result, many women who are fed up with hormonal birth control's side effects are researching more natural methods of pregnancy prevention on their own. Some rely on charting apps that predict when they are fertile, but there are more medically-supported, natural options available, specifically Fertility Awareness-Based Methods (FABM). These methods include the Sympto-Thermal Method, for example, which boasts an effectiveness rate of pregnancy prevention that exceeds the effectiveness of the Pill. (To ensure the greatest efficacy, users of FABM should be taught by a certified FABM instructor.)
In addition to pregnancy prevention, FABM, also known as evidence-based forms of Natural Family Planning (NFP), equip couples to seek pregnancy with greater effectiveness than without. Not only does knowledge about her fertility during her monthly cycle equip a woman to seek pregnancy with greater likelihood, but charting can also help a woman identify health conditions that could be inhibiting her fertility.
This is another reason some OBGYNs are turning to natural family planning methods as a safer form of birth control to offer their patients. As one OBGYN, Dr. Summer Holmes Mason, recently shared at Natural Womanhood, “Prescribing contraception was bread and butter gynecology for me. It was probably one of the largest tools I had in my arsenal as an OBGYN to treat medical issues.” But after a couple of years, Dr. Holmes Mason noticed a disturbing trend. “I realized people were coming back to me with more side effects than I thought was acceptable,” she explained.
Now, she offers natural family planning options in addition to other forms of birth control, and she feels better equipped to serve her patients’ health. “I really try to utilize the informed consent process,” she said. “I feel like my patients will know what they are getting into if they are getting hormonal contraceptives, and I let them make that choice for themselves . . . for those people who don’t want to, after having that discussion, I have so much more to offer.”
It’s about time more in the medical community followed suit. Now that we are beginning to hear from more women who are fed up with artificial birth control, there’s more than enough demand.
Editor's note: This article was updated on 5/4/19.