Not Ready To Ditch The Pill? Here's How To Reduce Its Side Effects
Some of my patients tell me straight up: They aren't ready to give up the pill.
"There's absolutely no way I can risk getting pregnant," a few will say bluntly, or "I've tried other methods, and this is what works best for me." Others are wary about going off the pill because they have read about the symptoms that can occur with post-birth control syndrome (PBCS), like anxiety, weight gain, and hormonal imbalances.
For the record, I'm not anti hormonal birth control. Instead, I'm pro informed consent. That means doctors giving you all the information you need to consent to taking birth control. My overriding goal is to help my patients move closer to health and then—when and if they are ready—come off hormonal birth control.
But, absolutely no pressure. This is your body and your life, and I trust you know how to live it best. If you need to stay on the pill a little bit longer, I want to help you keep your body as safe and as healthy as possible while you do. Wherever you are on your journey, I want to provide you with the best tools to help you.
That's why I wrote Beyond the Pill: To help you understand what those hormonal symptoms mean, how the pill is affecting your body, and what to do if you either need to stay on it or are ready to get off it.
7 ways to minimize the side effects of the pill.
You're probably aware of at least some of the side effects of the birth control pill. In addition to the concerns about stroke, clots, and heart attacks, the pill depletes nutrients, raises inflammation, can lead to adrenal and thyroid dysfunction, causes insulin dysregulation, and disrupts gut health.
But don't panic if you're not ready to ditch the pill. You can support your body and minimize side effects with these seven strategies:
Balance your hormones.
While the pill is suppressing your natural sex hormones, there are plenty of other hormones that need your support, like thyroid, insulin, and cortisol. What you eat can have a profound effect on how dramatic the pill's side effects are. Diets rich in sugar, refined carbohydrates, alcohol, nonorganic meat, and conventional dairy products can all knock estrogen and other hormones out of balance1. Stress, environmental pollutants, and hormone-disrupting chemicals further ramp up these imbalances2. Dial down these problem foods. And step up more vegetables, healthy fats, and fiber to balance your hormones and reduce the symptoms birth control can create. Consider adding seed cycling to your routine to add nutrients and support your body on the pill.
Studies3 have shown that oral contraceptive users have elevations in the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP), which can contribute to heart disease, compared with those not on the pill. Lowering inflammation will improve your mood, help with cramps, and reduce back pain and fatigue. To do that, eat a diet rich in hormone-balancing anti-inflammatory fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids found in foods like wild-caught fish and flaxseeds. Sprinkle turmeric everywhere you can, and consider anti-inflammatory nutrients like fish oil and curcumin.
Manage your stress levels.
Research4 has shown that women on the pill experience dysregulation of their HPA-axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis), which leads to inappropriate cortisol secretions. Especially when you're on the pill, keeping stress in check becomes essential to your health. How you do that depends on what works for you. Meditation (even five minutes can do wonders), prayer, mindfulness, finding your happy place, indulging in a massage, acupuncture, reiki, and a mani-pedi are all badass practices to pamper yourself and reduce stress. So are orgasms, so try to have at least one per week!
Birth control depletes nutrients like crazy5. Among the key nutrients the pill depletes include folate; vitamins B2, B6, and B12; vitamins C and E; plus magnesium, selenium, and zinc. At the very least, I recommend a solid multivitamin-mineral, omega-3 fatty acids, and extra magnesium. I also recommend a good probiotic supplement and—if blood work shows you re low—extra vitamin D.
Get great sleep.
If you're not sleeping at least seven hours per night, you can kiss awesome moods and hormonal balance goodbye. Poor sleep habits, insomnia, and sleep deprivation can cause changes in key hormones6 that affect the menstrual cycle. Adequate, restful sleep is absolutely vital to restoring your adrenals, thyroid, and hormones and repairing your body, leaving you feeling your rock star best.
Give your liver some lovin'.
Your liver eliminates hormones the body no longer needs, including synthetic hormones from the pill. While on the pill, your liver is still actively detoxing these hormones, but it takes a bit of a hit from nutrient deficiencies created by the pill impairing detox pathways and the direct impact of the pill7 on the liver. Supporting the liver is an essential step in the recovery of your hormonal health. Two of my favorite ways to do that: Aim for 3 to 6 cups of organic vegetables and at least 25 grams of fiber daily.
Pay attention to your gut.
Birth control pills disrupt normal flora and produce an environment that allows for overgrowth of harmful bacteria and yeast. The pill can also inflame the digestive tract, creating immune dysregulation that increases the risk for autoimmune disease8. Inflammation can also contribute to intestinal hyperpermeability, or leaky gut. Nourish your gut with healthy foods like bone broth as well as nutrients like L-glutamine and omega-3 fatty acids.
My goal is to help you decode and solve hormone symptoms, minimize the side effects of the pill, and take back your hormone health.
Even if you decide to stay on the pill—hey, I'm totally cool with that—these seven strategies can minimize its side effects and keep you feeling fabulous. If you do decide to eventually get off the pill, you'll have fewer issues making that transition if you've been employing the strategies shared here.
Jolene Brighten, N.D., is a women’s health expert currently working as the President and Chief Medical Officer at Rubus Health in Portland, Oregon. She received her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine at the National University of Natural Medicine and a bachelor’s in Nutrition Science from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. She is the best-selling author of Beyond the Pill, in which she shares her clinical protocols aimed at supporting women struggling with symptoms of hormone imbalance, including Post-Birth Control Pill Syndrome and birth control related side effects. Dr. Brighten has been featured in the New York Post, Cosmopolitan, Forbes, ABC News, and The Guardian.