The pill is the most popular form of contraception in the UK and, if used correctly, is 99% effective. 28% of women aged 16-49 use it. It comprises of artificial sex hormones related to oestrogen and progesterone (sometimes progesterone alone; the mini pill). The pill completely changes the behaviour of a woman’s cycle, suppressing fluctuations and stopping ovulation entirely.
Typically, girls are told the pill is the best form of contraception. But recently GPs have noticed a rise in women requesting other types of contraception.
“The pill made me crazy, I became really irrational and paranoid. It also put a huge strain on my relationship. At the end of the day, it just wasn’t worth it,” says Meredith*.
Weight gain and skin problems are often the primary concerns of women considering the pill.
However, if you read the small print on the drug websites or the leaflets provided with pill packets, there is a plethora of alarming warnings concerning vomiting, jaundice, migraines, fatigue, urinary tract infections, cystitis, eczema, acne, mouth ulcers and varicose veins. We tend not to read the miniscule writing on medical pamphlets and if we do, we tend to think, “it won’t happen to me”.
While the NHS website admits there may be “minor side effects including mood swings, breast tenderness and headaches”, there are many more to add to this list, including an increased risk of breast cancer.
In July 2005, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified the pill as “carcinogenic to humans”, placed in the same category as tobacco and asbestos leading to increasing numbers of women seeking an alternative method.
Indeed, the pill’s construction was not without flaws. The first oral contraceptive to become commercially available was Enovid. The US Food and Drug Administration approved it on the basis of a small clinical study involving 132 Puerto Rican women who took the pill for a year. During this time, three of these women, who were all young and fertile, died after severe chest pains. They were eliminated from the study. A year after its release, Enovid had caused many cases of thrombosis and embolism in women, including 11 deaths. Nearly 40 years later, women still suffer chronic side effects which remain largely ignored by many doctors.
During a clinical study of the first oral conceptive, three women, all young and fertile, died after severe chest pains
“I wasn’t really given an option. My doctor completely deterred me from any other options,” Meredith explains.
Natasha* continues: “It took me four years to realise that it was the pill behind my problems.” She noticed distressing changes to her body after taking ‘Yasmin,’ a brand of oral contraceptive frequently used amongst women in the UK. “I would get sharp, stabbing chest pains and migraines. I’d never suffered from migraines before. When I told my doctor, he said it was definitely nothing to do with the pill.”
“I even had an MRI scan to see what was causing my migraines, but they found nothing. I’ve put up with terrible mood swings, absolute loss of libido and dizziness.”
Natasha became a member of ‘Yasmin survivors’, an online forum discussing serious health problems related to the contraceptive, including severe anxiety attacks, blurred vision and blood clots.
Interestingly, when Yasmin became available, it was hailed as a break-through drug for young women, completely devoid of side-effects. The brand currently has over 300 lawsuits pending against it in the USA.
Last year the manufacturer, Bayer (who also manufacture the contraceptive ‘Yaz’), was forced to run a $20 million corrective advertising campaign. They had previously made false claims about the drug on TV adverts in the USA saying it helped skin problems and pre-menstrual depression. In 2008, the Yaz franchise made sales of $1.8 billion worldwide.
Research has shown at least 150 bodily functions are altered by the pill. The decline in women’s testosterone, resulting from oral contraceptives, is often believed to be the cause of libido loss and mood disorders.
Amongst physical and psychological side effects, there is nutritional damage. The alteration in hormonal behaviour disrupts your body’s normal ability to process vitamins; crucial in maintaining health. The absorption of vitamins B1, B2, B6 and B12 is interrupted by the pill. This can lead to deficiency, causing fatigue, insomnia, low stress tolerance, and depression. Reduced zinc and increased copper levels can also knock your body out of its normal balance and may cause irritability, high blood pressure and sugar cravings.
On the NHS website it states: “Because you don’t ovulate when you take the combined pill, you don’t have a real period every month. Instead, you get a withdrawal bleed.”
But is it really beneficial that women consume a pill that stops what their bodies are biologically designed to do? Hilary Lewin, a doula and body therapist who meets many women suffering from menstrual difficulties, explains the role of a period: “The uterus is used as ‘a dumping ground’ by the body. If the body stores toxins in the uterus then each month we ‘clean out’. It seems that if a woman is not properly menstruating, the uterus can become ‘toxic’ and create problems.”
Alexandra Pope, co-author of The Pill: Are You Sure It’s For You? says that “switching off your menstrual cycle is as crazy as the doctor telling you not to waste time sleeping and to take drugs to keep you awake 24/7. All systems and living things need a cycle. Just as we need sleep on a regular basis, our bodies need time out to rest.”
With this in mind, the natural question is what other options are avalible. Pope believes that all girls should be fitted with a diaphragm and most GPs promote the implant, injection, vaginal ring and IUD, all more forms of hormonal contraception.
Pope also believes young girls entering puberty and sexual activity should be encouraged to embrace self knowledge.
The Natural Fertility Awareness method involves charting your menstrual cycle and calculating when you will not be at risk of getting pregnant. While this age-old method is completely natural, it is also very easy to get wrong and there is little widespread knowledge about it.
Jessica* hadn’t heard of the natural awareness method. “A lot of my friends are considering getting the copper coil. The insertion is a bit grim but, once it’s in place, it can stay for ten years. Also, there are no hormones at all. It seems like a better option.”
The Intrauterine Contraceptive Coil (IUCD) involves inserting a T-shaped structure into the womb via the cervix. The coil prevents the sperm from being able to enter the uterus and, if one does, makes the womb inhospitable to prevent the fertilised egg from being able to implant and develop properly.
All methods of contraception come with risks. Interestingly, one NHS nurse commented: “Every so often there’s a health scare about the pill and everyone comes off it. Then, there’s a massive baby boom. It’s your choice, girls.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities. M