Awareness Days, International Women's Day, Women's Health

International Women’s Day – Non-Contraceptive Benefits of Birth Control Pills

In the third part of this International Women’s Day series, which we suppose will really be International Women’s Week at Wisbey Osteopathy, is about the non-contraceptive benefits of birth control pills.

This post is to raise awareness of the ways birth control pills can be used a medication for certain health conditions – that’s right, birth control isn’t only for preventing pregnancy! It will also provide some information on how they work because knowledge is power.

This post will focus solely on birth control pills but if you would like more information on your options then please visit the NHS website for more info. Alternatively Sam at Wisbey Osteopathy can talk through the options with you and provide information on where to go for a full women’s health assessment. Sam does not prescribe birth control.

Non-Contraceptive Benefits of Birth Control Pills

Both the combined pill (containing oestrogen and progesterone) and the mini pill (containing progesterone only) have other benefits besides preventing pregnancy due to the way they work. These include:

Regulation of Menstruation

Not everyone is blessed with a perfect 28 day cycle and trying to listen to your body so you know when you’re about to start your next bleed can be tricky. The combined pill is often used to help regulate them. Most combination birth control pills contain three weeks of active pills (those that contain hormones) and one week of inactive placebo pills (those that do not contain hormones). Bleeding occurs when the hormones are no longer taken during the week that the sugar or placebo pills are taken.

Regulation of Irregular Menstruation

Women with cycles longer than 35 days might not be making progesterone, which prevents the uterine lining from growing too much. Excess growth of the uterine lining can cause heavy bleeding or increase the risk for developing abnormal patterns of growth in the uterine lining, including cancer. The most common reason for irregular and infrequent periods is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).

Treatment of Heavy Periods (Menorrhea)

Birth control pills contain a progesterone hormone, which makes the lining of the uterus thinner and causes lighter bleeding episodes.

Treatment of Painful Periods (Dysmenorrhea)

One of the most widely reported symptoms of menstruation and one that can be debilitating in some cases due to severity. A chemical called prostaglandin is produced in the uterus at the time of menstruation which can cause contractions of the uterus that produce the cramping most women experience. Women who produce high levels of prostaglandin have more intense contractions and more severe cramping. Birth control pills can prevent ovulation which in turn reduces the amount of prostaglandin produced in the uterus.

Treatment of Endometriosis

Symptoms of endometriosis, which we talked about in the previous post (you can find it here!) can include painful, heavy periods. Just as progesterone limits the growth of the uterine lining, the progesterone-like hormones in birth control pills can limit or decrease the growth of endometrium outside of the uterus. As a result, birth control pills can reduce the pain associated with endometriosis for many women.

Treatment of Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) & Prementrusl Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)

Many women who have PMS or PMDD report an improvement in their symptoms while they are taking birth control pills. It is thought that they prevent the symptoms of PMS and PMDD by stopping or preventing ovulation from taking place.

Treatment for Acne, Excess Hair (Hirsutism) & Hair Loss (Alopecia)

All birth control pills can improve acne and hair growth in the midline of the body (hirsutism) by reducing the levels of male hormones (androgens) produced by the ovaries. All women make small amounts of androgens in the ovaries and adrenal glands. Sometimes these hormones are made in higher than normal amounts, or a woman is sensitive to the androgens produced, which can cause unwanted hair growth above the lip, below the chin, between the breasts, between the belly button and pubic bone, or down the inner thigh. Birth control pills reduce production of male hormones and increase the production of the substances in the body that bind the androgens circulating in the bloodstream. Within six months of use, there is usually a reduction in the abnormal hair growth.

However, when a woman has more excessive male hormone symptoms, she should see a gynecologist or primary care doctor. These symptoms may include – male pattern baldness, increased muscle mass, smaller breast size, growth of the clitoris, or lowering of the pitch of the voice.

Other Health Benefits

  • Fewer cases of anemia (low red blood cells)
  • Fewer cases of ovarian cancer and uterine cancer

These effects occur because the birth control pill works by decreasing the number of ovulations, amount of menstrual blood flow, and frequency of periods.

Despite the lesser known non-contraceptive benefits, it is widely known that birth control pills have an extensive list of unwanted side effects and potential risks. Usually side effects are thought of as something that only happens on rare occasions to the unlucky few however the incidence for women experiencing side effects from birth control are high.

Ladies, do not despair, because if you are choosing contraceptives solely to prevent pregnancy then there are so many options! The downside to this is that finding the right contraception for your body is trial and error, and that trial is often months. It can take between 6 and 9 months for your body to adjust to a new hormonal contraceptive, by that time any side effects you have experienced should have stopped however this is not always the case. I share your frustration in this process and more research does need to be conducted to find alternative birth control with far less side effects.

Remember that the responsibility is on both partners, condoms shouldn’t be viewed as a back-up request because you’ve exhausted your options and can’t find something that suits you. Barrier methods, such as condoms, are also the only contraceptives that protect against STIs.

You can find more information on your options on the NHS website or speak to your GP for more information on the pros and cons of each type of contraceptive, to do it in this post would make it far too long!

Photo by Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition on Unsplash