Side Effects Of The Pill: Everything You Need To Know

side effects of the pill
Photo by Anna Shvets

Do you remember the first time you booked an appointment with your doctor to go on birth control? Regardless of which pill or method you were interested in using, did a conversation ever happen about the potential side effects?

In my case, along with the majority of women, the answer is no.

“Condoms fail 30% of the time,” she told me.

What?! Why don’t they tell us that in sex ed as we’re sliding condoms onto plastic penises?

“The pill really is the best option.”

There was no mention of the side effects until I brought up a traumatizing incident from my past. The one where my very healthy 25-year-old friend got a blood clot in her brain from taking the combined pill, despite having no family history of clots, strokes, or heart issues.

“That is very rare,” she told me.

And I know she’s right. But that doesn’t change the fact that it happened. Luckily, she made a full recovery.

But that’s an extreme example. What about the subtle, day-to-day side effects of the pill that we don’t even notice?

We swallow that tiny white pill each day without really thinking about what we’re putting in our body or what the effects may be. All that matters is we’re now able to enjoy sex on tap without the fear of getting pregnant.

I’m not writing this article to deter you from taking the pill or any other form of contraception. Instead, I want you to be fully informed when you decide for yourself. So, I’m going to lay down ALL the facts for you.

What is the pill, and how does it work?

side effects of the pill

The pill works because it prevents your body from producing an egg and makes your womb an inhospitable environment. So if any sperm turn up looking for an egg to fertilize, they’ll be all out of luck. This means that pregnancy cannot occur, apart from rare cases when it does (it’s 91% effective with typical use).

There are two main types of the pill:

  1. The combination pill (said to contain the hormones estrogen and progestin)
  2. The mini pill (said to contain progestin only)

So, what’s the “said to contain” all about?

There are no REAL hormones in either pill. Instead, the pill is made up of synthetic (fake) hormones. This is because ingesting a tablet orally means the real hormones would break down too quickly to work, so copies have been made instead. Although this means they’re great at preventing pregnancies, they are no real match for your natural hormones.

As a result, you’ve got mimic hormones in your body from the pill creating side effects that are very different from natural hormones.

What this also means is when you get your “period” while taking the pill, you are not actually having a real period at all. Instead, you’re experiencing a fake period.

Advances in the pill since 1960

The birth control pill has been so popular since it became available to women in 1960.

Five years after its approval, just under a third of American women reported using the pill.

This figure would undoubtedly be higher if it weren’t for millions of unmarried women being denied access to birth control, which disturbingly has become an issue in America once again, 60 years later.

Guess what else is happening 60 years later?

Zero advances in the pill. 

The implant, injection, patch, and vaginal ring created in the 90s are all simply alternative delivery systems for the same chemicals to enter your body.

Although it’s widely known that the pill has many drawbacks—which are easy to find now that information is circulated so quickly via the internet—they continue to be ignored.

Why is it that we see technology advance so rapidly in other areas like the iPhone or sending people into space, yet when it comes to women’s health, no one is doing a damn thing?

It continues to be brushed under the carpet. And as women, we don’t really have any option but to accept it because what’s the alternative?

Abstaining from sex?

Using the pull-out method?

Praying that the condom won’t fail, even though we’ve been told this happens a THIRD of the time?

Resigning to becoming pregnant at any time, with any man?

Hell no.

Despite the side effects, there are some advantages of the pill

The main advantages of the pill are that it significantly minimizes the risk of unwanted pregnancy to the point where, if you’re taking the pill correctly every day, you don’t have to worry about it. Plus, you’re able to enjoy unprotected sex (but obviously use protection if you don’t know your partner’s sexual health status).

Some research suggests taking the pill can reduce the risk of cancer of the ovaries, womb, and colon (although it can also increase the risk of other types of cancer).

Additionally, the pill can protect against pelvic inflammatory disease and may reduce the risk of fibroids, ovarian cysts, and non-cancerous breast disease.

Has the pill become a “lifestyle drug”?

Since the late 70s, the pill has been re-positioned from a contraceptive to more of a “lifestyle drug.”

What does that mean?

It means that the pill started to be prescribed as a treatment for other conditions. This includes acne, heavy or painful periods, and PMS.

Instead of scientific innovations in the pill, marketers have simply changed how it’s positioned to us, which may have tricked us into believing that advancements have happened.

One of my good friends visited the doctor aged 15 because she was experiencing acne on her back which didn’t appear to be clearing up. So she was given the pill to treat it.

I’ve heard countless stories of women being prescribed the pill as a way to “fix” their out-of-control menstrual cycle. The problem is that although the symptoms may be reduced, the root cause of the heavy or painful bleeding or the PMS goes untreated. And as I already mentioned, the pill stops you from having real periods.

Your menstrual cycle is one of the most powerful parts of being a woman. In my experience, painful periods and wild PMS are almost always caused by ignoring our sacred cycle. From trying to push against it instead of flow with it. Unfortunately, we live in a masculine-dominated society that encourages this shift away from the feminine cycle.

If you want to know more about this, here is another article you may be interested in: Understanding The 4 Menstrual Cycle Phases & Working With Them

woman period pain

The most common side effects of the pill

Mild side effects can vary greatly from person to person, and different makes of the pill can also produce various side effects.

Here are some of the contraceptive pills’ most common side effects.

1. One of the most common side effects of the pill: Spotting

The most common side effect of taking the pill is spotting (sometimes known as breakthrough bleeding). This is when you experience light vaginal bleeding between periods.

This is caused by your body adjusting to changes in hormones while your uterus is adjusting to a thinner lining.

Taking the pill at the same time each day can reportedly help to minimize or prevent spotting.

2. Headaches and migraine

The synthetic hormones in the pill can cause an increase in headaches and migraines. This is more common if you’re taking a particular kind of pill—higher dosage pills are more likely to cause this side effect.

3. Nausea

Nausea is normal when you first start taking the pill as your body adjusts to the new chemicals. However, it is not normal to feel sick all the time while on the pill, and this symptom should disappear within a relatively short space of time.

If you’re experiencing nausea months after starting the pill, speak to your doctor.

4. Side effects of the pill include tender breasts

Breast tenderness and sensitivity is another common side effect of the pill when you first start taking it. In addition, your breasts may increase in size. But if you’re experiencing pain or notice any lumps, this is not normal, and you should seek medical advice.

It has been suggested that wearing a supportive bra can help reduce breast tenderness. However, I can’t speak about this because this was not a symptom I ever experienced, and every woman is different. Plus, my overall experience with bras (notably the wired kind) is they create more health issues for many women than they actually solve.

5. Weight gain and bloating

Birth control pills have continually been linked to weight gain, but there is no current research to back this up. This could be due to your body retaining more fluids, creating a bloated feeling similar to what you may experience before you bleed.

Unfortunately, certain publications like Cosmo promote the idea that the pill can help weight loss, thus positioning the drug like the hottest new diet pill in town.

6. Change in mood

side effects of birth control

Our hormones significantly affect how we feel on a day-to-day basis. Because the pill interferes with your natural hormone balance, it can create a change in mood and lead to mood swings.

In a regular 28-day menstrual cycle, your energy and mood are at their lowest on Day 1 (the first day of bleeding). After that, it continues to rise and peak at ovulation in the middle of the cycle (around day 14). Following this, it gradually decreases each day until your bleed again. This is what a natural cycle looks like for women.

When you take the pill, this curve gets evened out for most of the cycle, but you will still experience a dip in your mood in the final 7 days before your period.

7. Missed periods are one of the common side effects of the pill

Because I was terrified of going on the combined pill, the doctor initially prescribed me the mini pill. While on this, I ended up having a second period just two weeks after my previous one.

This, along with missed periods, can be another common side effect of the pill.

That being said, many things can cause missed or later periods, including:

  • Pregnancy
  • Stress
  • A change in diet
  • A noticeable increase in physical exercise
  • Illness
  • Vaccines (including the COVID vaccine)
  • Hormonal or thyroid problems

8. Change in vaginal discharge

You may experience an increase in your vaginal discharge or even a change in its consistency.

A change in color could point to spotting (if it’s a pale red or brownish color), but any other changes may indicate an infection. If you’re unsure, get it checked out.

A decrease in lubrication can make sex uncomfortable—lube can help a lot here.

9. Yeast infections

The pill can also put women at risk of more frequent yeast infections. And if you have a diet that is high in sugar or alcohol, or a generally weak immune system, you are more at risk.

These kinds of infections will usually be cured by an anti-fungal cream or prescribed medication. However, if it doesn’t go away or continues to come back, this is a strong sign that it’s time to switch birth control methods.

10. Side effects of the pill not spoken about: Eye changes

Research has shown that taking the pill can cause your cornea to thicken, meaning that contact lenses may no longer fit comfortably in your eyes. Dry eyes are another common side effect, which can sometimes lead to more serious problems. It’s always best to visit an ophthalmologist to check the health of your eyes if you have any concerns.

There’s also a small risk of increasing the chance of getting open-angle glaucoma if you take the pill for long periods.

I had heard of many of the side effects on this list. Still, eye changes were something I was not aware of until I started researching to write this article. And as someone who is very short-sighted, has to wear glasses and contact lenses permanently, and has a history of glaucoma in the family, this research was (and still is) alarming to me.

It wasn’t mentioned to me at the doctors when I went in to talk about going on the pill. Likewise, an ophthalmologist has never mentioned it at any of my eye check-ups, despite them always routinely asking me if I’m on any medication, i.e., the pill.

Dry eyes have been a continual issue for me since a brief period of taking the pill at the end of 2016-2017. For the past four years, I have been using eye drops every day. Are the two linked, or is it merely a coincidence? I can’t say for sure.

11. Increased risk of skin conditions

I am a WOC with brown skin and have suffered from hyperpigmentation since I was born.

There have always been noticeable brown marks under both of my eyes, which appear to be dark circles (and I always thought they were), but are actually hyperpigmentation. When I get spots, they don’t disappear after a few days—they often leave a dark brown patch on my face, which lasts for months.

My primary reason for wearing makeup is to disguise some of the hyperpigmentation under my eyes, although this is never entirely achievable.

Hyperpigmentation is a sun-related skin condition that causes certain patches of the skin to become darker. It’s much more common in women than men, specifically women with brown and black skin.

According to a study in the British Journal of Dermatology, taking the pill can increase your risk of the skin condition melasma—which is a form of hyperpigmentation. It is partly caused by the sun but also partly caused by hormonal changes in the body.

I’m still learning about hyperpigmentation every day, and the lack of research on it makes this challenging. But what I do know is that this causes so many women a lot of stress and can really damage their self-confidence.

And I wonder how many women who suffer from hyperpigmentation are aware of the potential contribution of the pill to it? Because I sure as hell wasn’t.

What are the long-term side effects of birth control pills?

Okay, so that was just the mild side effects of taking the pill. Are you ready for the more serious stuff?

Once again, I want to reiterate that I am not trying to scare you or deter you from taking the pill. This is one hundred percent your choice to make. All I want is for you to have as much information as possible to make the best decision for your body.

I’m tired of the way we’re taught to blindly trust people in the medical field above our own intuition, above common sense, and copious amounts of conflicting research.

1. Side effects of the pill: Depression

side effects of birth control

It pains me to say this, but I cannot count the number of women I have worked through my coaching programs and retreats who have shared a story with me of experiencing symptoms of depression and much later discovering the pill was the primary cause of this pain.

These women seek their doctors’ advice when they experience feelings of depression, anxiety, and emotional instability.

And what happens?

They are prescribed antidepressants.

There’s no conversation about how their current contraception may be negatively affecting their mood.

The immediate response is: more pills.

An extensive study of over a million women over 13 years in Denmark confirms the link between hormonal contraceptives and depression in women.

Brace yourself for the findings. Compared to women not on the pill:

  • Women on the combined pill were 23% more likely to be treated for depression.
  • Women on the mini pill were 34% more likely.
  • Teenagers were 80% more likely.

It’s widely known that depression affects more women than men. When you research it, you’ll find an endless list of possible reasons for this. Yet, no word is mentioned about the pill.

2. Blood clots

The combined pill poses a potential risk of causing your blood to clot more easily than it normally would. If this happens, it can cause a clot in your leg, your lung, your brain, a stroke, or a heart attack.

The risk of this happening is very small and more likely if you have a history of certain diseases in your family. If this is the case, you’re likely to be prescribed the mini pill instead.

It goes without saying that a blood clot is serious. It can result in permanent damage or even death. To say my friend was lucky to make a full recovery with no permanent damage after a blood clot in her brain is an understatement. That was a miracle.

3. Cancer

As previously mentioned, birth control can both increase and decrease the risk of certain types of cancer.

The risk of breast cancer is slightly higher, and the risk of cervical cancer is higher (if taking the pill for longer than 5 years).

4. Decreased libido

woman in bed

You may have heard that the pill can affect your sex drive because of the hormonal changes created in your body. But did you know that taking the pill for any period of time can permanently decrease your libido?

Yes. I first read about this in an incredible book called Yoni Shakti, by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli.

Uma shares that the pill reduces your natural levels of testosterone, and these levels will never go back to normal even after you stop taking the pill.

5. “Male” side effects of the pill

A couple of years ago, I noticed a single hair had sprouted from the middle of my left cheek. It was a couple of inches long before I even noticed because it was almost transparent in color, while my natural hair color is a very dark shade of brown. So I cut it off, thinking how incredibly strange it was, and didn’t think about it again. Yet, that single strand of transparent hair continues to grow back every few months.

Then, while researching the pill, I discovered research carried out on the link between women taking the pill and changes that occur in their brains. Scientists have found that women’s brains on the pill look drastically different from those not on the pill. More importantly, some of the areas of their brain appear to look more “male.” This is in addition to behavioral changes that have also been observed.

Why?

According to a 2012 study, 83% of American women on the pill are taking a version made from a male hormone called nandrolone. This hormone influences the development of the male reproductive system and can therefore lead to women developing typically male characteristics (deeper voice, increased hair growth, more sweat, etc.).

Cheaper brands of the pill still contain androgenic hormones (which nandrolone is), while more expensive versions contain anti-androgens.

Note—the pill may not be right for you if you:

  • Are 35+ and smoke, or stopped smoking less than a year ago
  • Are pregnant
  • Take certain medicines
  • Are very overweight
  • You have or have had blood clots (or anyone in your family has)
  • You have diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure

Alternatives to the pill (to avoid side effects)

Are there alternatives to the pill?

Yes!

There are a few different options, all with their own set of pros and cons.

As mentioned, when it comes to vaginal rings, intrauterine devices (IUDs), the implant, injections, and patches—the side effects are all very similar. These are just different forms of administering the same synthetic hormones found in the pill.

Condoms

Condoms were my number one choice when it came to birth control until my partner and I had a condom-splitting incident. I think most people have experienced something similar at some point.

I immediately took the morning after pill the next morning and was really shocked by the whole incident; not helped by the morning after pill side effects that the pharmacist read out to me. Although I had been adamant I would never take the pill, I felt like I had no other choice. And I think this is what leads most women to take the pill.

The typical failure rate of condoms is reportedly 15%, while my doctor informed me it’s actually double this. She didn’t give me any research to back up this claim, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this is accurate. Think about how many things can go wrong: you put it on incorrectly, there’s a tiny hole in it invisible to the human eye, or it breaks during sex.

A natural approach

Because I hated being on the pill from the beginning, I was more open to try a new approach. This led to me trying out a natural form of birth control by Natural Cycles.

It involves you measuring your body temperature each morning and adding the data into an app. From the subtle temperature changes, the algorithm can see when you’re about to ovulate along with when you have. These will be “red” days. On red days, you need to use another form of contraception if you don’t want to get pregnant (i.e., condoms). While on green days, you can enjoy carefree, unprotected sex (watch out for STIs, though).

Of course, that does mean you are still somewhat relying on condoms to prevent pregnancy. But for us, it offers a nice balance between being drug-free and enjoying unprotected sex at least some of the time.

You can read more about Natural Cycles here in my in-depth review and see whether it may be a suitable option for you: Natural Cycles Review: Everything You Need To Know

It has the same typical effective rate as the pill, and it has been working brilliantly for my partner and me over the past four years (and no, they haven’t paid me to say that).

Make the right choice for you

It’s clear that the pill is not perfect and has several failures that need to be addressed (like, 40 years ago). But, that being said, it has transformed women’s lives.

We’ve been liberated sexually and able to focus more on our careers without giving birth to babies that we never wanted in the first place. I feel so lucky that the pill was invented. Plus, I can access it free of charge here in the UK, no questions asked.

I hope this article has given you a deeper understanding of what the pill actually is and its potential side effects. Because you deserve to know what you’re putting into your body every day and how this can affect your life.

I’d love to hear from you on this topic. Have you ever been on the pill, or are you on it today? What side effects have you experienced?

Let me know in the comments below.

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