I've been on the pill on and off for 10 years. Or, to put it a different way: for over 10,000 hours. Theoretically, if you believe in Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 Hour Rule," I should have been an expert on how birth control affected my body.
Like many 30-something women, I wasn’t ready to get pregnant. I'd recently launched my business, and it needed to be nurtured. I was balancing my career, working out, eating healthy, and putting time into my relationship, and so the pill seemed like my best bet for birth control. It gave me one less thing to worry about every month.
Still going on the pill wasn't an easy choice. I had been on birth control in my 20s, and had dealt with many of the unpleasant side effects—weight gain, mood swings, anxiety, lack of energy. The decision to go back on it was something my partner and I wrestled with, because the side effects of the pill had certainly affected our relationship in the past. We had been together for five years and he'd had to deal with my unpredictable mood swings. He said I was like a Ferrari: a beautiful thing when it’s running well, but when it breaks down it’s just about the hardest thing to fix.
I felt conflicted, too. The pill afforded incredible sexual intimacy, but it came with some uncomfortable side affects. Once I turned 30, I decided to take a break from the pill, and use the natural method. I felt like a fog had been lifted, and finally started acting like my normal self again.
Then, last summer I was diagnosed with an ovarian cyst. My gynecologist and family doctor suggested I treat it hormonally, hoping it would shrink and surgery wouldn't be required. The unanimous medical recommendation was to go back on the pill for six months, and so I did.
Because I was so focused on work, I didn't notice strange symptoms creeping up on me. My vision would randomly go blurry and I started seeing tiny white dots dancing in front of my eyes, which would turn into debilitating migraines.
I simply brushed this off as one of the many occupational hazards of running a business—and the insane amount of time I put in front a computer screen. At the time, I was often logging 12 hours a day in front of one.
I tried to work through the blurred vision by tilting my head sideways to see through the white dots while I typed. For a few weeks, that seemed to do the trick.
But the migraines quickly increased in frequency, and started getting in the way of my productivity. I would get dizzy and have to lay in complete silence in my bedroom, with cool wet towels on my head. I’d pop Advil, which would put me to sleep for a few hours. When I woke up, the migraine would be gone and I’d get back to work. I’d had the odd migraine in the past, so didn’t think it was a big cause for concern. But this time, the symptoms didn’t go away. Annoyed, I finally went to the walk-in clinic to get migraine medication.
As I described the symptoms to the doctor, he got visibly pale. He asked if I had been taking birth control. When I said yes, he said that the estrogen in the pill was creating hormonal fluctuations that were giving me aural migraines and I had a very high probability of having a fatal stroke if I didn't stop taking the pill immediately. These migraines more than doubled my risk of ischemic stroke, which is caused by the blockage in a blood vessel.
And I’d never heard about any of this until that moment.
I was shocked.
I realized that for years I had been listening to doctors, and ignoring the subtle but SOS signs my body had been sending. It could have cost me my life. In retrospect, those mood swings, anxieties, and lack of energy were all signs that the pill was toxic for my body. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand the severity of the problem until it was almost too late.
I went off the pill that day and my migraines disappeared. My vision returned to normal right away. I will be removing my ovarian cyst by surgery now, and am opting for the natural method of birth control. After my experience, I refuse to pump synthetic hormones into my body. I have never felt healthier and am now filled with boundless energy despite my still crazy work schedule.
This experience taught me perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I'll ever learn. My body is constantly speaking to me. It's my job to listen and obey. Working with hundreds of women over the past few years as a nutritional coach, I get many questions about the pill.
My advice is simple: The only way to protect yourself is to carefully listen to what your body is telling you. It will save your life.