The following is a list of some the health factors that increase your risk of side effects from taking hormonal birth control. It is by no means a complete list of contraindications but you may find some of these surprising. I know I did.
Five Reasons You May Want to Reconsider Hormonal Birth Control
Reason 1: Smoking and Age
You are probably familiar with these warnings. You may have heard them on television commercials or seen them on magazine advertisements. Or maybe you read my article about risk communication and saw them there. The problem with these warnings is that the wording makes it seem like you are only at risk if you are over 35 and a smoker. But the truth is that these two risk factors stand independent of each other. You are at increased risk if you are over 35 years of age. You are at increased risk if you are a smoker of any age. And if you are a smoker who is over 35, you have an exponentially higher risk for blood clots when using hormonal birth control.
Reason 2: Migraines
According to a 2010 article in the Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 43% of women in the United States suffer from migraines. That’s a huge number of women. Also, according to the same article, 43% of women using birth control are using hormonal contraception (the pill, rings, shots, implants, etc.). I’m not a statistician but I’m guessing there is some overlap between the women that suffer migraines and the ones using hormonal birth control. This is problematic for two reasons:
- A great deal of evidence suggests that migraine, particularly migraine with aura, is associated with an increased risk of ischemic stroke, and that this risk may be further elevated with the use of hormonal birth control. But if you don’t believe me, both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the World Health Organization advise that women who suffer migraines with aura should not use hormonal contraception.
- Reevaluation or discontinuation of combination hormonal contraception is advised for women who develop escalating severity/frequency of headaches, new-onset migraine with aura, or nonmigrainous headaches persisting beyond 3 months of use.
A 2016 meta-analysis of seven research studies demonstrated “a two- to fourfold increased risk of stroke among women with migraine who use combined oral contraceptives (COCs) compared with nonusers.” But once again, like so many other things about hormonal birth control, the authors of the study report that research is lacking in this area and more studies need to be done.
Reason 3: Family Clotting Disorders
Many people have a clotting disorder and simply don’t know it. When I had my stroke while on birth control pills, I had no idea that I had the fairly common clotting disorder Factor V Leiden (FVL affects between 3-8% of people). But what I did know was that my grandmother had had two strokes. And my aunts and uncle had all had blood clots.
Unfortunately, women are not systematically tested for clotting disorders before they begin using hormonal birth control. This is very dangerous and why it’s so important to give your doctor a thorough family history; something I know I wouldn’t have considered that vital when I was 18 years old.
A lot of health professionals don’t take the time to review your family history, making it even more important that you mention your family history of blood clots and your concerns about hormonal contraception. You might even insist on being tested for clotting disorders before increasing your risk of a dangerous and sometimes deadly blood clot.
Reason 4: Depression and Mental Health
I explore this further in this article but the basics are:
- Hormonal contraceptives can cause mental health issues
- Women who suffer from mental health issues are much more likely to suffer from increased symptoms when on hormonal contraception
- Often the longer hormonal contraception is used, the greater the symptoms
- Discontinuation of hormonal contraception can usually alleviate mental health symptoms
Reason 5: Diabetes
Dr. Hugh J. Davis, the first doctor to testify at the Nelson Pill Hearings said the following (page 5930):
“A woman, for example, who has a history of diabetes or even a woman with a strong family history of diabetes is not an ideal candidate for using oral contraceptives… [they] produce changes in carbohydrate metabolism which tends to aggravate existing diabetes and can make it difficult to manage.”
Hormonal birth control elevates blood glucose levels, can increase blood pressure, increases triglycerides and cholesterol, and accelerates the hardening of the arteries, among other things. They knew this in 1970. But what about the research now? Well, if you’ve read any of my other articles it probably won’t surprise you that the current research is… wait for it… you guessed it… INCONCLUSIVE! Here’s a look at what I’ve found:
“Cardiovascular disease is a major concern, and for women with diabetes who have macrovascular or microvascular complications, nonhormonal methods are recommended.
There is little evidence of best practice for the follow-up of women with diabetes prescribed hormonal contraception. It is generally agreed that blood pressure, weight, and body mass index measurements should be ascertained, and blood glucose levels and baseline lipid profiles assessed as relevant. Research on hormonal contraception has been carried out in healthy populations; more studies are needed in women with diabetes and women who have increased risks of cardiovascular disease.”
“The four included randomised controlled trials in this systematic review provided insufficient evidence to assess whether progestogen-only and combined contraceptives differ from non-hormonal contraceptives in diabetes control, lipid metabolism and complications. Three of the four studies were of limited methodological quality, sponsored by pharmaceutical companies and described surrogate outcomes. Ideally, an adequately reported, high-quality randomised controlled trial analysing both intermediate outcomes (i.e. glucose and lipid metabolism) and true clinical endpoints (micro- and macrovascular disease) in users of combined, progestogen-only and non-hormonal contraceptives should be conducted.
Not enough evidence is available to prove that hormonal contraceptives do not influence glucose and fat metabolism in women with diabetes mellitus.”
Contraception is a very personal choice. I believe all women should research the risks associated with using hormonal contraception, but especially if you experience any of the health conditions above. Should you weigh the risks and benefits of using hormonal birth control and decide it’s still the right choice for you, please take a moment to review the symptoms of the blood clot and seek help immediately if you notice any of these.
Real Risk Study: Birth Control and Blood Clots
Lucine Health Sciences and Hormones Matter are conducting research to investigate the relationship between hormonal birth control and blood clots. If you or a loved one have suffered from a blood clot while using hormonal birth control, please consider participating. We are also looking for participants who have been using hormonal birth control for at least one year and have NOT had a blood clot, as well as women who have NEVER used hormonal birth control. For more information or to participate, click here.