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Birth Control and Your Health

Written by
Brooke McKelvey
Team Nutrisense
Reviewed by
Natalie Carroll
MS, RDN, CDN, CLC
a person pouring a pill

Birth control is a type of medication or medical device typically used as a contraceptive method. It prevents contraception by restricting the release of eggs or preventing sperm from reaching and fertilizing eggs during the ovulation phase of a menstrual cycle. Birth control also keeps the lining of the uterus, or womb, from thickening too much—the thickening can occur due to a fertilized egg implanting there. 

There are many different types of birth control and ways to use these contraceptives. Some methods prevent sperm from joining with an egg, and some stop a fertilized egg from attaching itself to the uterus wall. There’s hormonal birth control, oral contraceptives, female condoms, and things like vaginal rings and intrauterine devices. While all birth control options provide a barrier to contraception (though some are more effective than others), people react differently to different types, so it's always a good idea to check with a gynecologist to learn more about each type. 

Birth control can help with family planning, but some hormonal methods can even help with menstrual cramps. People with PCOS may also find relief from some symptoms with certain types of hormonal birth control. Of course, when it comes to reproductive health, no contraceptive device will effectively help prevent things like sexually transmitted diseases or cervical cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, some forms of birth control may help reduce the risk of endometrial cancer and ovarian cancer. But they may also put some at an increased risk of cervical cancer. 

There are many myths out there about birth control and your health. While research is ongoing, it’s safe to say it can have positive, and for some, adverse health effects. It will all depend on the type of birth control and other factors, such as blood sugar levels, blood pressure, age, ethnicity, to name a few. For example, some birth control options may not be ideal for people with diabetes because they affect blood sugars or blood pressure in unexpected ways. It’s best to talk to a health care provider before considering any new medications. Here's a little more you should know about birth control so you can be as informed as possible about these barrier methods. 

How Does Birth Control Work?

As we mentioned before, there are many different forms of birth control, and each of them works differently. Each method is taken or applied differently, so you also have to monitor each type differently. The first thing you should know is that your body naturally produces estrogen and progestin in your ovaries. These two hormones are synthetically produced to make birth control. Here’s some information about the different types of birth control:

The Pill

a person holding a pill on their palm

Still one of the most popular types of birth control, birth control pills are available in two forms. The most common is the combination pill, which contains estrogen and progestin. The other is the progestin-only pill, colloquially called the mini-pill. You get them in monthly packs and take one pill a day. When taken consistently, they contain active hormones that prevent pregnancy. Each different type and brand of pill contains slightly different hormonal combinations. Some pills have different levels of estrogen and progestin in them. So it’s important to talk to a gynecologist who can review your health information before prescribing one that’s best for your specific needs. 

Some types can help with menstrual cramps and even affect your period’s regularity. More traditional birth control pills allow your period to continue every month. Some allow your period to happen every three months, and others prevent it altogether. 

Potential Positive Side Effects

  • Acne reduction
  • Reduced bleeding and menstrual cramps
  • Reduce endometriosis symptoms
  • Lowered risk of anemia during menstruation
  • Reduced ovarian cysts

Potential Negative Side Effects

  • Must be taken every day, at the same time of day, to work properly
  • May be affected by other medications
  • Does not protect against sexually transmitted infections

Vaginal Ring

a person holding a Vaginal Ring

Vaginal rings are similar in the hormonal release to the birth control pill and have estrogen and progestin. A vaginal ring is inserted once a month and changed at the end of every month. The ring releases estrogen and progestin into the body via your vaginal wall. The ring can also thicken cervical mucus to keep any sperm from reaching an egg or thin out your uterine lining to prevent a fertilized egg from being implanted.

Potential Positive Side Effects

  • Acne reduction
  • Reduced bleeding and menstrual cramps
  • Reduce endometriosis symptoms
  • Lowered risk of anemia during menstruation
  • Reduced ovarian cysts

Potential Negative Side Effects

  • Must be replaced once a month
  • Can become displaced if you are sexually active
  • May be affected by other medications
  • Does not protect against STDs

IUD (Intrauterine Device)

a person holding an Intrauterine Device

IUDs are small T-shaped devices inserted into the lining of your uterus. IUDs are copper or plastic; copper IUDs contain no hormones, and plastic IUDs contain progestin. The recommended time frame to replace this contraceptive device is every five years. Of course, this will also depend on the brand and type of IUD, as some can be worn slightly longer than others. Check with your doctor to determine what’s best for you. 

Potential Positive Side Effects

  • Easy to use (once applied, you don't need to worry about it for approximately five years)
  • Hormonal IUDs can reduce menstrual bleeding
  • Cost-effective
  • Can be removed at any time if you want to have children
  • Can be used after a normal birth

Potential Negative Side Effects

  • Initial cost is high but often covered by health insurance
  • Can be uncomfortable to get inserted and may take time for your body to adjust
  • May be affected by other medications
  • Does not protect against STDs
  • Only a healthcare provider or gynecologist can remove it

Arm Implant

a person holding an arm implement near their upper arm

Birth control in the form of arm implants is typically about the size of a matchstick. It is inserted directly under your skin in your upper arm by your doctor, and it delivers progestin hormones. You should replace your arm implant every three years. 

Potential Positive Side Effects

  • Reduced menstrual cramps
  • Fewer (or no) periods depending on the implant you choose
  • Can be removed at any time if you decide you want to have a child
  • Lasts for approximately three years with no maintenance
  • Lowers the risk of anemia while menstruating
  • Does not contain estrogen

Potential Negative Side Effects

  • Can cause spotting in between periods
  • A common side effect is headaches
  • It must be applied and removed by a medical professional
  • Mood swings
  • If you had gestational diabetes, you may be more likely to develop diabetes if you use the implant
  • May be affected by other medications
  • Does not protect against STDs

The Patch

a person applying a patch

Patches are put on the skin much like an adhesive bandage, releasing estrogen and progestin. If you use a patch as your primary form of birth control, you should change it once a week.

Potential Positive Side Effects

  • Acne reduction
  • Reduced bleeding and menstrual cramps
  • Reduce endometriosis symptoms
  • Lowered risk of anemia during menstruation
  • Reduced risk of ovarian cysts

Potential Negative Side Effects

  • Sunlight can damage patches, and overexposure to sunlight or heat may make them less effective 
  • The patch contains more estrogen than other types of birth control, which may cause long term health effects
  • Must be replaced once a month
  • Blood clots
  • Headaches
  • Nausea 
  • May be affected by other medications
  • Does not protect against STDs

An Injection

a person being injected

Injections are birth control in the form of a shot administered by a gynecologist or healthcare professional every 12 weeks.

Potential Positive Side Effects

  • Reduced menstrual cramps
  • Reduced risk of pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Can be removed at any time if you decide you want to conceive
  • You only need to get an injection once every three months
  • Lowers the risk of anemia while menstruating
  • Does not contain estrogen
  • Reduces the symptoms of endometriosis

Potential Negative Side Effects

  • Can cause spotting in between periods
  • Can cause migraines or headaches
  • Must be applied and removed by a medical professional
  • Dizziness
  • Sore breasts
  • Can lead to weight gain
  • May be affected by other medications
  • Does not protect against STDs

Birth Control and Women’s Health

a person holding tropical fruits

It’s important to remember that everyone’s body and hormonal levels differ. So it's essential to figure out your unique needs with a gynecologist or healthcare provider before beginning a new contraceptive method. You may find that you react poorly to birth control that a family member does not. Always make sure your doctor has all your health information. They should also have information about your lifestyle (including alcohol consumption, smoking, etc.) when you're discussing contraceptive options.

Hormone contraceptives have links to changes in the body's carbohydrate (starch and sugar) handling abilities. The lower efficiency of utilizing food sugar is one of them. Insulin is a hormone that promotes sugar use in the body. Blood sugar issues can raise the risk of diabetes and heart disease. These concerns are primarily associated with birth control pills that include estrogen. So, it's crucial to talk to your doctor about birth control if you have diabetes.

The pill, for example, has the potential to cause blood sugar levels to become too high. Some claim that their basal insulin dosages increased by nearly half when going on birth control. So it's critical to understand that birth control might be causing insulin resistance and that you're not doing anything wrong such as being off track when carb counting. Some women also claim they need less insulin while taking placebo pills, so keep this in mind!

There's also some talk about the risk factor that estrogen may add to developing cancer, specifically breast cancer and cervical cancer. Most research done regarding the link between contraception and cancer has been observational research. Estrogen and progesterone have both been found to stimulate cancer growth. Due to the fact that birth control methods utilize synthetic versions of both of those hormones, they may increase your risk of developing cancer. The longer you use birth control, the higher your risk becomes for developing cancer. 

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