By Mary Sabo, L.Ac DACM
There are plenty of reasons women decide to stop birth control pills and they don’t always include being ready to get pregnant. Many women choose to go off the pill to balance their hormones, because they are at risk of blood clots, are experiencing other unwanted side effects (loss of libido being common), or because they wish to switch to a hormone-free birth control method such as the copper IUD.
Birth control pills are not entirely bad for you. In fact, they have benefits beyond allowing a woman to choose whether she would like to become pregnant or not. The pill can also suppress or slow the growth of fibroids in the uterus and keep milder forms of endometriosis in check. It also helps women who do not get periods (amenorrhea) or who have very erratic cycles, to have regular periods, which may help keep the uterus and endometrial lining healthier long-term. The pill also helps keep the period predictable; can make it light, short, and typically PMS and pain-free. For women who have a history of severe PMS or painful, heavy, or erratic cycles, the pill can be a miracle! It can also, however, put some women at risk of blood clots and can come with side effects like weight gain, low libido, and mood changes.
The pill can also mask the presence of underlying imbalances in the reproductive system. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, or PCOS, is the most common endocrine disorder among women of reproductive age and is often masked by the pill. PCOS is a hormonal imbalance in which the ovaries become congested and may not ovulate an egg each month or at all. Instead, the polycystic ovary abnormally accumulates follicles, disrupting the normal production of eggs and reproductive hormones. Women with PCOS often experience long irregular periods or amenorrhea, alongside symptoms such as acne, hair loss or thinning hair on the head, body hair growth (often on the face, chest or abdomen), insulin resistance and digestive trouble such as loose stool, constipation or food sensitivities. Some women with PCOS experience these symptoms even while on the pill, but most do not. It can be frustrating when a woman is ready to conceive, stops the pill, and learns about this hidden condition that limits her chances of getting pregnant. PCOS can also create highly unpredictable periods, making it hard to be prepared for its arrival!
In Chinese medicine, the health of the menstrual cycle is a big indicator of overall health in women. When the body is healthy, the cycle is regular, without pain or PMS, with a period around every 28 days that is red, without clots and last about four days, with the first couple days being the heaviest. When women choose to start taking birth control pills to control some unpleasant aspect of their cycle, it’s likely pointing to a deeper imbalance having to do with their entire body and not just their ovaries and uterus. The pill can mask the unpleasant symptoms that are manifesting in the period, but the underlying imbalance may still be there.
Periods that are very heavy, very light, painful, irregular, absent, too long or too short, with intense PMS or with dark clotty blood can be improved and regulated using the tools of Chinese medicine (acupuncture, herbal formulas, supplements, Eastern nutrition, and other lifestyle changes). PCOS and many other endocrine disorders can also be supported with these tools. While improving these symptoms and conditions is part of how Chinese medicine helps improve fertility naturally, more and more patients are coming to me well before they are ready to conceive in the interest of improving their overall and hormonal health. Some women who experienced difficult periods in their youth find that their periods and cycles mellow out in adulthood once they stop the pill, but the majority of women find that those same problems are still there or are sometimes worse after years of being on it.
Whether you are considering going off birth control pills in preparation to conceive or for other reasons, you don’t have to suffer through difficult periods and PMS. The quality of your periods and cycles reflects your overall health and can be influenced through your diet, lifestyle, acupuncture, herbs and supplements. Understanding this can be very empowering for women and typically leads to lasting positive changes in their health.
If you are considering trying to conceive, I suggest stopping the pill 3 months before you want to start trying, especially if you’ve been on it since a very young age without breaks or have a history of menstrual irregularities. This means, of course, that you must be savvy about preventing a pregnancy with condoms or other methods if you are not yet ready to have a baby! Taking this time to get your body in balance before becoming pregnant is a long-term investment in your health and potentially that of your baby’s. It can also help support your pregnancy and postpartum time.