Last month, the Guardian posted an article about how women don’t need to have their periods. The article discusses the benefits of birth control beyond preventing unwanted pregnancies. It states that many women are using it to stop or control the flow of their menstrual cycles.
Periods are described as uncomfortable, inconvenient, and “a mess.”
Now before you go telling me that birth control allowed you to live a normal life, let me disclose that my own menstrual cycle has been anything but easy. Just ask my partner – he is the one who has witnessed me writhing in pain on the floor for hours, often vomiting, unable to go to work or live my normal life.
So yes, I’ve experienced the pain of being a woman. And I still struggle with painful periods.
Yet, I see my period as a good thing – for me it is a monthly check-in. Think of your period as a barometer of your overall health.
Your Period is a Barometer
Your period communicates to you if you’re healthy, if something is wrong, if you need to tend to your gut health, your liver health, your stress levels. Think of it this way: our body gives us a monthly update on our overall health via our periods. The regularity of your menstrual cycle is affected by other functions of your body. It’s all connected. Ignoring our period by masking the uncomfortable symptoms is essentially ignoring our health.
For instance, if you are experiencing a lot of stress (and many times, we experience stress without realizing it), your adrenal glands pump out a lot of cortisol to deal with the stress. Cortisol is a stress hormone that puts us in fight-or-flight mode to prepare us to address a threat. Guess what else our adrenal glands do? They create sex hormones such as pregnenolone, estrogen, progesterone.
Pregnenolone is known as the “mother hormone” because it produces progesterone, cortisol, DHEA, testosterone and estrogen. It supports sleep, mood, and reduces PMS. When we experience excess stress, our adrenal glands use pregnenolone to make more cortisol instead of using pregnenolone to make sex hormones, which in turn causes hormonal imbalances that can lead to irregular menstruation. It’s a cascade effect and you can read more about it here.
Your period is also linked to your blood sugar – if your blood sugar is not balanced, you might experience more inflammation which could in turn cause periods to be painful. It is linked to your liver health and whether or not your liver can properly break down and remove toxins and excess hormones, such as estrogen. It is linked to your gut health and whether or not you’re able to absorb vital nutrients that help support your hormonal health and menstrual cycle. It is linked to your sleep cycle and whether or not you get enough restorative sleep to synthesize hormones.
To shut down a normal process the female body goes through (and yes, birth control is shutting down ovulation – this is why birth control prevents pregnancy) is to silence the cues your body is giving you about your health.
It boggles my mind how often women are offered hormonal birth control by their healthcare practitioners. I originally started taking the pill at the recommendation of my dermatologist because I had hormonal acne in high school, which is totally normal! In fact, as normal as having a period!
I was 18 when my dermatologist couldn’t figure out any other solution for my acne besides birth control. So I went to my doctor and asked for a prescription and boom – no more period! I never asked questions about side effects or alternatives, nor was any of this information offered to me. I was on the pill for 5 years before I started reading more about it and how it could affect my health later in life. When I decided to come off of it, I struggled a lot with my health. My period took 4 months to come back. I suffered a resurgence of my acne – much worse than I had ever experienced. I had anxiety, gained weight, and suffered from post-pill PCOS.
Guess what doctors said? “Why don’t you go back on birth control?” Why not? So many reasons why…
This is on par with how I feel about hysterectomies – they are recommended way too often. There certainly are instances that call for them, such as endometrial cancer. However, most of them are recommended for benign conditions that can be alleviated naturally. According to Dr. William Davis, author of Undoctored, “up until a few years ago, gynecologists – mostly male – had little hesitation in advising women to undergo hysterectomy, not uncommonly involving removal of not just the uterus but also the upper vagina, cervix, fallopian tubes, and ovaries, increasing the likelihood of complications such as damage to the bladder and uterus and sexual dysfunction. Just over 50 years ago, hysterectomies were performed for almost no reason – for depression or anxiety or as a form of birth control.”
And I hear so many young women say they want doctors to just remove all of their reproductive organs so that they can be rid of the inconvenience of periods. This hurts my heart.
If you can sense the frustration behind the words of this post, it’s because this makes me very angry. As a woman who has been offered the pill or an IUD left and right for everything from acne to period pain, it makes me want to scream “ENOUGH!”
What I want is for healthcare practitioners to say “no, your period should not cause this much pain and discomfort. Let’s take a deeper look at what could be going on to cause this.” Don’t we deserve that? Don’t we deserve to have our doctors work with us to improve our overall health rather than slap a Band-Aid on it and call it good? Don’t we deserve to understand our bodies and how to help them function optimally?
Birth control does not address the root cause of the pain, the acne, the mood swings – it just masks the symptoms. It gives you fake hormones, a fake period, and a fake sense that your health concerns are solved.
So, let’s get back to this Guardian post, which states that “if women do not want a period, is there a medical reason that they should? Many may be surprised to learn that the short answer is: no.”
I could not disagree more. For the reasons stated above, women do need their periods.
What happens if we use birth control to get rid of our periods?
Side Effects of Hormonal Birth Control
There are two sides to this coin – side effects that happen while using birth control and side effects that occur after coming off of birth control.
I don’t care for the saying “she’s hormonal” because hormones do so much for our health – we need them! When we use hormonal birth control, we stop the natural production of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen balances cholesterol levels, affects skeletal growth, supports bone health, and is important for electrolyte balance and brain functioning. Progesterone helps repair the nervous system, promote sleep, ease anxiety, and help us feel calm. Those are two powerful hormones that support our health and keep things in working order!
While taking hormonal birth control, risks include breast cancer (increasing risk by 3 times), blood clots, low libido, depression, weight loss, hair loss, nutrient depletion, gut dysbiosis, digestive disturbances like IBS, and yeast infections.
Common issues coming off of hormonal birth control include weight disturbances, acne, PCOS, and amenorrhea (loss of period).
The Bottom Line
I’m not saying that birth control should be eradicated. I do believe that we all have the choice. But just with any medication, the pros must outweigh the cons. When you start any new medication, it’s always best to learn about the side effects first. I put this responsibility on the consumer since there are doctors who will not be forthcoming with the information either because they get paid to put patients on medication or because they are not aware of the side effects or they just need to get you out of the door and the next patient in. It is our responsibility as women to teach our daughters about their periods, to educate ourselves about the medications we take, to empower each other to embrace our bodies, and to look at our period as a tool to gauge our overall health.
Where do we start? Start by questioning your doctor. Question your doctor for alternatives. If your doctor can’t come up with anything else, tell him/her “no thanks” and find yourself a doctor that will support you. I recommend looking for an integrative physician or a naturopathic doctor.
There is also a plethora of resources to help you troubleshoot your period. I love Nicole Jardim’s blog, Lara Briden’s book Period Repair Manual, and Ellie Thomas’s podcast, Well Women Radio. Start learning more about what your period can teach you about your body. The more we learn and demand better health, the more chances we have to heal and make a change in how periods and women’s health will be perceived and addressed by healthcare. It’s time for this to change.
Here are some other resources on my blog for more guidance:
What do you think about hormonal birth control? Let me know in the comments below!