What Are the Benefits and Risks of Birth Control Pills?
Birth Control Before the Pill
When birth control pills were made available to the public in the United States in 1960, contraceptive methods were not new. Ancient forms of birth control can be traced back to as early as 1550 BCE in Egypt. However, what was new was the convenience, the safety, and the fact that it put unprecedented autonomous control of women’s bodies into their own hands.
Previously, birth control methods could be unwieldy and of questionable efficacy, such as Lothario Casanova’s infamous use of lemon rinds as a contraceptive method. Many women would even turn to blatantly unhealthy or dangerous methods of birth control, like the practice of drinking warm mercury, which was used in ancient China. Throughout history, women’s control over their reproductive future was constrained by either requiring the cooperation of men (condoms) or risking their health by resorting to outlandish means of pregnancy prevention. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that birth control pills were a great stepping stone for women’s liberation.
On the other hand, while allowing women this sole control over such forms of contraception was a huge boon for women at the time, and a step forward for the culture as a whole, the very same unique control has become a bane today. Although initially, birth control pills provided unprecedented autonomy for women, it also created a double standard that birth control was primarily the responsibility of women. Modern methods of male birth control are being developed, but are slow to catch on.
How Birth Control Works
Birth control pills prevent pregnancy in three primary ways:
- Preventing ovulation;
- Preventing sperm from fertilizing eggs;
- Preventing eggs from anchoring onto the uterine wall.
Birth control pills accomplish this by releasing synthetic estrogen and progesterone (called progestin in its synthetic form) hormones, which alter the body’s natural reproductive cycle and biological signals. They must be taken regularly in order to remain effective.
Pros of Birth Control Pills
Beyond allowing people to better prevent and plan pregnancy, birth control pills have many other benefits as well.
Some forms of birth control appear to lessen acne in some people. This is because the hormonal effects of many forms of birth control cause the body to reduce the production of sebum, the oil produced by sebaceous glands which can clog pores and cause acne. It is important to note, however, that this phenomenon seems to only be produced by birth control pills which contain both estrogen and progestin, not those than contain only progestin.
Lessens Symptoms of PMS
Because birth control pills use synthetic hormones to alter and inhibit various aspects of the menstrual cycle, they also often reduce symptoms of PMS and PMDD. PMS and PMDD can produce a wide range of symptoms, including stress, fatigue, and irritability, and last for approximately one week. This can have a significant negative impact on day-to-day life on a monthly basis for those who suffer from these conditions.
Anemia is a condition characterized by an insufficient amount of healthy red blood cells. Symptoms often include fatigue, dizziness, and unusually pale skin. Birth control pills reduce the blood loss experienced during the menstrual cycle, which can help prevent or reduce the aggravation of anemia during each cycle.
Reduces Risk of Uterine and Ovarian Cancer
Many studies suggest that the use of birth control pills may reduce the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer. According to the American Cancer Society: “Women who used oral contraceptives for 5 or more years have about a 50% lower risk of developing ovarian cancer compared with women who never used oral contraceptives.” Although not all of the causes of these cancers are known, it is hypothesized that a synthetic balance of hormones provided by birth control pills are behind the apparent decreased cancer risk. However, birth control can also increase the risk of breast cancer.
Regulates Your Menstrual Cycle
Regulating the menstrual cycle is actually a necessary underlying function of birth control pills in order for them to work properly. This is also why they are sold as a specific regimen of pills over the course of each month. The pills produce hormones that mimic the natural menstrual cycle, which then allows the medication to control the cycle. As a result, birth control pills cause an extremely regular menstrual cycle.
Cons of Birth Control Pills
Birth control pills do also come with their risks and disadvantages, as any form of medication often does.
The hormonal changes introduced by oral contraceptives have also been known to cause hair loss in some people. Those who are sensitive to hormonal changes or already have a predisposition for hair loss, female pattern baldness, or alopecia are the most likely to be affected. Those suffering from these side effects, but want to stay on birth control pills do have other options, such as hair growth products.
Headaches and Migraines
The most common regimen of birth control pills include 3 weeks worth of “active” pills, which contain the synthetic hormones, and 1 week of “inactive” pills, which do not. This can result in a sudden drop in the body’s estrogen levels which can cause or increase headaches in susceptible individuals. However, headaches and migraines associated with oral contraceptives do tend to improve as the individual adjusts to the regimen.
Hormonal changes are strongly linked to changes in mood and behavior. This is especially well-known when it comes to hormones such as estrogen and testosterone due to common public familiarity with the effects of puberty. However, puberty is not the only cause of changes in these hormones. Because an integral function of birth control pills is to introduce and regulate hormones, it is no surprise that mood changes are a common side effect of oral contraceptives.
While testosterone is highly associated with men, women’s bodies also naturally produce testosterone. Testosterone plays many important functions in the bodies of women, including the regulation of sex drive. With the introduction of synthetic estrogen and progesterone as a result of taking birth control pills, testosterone levels may drop, resulting in lowered libido.
Birth control has been reported to cause weight gain in some individuals. However, studies do not support significant evidence of long-term weight gain in individuals using birth control pills. It is suspected, however, that short-term weight gain may be caused as a result of water retention, which is commonly affected by estrogen levels.