What I wish I knew before taking the pill

This is the article 15 year old me needed to read

Fast forward five very quick years on, and looking back now, I want to hug the young girl sat in the doctor’s office. More importantly, I want her to read through every word in that side effects leaflet. 

Many women, including myself, feel not enough information regarding the birth control pill is provided. The pill is often times used to ‘treat’ issues such as PCOS, acne, irregular and painful periods. Although it can help with these issues, when the time comes to stop taking the pill, these root symptoms remain.

Acknowledging that the pill can work well for some women is important. Birth control is subjective, with different methods working for individual people. Understanding your body and individual needs is essential when picking the right birth control for you. Regardless, women deserve to be educated on their bodies, birth control, and what they are being recommended and prescribed.

Photography courtsey of Anna Hyland

Science lesson time. Hormonal birth control pills work by shutting down hormones in your body and replacing these with synthetic ones such as ethinylestradiol. These hormones prevent ovulation. Pregnancy cannot happen if there is no ovulation; this is the process of your ovaries releasing an egg each month, an egg needs to become fertilised to become pregnant.

Of course, all the above functions of the pill help prevent pregnancy. However, these do not come without possible side effects; mood swings, depression, and nausea, to name just a few. Listing all the rest of the potential side effects would take a lot of both mine and your time. 

Scarily, the pill, specifically the combined estrogen–progestogen pill, has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogens by the World Health Organisation. Group 1 carcinogens have shown evidence to cause cancer in humans, other examples are solar radiation, smoking, and processed meats. 

A common misconception, one that I was unaware of until I was off the medication, is that you do not experience a real period whilst on it. Although some do include a week’s break each month, in most cases you take sugar pills for a week, this is just a ‘withdrawal bleed’ and not a real period. Much to my surprise, my body had not undergone a real period for over five years.

Iris Verstappen, amongst many other things, is a certified hormonal health coach and functional hormone specialist. She is qualified in holistic women’s health offering coaching, courses, classes, retreats, and information for women on both her Instagram (@cycleseeds), and podcast (the planting seeds podcast). She explains how the pill works.

“It stops the communication between your brain and your ovaries and basically overrules your entire hormonal communication system, so it kind of like rewrites everything with the synthetic hormones and it doesn’t really balance your cycles or regulate your cycles, but creates a synthetic version of a cycle that looks like a cycle because you bleed every month but you actually stop ovulating,” Verstappen tells me. 

Verstappen believes every woman should be informed about all aspects of their body and birth control, allowing them to make an informed decisions. She says: “A lot of people are just sent home with a prescription without actually being informed about the things that the pill can also do. For example, it can create changes in how you feel about yourself, your mood, it can change how you feel about a partner, it changes how your body absorbs or doesn’t absorb specific nutrients.”

Twenty-two-year-old Jolie decided to come off the progesterone only pill last November after being on it for six years. Initially being prescribed them for her painful periods, she tells me: “I felt like I had been on it too long. I wasn’t having any negative side-effects or anything. I just knew that it was my time not to be on it anymore.” 

Jolie continues “I didn’t get a period for a while, but then when I did, I was getting really nauseous. My periods now are really painful, but mentally I felt better until the period got so bad that it made me feel worse.”

Although the pill helped with Jolie’s painful period for the time used, the initial problem inevitably resurfaced as soon as she stopped them. Her approach now is going down the natural birth control route while trying to heal her body intuitively with eating better and naturally managing her hormone imbalances. 

Natural birth control is contraception that does not use hormones, surgery, or barriers to prevent pregnancy. Natural cycles are the only FDA approved natural birth control app; it uses your daily body temperate to predict when you are menstruating. Temperatures can be taken through digital watches and rings or by a thermometer. This is linked to the app which offers information on where you are in your cycle and predicts your fertile days within this, there are only six days within a women’s cycle where she can conceive.

Similarly, Verstappen speaks to many of her clients about a holistic, non-hormonal approach to both their bodies and birth control. “I offer people to look into fertility awareness or cycle charting where they track their temperature and their cervical fluid and their cervical position and this could serve as a way to determine your fertile window, so when you can get pregnant.” Having done this for over ten years herself, she believes this allows women to understand their bodies. She notes the importance of those using this method to study first with an educator. 

Verstappen states that when a girl has irregular periods, this should indicate that there may be an underlying issue which needs to be investigated, instead of suppressed with the pill.  “It’s very normal for girls to not have a regular cycle when they start their periods because their body is literally figuring out the communication between their brain and their ovaries.”

“Girls should be taken seriously”, Verstappen rightfully states. 

She works with a lot of women who would have made a different decision if all the information was given to them about the birth control pill. And with roughly 100 million women world-wide taking oral contraception, this information is necessary for us to make informed choices. 

While I feel somewhat lucky, with experiencing no overtly serious symptoms on my journey with taking birth control pills, I still feel not enough information was communicated to me. I am also aware that many girls have not been fortunate enough to experience such luck.

Being off the pill for two years now, I feel my emotions are much more regulated and feel the most in tune with myself than ever before. Although I do wish I allowed my body to develop from girl to women by itself in the crucial years I was on the pill, I am grateful the side effects I experienced while on this were small (that I am aware of). 

Information regarding oral contraception should be better educated to girls and women, especially with how easily and often the birth control pill is recommended. Everyone deserves the right to make informed choices about their own body, including 15 year old me.

Get a weekly digest in your email.

Subscribe to our Substack.

View more articles