When I discuss risks and side effects with birth control advocates, one of the most common things they like to tell me is that no drug is one hundred percent safe. This statement has been something of a mantra for propagandists since the very inception of The Pill.
The problem is that The Pill isn’t like any other drug, and it shouldn’t be held to the same standard. Although we’ve been programmed to look at birth control through a certain lens for over 60 years, it’s time we shift our perspective and reconsider things based on a few very important facts.
The Pill was the first (and only) drug created to be taken by the healthy. It is the only drug designed to interfere with a natural process rather than treat an illness. And, it is expected to be taken chronically for many years, although it was originally promoted as something that would only be taken for a couple of years to help space out children.
If anything, the standards for a drug like this should be much more stringent than the norm. Unfortunately, the safety protocols have been non-existent. As I detailed extensively in my book, hormonal birth control was pushed through the FDA without ever having been proven safe.
A Tradition of Mitigation
In those early years, many leading doctors expressed apprehension about changes they were witnessing in the bodies of birth control patients. One of the primary concerns centered on changes they were seeing in the breast tissue of these young women. Doctors warned that this could lead to a tragic rise in breast cancer cases.
The drug companies responded by turning it into a marketing ploy, telling women that The Pill would make their breasts fuller. Meanwhile, the incidence of breast cancer did, in fact, increase dramatically. In 1970, at the time of the Nelson Pill Hearings, one in every 20 women was diagnosed with breast cancer. Today, it’s one in every eight women.
The prophetic warnings have been all but forgotten. Many women continue to notice their breasts feeling tender or fuller when they start birth control, but very few think about what the long term consequences of these changes may actually be.
I wrote more about breast cancer and birth control at these links.
What a Headache
Migraines represent a less subtle but equally mitigated early-warning sign of potential bigger problems to come. Once again, doctors in the early days of The Pill recognized that young women with migraines and severe headaches were at a much higher risk of suffering blood clots, strokes, and pulmonary emboli.
Consequently, the common recommendation was that women should avoid the synthetic steroids in hormonal birth control, if they had a family history of migraines. Take note – not only a personal history, but even a family history of migraines was enough to make most doctors shy away from prescribing birth control.
Today, the narrative has flipped. Recognizing that there is a relationship between hormones and headaches, some doctors have taken up the dangerous practice of actually prescribing birth control to “treat” migraines.
Birth Control Changes Everything
Whenever a woman tells me she hasn’t had any issues with her birth control, I can’t help but wonder how low she set the bar. After all, we have a history of downplaying birth control side effects. Doctors continue programming women to think that their concerns are “no big deal.” Consequently, when a woman contemplates whether she has had any side effects, she probably isn’t taking fuller breasts into account. If she has headaches, she is convinced they are nothing to worry about. And, she’s definitely not paying attention to things like dry skin, vision changes, weight gain, anxiety, gastro problems, or issues with her thyroid.
Of course, I am speaking in broad terms. Some women pay very close attention to these changes. The problem is that every woman should be. We need to educate women to watch for these details because they all indicate that things are changing at a cellular level.
I am not saying that every woman who experiences a “mild” side effect will suffer a major crisis later, but it is worth considering what these cellular changes might lead to down the road.
I know the study will never be done, but it would be fascinating to see what correlations might exist between mild versus more severe side effects.
Moodiness and Anxiety
I doubt there is any side effect where the crossover from mild to severe is more fluid than with changes to brain chemistry. One of the most common complaints of birth control users is mood and personality changes. Doctors typically respond by prescribing a second drug, such as Xanax, to treat the new anxiety rather than wrestle with what caused these changes and what it could mean for the future.
There is no shortage of severe brain-related consequences linked to birth control. The most obvious include depression and suicide, and in fact, a recent large scale study found that women taking birth control are 70% more likely to experience depression, and three times more likely to commit suicide. Those are problems that often arise soon enough after starting birth control that women recognize the connection. And unfortunately, they are problems that can linger long after she’s stopped taking the synthetic hormones.
Other problems are not as easy to connect because they take longer to manifest. Though the correlation is still being debated, at least one major study found that women taking birth control are 50% more likely to develop a particular kind of brain tumor, known as a glioma. Those who take it for more than 5 years increase their risk by 90%.
More Cancers To Count
Unfortunately, the cancer risks tied to birth control don’t end with the brain and breasts. Separate studies have also linked birth control use to cervical cancer and even skin cancer.
One study found that women who take birth control for less than five years increase their risk of cervical cancer by 10%, but after five years, that increase jumps to 60%. The hormones in birth control thicken the cervical mucus and leave women more susceptible to the HPV virus. Cellular changes that may seem hardly noticeable or relatively insignificant when you start The Pill.
What about dry sky – or even clearer skin? Is it possible they could lead to negative consequences in the long run? Well, the fact is, in either case, cellular changes are taking place in your skin. Who knows whether this means you could be more susceptible to skin cancer down the road, but we do know that birth control has been linked to a higher incidence of skin cancer.
The Weighting Is the Hardest Part
Think of other “mild” side effects and how they correspond to more significant side effects. Things like weight gain and changes in cholesterol or blood pressure are often dismissed as mere inconveniences, but what impact might they have on future issues like diabetes, heart disease, or gallbladder disease?
Could feeling gassy or bloated today have any connection to future issues like IBS, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis?
Would changes in vision today seem more worrisome when considered in light of future glaucoma? What about joint aches and pains once you consider the link to lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, and other connective tissue disorders?
Would you be more worried about fatigue, dry skin, constipation, and hair loss if you looked at it through the lens of thyroid disease?
Preaching Informed Consent
We simply are not doing enough to inform women of the potential side effects of birth control before they begin taking it. Once they take it and start to experience problems, we aren’t educating them on what those changes could mean in the long run. Rather, doctors frequently tell them to give their bodies time to adjust, even when the existing side effects could lead to deadly consequences.
A medical system that mitigates and dismisses practically any complication this side of death is clearly not focused on women’s health as much as it is profits.
I encounter women on an almost daily basis who tell me they are giving up on birth control. They say they wish they had been warned about the side effects. The women who have told me this were experiencing everything from having their gallbladder removed, to recovering from a stroke, to undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.
We think differently when we are younger. Who knows if women really would say no to The Pill if someone gave them the facts. And honestly, that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they deserve to be told. They deserve the opportunity to make an INFORMED decision.
In short, women who choose to use birth control with synthetic steroids should walk into that decision with their eyes every bit as wide open as anyone who still chooses to smoke cigarettes.
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