I have always found it curious that many health-conscious women will pay more for meat and dairy products that promise “No Artificial Hormones,” but then don’t think twice about taking the powerful artificial hormones in birth control.
Based on observations from a recent work trip, I began wondering if this paradox could be just a strange quirk of human nature. I was working with a man who obsessed over everything he put in his body. He intently read nutrition labels to compare juices, perused the ingredients before purchasing a protein bar, and asked waiters at restaurants about their food preparation.
It is difficult to eat healthy when you are living on the road, and I was impressed by his commitment to doing so. He really took his health seriously. Then, one afternoon, he said he was going to take a break, picked up his laptop bag, and pulled out a pack of unfiltered Camels.
I wondered what kind of compartments must exist in his brain for this to make sense, and it brought my mind back to the women who make a concerted effort to avoid artificial hormones… except when they don’t.
The Perfect Example
I might have also wondered how my brain could be so de-compartmentalized that his smoking immediately triggered thoughts of birth control, but this isn’t about me. So, I’ll save that for the therapist.
Meanwhile, his dichotomy of action had piqued my interest, and I was unsure where my curiosity would lead me. Then, I met the perfect woman to help me take a deep dive into the topic.
Brandy Searcy has worked as a developmental scientist for pharmaceutical companies for over a decade. As the daughter and granddaughter of nurses, she grew up immersed in conversations centered around healthcare. So, pursuing a PhD in organic synthesis seemed almost a natural extension of her genetics and heritage.
Through her work, which has included forays into cancer research and pesticide development, she honed a keen understanding of endocrine disruptors. Her concern over xenoestrogens in health and beauty products led her to develop Rain Organica, a line of skin care products designed specifically for women looking to detox their lives.
Birth Control and the Compartmentalization Conundrum
After we finished recording, Brandy mentioned that she could not believe how long it took her to connect the dots and realize that so many of her problems were linked to hormonal birth control. This opened the door to a fascinating discussion.
As you might imagine, her family was deeply vested in Western medicine. So, when she began to battle acne at around the age of 14, her mother did what any loving mother would do. She drove her around the state of Georgia trying to find a dermatologist who would conjure up a magic potion to make her acne worries vanish.
After a few years and some bad experiences with Accutane, Brandy’s mindset began to shift. It was around the age of 20 that she decided that she would “treat my skin as an organ to be loved rather than as a battleground.”
Although she had identified the problems with Accutane, it would take another 20 years for her to recognize the role hormonal birth control was playing in her health struggles. Consequently, this would become the first of many milestones she would later identify as missed opportunities to connect the dots.
Living Both Sides of the Coin
“It’s almost like there were two of me. One side was touting this new, healthy approach to life, and the other side was completely ignoring the effects of hormonal birth control on my body.”
When Brandy reflects back on those days before the blinders came off, you can see clouds of guilt and maybe a hint of embarrassment cross her eyes. She says there were any number of events that should have been enough to make her see the light earlier. Like the time red flags and sirens went off in her head when her doctor suggested a form of birth control because the “hormones were localized.”
Looking back at it now, she laments, “If she (the doctor) thought hormones can be localized, why didn’t I question her wisdom on prescribing me birth control in the first place?”
Beyond the common misrepresentations by doctors, Brandy can pinpoint some very specific, significant events in her personal and professional life that she believes should have been enough for her to walk away from hormonal birth control.
Missed Warning Signs
“It’s mind-blowing to me that I couldn’t let myself connect the dots. How I couldn’t see it is beyond me.”
Brandy still feels overcome with dismay as she recounts the significant events, the missed warning signs. Here is her summary of those key events:
2008 – Right leg numbness – The doctor thought she might be experiencing transient ischemic attacks (TIA) caused by the synthetic estrogens in her birth control. He told her to stop taking it until they could identify the culprit. The issues turned out to be structural rather than a stroke, and she returned to The Pill without a second thought.
2012 – Lyme disease – Brandy became very ill. As they worked through the process of diagnosing her illness, the doctor told her to stop taking birth control for six months. During the course of testing, they learned that her ANA and CRP levels were high. Ultimately, she was diagnosed with and treated for Lyme disease. Once again, feeling better, the diagnosis was taken as an exoneration of hormonal birth control. She forgot all about concern for her ANA and CRP levels, and started right back on The Pill.
2012 – Literal warning signs – That same year, she visited a facility that previously manufactured synthetic estrogens. As she walked through the plant, she noticed the bright red “Carcinogen” signs everywhere – on the walls, on the pipes – literally everywhere. Even as one of her co-workers told her this is where estrogens used to be made, she never connected the danger and all these literal warning signs to the same little pill she was taking every day.
2016 – No periods – Brandy was already experiencing gall sludge when her gynecologist recommended a different birth control formulation that, when taken continuously, would allow her to never have a period again, right up until menopause. She loved the idea of eliminating her period and didn’t even make the connection when signs of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis began almost immediately after switching to this brand.
2017 – Gallbladder disease – She had to have her gallbladder removed. While Brandy was still unaware of hormonal birth control’s link to gallbladder issues, she also had a family history of gallbladder disease that kept her from even considering The Pill’s role in her gallbladder’s demise.
2018 – Hashimoto’s diagnosis – After two years of tests, Brandy was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, yet another disease that has been linked to birth control use. This was the event that would finally open her eyes, but the realization still took a circuitous route as it wasn’t the diagnosis itself that helped her make the connection.
When Western medicine told this self-described type-A control freak that there was no cure, she began digging for herself and discovered a book on treating your thyroid using Ayurveda techniques.
Ayurveda is an alternative form of medicine originating from Asia, which focuses on the necessary balance of internal and external influences to maintain proper health. And, it provided the shift in mindset that finally caused Brandy to question birth control.
Looking back at everything now, Brandy says, “We are not made to live in a diseased state. We are made to be healthy, and if we aren’t healthy, it isn’t because our body is broken, it’s because we are putting something in that is making us not healthy.”
Seeing the Light
I asked what she might tell other young women to help them wake up to the dangers of The Pill, or at least give more thought to its potential risks. This led to another interesting rabbit hole as we discussed the various factors that prevent young women from truly contemplating the dangers. Here are some of the variables we discussed:
Lack of reproductive education – Young women aren’t taught about the phases of their cycle, nor how its ebbs and flows can actually help them monitor their health, nor are they educated on how their cycles may change over time.
In Brandy’s case, she had very heavy, irregular, and painful periods as a young girl. No one ever told her this was common when going through menarche. As a result, she said The Pill gave her a false sense of control. She had fully bought into a false narrative that periods should be embarrassing and that they serve no useful function. At some level, she believed that completely stopping her menstruation with potent chemicals might actually be better for her than respecting her body’s natural processes. This did not change even after two doctors had her stop hormonal birth control for health concerns.
Western medicine – We tend to give doctors an inordinate authority over our health decisions to the point of almost idolizing them. This is reinforced by a notion that they have taken the Hippocratic Oath, promising to first, do no harm. However, only slightly over half of all physicians today have taken the oath, and that percentage drops with each new graduating class.
The more entrenched a young woman’s faith in Western medicine the less likely she is to question birth control.
Addiction – Some women seem to develop a type of addiction to hormonal birth control. The mere suggestion that they should look for another option is enough to create severe anxiety.
Stockholm syndrome – Closely related, some women may take on a type of Stockholm syndrome that prevents them from connecting the dots. Stockholm syndrome is described as a coping mechanism that some victims of an abusive situation develop in which they actually grow fond of the abuser.
Brandy recalled, “In a lot of ways, if feels like I was in an abusive relationship, but I wasn’t able to see how abusive it was until I stepped away.”
Withdrawal – Beyond the addictive nature, quitting any synthetic steroid cold turkey can be hard on the system. There’s a reason doctors taper you off of prednisone and other steroids.
Many women experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop, and this is enough to drive them right back to The Pill.
Little support – Historically, there has been a lack of support for women coming off these potent synthetic hormones – some after decades of use. Even the medical professionals who prescribe the drug are woefully undertrained on dealing with the detoxification process necessary for a healthy transition off of The Pill. Actually, that is an understatement. Most doctors have not even contemplated the effects of coming off the synthetic steroids in birth control. They act is if you just stop and your body returns to normal.
When Brandy came off The Pill, she immediately began to see and feel changes in her body, including her first UTI, at the age of 40. This was the lightbulb moment when she realized how much impact the synthetic steroids had been having on her body. Despite having made it through 40 years with no UTIs, two of her doctors, who are still clearly wearing their birth control blinders, told her it sounded like she had poor hygiene habits. Somehow, in their eyes, I guess it took 40 years for those bad habits to catch up to her.
By the way, Brandy recently developed a course to help women through the transition off of hormonal birth control.
A Unique Formula
Clearly, there are lots of variables that can influence the way a woman perceives and judges birth control.
Every woman is different. Each has her own unique body chemistry. That is why a birth control formulation that seems harmless to one woman can be deadly for the next.
Brandy mused that the way women weigh their thoughts on The Pill is equally idiosyncratic. There is no one phrase or thought that will lead women to suddenly see the realities of hormonal birth control. Each woman has to hear the right message at the right time to help her properly weigh the benefits and risks for her situation. I say “properly” because the system is so stacked against women getting accurate information about this potent drug.
Brandy added this last thought related to one of the first big hurdles that women encounter – the overwhelming tendency to mitigate and downplay side effects. She advised, “The subtle symptoms are the first indicators. Don’t dismiss them because they seem insignificant. They are frequently pointing to something bigger.”
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