In the United States (and around the world), birth control pills (aka "the Pill") is a popular form of contraception. You only take the Pill during your premenopausal years, when you're trying to regulate your menstrual cycle, prevent unplanned pregnancies, or eliminate some of the nastier PMS side effects. Even if you take the Pill for a relatively long period of time, you'll also be off the Pill for a number of years of your adult life, so you might want to know about the ways you didn't realize the Pill affects you later in life.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Survey of Family Growth, 2011 to 2015, nearly 16 percent of American women ages 15 to 44 are currently taking birth control pills. Depending on how long you've taken birth control pills and what kind of pill you're taking (or have taken in the past), the ways the pills affect you over both short and long-term periods can vary. That being said, there are both serious and minor ways that taking the Pill (even years prior) can affect your health and your body later on. Some of these issues are temporary, while others seem likely to be permanent changes. If you have taken or are considering starting to take a birth control pill, you need to know what might lie ahead.
Ovarian cancer can be extremely serious because it doesn't always cause obvious side effects right away. According to the National Cancer Institute, however, taking oral contraception can minimize your risk of ovarian cancer. A 1992 study published in Obstetrics and Gynecology found that your ovarian cancer risk decreases by 10 to 12 percent after the first year of birth control and by 50 percent after five years.
Not only can taking birth control pills lower your risk for developing ovarian cancer, but it can also lower your risk of developing endometrial cancer. According to a study published in Endocrine-Related Cancer in 2000, the longer you take the Pill, the more protected you are against endometrial cancer and that your less likely to develop it even after you stop taking it.
With cervical cancer, however, the impact is a little bit different. According to a study published in 2002 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, there's an increased risk for cervical cancer associated with long-term oral contraception use. If you have a family history of cervical cancer, you should definitely bring that up and speak with your doctor about the potential risks or alternative options.
Wait, what? According to Time, Danish researchers found that women taking hormonal birth control pills are at greater risk for gliomas, or brain tumors. Dr. David Gaist, a neurologist and one of the researchers conducting the study made sure to note that the findings do not mean that women should immediately stop using hormonal birth control, however, and Dr. Santosh Kesari, director of neuro-oncology at University of California San Diego, told Time that there haven't been noticeable spikes in rates of glioma diagnoses since hormonal contraception was introduced, but that more research is needed.
Some doctors say that hormonal birth control pills do not cause depression, but a Danish study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2016 found that women taking combined contraceptive pills were more likely to be prescribed antidepressants. While more research is likely needed, especially regarding how temporary or long-term this affect is, it's important to talk to your doctor about any symptoms you may have or opt for another form of birth control that might be a better fit.
According to a long-term study dubbed the Oral Contraception Study, based in the UK, women who've taken birth control pills are at a lower risk for developing colorectal cancer. If you've ever taken birth control pills, your risk of colorectal cancer should be lower than if you hadn't taken them at all.
According to Science Daily, a study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that birth control could cause lowered sex drive because of the way it interferes with a protein that binds to testosterone in women. Not enough women are aware of the potential issues with sex drive and birth control, so if you're considering starting a birth control pill regimen, you might want to have a conversation with your doctor.
If you're getting more frequent yeast infections, your birth control might be to blame. Dr. Alyssa Dweck, OB-GYN, told Everyday Health that women with weakened immune systems, uncontrolled diabetes, or diets high in sugar are even more prone to yeast infections when estrogen levels are lower. These can become chronic, but are sometimes fixed by switching up your method of birth control.
Blood clots from birth control are rare, but, according to Healthline, using hormonal birth control pills for a long time can increase your risk of developing dangerous blood clots after the age of 35. If you have a family history of blood clots, you may want to talk to your doctor about how your choice of birth control could impact the likelihood of developing one.
Dr. Beth Kneib, the director of the clinical resources group at the American Optometric Association, told Everyday Health in the aforementioned article that changes in hormone levels from the Pill can cause dry eyes. Plus, according to research from the American Academy of Ophthalmology, if you use the Pill over a number of years, you can have a higher risk of developing glaucoma.
While you may think that only smokers are at increased risk for heart attacks during or after taking the Pill, that's not exactly true (though their risk is higher). According to the previously-mentioned article from Healthline, taking the Pill for a long time can increase your risk of having a heart attack after the age of 35.
If you're prone to headaches or migraines, your birth control might make them worse. According to a 2014 study published in Current Opinion in Neurology, sudden decreases in estrogen levels can lead to migraines. While this should hopefully just be temporary (and perhaps resolved by trying out another form of birth control), headaches can be painful and frustratingly chronic, and there's no guarantee that switching birth control methods would for sure alleviate them if you experienced headaches before starting birth control pills.
While the verdict is still out on whether or not oral contraceptives have an effect on malignant (or cancerous) liver growths, they do seem to be linked to benign liver growths. According to the National Cancer Institute, these lumpy growths can oftentimes bleed or rupture and can form on all different parts of the liver.
While your doctor may or may not have covered, in detail, all the potential side effects and other issues presented by the Pill, according to the Daily Beast, women who take oral contraception have a higher risk of developing gallstones. If you're already at risk for gallstones, you might want to have a more extensive conversation with your doctor to determine if the Pill is the best option for you.
Because birth control pills can be used to prevent ovulation (in some cases, for quite a long time), they can also help prevent the development of ovarian cysts. According to WebMD, if you're not ovulating, there's less of a chance that an ovarian cyst will be able to form. While this mostly just affects you while you're taking the Pill, if you're on birth control for a long time and not ovulating, that can help minimize the likelihood that you'll develop ovarian cysts at all because your body will likely have less of an opportunity to do so.
Some doctors (and research) say that hormonal birth control pills do increase your risk of breast cancer while others say it really doesn't, or that it can, but that that risk evaporates within a decade or so after you stop taking birth control pills. Ultimately, as Dr. Shannon K. Laughlin-Tommaso wrote in a short post for Mayo Clinic, it's not clear if there's a link between breast cancer risk and birth control pills. More research is still likely needed to sort things out for sure.
In a post for Baby Center, OB-GYN Dr. Christos Coutifaris wrote that the Pill could potentially lower the likelihood of ectopic pregnancy, when the egg implants "outside of the uterus." These pregnancies cannot "result in a successful birth," Coutifaris explained. They can also be dangerous.
While, theoretically, everything should pick right back up where you left off once you stop using your birth control pills, that's not always how it happens. Sometimes it can take your body a bit of time to sort things out. According to Dr. Coutifaris's previously-mentioned post, however, this is often due to circumstances unrelated to the Pill, like stress or weight. It could also be what your doctor was trying to address when they prescribed it for you in the first place.
According to the aforementioned post by Dr. Coutifaris, taking the Pill might help protect your fertility because it can help reduce your risk of developing ovarian and other reproductive cancers that can result in infertility. It's not necessarily that you're in a much better place than you would have been if you hadn't taken the Pill, but it's an added layer of protection against those diseases which can cause infertility.
Strange, right? According to a study published in Human Brain Mapping, if you take the Pill, your lateral orbitofrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex might be thinner than women who don't. Additionally, a study published in Brain Research in 2010 found that women taking the Pill had some larger regional gray matter volumes than women who were not. These studies contradict each other and neither prove that it was the birth control pills that caused the changes. There's clearly more research needed on the subject.
Researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health found that if you use oral contraception long-term, it might improve your chances of getting pregnant, when compared with women who had taken birth control for less than two years. While it might take a few cycles before your fertility rates are where they should be after discontinuing use of the Pill, after that they should pick back up again, according to the authors of the study.
According to research conducted by psychologist S. Craig Roberts of the University of Stirling in Scotland and a team of fellow researchers, women who were using birth control pills when they met their partner reported that they were less sexually satisfied, but more satisfied by nonsexual parts of their relationship than women who weren't using birth control pills when they met their partner. While it, of course, doesn't mean that you'll definitely be settling (or definitely split up) if you do or don't use birth control pills when you meet your partner, it's interesting research, to say the least.
According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, women who used oral contraception were found to have improved cognitive skills later in life, especially if they used them for ten years or more. Time to break out the puzzles.
Not only might birth control pills impact your cognitive skills, but it might also impact the kinds of things that you remember. According to a different Science Daily article, researchers at University of California Irvine found that women who use oral contraceptives are better at remembering emotional events, while women who don't are better with the nitty gritty details.
This is primarily a factor in young women who are taking the Pill, but it's worth mentioning all the same. According to LiveScience, some recent studies have found that taking the Pill can inhibit "muscle gains" in some younger women. While that might not be something that afflicts you forever, it's still important to know.
The testosterone issue is one that might linger and linger and could cause a lot of the sexual dysfunction issues associated with the Pill. According to to Science Daily, the aforementioned research published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that the Pill might interfere with sex hormone binding globulin, which is supposed to bind to testosterone, making it "unavailable" for use in a woman's body. That means that women who've taken the Pill might have testosterone that's not bound to anything floating around, causing problems.
This is another testosterone issue. According to the researchers conducting the aforementioned study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, women who've taken the Pill and potentially have issues with unbound testosterone could also experience more painful sex than they did before.
Lowered sexual arousal is another result of issues related to sex hormone binding globulin, according to the previously-mentioned research from The Journal of Sexual Medicine. If you've taken the Pill and are experiencing lowered arousal, it might have to do with these side effects.
Again, vaginal dryness or decreased lubrication can also be a result of "unbound" testosterone after taking the Pill, as the aforementioned research in The Journal of Sexual Medicine noted. Talk to your doctor about it. Currently, researchers don't know if these sexual dysfunction issues are temporary or permanent.
Of course, one of the ways that the Pill affects your later life is that it allows you to have more control over your reproductive decisions and family planning. According to an article from Pacific Standard written by Dr. Jessica Kiley, an OB-GYN, planned pregnancies are healthier pregnancies with more prenatal care. That's good for you and for your little ones.
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