4 Surprising Ways Birth Control Could Affect Your Future Fertility
Dr. Jolene Brighten, NMD, is one of the leading experts in women’s medicine and is a pioneer in her exploration of the far-reaching impact of hormonal birth control and the little known side effects that impact health in a large way. A trained nutritional biochemist and Naturopathic Physician, Dr. Brighten is the founder and Clinic Director at Rubus Health, an integrative women’s medicine clinic
As a naturopathic doctor who helps women balance their hormones, I see many women who struggle with hormonal imbalances and menstrual irregularities when they go off oral contraceptives. And today, more than ever before, one of the most common concerns among women on the pill (or who are thinking about starting it) is the long-term impact that it may have on their fertility.
Maybe you've heard it's a myth that birth control can negatively affect your future fertility. But while it's true there are no studies showing that it directly causes infertility, we also don't have extensive research on the long-term impact of birth control on women's health. In fact, there's a lot we don't know about fertility in general, let alone the intricacies that may come with using hormonal birth control for a decade or longer!
What we do know: Hormonal birth control works by several mechanisms, including shutting down brain-ovarian communication to prevent ovulation, altering the cervical mucus, and thinning the endometrial (uterine) lining—and there's some evidence that these processes can at least indirectly affect a woman's ability to conceive.
4 ways birth control may be affecting your fertility.
In my own clinical practice, I've had patients who had regular cycles, previous pregnancies, and no signs that fertility would be an issue before starting birth control, only to struggle with regular periods and fertility post-pill. And while we don't have studies to show that birth control will make you infertile or affect your future fertility directly, there are some known issues with birth control that may contribute to difficulty conceiving or maintaining a pregnancy:
1. Masking other health conditions.
Taking hormonal birth control for symptoms like irregular, absent, or abnormal periods in order to "regulate" your period does not address the root cause of the issue. While hormonal birth control can give you a predictable withdrawal bleed, this isn't a real period and it's not fixing what's causing your period problems.
The underlying cause of these symptoms may very well be due to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), hypothalamic amenorrhea, thyroid disease, or other medical conditions that can lead to infertility or difficulty conceiving. This means that if you used birth control for symptom management, then you may find it difficult to get pregnant when you stop. Does this mean birth control causes fertility struggles? No, but it likely prolongs the time it will take women to address their health problems, potentially putting them behind the eight ball when they do eventually decide they want to get pregnant.
It's also important to note that there are women with a history of regular periods who report missing periods (amenorrhea) after discontinuing hormonal birth control, which has been termed post-pill amenorrhea.
2. Depleting antioxidants.
Almost 20% of women seeking treatment for infertility show signs of advanced ovarian aging. Antioxidants protect our cells from free radicals and are crucial in ovarian health. How does birth control fit into this? The pill is known to deplete antioxidants like CoQ10, vitamin E, vitamin C, and selenium.
Several small studies have shown that women using the pill have lower levels of CoQ10, which can affect fertility. In fact, one study concluded that suboptimal CoQ10 levels can cause infertility due to the decrease in mitochondrial function, which in turn leads to age-associated egg deficits. As we age, the production of CoQ10 in the body declines and is one factor in the decrease in mitochondrial function in the ovaries. This means that the combination of birth control and the natural aging process can hinder your fertility.
If you're over 35, are a past or current smoker, have a family history of early menopause, or any condition that increases oxidative stress, then hormonal birth control is one more factor that could contribute to infertility by way of lowering antioxidant protection.
3. Thinning the uterine lining.
The use of hormonal birth control for five years or more has been associated with thinner endometrial (uterine) lining in women undergoing fertility treatments, which could make it more difficult to have healthy implantation and healthy pregnancy. This area warrants further exploration, but the same mechanism that provides protection against endometrial cancer while on birth control may be the cause of this observed phenomenon. It's important to note that in this study the women were already undergoing fertility treatments, so there may be additional factors involved.
4. Making it harder to find a "compatible" mate.
I want to be super clear that this is a theory only, but it is worth a mention. Several studies have shown that women on hormonal birth control select for mates with genes more similar to their own—in other words, they potentially select a partner that isn't the most compatible for baby making, which may contribute to difficulty conceiving when coming off of birth control. We don't know that this affects fertility definitively due to the lack of research, but it's definitely an area that warrants exploration.
When should you stop birth control if you want to get pregnant?
Real talk: If you're taking the pill to delay pregnancy, then waiting too long to go off can potentially thwart your baby-making efforts. While there have been studies showing no significant difference in the amount of time it takes to conceive after coming off the pill compared to other birth control methods, there have been other studies showing a delay in the return of ovulation and regular menstrual cycles.
As a naturopathic physician who helps optimize hormone health after birth control, I advise coming off of birth control a minimum of six months before trying to conceive, with two years being the ideal. This allows time for you to address potential issues masked by birth control, rebuild your nutrient stores, and prepare your body for pregnancy.
6 things you can do now to optimize fertility—even if you're still on the pill.
If you suspect you may want a baby in the future, the answer isn't to just quit birth control immediately or live in fear of using the pill. Instead, schedule an appointment with your doctor to have a conversation about your specific situation and concerns and what the best course of action for you is at this time in your life.
Wherever you are on your journey with the pill—whether you're still taking it or have recently stopped—you can begin to implement the following steps to improve your fertility now. It takes 90 days for the egg you ovulate to mature, so what you do today can help your eggs in future cycles.
1. Unearth the root cause.
If you started hormonal birth control for symptoms such as heavy periods, irregular periods, painful periods, intense PMS symptoms, or acne, now is the time to work with your doctor to figure out why you had those symptoms and start addressing the underlying cause.
2. Begin a quality prenatal vitamin.
While on birth control, nutrients such as folate, B12, B6, zinc, magnesium, and others are depleted. These are all important for fertility, a healthy pregnancy, and a developing baby. I advise my patients who are contemplating getting pregnant at any point in the future to take a prenatal while using hormonal birth control. Be sure to avoid prenatals with food dyes, hydrogenated fats, and folic acid (opt for folate or methylfolate instead).
3. Consider a CoQ10 supplement.
4. Nourish your ovaries.
Load up on more nutrient-dense leafy greens, which are an excellent source of folate, and antioxidant-rich foods like berries, artichokes, and nuts. Healthy fats from avocados and cold-water fish can boost egg health and help keep your ovaries young, too. Even better, make as many of these foods as you can organic since many pesticides are hormone disrupters that may negatively affect fertility. Consider adding royal jelly to your diet as well (it's actually great in smoothies!)—several animal studies have shown that eating this gelatinous substance produced by honey bees can increase egg growth, development, and ovarian hormone production.
5. Don't skimp on sleep.
Melatonin is not only a sleep hormone but a key antioxidant in protecting your ovaries. Exposure to light at night (especially shortwave blue light from our tech devices) decreases melatonin production, so turning in at a reasonable hour is recommended. Or, at the very least, start wearing some blue-light-blocking amber glasses.
6. If you're a smoker, quit.
Sounds obvious, but it's a must. Not only does smoking increase your risk of stroke while on the pill, but it also compromises your fertility. Years of data have shown that smoking can lead to infertility and early menopause.
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