Coming off the pill

I was on the pill for three years before I realized it’d made me crazy. I started to take oral contraception, like most people, for the sheer convenience of it, and for the control it gave me over my reproductive choices. I’m great with routine, so forgetting to take my daily dose was never an issue. Nope, getting it in me wasn't the problem; it was all the shit that started to happen after about three months of taking it that was. In hindsight, I should’ve picked up on it, but there was no reason to think at the time that it might’ve been my birth control.

I’d been navigating things that I later realised were symptoms, the result of this…thing I was putting in my body every day. Some were mild, like mood swings. Some were great, like never having a pre-menstrual spot and being able to track the arrival of my period down to the hour (Literally. “I’ll get my period at 6pm on Wednesday,” was something that I was confidently able to say at the time). Some, however, were life-altering: paranoia, anxiety, mild depression. A general and constant sense of unease that contributed to a deep-rooted discontent that I was never really able to attribute to anything. The thing that truly causes me to boggle, even today, is how long I took the damn thing before I even knew that it was at the root of everything that was jacked up in my life.

Let it be known that despite my own experience with the pill, I understand how it has been a lifesaver for many other women. There are those who’ve suffered debilitating pain, endometriosis, PCOS who testify that it has been a boon. An actual lifesaver. There are all sorts of acute and chronic conditions for which it is a suitable prescription. Easy access to contraception is essential and I’d never advocate otherwise. But the fallout of taking this pill every day is also real, as is the fact that doctors, even when patients bring them a laundry list of symptoms, continue to decry the link. Worse yet, they recommend that you go back on the pill anyway. “It’s okay,” I was told. “Try a different one.”

The pill can fuck up your mental health. It did mine. If you are in otherwise good health and you’re on it for the convenience of it, I feel you, I really do, but perhaps it now time to think about the cost of this convenience. Women have been saying for years that the pill adversely affects their mental and physical health, and yet it is only now that the first lot of research on the matter is emerging. A study by the Karolinska Instutet in Stockholm, found definitely that “oral contraceptives reduce general well-being in healthy women.”

The double-blind study involved 340 healthy women aged between 18 and 35, and who were given contraceptive pills all reported a change in mood, well-being, energy, and self-control – all of which were affected negatively. This study was three months long. Some of us take the pill for years. Some women are put on it as soon as they start to menstruate, and are put on it reasons that have nothing to do with contraception (to control acne, for example).

When I came off the pill I came back into my personality again.

Another study tells us that the “use of hormonal contraception, especially among adolescents, is associated with subsequent use of antidepressants and a first diagnosis of depression”, indicating depression as a directly correlated adverse effect of hormonal contraceptive use. 

Still another will tell you that the steroid hormones in birth control pills could affect the way the brain works due a thinner structure caused by synthetic estrogen and progestogen. And all this in addition to the physical conditions that the pill contributes to, including high blood pressure and increased risks of breast, liver and cervical cancer.

There is also a profusion of anecdotal evidence emerging that should cause the medical profession to think about how cavalierly they prescribe this drug. Amongst my own friends, when I came off the pill, and mentioned why, suddenly I was aflood with “me too’s” – flying into a blind rage at a partner at the slightest provocation, paranoia and insecurity, crushing blues, a sense of disconnection from their lives, a sense of numbness, complete loss of sexual drive… and every time any of them voiced these concerns to their doctors they were pooh pooh-ed. Side note: isn’t it funny that you’re on the pill to stop you from conceiving, but so many women completely lose interest in sex when on the damn thing anyway?

When I came off the pill I came back into my body again. I came back into my personality, and my relationship. I am grateful, every day, to my partner for weathering those confusing, exhausting years where we both struggled with my moods not knowing that there was a quantifiable reason that this mild and relatively gentle individual had morphed into a raging loon. When I came off the pill I became myself again and I am still angry that my doctor tried, repeatedly, to get me to go back on it again despite my growing sense that it was at the root of so much, and my insistence that it was messing up so fucking much, in so many parts of my life.


If you are currently on the pill:

You should know that you're only fertile five or six days each cycle.
Unless you are on it to regulate severe hormonal disruption or disease of some sort, consider, perhaps, that you don’t need to medicate yourself the remaining 24-25 days of the month just to safeguard yourself over this miniscule patch. Would you take antibiotics for a graze or use a frickin’ Bandaid? There are so many alternatives to hormonal contraceptives–condoms, tracking your cycle and using barrier method birth control only over your fertile patch are only two of a whole list, but consider them. I use an app called Clue which, having tried a fair few apps, I can say is the very best cycle tracking app, period. The Berlin-based company is “using science and data to provide insights into female health,” and there are no cutesy pink hearts and bad design here. It’s the sort of thing that women used to discreetly mark on calendars, but Clue is the sweet spot where big data and your cycle intersect, and you can, by logging your lifestyle and workout and stress levels, take away the guesswork on when you should be using birth control and when you’re fine to go without.

The app is also intuitive, which means that the more your use it and the more information you feed it, the more it ‘learns you’ and is able to accurately predict what’s happening for you. If you love data, you’re only a short swipe away from full analysis and downloadable report. But even if you aren't, you can personalize the information you’re feeding in and track everything from how much you’re sleeping and working out, to bleeding, headaches, emotions, energy, and sex drive.

The pill can seriously fuck up your gut
Also, just like antibiotics, the pill wreaks havoc on your gut, knocking your intestinal flora out of whack, often causing leaky gut (aka increasing your intestinal permeability) and increasing your risk for inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s. Plus, about 95 percent of your body’s serotonin is actually manufactured in your gut, so when your contraception fucks up your gut flora, it also fucks up your serotonin production, and in turn jacks up your mood. That explains, of course, the depression. (A bit of an oversimplification there; there are other, inflammation-linked causes to the depression as well). 

If you are coming off the pill (or considering it):

For a start, well done.
But also, your hormones are buggered beyond belief, and that takes time to sort itself out so if your mood slumps or you’re unexpectedly (and uncontrollably) weepy, know that this will pass.

In the meanwhile, sort your gut out.
Take a strong probiotic twice daily (I like VLS-3).
Cut out sugar from your diet for a bit, as well as inflammatory foods like vegetable oils and processed junk. At the same time, add in anti-inflammatory foods like leafy and cruciferous vegetables.

And sleep a lot.
An ayurvedic doctor I met recommended vata-balacing treatments like abhyanga and shirodhara as well as yoga, all of which should also help with deeper, more restorative sleep. There is very little that deep rest and restoration will not fix.

FYI: This feature is for informational purposes only. The Tonic does not provide any medical advice, and readers should consult medical professionals when required.