5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Took “The Pill”

I remember it like it was yesterday…one week before my 20th birthday I walked into an ice-cold, uncomfortably sterile doctors office, sat down with a nurse practitioner who barely knew me, and walked out with a prescription for “the pill” after a 5 minute interview. She did not ask me much about my medical history, didn’t assess me for risk factors, and didn’t tell me what I wish I knew before I allowed a boy I was seeing to pressure me into a medication that I did not need that would complicate my health for years to come.

So today I want to share what I wish I knew with you.

And why am I doing so? Because every single person with ovaries who comes to me for help is struggling with at least one, if not a handful, of symptoms related to their cycle – from ovulation and menstruation pain, PMS, dysmenorrhea, PMDD, and fatigue to PCOS, endometriosis, hormonal imbalances, and so much more. And here’s the thing, your cycles should not be painful, marked with difficult symptoms, or cause significant interference with your daily life.

Pictured here is Vitex, one of our common herbal allies for hormonal health – I’m planning on writing a whole blog on Vitex so stay tuned!

Pictured here is Vitex, one of our common herbal allies for hormonal health – I’m planning on writing a whole blog on Vitex so stay tuned!

Hormonal contraceptive pills are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs for people with ovaries despite the risk of: infertility, breast, cervical, and liver cancer, blood clots that can lead to stroke or heart attack, the demineralization of bones, and depression – among many other risks and side effects.

And hey, I totally get it! Gaining relatively easy access to contraceptive pills was a hard-won breakthrough for people everywhere in the ‘60s. We were finally granted a sense of bodily autonomy that would allow us to prioritize ourselves, dreams, and goals over being forced into unwanted or unplanned parenthood. But this came at a cost, one that we are still failing to understand much less recognize in our healthcare system today.

When I started writing this blog, I reached out to my followers on Instagram through stories and asked them to share their experience with the pill. Every single person who replied said that they either 1) had absolutely horrific symptoms because of it, 2) were not even cautioned about potential side effects, 3) were misled to believe that it would “fix” their problems (why do doctors keep saying this when it’s physiologically untrue??), or 4) dealt with even more unpleasant symptoms after they went off of it.

So many of those people also said that despite the struggle of going off it, removing the pill and other forms of hormonal contraception (IUDs, the shot, etc) from their life was the single most impactful thing they had done to reclaim their health. Many folks said that their symptoms of anxiety and depression magically disappeared, that they felt more grounded in their intuition, and like aspects of themselves had “come back online”. Others are still struggling with the side effects of the pill or rebalancing the hormonal imbalances it was covering up…even after a year of not taking oral contraceptives, I’m in this boat with y’all too. It’s a process, and often a complicated one, but I’m so glad that I’m not taking this medication anymore and here’s why…

What I Wish I Knew Before I Took the Little Blue Pills

There is SO MUCH I wish I knew before I was misguided into taking birth control pills and here are just a few of them. I truly cannot believe that my doctors did not tell me about what I share below, even after I asked them repeatedly. When I went in to ask about some side effects I was having, my nurse practitioner, who was pregnant at the time, brushed off my concerns and literally told me that being on birth control from 20-35 was, “my only option,” if I wanted to avoid getting pregnant and maintain autonomy over my life. I mean, really? Not only is this completely untrue but it removed my sense of agency and the ability for me to make informed choices about my healthcare.

1. Birth control pills deplete nutrients vital to health.

Yep, you read that right. Birth control pills have been associated with depleting nutrients that your body needs to maintain health (including healthy hormone levels) including vitamin B2, B6, and B12; vitamins A, C, and E; magnesium, selenium, zinc, and folate. A recent study also found that vitamin D levels were 20% lower in cis-women who just recently came off of the pill vs. those no longer on it.

When you combine this nutrient depletion with a diet that may not be supplying you with all of your nutrient needs or a chronic disease like Celiac (a disease I have) which is marked by malabsorption of nutrients, you are being set up to experience lessened vitality & health both when you’re on the pill and after you come off of it. It is downright irresponsible for physicians to not warn us about this risk before prescribing the pill. And all they have to do to mitigate this is 1) provide true informed consent, and 2) recommend that we take a nice multivitamin like my favorite, Basic Nutrients 2/Day from Thorne.

2. The pill was the root cause of my anxiety & depression.

A few days after I started taking my super low-dose prescription, Lo Loestrin FE, I started experiencing extremely intense levels of emotional dysregulation and mood swings. There were entire nights dedicated to hysterically crying for 9+ hours at a time over absolutely nothing. I wasn’t even sad or upset, I just could not stop bawling.

After a few cycles that started to level out, but then I began experiencing major anxiety attacks every day of my freshman year of college. This eventually led to a diagnosis of panic disorder and agoraphobia. Big yikes. There wasn’t a single day for about two years where I did not experience significant panic…some of this was due to consistently getting cross-contaminated with gluten (thanks Celiac Disease), but after years of being 100% gluten free and healing as much as I could possibly hope, I was still experiencing regular panic attacks, mood swings, and cyclical bouts of depression. Why did I feel so unsafe and uncomfortable in my body??

I couldn’t figure it out. I was doing everything in my power to support my mental health struggles…I tried all the diets, herbs, supplements, therapy, and movement practices that people claimed would “fix” me. And then one night as my birth control alarm went off on my phone, I looked down at the little blue pill and exclaimed out loud: “I think you are killing me.”

The next morning I made an appointment with my doctor, met with her the following week, told her that I wanted to talk about the mental health side effects of birth control, and she dismissed me, told me that the pill was my only option, would not support me in getting off of it, and instead sent me away with a prescription for an anti-psychotic drug that I did. Not. Need.

If only that doctor told me that birth control has a direct relationship with mood disorders and is contraindicated for people who have a history of anxiety and depression. And according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2016, 23% of cis-women (ages 15-34) with no history of depression before needed to go on an antidepressant after taking the pill. Simply sharing those findings with me would have really saved me some deep suffering (and $$$ y’all!)

3. It does not treat underlying hormonal disorders causing cycle difficulties; it merely masks the symptoms.

One third of cis-women on the pill take it exclusively for gynecological reasons (like period pain, PCOS, etc.) while two thirds of cis-women on the pill are on it for gynecological reasons and to prevent pregnancy. What we know from this is that a lot of people taking birth control are taking it, in part, because they have likely been told the lie that the pill treats hormonal disorders that cause cycle issues.

This is not true.

Let’s briefly go over how birth control pills work, shall we? Hormonal contraceptives stop our cycles by providing constant low levels of synthetic hormones to suppress our natural hormone levels.

Instead of having a cyclical rise and fall of estrogen, progesterone, and other hormonal fluctuations throughout each month, the pill inhibits this hormonal activity thereby preventing ovulation from occurring. Synthetic hormones in these pills also thickens cervical mucus, blocking the movement of sperm through the cervix and thins the endometrium, preventing implantation of a fertilized egg.

So what happens on those sugar pills? You have a period right? Heck nope you don’t!

The pills provide you with a constant but low supply of estrogen which proliferates the endometrium (the stuff ya shed during menstruation) but because ovulation does not occur, there is no progesterone to provide the next phase of uterine development. Instead of having a period, you have a withdrawal bleed. This bleeding, often slight and brief, is not menstruation because you did not have a cycle.

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When we are guided to go on to the pill to treat issues like irregular cycles, pain, bleeding, cramping, PMS, mood swings, PCOS, endometriosis, acne, hirsutism, anemia, and more our doctors are skipping over the most important aspect of health and healing: identifying the root cause.

All of these symptoms or diagnoses are indicative of a greater imbalance in the body. One that can be rooted in nutrient deficiency (a thing the pill worsens), hormonal imbalances (which the pill covers up by messing with your hormone production), stress, chronic inflammation, food triggers, immune system dysfunction, metabolic factors, and so much more.

When our health problem is not being identified and treated, the underlying condition worsens. This is why most people experience a worsening or return of symptoms after they stop taking the pill. Which leads me to my next point…

4. Post-pill syndrome is a thing and it can be really f*cking miserable.

After that doctor refused to help me with the process of getting off of the pill, I decided to take things into my own hands. I read everything I could by Dr. Aviva Romm, Dr. Jolene Brighten, Dr. Lara Briden, and other leaders in the field of natural fertility, hormonal health, and holistic wellness. And the phrase I kept finding in all of my research was called Post-Pill Syndrome. This syndrome is referring to the experiences people with ovaries often face after going off of the pill which may include:

  • Irregular or Absent Cycles

  • Nutrient Depletion

  • Ovulation Pain and Menstrual Cramps

  • Worse than Pre-Teen Level Breakouts

  • Heavy Bleeding

  • Bloating

  • Mood Swings

  • Thyroid Issues

  • Estrogen Dominance, or an imbalanced ration of Estrogen to Progesterone

  • Anovulatory Cycles/Infertility

  • Migraines

  • Depression/Anxiety

  • Blood Sugar Dysregulation

  • Digestive System Dysbiosis

  • Chronic Inflammation

  • Detoxification System Stagnation

…and the list goes on. But wait, aren’t these some of the things that doctors say the pill “treats”? Remember, suppression of acute symptoms leads to chronic disease.

Now I’ll say that in my experience, it’s taken some real time and patience to resolve the symptoms I had after going off the pill. The best thing I could do before I stopped taking it was to support my body’s ability to bounce back through a nutrient-dense diet, liver supporting herbs, and additional supplementation of the nutrients the pill depletes. Stay tuned for another blog on this topic soon.

Mugwort in bloom – Mugwort is a vital herbal ally for menstrual health and can be found in our Moon Cycle Tincture and Moon Body Oil.

Mugwort in bloom – Mugwort is a vital herbal ally for menstrual health and can be found in our Moon Cycle Tincture and Moon Body Oil.

Lucky for me, when I stopped taking the pill I immediately started having regular cycles again. Twenty-eight days apart, five days of normal bleeding…it was like clockwork. Not all people are as lucky as I was. But I did have pretty normal periods before I ever went on the pill and most folks seem to return to their previous rhythms after stopping the pill (though sometimes it can take a few months to a year or more).

So I had that going for me, but I still experienced a ton of symptoms like: weight gain, insane breakouts, migraines with every period, intense cramping, uncomfortable symptoms at ovulation, constant bloating 100% of the time, a SIBO diagnosis, and what I’m pretty sure is a slight touch of hypothyroidism. I went off the pill in March of 2018 and was able to eliminate many of my symptoms within 3 months thanks to lots of herbal and supplementation support, but it has become very apparent to me over this last year that I have a deeper hormonal imbalance that’s going to take some time to resolve.

When I was a teenager and going through my Celiac diagnosis, I was also diagnosed with extremely low progesterone levels. At age 16-18, I was on the same progesterone drug as my pre-menopausal mother. I seemed to forget about this before going on the pill (+ my doctor never even asked) and then masked it with birth control for 5 years. But as soon as I stopped taking the pill, this low-progesterone, high-estrogen situation came to the surface again except worse this time thanks to post-pill estrogen dominance.

Perhaps I’ll dive into my protocol strategy for correcting this hormone balance in my own body on a future blog post, but the #1 thing that has guided me throughout the process is the Fertility Awareness Method.

5. Knowing exactly when you’re fertile and when you’re not really isn’t that complicated and can be achieved with some basic education & body awareness.

This is the thing either doctors don’t want you to know or they just don’t even understand it themselves. If you are utilizing oral contraceptives, IUDs, the shots, etc to prevent pregnancy…save yourself the trouble, the money (did I mention that within 5 years my pill went from being $17 a month to $150+?! With Insurance?!), and the associated health problems and learn the Fertility Awareness Method instead.

The Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) teaches you how to understand your body and recognize hormonal and other vital signs of health. It’s a relatively simple method that is rooted in cultivation of body awareness, something we could all use a little help with if ya ask me! Through FAM, we learn how our body’s truly work so that we can make informed decisions about our health, fertility, and reclaim our reproductive sovereignty.

FAM is a daily practice of charting hormonal biomarkers that you can see and feel with your own senses and basal body temperature – these biomarkers let us know if/when we are fertile and signal us about the health of our cycles and therefore the health of ourselves. This method (symptothermal based FAM) has zero side effects and is 99.4% effective in avoiding pregnancy with perfect use and when all guidelines are followed.

Learning the Fertility Awareness Method and charting daily cervical mucous, basal body temperature, and the varying symptoms I experience throughout my cycle has provided me with a deeper level of intuitive knowing in my own body, taught me exactly when I can get pregnant and when I cannot (sidenote: we can only get pregnant for 5-7 days out of our cycle), shown me my own patterns and rhythms so I know what to expect each month, and has clued me in on hiccups in my healing journey as soon as they come up. By charting these biomarkers, I know exactly what’s happening in my cycle every day, have been able to identify and correct my own hormonal imbalances, and have seen how day-to-day stressors can contribute to cycle disruption and an uptick in symptoms with menstruation.

The Fertility Awareness Method has completely changed my life, revolutionized my health, and given me complete confidence in the ever-evolving practice of trusting my body. So much so that I am currently in process of becoming a certified FAM Educator to teach others about this incredible practice of cycle-conscious living! I’ll definitely be sharing more about FAM and how I incorporate it into my own life and practice with clients in future posts on the blog, Instagram, newsletter and more.

If you’d like to receive updates about future fertility awareness education opportunities and other tidbits on herbalism to support this aspect of health, please subscribe to our email list at the end of this page. I will begin my practice teaching soon for my certification and will be sending out the call for prospective clients via the newsletter exclusively. And if you have any questions or comments, share them below!

Thank you for reading my story, dear friend. I hope that it inspires you to cultivate a deeper relationship with your own body and the magic of menstruation (yep, I just said that).

Warmly,
Sarah

P. S. – We have a few products in the shop that can support you if you’re struggling with cycle stuff. Our Moon Cycle Tincture is especially helpful in the week before your period and during, The Moon Body Oil can be massaged into your abdomen during your period, and the Digestive Bitters blend supports hormone balance through its action on the liver. Visit the shop to learn more.

Sources

  • Notes from my FEMM teaching materials.

  • Frank-Herrmann, P., Heil, J., Gnoth, C., Toledo, E., Baur, S., Pyper, C., … Freundl, G. (2007). The effectiveness of a fertility awareness based method to avoid pregnancy in relation to a couple’s sexual behaviour during the fertile time: a prospective longitudinal study. Human Reproduction (Oxford, England), 22(5), 1310–1319.

  • Palmery MI, Saraceno A, Vaiarelli A, Carlomango G. Oral contraceptives and changes in nutritional requirements. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2013 Jul;17(13):1804-13.

  • Quaker E. Harmon, David M. Umbach, Donna D. Baird. Use of Estrogen-Containing Contraception Is Associated With Increased Concentrations of 25-Hydroxy Vitamin D. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 2016.

  • Romm, A. Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health 2nd Edition.. Elsevier. 2017.

  • “The Pill: Are the Risks Too Bitter to Swallow?” Aviva Romm MD, 30 Dec. 2017, avivaromm.com/the-pill-risks/.