"I haven’t had my period in nearly three months, I’m snapping at my receptionist more often, and my acne hasn’t been this bad since I went to junior prom," my 34-year-old patient Jenna admitted during our first consultation a few months ago. "Just talking about it gives me a headache," she added, reaching for an Advil. As a doctor who helps women reverse autoimmune disease and balance their hormones, I frequently see frustrated patients like Jenna struggling with the miserable aftermath of going off birth control pills. And while a few do begin cycling regularly again and have minimal symptoms—many women aren’t so lucky.
The rundown on post-birth control syndrome.
Many women regulate hormonal imbalances with the pill. This often causes the symptoms and issues to return when women come off of the pill. In my practice, I see women frequently suffer1 hormonal imbalances, menstrual irregularities, and symptoms like acne and mood swings because of this. If their periods return, they often become painful or heavy. We call this problem post-birth control syndrome, and it typically occurs within four to six months after discontinuing the pill. Symptoms may include:
- Menstrual irregularities including loss of menstruation, heavy menstruation, painful periods, and short cycles (less than 24 days).
- Hormonal changes like hypothyroidism, hair loss, breast tenderness, acne, and adrenal dysfunction.
- Migraines and headaches.
- Changes in body composition2 like breast size, weight gain, or difficulty losing weight.
- Mood disorders including anxiety and depression.
- Digestive symptoms including bowel changes, digestive upset, gas, or bloating.
- Inflammation and other immune imbalances3.
You can restore balance after the pill.
Because its symptoms are so diverse, treating post-birth control syndrome doesn’t happen overnight and often requires addressing multiple factors including gut health, detoxifying, nutrients, and balancing hormones. If you suffer from it, please work with an MD or functional practitioner who can address these and other underlying problems. For many patients, attempting everything at once or going it alone can feel like a herculean challenge. But don’t give up hope: You can restore hormonal balance and cultivate overall health. In my practice, I’ve found these five strategies help women who struggle with post-birth control syndrome:
1. Leverage your labs.
Among the tests I use to evaluate hormones include comprehensive thyroid testing (TSH, Free T4, Free T3, Reverse T3, Anti-TPO, and Anti-Thyroglobulin), sex hormones, as well as adrenal testing. A functional practitioner can implement these and other tests.
2. Love your liver.
Because of the burden those synthetic hormones created, your liver needs some major post-pill TLC. I had Jenna incorporate liver-supporting foods like beets, burdock root, dandelion root tea, garlic, and cruciferous vegetables.
3. Realign your gut.
Once your liver packages those synthetic hormones, your gut moves them out. Or it should, anyway. Like many former pill users, Jenna’s gut was inflamed, disrupting her microbiome. Among the foods that helped restore her gut balance were fermented foods like kombucha and sauerkraut plus fiber-rich foods like flaxseeds. Altogether we needed about three months to treat Jenna’s symptoms.
4. Restart your hormones.
Like Jenna, many patients experience4 menstrual-cycle changes and other hormonal irregularities once they discontinue the pill. Like exes who no longer speak, the pill shut downs the conversation between your ovaries and your brain. To re-establish that connection, we implemented a high-quality multivitamin plus nutrient-dense foods including quality fats like coconut oil and avocado to build healthy hormones.
5. Dial down stress.
Mood swings and other symptoms spiked Jenna’s already-through-the-roof stress levels. Among its many miseries, chronic stress directly affects5 your body’s ability to make sex hormones, exacerbates symptoms like headaches, and depletes nutrients like vitamin B6. I help patients look for ways to find bliss and dial down stress. For Jenna, that included deep breathing, going for a walk during lunch, and yin yoga.
If you do decide to come off of the pill, here are a few ways you can ease away from it.
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.