The birth control pill has been around for a really long time — almost sixty years, to be exact. (And it’s come a long way — there’s even an app for accessing the Pill and other forms of birth control!)
“Women have been enjoying the benefits and advantages of the birth control pill since it’s FDA-approval on May 9, 1960,” says Dr. Dawn Stacey, LMHC, a birth control expert (and former Planned Parenthood employee) based in Florida. Since activist Margaret Sanger first became the driving force behind creating an oral contraceptive, the effects, benefits, and risks of taking the pill have been examined closely. “The Pill is actually one of the most researched and studied of all medications,” Dr. Stacey explains. We’ve learned that besides being an effective form of preventing pregnancy, the Pill can also help ease extra-hellish menstrual periods and provides other, unexpected health benefits, too. Here are nine things you really need to know about the birth control pill.
1.The Pill is actually very effective.
“There is actually only a 0.3 percent chance [of becoming pregnant], meaning that of every 100 women who use the pill for a year, less than 1 will become pregnant, when a woman uses the pill correctly,” says Dr. Stacey, adding that “‘perfect use’ usually applies to women in research studies and doesn’t really reflect everyday pill use. Which brings us to…
2. You absolutely positively must use the Pill correctly.
“If you get pregnant while using the pill, chances are you didn’t use it properly,” Dr. Stacey explains. “You either did not take the pill at the same exact time, every single day, or maybe you popped one pill later than usual or forgot to take one altogether.” Explore ways that will help you be consistent, such as setting a daily alert on your phone or taking the pill alongside an existing routine (like your morning multivitamin).
3. Your weight may affect how the Pill works.
No one wants to feel body-shamed by their birth control pill, but your weight can potentially reduce the Pill’s ability to protect you against pregnancy. “The Pill may be less effective the more you weigh,” says Dr. Stacey, explaining that “To be effective, the estrogen and progestin hormones in the Pill need to be able to circulate throughout your bloodstream.” In addition, “If you have a larger body mass, circulation becomes more difficult. Also, heavier women tend to have a higher metabolism, so the hormones from one pill may be metabolised before the next day’s pill is absorbed into your system.” Make sure to talk to your doctor about your weight and body mass index; if you’re considered overweight, a higher-dose pill may do the trick.
4. There are some health risks…
“Generally speaking, serious problems do not occur very often with the Pill,” Dr. Stacey says. “Birth control pills are actually much safer than pregnancy and childbirth. That being said, women who use combination birth control pills (pills with both progestin and estrogen) may have a slightly greater chance of certain health risks than non-users.” These risks increase when women are over the age of 35, smoke, or have pre-existing medical conditions such as high blood pressure. “If you use the Pill, you may have a higher likelihood of developing a blood clot if you have been placed on bed rest or if you need to wear a cast,” adds Dr. Stacey. “So, if you are planning to have a major operation, you should inform your surgeon that you are using combination birth control pills.”
5. But the Pill can help women fight cancer.
One of the Pill’s surprising benefits is that it can actually reduce the risk of cancer. “(When compared to women who have never used the pill), taking the pill for 5 or more years is linked to a 50% lower risk of developing ovarian cancer,” explains Dr. Stacey. “This protection is still seen in women who have stopped taking the pill.” Ovarian cancer is not the only type of cancer that the Pill might affect — others include endometrial and colorectal cancer.
6. And there are other health benefits, too.
The Pill also may help protect women against myriad other ailments including pelvic inflammatory disease, osteoporosis, ovarian cysts, vaginal dryness and painful sex, excess body hair, and non-cancerous breast growths. While some women may experience side effects such as nausea — “Many women find relief from this by taking their pill before bedtime,” points out Dr. Stacey — many symptoms gradually disappear. “You should definitely talk to your doctor if you are still experiencing side effects from the Pill after three months, as this may mean that your birth control pill brand may need to be changed,” says Dr. Stacey.
7. Your period might even become more bearable.
If you suffer from miserable menstrual periods with symptoms like migraines, cramps, acne, hellish PMS, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (an extra-hellish type of PMS), and heavy bleeding, it’s been shown that the Pill can potentially help with all of those! In addition, since heavy bleeding can lead to iron-deficiency anemia, you can consider protection against that as part of the Pill’s possible health benefits. Some women may even choose to skip their periods completely (after consulting with their health provider, of course!).
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8. The Pill can cause (or exacerbate) depression.
A recent study has suggested that there is an increased risk of depression with not just the Pill, but all kinds of hormonal contraception. “The pill has been linked to depression and changes in mood,” warns Dr. Stacey. “It may not be the best birth control method for women with a history of depression or mood-related issues.” While some side effects of the Pill can wear off within two or three months, you will want to speak to your doctor before starting if you have a history of these problems, or if you begin to experience depressive or mood-related symptoms once you’ve begun taking the Pill.
9. Hello, sex drive/Goodbye, sex drive.
When a woman can stop stressing about getting pregnant and focus on pure pleasure, her sex drive can get a nice big boost. But others find that the Pill affects not just their drive, but their ability to orgasm. “One reason why the pill may lessen your sexual desire has to do with the idea that the pill can reduce your testosterone level (this is the hormone that fuels sex drive in both women and men),” Dr. Stacey explains. “If you notice your libido is taking a nosedive, talk to your doctor to see if you can switch to another pill brand (one that will hopefully allow your sexual desire to reignite).”