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In 1960, the USDA approved a little drug that made a big difference in the lives of many women. According to The Chicago Tribune, thanks to the birth control pill: “the percentage of women who died as a result of pregnancy dropped by half…there was a threefold decline in infant deaths…the percentage of unplanned pregnancies also declined…and as access to contraception has increased, the rate of abortion has decreased.” What’s more, it’s well-known that the Pill also ushered in the sexual revolution. Women finally felt able to to more fully explore their sexuality and enjoy sex for pleasure, without worrying as much about baby-making. Seems like the Pill has a laundry list of accomplishments to be lauded for. But fifty years after a generation of women was given the chance to exert more control over their bodies and well-being, the picture isn’t as rosy as some doctors, drug companies or even your best friend who swears by her prescription, would have you believe…
I recently had a falling out with the Pill, after having been on it for just under three years. My only other experience with the drug had been in high school, when a doctor had suggested I go on it to “regulate my periods.” Of course, what it really did was make me insanely moody and make it easier for me to gain more than 20 pounds. (Side note: Many women are told to go on the Pill to “regulate their periods.” But you’re not actually having your period when you’re on the Pill. Instead, the week or four days of sugar pills causes a rapid decline in synthetic hormones, resulting in a ‘withdrawal bleed,’ which resembles a period but is not actually a menstrual period. The feature was built into how the drug works because researchers thought women would freak out or be confused if they didn’t have a “period” once a month. Sadly, I think a lot of women really aren’t aware of this.)
At any rate, when I was 23, both my gynecologist and endocrinologist agreed that a low-dose oral contraceptive would be the best bet, as I was most concerned about weight gain. I started taking the most popular low-dose brand, made with the synthetic progestin drospirenone and a synthetic estrogen, ethinyl estradiol. The first year on it, I felt OK. I didn’t gain weight; I was actually able to lose on it! I had a wonderful boyfriend, I got a new job. I told my doctors, I told my friends: I was thrilled with the Pill! “Isn’t it the best?” I’d gush.
But, after more than a couple years spent day after day after day popping the round pink tablets, I started feeling lethargic…hazy…unmotivated…sometimes gloomy…and uninspired… Uninspired to write, work out, make love, etc.—to do pretty much everything that makes life colorful and makes me vital. I wondered if it was environmental, circumstantial, emotional or what. A friend was going through the same thing, and she also happened to be on the same Pill. We wondered, What would happen if we went off? My friend stopped before me, and within two weeks, she was elated. “I feel like myself again, I am so much more motivated to workout after work, my libido’s back, I can think straight. I’m so happy!”
So, this past November, I followed suit, and within a month or so, I knew exactly what she meant. I was happy, too…but I was also angry. Why hadn’t I realized that the Pill could wreak so much havoc on my overall wellness? When doctors happily handed over free samples of the drug, why didn’t they tell me that it could cause “long-term problems from low values of ‘unbound’ testosterone, potentially leading to continuing sexual, metabolic, and mental health consequences”? It only takes two seconds to explain that the fake estrogen in the oral contraceptive Pill elevates levels of sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), a protein that binds testosterone, rendering it unavailable for a woman’s physiologic needs… It would helpful to know that the Pill alters at least 150 bodily functions and affects all your organs. (By the way, after my three year stint on the Pill, a recent ultrasound showed that I have gallstones. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.) I would have liked to know that all Pills “can have negative repercussions on mood as they stop ovulation, flatten natural hormone fluctuations to create a very low unchanging level, produce a deficiency in B vitamins and meddle with the workings of the pituitary gland,” according to one brilliant woman’s story that bears a striking resemblance to mine and was published last week in The Independent. But, no, why would a woman need to know this? Isn’t it better that she just take her Pill every day like a good girl to avoid getting pregnant? Because we should be much more concerned with unwanted pregnancies than chronically low sexual desire, nutritional deficiencies, digestive troubles or living in a mental fog…
I beg to differ. Granted, my boyfriend and I are nowhere close to being ready for parenthood. But the Pill isn’t my only ticket to a few more years of childless-ness. There are two appealing options that won’t screw with my brain or my libido: Paragard, the copper T non-hormonal IUD and condoms. Now that I know how synthetic hormones work to throw my body’s inner balance completely askew, there’s no looking back. I’m not interested in going on the Pill again, and I made that point loud and clear to all of my doctors. I’ve done my homework, and I’m taking full responsibility for my own sexual health and overall well-being. I’m thrilled again—about making a well-informed decision and choosing which risks I’m willing to take in order to be my most vital, libidinous and creative self. As the Pill turns 50, I hope that other women are celebrate their right to do research, ask their health providers all of their questions, then have the choice and the access to whichever contraceptive method (yes, even if that’s the Pill they’ve been on for years and love) works best with their own inner balance and for their own personal needs. That’s what today’s sexual revolution should look like, after all, right?
Further reading I highly recommend: Time Magazine‘s article on the most recent study to find a link between low sex drive and the Pill (no way!), Dr. Christiane Northrup’s recent HuffPo story and one Frisky writer’s low-down on the side effects of her non-hormonal IUD. More information on the dangers of birth control pills, written by Erika Schwartz, M.D.