A Doctor On Why We Should Be Asking Questions About The Pill
Do you really need those pills you’re taking? So much of Western medicine is based on the idea that if you have a health problem, a pharmaceutical drug is the solution. If we get a headache, we take a pill. If we feel nauseous, we take a pill! And it's been for as long as many of us can remember.
Nowhere is this unquestioned belief in the power of pills more prevalent than in the realm of female oral contraceptives (OCPs). Despite what most of society thinks, oral contraceptives—also known as birth control pills—contain not a drop of hormones. What they are filled with instead are pseudo-hormones: Artificial endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The most commonly found "estrogen" in OCPs is ethinylestradiol1, which is labeled by the U.S. government toxicology site as an estrogen endocrine disrupter. The "progesterone" you find in birth control pills is also not what it seems. Instead, it’s something called progestins2—another endocrine disrupter. This has far-reaching implications—most of which we don't understand yet.
Unfortunately, the use of oral contraceptives and similar chemicals has become ingrained into our social fabric.
So what does the pill really do in your body? The primary aim of oral contraceptives is to impede the natural, and very powerful, hormonal function in women in order to prevent pregnancy. The problem is that these reproductive hormones are inextricably tied to numerous other important functions of the female body, from metabolism and immune system to mood and cognitive performance. Reproduction is not a stand-alone function—it’s one of the main functions of the whole body. If you interfere with it, you interfere with a lot of different functions in the body.
Estrogen and progesterone, two of the hormones that are imitated in birth control pills, have functions and receptors all over the body.
Estrogen in particular is the "master" hormone. It is responsible for maintaining your circadian rhythm, and it keeps metabolic balance in the body. When there are no longer normal amounts of real estrogen in the body, there is a real risk3 of cardiometabolic damage. OCPs can increase the risk of weight gain, Crohn’s disease, and depression. And women who start on OCPs at a very young age—in their teenage years—risk failing ever to develop normal bladder capacity4 and normal vaginal health5. They may have a greater risk for chronic painful sex6, low libido7, and poor sexual response8. And of course, OCPs are often used for noncontraceptive purposes; in taking them, these people never address the root cause of the symptoms they want to treat, which is the foundation of integrative health care.
Despite all this, the use of oral contraceptives is so commonplace that few people have the appetite even to broach the subject.
The use of OCPs is so great that just to question their use is considered heresy. Their use is almost looked at as a mandatory pathway to womanhood, or a rite of passage. More than 90 percent of women use oral contraceptives during their lives. This is a shocking statistic when you consider that there really is no hard data on the long-term safety of birth control pills. The good news is that there are a lot of alternatives to the pill.
Of course it’s important that women have some control over their reproductive system, but we need to be honest about the risks of using OCPs, and we truly need to research other contraceptive options that do not fill the bodies of women with foreign chemicals. In my upcoming live broadcast I’ll be talking about the downsides of oral contraceptives and asking whether in limiting undesired pregnancies we aren’t also damaging the health of millions of women.
Felice Gersh, M.D. is a multi-award-winning, board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist living in Orange County, California. She is the founder of the highly successful Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, and received her education from Princeton University and USC. With more than 40 years of experience in all matters relating to women's health, her main area of expertise is hormonal management, specifically polycystic ovary syndrome. She has held the post of clinical assistant professor of OB/GYN at the Keck-USC School of Medicine and remains affiliated with the University of Arizona School of Medicine, where she completed a fellowship in integrative medicine. She is also an expert reviewer for the medical board of California and a qualified forensic expert. Gersh is a prolific lecturer, writer, podcaster, and broadcaster on ZubiaLive and is soon to finish her first book.