7 Unexpected Side Effects Of Birth Control Pills And How To Counter Them

They could be doing way more than preventing pregnancy and regulating your cycle.

July 12, 2017
birth control pills
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With all the reasons to celebrate “the pill” (goodbye acne, painful periods, PMS, and pregnancy) it’s easy to skip over the downsides. But it turns out, taking oral contraceptives can wreck havoc on your health, messing with your mood, energy levels, sex drive, and digestion. 

“As a gynecologist practicing functional medicine, I’ve seen many women over the years suffering from side effects from these pills,” says Dr. Sara Gottfried, MD, the three-time New York Times bestselling author of The Hormone Cure, The Hormone Reset Diet, and her newest book, Younger. “Oral contraceptives might just be the biggest iatrogenic hormone problem for women.” (Meaning, hormone problems that are caused by a medical treatment.)   

Here, your guide to the little-talked-about downsides of birth control pills and how you can counter them. 

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reduced sex drive
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Your sex drive can take a hit

“Birth control pills (BCPs) can rob you of testosterone, causing decreased sex drive and vaginal dryness,” says Gottfried. “They may even shrink the clitoris by up to 20 percent.” The reason: BCPs contain synthetic versions of estrogen and progesterone (or just progesterone), which can cause a drop in testosterone. One study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that after just 3 months, women on the pill had less sex, experienced more pain during intercourse, and had fewer orgasms. To make matter worse, low-T in women can zap energy and mess with your mood. (Here are 11 signs your hormones are out of whack.)

What’s a gal to do? “I prefer non-hormonal forms of contraception like the copper intrauterine device (IUD), cervical caps, diaphragms, and condoms,” says Gottfried.

woman with yeast infection
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You might get a yeast infection—on repeat

If it’s red, itchy, and burning down there, your birth control could be to blame. “We’re not completely sure why women on the pill have more yeast infections, but it probably relates to disruption of the body’s natural production of estrogen and progesterone, and disruption of the delicate flora in the gut and vagina,” says Gottfried. In one study, women with recurrent yeast infections were more likely to have used a low-dose oral contraceptive. (Here's the single biggest thing you can do for a healthier gut.)

What’s a gal to do? For starters, see your health professional to make sure you have the right diagnosis, as yeast infections can be confused with other types of infections (like bacterial vaginosis or trichomoniasis)—“and consider stopping the oral contraceptive and eating more probiotic-rich fermented food like sauerkraut and kefir,” adds Gottfried. 

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Holy mood swings, Batman

If you feel like a crazy person on the pill, you’re not alone. BCPs can mess with your hormones, which can affect emotions. While some studies have found BCPs can have a positive effect on mood, others have linked them to mood swings, fatigue, and depressive symptoms. One study even found the pill may affect the brain’s structure and function. “Taking any synthetic progestins may cause a loss of wellbeing, mood problems, or dysphoria,” adds Gottfried. (Check out these 20 superfoods your brain wants you to eat.)

What’s a gal to do? Switching to something without hormones, like a copper intrauterine device (IUD) or condoms, can reduce mood swings, says Gottfried.

woman covering mouth due to gum disease
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You could set yourself up for gum disease

Seems crazy to think oral contraceptives can alter oral health, but the pill can alter blood supply to the gum tissue, increase plaque bacteria, and raise your risk of gingivitis. And it’s not just your gums at risk; research has linked BCPs to an increased risk of temporomandibular (TMJ) or jaw pain. (Here are 5 reasons your gums are bleeding when you brush.)

What’s a gal to do? Gottfried recommends brushing your teeth with an electric toothbrush for 2-3 minutes at a time (and twice daily), flossing twice daily, and considering the ancient Ayurvedic practice of oil pulling. “These actions help to shift the microbiome in your mouth toward less inflammation,” she says. 

woman looking fatigued
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You might end up with a loss of B vitamins

Feeling fatigued, brain fogged, or depressed? Over time, the birth control pill can deplete your body of B vitamins, especially B2, B6, B12, and folate, which can mess with your memory, mood, and metabolism. “You need B vitamins to keep your neuroendocrine system working and for the production of serotonin, which controls mood, sleep, and appetite,” says Gottfried. (Here are 7 reasons you're tired all the time.)

What’s a gal to do? “If you’re taking a birth control pill, I recommend adding a B complex to your daily regimen,” says Gottfried. Also check out these 9 ways to get enough vitamin B12 without eating meat.

woman clutching stomach
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You can develop inflammatory bowel disease

While some women take the pill to dial down cramps and bloating, for others it can inflame tummy troubles. (Here are 5 meds that can damage your gut and mess with digestion.) In a study of over 230,000 women, Harvard researchers found that being on the birth control pill for five years or more tripled a woman’s chance of developing Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease where the body’s immune system attacks the lining of the GI tract. Not that BCPs cause Crohn’s, but if you have a genetic predisposition they can up your risk. Study authors note that estrogen can increase the permeability of the gut, which can lead to digestive issues.

What’s a gal to do? If you have history of inflammatory bowel disease, talk to your doctor about alternatives.

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You might suffer from inflammation

Genetics, pollution, stress, and processed foods aren’t the only causes of inflammation—add the pill to the list. A Danish study of more than 15,000 people found that pre-menopausal women on BCPs are almost 4 times more likely to suffer low-grade inflammation as measured by C-reaction protein (CRP) levels than those not taking them. “In functional medicine, we consider chronic inflammation to be the root cause of all disease, whether it’s infertility, depression, or cancer,” says Gottfried. 

What’s a gal to do? “Any woman can fight inflammation by increasing consumption of proven anti-inflammatory agents, such as organic vegetables and fruits, omega-3 fats, vitamin D, and resveratrol,” suggests Gottfried. Check out these 7 food pairings that fight inflammation.