For the last 50 years, the contraceptive pill has been the new era of hormonally based birth control, designed for a woman to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Today, the birth control pill extends far beyond what it was originally intended for. It is widely prescribed to treat acne, endometriosis, painful periods, and skin conditions. With a variety of different types of contraception available—ranging from implants to vaginal rings to intra-uterine devices—it also offers us the freedom to choose between having a withdrawal bleed, skipping a period or having no period at all. Most of you know that the pill contains synthetic hormones that suppress ovulation, but simply put, what happens when you decide to come off the pill?
Stopping the pill does not come without the big questions: should I or shouldn’t I? For many, it’s a time of angst. There is fear of those unwanted symptoms returning with a vengeance or the possibility of an unplanned pregnancy. But mindset aside, what is it actually doing to our body?
Essentially, the pill stops your body from producing hormones that trigger ovulation (egg release) and menstruation. Instead, it induces a biochemical state in the body, altering the natural balance of our endocrine system and menstrual cycle. The pill replaces our normal menstrual cycle with an artificial cycle (3 weeks of mimicking pregnancy followed by 5 days of breakthrough bleeding). Over time, this can have a long-lasting effect on our endocrine system.
In clinic, we are really starting to see the effects of the Contraceptive Pill. From experience, many clients that have been taking the pill for over 10 years and then stop are starting to show similarities such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) or Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (when your body doesn’t have a period post stopping the pill) and infertility. Let me explain.
As women, we are controlled by our hormones and ruled by our menstrual cycle. From puberty to menopause, our entire lives are governed by our hormones (otherwise known as our endocrine system). Our endocrine system is a positive feedback system that is intricately linked to our brain and nervous system. If we were to dissect the brain we would see the pituitary gland, known as our Master gland, is in the hypothalamus region of the brain. The hypothalamus is part of our limbic system and governs our emotions and instinctual processes such as thirst, hunger and the need to procreate. It is from within this region of the brain that hormonal signals are sent from the pituitary gland to various endocrine glands—such as our ovaries—for a physiological and behavioural response. The instinctual nature of our bodies is to release an egg each month from our ovaries so we can pro-create. No fertilisation of an egg triggers menstruation and the process continues (in this positive feedback system). Every function in our body is controlled by our hormones.
The pill essentially shuts down this positive feedback system, switching off the pituitary glands cyclic signalling to the ovaries and tricking the pituitary gland into thinking the body is pregnant or—as I like to call it—“temporarily infertile”. When we do this repeatedly month after month, year after year, our endocrine system forgets how to function. Most women who discontinue the pill often started taking the pill as teenagers. Imagine, 20 years that your hormones are suppressed.
While the pill can leave us with a sense of liberation around sex and missing periods, in my opinion, the long-term effects really outweigh the short-term benefits. We need to think carefully about its influence on our endocrine system. Our bodies are incredible at maintaining homeostasis naturally. The pill disrupts this delicate balance. As women, we no longer understand the way our body works and the language it uses to communicate to us. If we give our body the opportunity to return to its natural state, we can learn to understand our cycles and fertility, to align ourselves with the natural rhythms of nature and optimise our health. Understanding our cycles is key to understanding ourselves and restoring our bodies back to their natural state of wellness. We have the ability and power to take control of our bodies and create long-lasting change. With the knowledge, willpower and trust that we are our own best healers, we can change the way we treat our bodies and look after health.