Multiple Sclerosis and Birth Control: The Undeniable Link

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A Google search for “birth control + multiple sclerosis” features the dangerously deceptive headline, “Birth Control May Lower MS Risk.” The linked article begins, “Women who take birth control pills may be less likely to develop multiple sclerosis (MS) while they’re on the pill, according to a new study.”

The key phrase is ‘while they’re on the pill,’ but we will come back to that in a moment. First, let’s zoom out and look at the broader picture of MS as an autoimmune disease.

Basics of Autoimmune Disease

Dr. Noel Rose, known as the Father of Autoimmune Disease, first hypothesized the idea of the body’s immune system attacking itself in the late 50s. He developed the theory and came up with the name, Autoimmune Disease, while studying Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis in rabbits.

A couple of years ago, I attended a lecture by Dr. Rose. That evening, the amiable, elder statesman explained the basics of autoimmunity. He said we’ve known from the beginning that estrogen probably plays a vital role in autoimmunity because of the role it plays in a woman’s immune system, plus the fact that nearly 80 percent of diagnoses are women.

He explained that patients must be genetically predisposed to contract an autoimmune disease, but stressed that environmental triggers are the real key to activating the disease in a patient.

Finally, he described T cells as soldiers of the immune system. When our body’s natural estrogen attaches to T cell receptors, the soldiers are armed and have their marching orders. The estrogen essentially points out the invader, and triggers the command to attack. But when disruptive agents that mimic natural estrogen enter our body (known as endocrine disruptors), they attach to the receptors. Suddenly, the soldier is armed, but doesn’t know what to attack. This can cause the immune system to battle our body’s healthy tissue, and result in an autoimmune disease.

Dr. Rose’s lecture inspired me to dig deeper into what I saw as the most prolific endocrine disruptor, a chemical literally designed to mimic natural estrogen in the body – hormonal birth control.

Birth Control and Multiple Sclerosis

In the case of Multiple Sclerosis, errant T cells attack the myelin sheath that protects neural pathways of the nervous system. Scientists have identified the cytokine, interleukin-6 (IL-6) as the messenger that triggers T-cells to become pathogenic in MS, and a recent study suggests that “cluster signaling” of IL-6 from the surface of dendritic cells could cause “the T cell to become highly aggressive and efficient in attacking its target antigen.”

Two other unrelated studies established pathways for increased IL-6 production in birth control users. The first study observed increased synthesis of C-Reactive Protein (CRP), which elevated in direct correlation to IL-6. CRP levels in birth control users doubled those of nonusers.

The second study demonstrated lower cortisol production in birth control users, which led to higher levels of IL-6, since cortisol normally regulates IL-6. While neither study proves a definitive link between hormonal contraceptives and MS, they certainly demonstrate how these synthetic hormones make the user’s body more conducive to the disease.

Birth Control Helps My Symptoms

Before examining more evidence, let’s discuss why The Pill seems to relieve MS symptoms in some patients. Hormonal contraceptives flood the body with synthetic estrogen, similar to the body’s natural process during pregnancy. By convincing the body it’s pregnant each month, the contraceptive prevents actual pregnancy.

During pregnancy, the flood of estrogens improves acute MS attacks by 80%, nearly doubling the efficacy of the best drugs on the market. With certain autoimmune diseases like MS, sex hormones appear to promote inflammation when they’re at normal levels, but dampen it at higher levels.

Consequently, the flood of estrogens from hormonal birth control mimics the relief of pregnancy, but with a couple of dramatic pitfalls. First, hormonal contraceptives are synthetic and don’t contain Estriol (E3), a pregnancy-specific hormone that seems to have the most therapeutic benefit. Second, hormonal birth control suppresses ovarian hormone production. In other words, the endocrine system reacts to the influx of synthetic estrogens by decreasing production of natural estrogen. Finally, while birth control provides temporary relief, it actually disrupts the endocrine and immune systems, which creates devastating consequences for MS symptoms in the long run.

Multiple Sclerosis’ Growing Gender Gap

You may wonder how all this talk of T cells and endocrine disruptors translates to actual women. Unfortunately, the results are just as you would suspect. Kaiser Permanente released a study in 2014 disclosing that women who had taken The Pill were 35% more likely to develop Multiple Sclerosis than women who hadn’t. The study also found that women who had used contraceptives but had stopped at least one month before symptoms started were 50 percent more likely to develop MS.

Multiple Sclerosis has always been a discriminatory disease for the reasons outlined by Dr. Rose earlier in this article. However, all indicators point to a dramatic widening of the gender gap since the introduction of birth control pills. According to Gary Cutter PhD., professor of biostatistics at the University of Alabama, in 1940, twice as many women as men had Multiple Sclerosis. By 2000, four out of five MS patients were womenThat’s a 50% increase over each decade!

A report published in the Neurology Journal confirmed the increased gender gap as a global trend. After reviewing worldwide epidemiological data, the researchers found that the female-to-male ratio was approximately 1.4 in 1955, and had jumped to 2.3 by the year 2000. Sreeram Ramagopalan, PhD, research fellow at University of Oxford, offered this commentary on the study:

“This intriguing epidemiological phenomenon warrants particular attention because the sex ratio of MS parallels MS incidence, and the increasing frequency of MS among females is a key driver of the increasing prevalence of this devastating disorder worldwide. A change that occurs within a century is too short a time for a genetic cause. This suggests that environmental factor(s) are at work in a sex-specific manner.”

Pardon me for pointing to the elephant in the room, but evidence has already mounted against one particular sex-specific environmental factor that’s been influencing the rise in MS among women over the past 50 years.

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.

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Hormones Matter needs funding now. Our research funding was cut recently and because of our commitment to independent health research and journalism unbiased by commercial interests, we allow minimal advertising on the site. That means all funding must come from you, our readers.  Don’t let Hormones Matter die.

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This article was published originally on January 9, 2017. 

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10 Comments

  1. I continue to research (utilizing various key words) the effects of stopping oral contraceptives (OC) while having RRMS. I stopped OC’s in March 18’, did not menstruate naturally until mid June 18’, and have been feeling as though every day since then (now Oct 18’) has been a continuous exacerbation in my walking/gait disturbance (the singular effect for my MS). I’ve attempted so much research, and cannot find a link between the two, nor a “light at the end of the tunnel” to a remedy. Please help.

    1. We do not have any articles on stopping OCs. We should. Having said that, it is a long process, particularly if you have been using them for a while. The ovaries and everything else will take some time before they regulate. For some women, it is a year before everything settles down. OCs are powerfult drugs, effectively shutting down the natural production of hormones and replacing them with the synthetics. As far as the RRMS, there are several drugs that exacerbate it and can cause the damage and similarly there are number of nutrients that can help. You need to repair the mitochondria, that means diet and vitamins/minerals. Hypothyroid also induces MS, which is also affected by nutrient deficiencies and induced by damage by other drugs. With gait disturbances specifically, think thiamine and magnesium.

  2. Hi I started Junel FE birth control pill in February of 2018. I quit taking Junel FE in April 2018. (I was only on it for two months). I quit it because it made me very emotional and I was getting upset all the time. This was the the first time in my life I had ever used birth control.

    It is currently August of 2018. Three days ago I developed and was diagnosed with optic neuritis. I was ordered to have an MRI and they found lesions on the brain, indicative of multiple sclerosis. I am going to the neurologist on Monday and will Begin IV steroids treatments on Tuesday. I find this article to be very interesting and I am wondering if there is some correlation between birth control and MS. I will also be altering my diet because I have heard many people have good results from that. In addition I have heard many auto immune diseases stem from poor gut health and I will also be adding B12, probiotics, turmeric, and a high DHA fish oil to my supplant list. I have not been officially diagnosed with MS, but it seems the symptoms are pointing in that direction.

    In addition I am 24 years old, 120 lbs , 5,4”, American from Texas and a Caucasian female with English, Czech, polish, Irish, and German descent.

    1. Hi Michelle,

      I’m truly sorry to hear about what you’re going through. I have no doubt The Pill played a major role in triggering the disease. I would like the chance to interview you for another piece I’m writing. If that would be okay with you, please contact me at mgaskins@gmail.com. Either way, I’m praying for the best for you.

  3. I was having joints pain in both hands inside and outside and muscle weakness due to multiple sclerosis (MS). I was falling a lot, I had headaches and lightheadedness. I couldn’t keep myself balanced, and walk with a tremor like I cannot control my steps. I was on Copaxone, the first year was daily and later was 40 mg, 3 times a week. It didn’t make a tremendous difference for me. I’ve tried therapy, but it is not helping. I was seeking something to help regain my life to be able to do things for myself. It is frustrating when it feels like nobody is trying to help you find some relief. Through my primary physician i learnt about a (MS) herbal formula from NATURAL HERBAL GARDENS and their success rate with the treatment, i immediately started on the (MS) herbal protocol, I am glad to report the herbal formula worked effectively and there was no side effects, I had a total decline in symptoms, the joints pain, weakness and other symptoms stopped, my MS is totally REVERSED, Here is a link to the website we ordered from naturalherbalgardens . c o m DON’T GIVE UP HOPE.

  4. This is a frightening and intriguing article…having failed to recover fully from two “minor” car accidents in 2017, my doctor referred me to a neurologist, whom I will see next week. MS is one of the things he suspects, and I have several symptoms…I have been on Taytulla, Junel, then Taytulla again for a little over a year. I have had a suspicion for a long time that the Pill was preventing me from recovering from the car wrecks; my chiropractor has seen me twice a week for all that time, and he agrees there is “something systemic” going on. Pain has now become chronic, and I have memory problems and the classic bladder issues of MS…it’s remarkable how indifferent medical professionals are – all of the ones I have seen – in implicating the Pill in any problems. It’s like they just don’t want to go there.

    Thank you for doing this research and bravely writing about it.

    I should have listened to my gut and not gone on the Pill.

    1. Elizabeth,

      I’m sorry to hear about the worrisome problems you’ve been having. I know a lot of women rebound from their symptoms after they stop taking the Pill. I hope this will be the case for you! I would like to hear more about what prompted you to associate it with the Pill as well as the results of your neurologist visit. Feel free to email me, if you don’t mind sharing more details with me. My email address is mgaskins@gmail.com

      I used to think doctors had to be willfully blind not to see the damage the Pill was causing. I think there is some of that, but I also think their blindness is more nuanced. Nearly all of their education is sponsored by or directly controlled by the pharmaceutical industry; they are familiar with the “side effects” and think your body just needs to get used to the medication; and some of them are probably afraid of the possibility of litigation if they acknowledge that the Pill leads to certain complications. It reminds me of one of my favorite Upton Sinclair quotes, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

      Thank you for your encouragement! I hope to hear from you.

  5. I was diagnosed in 2006 with multiple sclerosis, the only symptoms at that time were falling and legs hurting and moving all the time. I remember no symptoms at all until last year. I went into full seizure mode, I was put on Avonex. I had the symptoms of that medication every day for 13 weeks, I mean I was so sick every day. I stopped that medication and a few days later I was back to my normal self. Then a few weeks later I started having attacks every week and I was really bad. It’s like one long attack every day. My upstairs neighbors cause me great anxiety every day. I have gotten a new neurologist and she started me on the Copaxone and I didn’t know what to expect, I knew I hurt from when I wake up until I go to sleep.I lost touch with reality.I started on Health Herbal Clinic multiple sclerosis Disease Herbal formula in June 2017, i read alot of positive reviews from patients here in the United States on their success rate treating multiple sclerosis through their Herbal formula and i immediately started on the treatment. Just 7 weeks into the Herbal formula treatment I had great improvements with my Vision and coordination, my stiffed, rigid muscle had succumbed. I am unbelievably back on my feet again, this is a breakthrough for all multiple sclerosis sufferers, visit Health Herbal Clinic official website

  6. What about the Depoprevera shot. My Gyno. kept me on it longer than suggested. This concerns me.

    Thank you for your quick response.
    Michele Gi;bbs

    1. Hi Michele,

      Yes, this science applies to all hormonal contraceptives, which would include Depo-Prevera injections. I’m curious, did you develop MS while on the shots?

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