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The truth about how birth control affects your health
A double-board certified OB/GYN weighs in on the questions we all have about our bodies on birth control. - photo by McKenna Park
When I started taking the pill, I was pretty confused. Were my mood swings being caused by the pill, or was I just having a hard day? Or was I giving myself mood swings because Id heard the pill could do that and expected it?

I know Im not the only one -- many women have a lot of questions about their birth control and the way it affects them. FamilyShare interviewed Dr. Kecia Gaither, double board-certified physician in OB/GYN and Maternal Fetal Medicine, in hopes of finding some answers.

Getting down to the basics

How exactly does birth control work in our bodies? Gaither explains that birth control has two main functions to prevent pregnancy.

Hormonal contraceptives, in general, work to both suppress ovulation and thicken cervical mucus making it difficult for sperm to traverse the reproductive tract.

There are several different forms of hormonal birth controls, and though they tend to have heavier side effects, they tend to have higher success rates than other contraceptive options. The most popular options are:

  • The pill: A small, hard pill women typically take once a day for three weeks on and one week off.

  • The patch: A skin patch a woman can stick to variety of places on her body; the patch periodically delivers hormones into the bloodstream, and its typically worn for a full week.

  • IUDs: Other than copper IUDs, these more permanent options of birth control are inserted by a doctor and release hormones; they can last anywhere from a year to 12 years.

  • Shots: Hormonal shots are administered by a doctor and last up to three months at a time.

  • Vaginal rings: The ring is a flexible piece of plastic that's inserted into the vagina and can typically stay for about a month until it needs to be changed.

Positive side effects

Gaither says side effects can vary in type and intensity between different types of birth control. But as the side effects are typically caused by the hormones, and all types release the same (more or less) types of hormones, they generally affect womens health the following ways:

Positive effects of hormonal contraception include assistance with clearing acne [and] decreasing menstrual flow, Gaither says, adding that they may also have a protective effect against ovarian cysts/cancer [and] anemia.

Of course, all women react differently to various forms of birth control. But in my experience with three of them (pill, patch and IUD), they definitely did help clear up my acne, and the pill more than the others helped decrease the pain and menstrual flow during my period weeks.

Negative side effects

Gaither says the typical negative side effects of hormonal birth controls include (but are not limited to) breast tenderness, weight gain (secondary to fluid retention, spotting, GI upset, mood changes, exacerbation of migraine headaches, increase in development of blood clots, hypertension and heart attacks.

Gaither also says there are also rare but possible side effects of vision changes and liver tumors.

My own negative side effects

All women have stories to tell with their own experiences with birth control. With all three Ive tried out, I experienced stubborn weight gain, mood changes, an upset stomach and a scary episode with a rogue IUD.

When I first chose to have a 3-year IUD implanted, I was warned there would be a slight chance things could go wrong, because the little device could move around to places it shouldnt or my body could reject it. I decided to give it a go anyway, because I had heard so many good things about it from others.

From the time I had it put in, my period pains quadrupled (they were pretty bad to begin with), and my flow was much heavier. Needless to say, I was downright miserable for a full week every month.

I later learned this was because my body was rejecting the IUD from the moment it was inserted. Several months later, when I wasnt on my period, I started having the most severe cramps of my life and was bleeding so heavily I almost went to the ER. Needless to say, I was scared. I got in with my OB/GYN as soon as I could, and she immediately took the troublesome thing out.

I wanted to share this story not to scare people away from considering an IUD (theyre still a great option, my case was just a rare occurrence). I wanted to share it to encourage women to pay attention to what your body needs and realize you can and should consider other options when things arent going great.

I should have taken my intensified periods as a sign that the IUD wasnt working for me -- especially because I was told the contraceptive should lessen my period pains. But I just went along with it because I heard birth control can make your life miserable and I just accepted that and stuck with it.

What to do when youre experiencing extreme side effects

Dont do what I did and let your birth control afflict you for far too long. If your hormonal contraceptive is causing you pain or excessive stress, Gaither suggests the following:

For women having side effects with their chosen method, they should have a discussion with their health provider. There may be an underlying medical condition which may preclude them taking their current method, and as such, require changing to another type of contraception more easily tolerated.

Birth control can be a stinker, but it shouldnt rule your life with mood changes and pain. Instead of accepting defeat and living miserably, take advantage of all those options out there and keep collaborating with your doctor find the best fit for you.