Find out how birth control hormones can damage your fertility
Taking the birth control pill is so common for today’s women that it’s almost a rite of passage, on par with getting a driver’s license or graduating from high school. But most women taking birth control don’t want to prevent pregnancy forever – they just want to delay it until the right time in their lives. Here’s where the problem comes in: although these methods are marketed as safe and reversible, between 16 percent and 44 precent of women will have trouble conceiving after discontinuing birth control hormones.
In my practice, I work with women who are struggling to get their menstrual cycles back to normal after years of taking the pill. With infertility rates in Canada rising, it’s important to look at how these powerful drugs affect a woman’s chances of getting pregnant when she decides she is ready to become a mother.
What is a Contraceptive Endocrine Disruptor (CED)?
There are several categories of hormonal birth control, including birth control pills, the shot, the patch, the vaginal ring, and the hormonal IUD. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to them as Contraceptive Endocrine Disruptors (CEDs), because they all prevent pregnancy by disrupting a woman’s endocrine system in order to stop her from ovulating.
It’s commonly believed that CEDs trick the body into thinking it is pregnant, or that they mimic natural cycles. This isn’t true: the hormonal profile of a woman on CEDs doesn’t resemble pregnancy or any naturally occurring human state. In fact, it would be closest to an artificially-induced chemical menopause.
CEDs use patented synthetic estrins and progestins that behave very differently in the body than a woman’s natural estrogens and progesterone. These unnatural hormones affect the entire body, including the nervous system, cardiovascular health, digestion, blood pressure, bone density, moods, and immunity.
How Contraceptive Endocrine Disruptors (CEDs) affect fertility
After discontinuing CEDs, it takes a while for the synthetic hormones to fully leave the body and for the woman’s endocrine system to resume ovulating. It typically takes between six and 12 months for healthy menstrual cycles to return after stopping birth control pills, although in some women it can take 18 to 24 months or longer. With injectable shots like Depo-Provera or implants such as Norplant, it can take up to three years for healthy cycles to resume.
“It typically takes between six and 12 months for healthy menstrual cycles to return after stopping birth control pills.”
Not all women are affected equally by CEDs. The impact of these drugs on the body depends on many factors, including the type of drug and the dosage, and individual factors such as genetics, diet, supplement use, activity level, and health of the liver and bowel. The women who are most likely to bounce back quickly and see their ovulation return in six months or less are those with robust health who have no previous history of endocrine disorders (such as hypothyroidism or diabetes). Women who started taking hormonal birth control only after they were already reproductively mature, or after a pregnancy, are also less strongly affected.
Are rising rates of CED use connected with rising rates of infertility?
It’s very common for girls in their early teens to start taking CEDs before their menstrual cycles have stabilized and remain on them continuously for a decade or more. In addition, CEDs are increasingly prescribed to treat other health concerns such as acne, PMS, or irregular, painful menstruation.
Most women are not presented with any other treatment or birth control options by their health care providers. They are rarely informed of all the side effects and potential consequences of taking CEDs, and if they can’t tolerate one brand, they are told to switch to a different brand or a different delivery method. In my practice, I often hear women say, “If I’d had any idea of the effects it would have on me, I never would have taken it.”
Meanwhile, up to 15.7 percent of couples in Canada are experiencing infertility, a rate that has almost doubled since 1992 (8.5 percent) and tripled since 1984 (5.4 percent). Although there is some connection to the delayed start of childbearing due to social and economic factors, it’s worth noting that even women in the 18-29 year age range – the peak years of fertility – are showing the same increased infertility rates as their older counterparts.
Nine simple steps to protect your fertility
Here are some simple things you can do help your body recover from long-term CED use, as recommended by Megan Lalonde and Geraldine Matus in Coming Off The Pill.
1. Learn how to chart your cycles from a trained practitioner who can teach you how to identify your fertile times and evaluate your cycle health. Educating yourself about how your cycles work is one of the most empowering things you can do for your health and fertility.
2. Support your liver health! The liver has an important role in detoxifying and processing hormones. Bitter greens such as dandelion, arugula and kale help support liver function, as can drinking the juice of half an organic lemon in warm water each morning.
3. Take B-complex vitamins to help restore the nutrients depleted by birth control hormones. They help stabilize mood swings, and folic acid is essential for restoring the health of your cervix.
4. If your cycles are irregular, try Vitex (aka chasteberry): a slow-acting herb that can help rebalance hormones after discontinuing CEDs.
5. For heavy menstrual cramps, magnesium is your best friend. You can take oral magnesium tablets, Epsom salt baths, or rub magnesium oil directly over your abdomen.
6. Taking zinc can help boost your immunity and improve your ovarian function and sex hormone balance.
7. If you want to conceive, quit using CEDs a year before you want to start trying. This will allow time for the synthetic hormones from the CEDs to leave your body and increase your odds for a healthy pregnancy.
8. If you are concerned about your long-term fertility but still need effective birth control for the time being, find a practitioner who can support you in transitioning to non-hormonal methods such as fertility awareness charting, condoms, the diaphragm, spermicides, or a copper IUD.
9. Be patient with the process and gentle with yourself. It can take anywhere from months to years for your cycles to get back to the way they were before taking CEDs.