Reclaiming your Cycle: Why to get off hormonal birth control asap
If you want to give your hormones any chance to rebalance, you have to avoid the pill or any other hormonal contraception. If you are actively trying to conceive, you probably are off any contraception already, but if not, let me explain you why I make this statement. While we cannot deny the role the pill played in the sexual history of women, it is now time to take an honest look at how it actually does a great disservice to a woman, in the sense that it strongly interferes with her natural hormones and cycle and as such with her whole being: her mood, her energy, her weight, her sex drive, her senses, her preferences, her health and ironically her fertility. The very nature of the Feminine is cyclical, so in order for a woman to be connected to her power, she needs to actually have a cycle and flow with it rather than to artificially suppress it. The pill, once thought to symbolize the liberation of women actually keeps them imprisoned by disconnecting them from their bodies and body wisdom.
This is especially relevant since the pill is not only prescribed for contraception, but also to help with an array of issues resulting from hormone imbalance and inflammation, such as PMS, menstrual cramps, PCOS or acne. Some teenagers and young women actually only take the pill because “being on the pill” makes them feel grown up and “cool” – or to get bigger breast (I gained a cup every time I was on it, which was a side effect I kind of liked). Yet hormonal contraception is no walk in the park – and the fact that it is so easy to obtain a prescription for it and that “everybody takes it”, should not distract us from that fact! Just like I advocate to “evolve beyond feminism”, I advocate to evolve beyond the pill.
The menstrual cycle
We cannot talk about cycle control before first understanding the basics of the menstrual cycle.
The cycle starts by the pituitary gland sending out follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which tells follicles in the ovaries to grow. The follicles produce estrogen, which triggers the pituitary gland to secrete luteinizing hormone (LH). Estrogen and LH make the uterus build up a thick uterine lining, and cause changes in the vaginal mucus to make it a better environment for sperm.
Ovulation is triggered by a peak in estrogen. If sperm are present, the egg may be fertilized in the fallopian tube. In that case it then travels down into the uterus and implants in the endometrium. The so-called corpus luteum produces progesterone which keeps the endometrium in place. If the egg goes unfertilized, it eventually dissolves and progesterone will drop. As a consequence, the uterine lining begins to shed.
How the pill works
The pill provides synthetic estrogen and/or progesterone in stable or varying doses (depending on the type of pill). The body is tricked into thinking that it is pregnant, because hormone levels no longer fluctuate, as in a natural cycle, but are stable, as in pregnancy. As such, the pituitary gland no longer sends out stimulating hormones to the ovaries. This effectively prevents eggs from maturing and producing estrogen, which in turn suppresses ovulation and the build-up of the uterine lining. Without ovulation, no corpus luteum, no progesterone and no menstruation. The bleeding you get while on the pill is no “real” period, but a “fake” withdrawal bleeding triggered by the sudden change in hormone levels. It is mainly a “marketing trick” meant to increase the acceptability of the pill, since many women would feel awkward not having a period anymore. It gives them the impression that things are still functioning naturally down there. Many also rely on their “period” to know if they are pregnant or not. Another reason is to lower the estrogen load on the body, and to avoid estrogen breakthrough bleeding due to excess estrogen. The truth is, everything is suppressed – and for certain types of pill you could just as well take it continuously, without a break after 21 days. Because the ovarian function is suspended, and because the ovaries are linked to the thyroid and the adrenal glands via the ATO axis, thyroid hormone and testosterone production are down-regulated, too.
Figure: Upper half: your hormones in a natural cycle. Lower half: hormones on the pill
How the pill negatively affects health and fertility
The suppression of the body’s own natural hormones and ovulation, especially if prolonged over many years, comes with potential short and long-term consequences, such as low sex drive, fatigue, depression, weight gain… and potentially even more severe health conditions, such as osteoporosis, heart disease or cancer, to just name a few.
The suppression of natural hormones is used as an advantage in the management of acne, PCOS (both acne and PCOS are correlated to high testosterone), PMS or cramps. While symptoms might indeed be eased, it is important to understand that the pill does not treat the root cause of any of those conditions, but simply masks the problem. Once you come off the pill, it returns full-force and often even stronger than before, since the underlying issues (i.e. blood sugar imbalances, estrogen dominance, inflammation…) have not been addressed. Worse, they are likely to have aggravated over time and by the pill itself, potentially thwarting your plans for a smooth conception.
General health and fertility is further impacted negatively because the pill depletes B-vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium and other important micronutrients, and also negatively affects gut flora. Sufficient stocks of nutrients and a balanced gut flora are key for overall long-term health and fertility – not just for your own, but also your future children’s and your children’s children’s (remember, the gut flora is passed on up to 7 generations).
The pill even seems to affect your senses, such as smell, and with it the selection of your partner! It is known that some women, when coming off the pill in order to make a baby, realize that they do not feel attracted to their partner anymore… What a disaster.
As if all of this was not yet bad enough for fertility, the very fact that the body no longer produces its own hormones can become a challenge when you come off the pill. Depending on how long you have been on the pill, it might take a while for your body to pick up production again. In some cases it takes years or never does.
Cycle and Fertility Awareness
While the pill might indeed have had its benefit and purpose in the history of women, it is time now to reclaim the power over our hormones and get back in touch with our bodies and cycle. They actually hold all the clues to inform you when you are fertile and when you are not (in reality you are only fertile for about 5 days of each cycle – depending on the regularity of your cycle, a safety margin needs to be added). With some practice, the so-called Fertility Awareness method allows you to effectively determine those fertile days – a knowledge you can then use for both: contraception (abstaining from sex during your fertile days or using barriers such as condoms) or to help you conceive easier. Obviously, this method works best with a regular cycle. Contrary to popular belief, the Fertility Awareness method can be as safe as other contraceptives, especially if several indicators (body temperature, cervical fluid, cervical position, ovulation pains…) are used and if you are being consistent. There are apps out there that can help you track your cycle, but beware of over-relying on technology. Body-awareness is the key word. Please refer to the book “Taking charge of your Fertility” for detailed instructions on this method.
Whether you decide to rely on your cycle for contraception or not, understanding your cycle, learning how it speaks to you about your fertility, physical health and emotional state and then using that information to inform your life, is a source of power any woman should claim access to. Yet many women are reluctant to turn to their cycles for guidance, leave alone a source of power, because they live in a love-hate relationship with their periods or have at some point in their life. If you are not actually cursing your period (anymore) and wondering who invented this unfair punishment for women, you might simply have silently surrendered, trying to deal with her as good as you can, pain-killers and all. In best case you might have gotten to a point where you are able to accept her as just another more or less annoying nuisance that comes with being a woman. And yet she has so much more to offer.
Even if you and every woman around you seems to suffer, let me tell you that periods do NOT have to be painful – at least not to such an extent that the pain is only manageable with pain killers or the pill. Suffering is NOT just a natural part of being a woman. A woman’s period is a vital sign that can help us judge how healthy and fertile we are. It can inform us about how well we respect our cyclical nature and are at peace with our inner Feminine. However, since we are not usually trained to look at our periods in that way, we have no idea what a “healthy” period should look and feel like and what signs to watch out for that something is off. Leave alone what to do about it, except for taking the pill or pain killers.
If you let it, your period can be a barometer for your hormonal and emotional health. For more details on what to watch out for in your period, please refer to my article: Your period as a barometer of your hormonal health.