Hormonal birth control
How it works, what it does, and is it right for you
Article by Hudson Lofchie
Published in The California Aggie (theaggie.org) on March 7, 2012
Author’s note: due to the potentially sensitive medical nature of interviews, names have been replaced with pseudonyms of the interviewees’ choosing
Many women, and men for that matter, want to be able to have sex without all the unfortunate side affects, such as pregnancy, but while condoms remain very effective at preventing pregnancy, they do nothing to alleviate the often extreme discomfort of menstrual cycles.
A National Institute of Health study showed that nearly 30 percent of sexually active women using birth control use a form of oral hormonal contraception (the pill). This is almost double the percentage of women insisting on male condoms during sex. Some women take the pill to prevent pregnancy, while many take the pill to reduce the discomfort of periods, prevent acne and reduce risk of medical conditions like anemia and polycystic ovary syndrome.
Birth control pills contain hormones that act on the female endocrine system. Women take either a combination estrogen-progestin pill, or just a progestin pill.
“The presence of the supplemental estrogen in the pill trick the body into thinking it is pregnant, and in response, the body stops the release of eggs from the ovaries,” according to a representative at Planned Parenthood in Sacramento, who did not wish to give their name. “Without any eggs, fertilization is impossible.”
Progestin is a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone, which is a signalling hormone released by female eggs and is thought to act as a “homing” hormone for male sperm.
“Progesterone also induces the production of a thick mucus layer in the uterus, and excess mucus buildup caused by supplemental progestin, makes the uterus impenetrable to sperm,” the Planned Parenthood representative said.
Women use birth control pills for a variety of purposes other than pregnancy prevention. Increasing estrogen levels from birth control has shown to control acne outbreaks and reduce cramping.
One interviewee, referred to as Jane for anonymity, has had nothing but positive experiences with her birth control.
“With the pill, my acne cleared up, my cramps lessened and my period was shorter,” she said. “I even went up a cup size!”
The pill has also been beneficial to another anonymous woman, Alexa.
“I’ve been on it [the pill] for a while and have had hardly any problems,” Alexa said . “My periods are pretty easy, cramps for one or two days, and they are not bad at all.”
Other women have not been so fortunate in their experiences. As with any medication, different people experience different side effects. Some of these side effects are severe enough to forgo hormonal birth control all together in favor of other methods.
“It [the pill] made me an emotional wreck,” Janice said . “It made me an absolute crazy person. It completely changed my personality. I got terrible mood swings, had trouble sleeping and couldn’t get myself to do my schoolwork.”
“I was sickly — had nausea and fatigue on a daily basis,” Erin said. “I am a super busy college student so I am sticking to condoms and spermicide.”
The side effects of hormonal birth control range from none to extreme. While not everyone interviewed experienced every side effect, it is important to know what the possible side effects are. According to the Planned Parenthood birth control information website, the pill can cause weight gain, water retention and increased risk for heart attack and stroke. Women on the hormonal birth control pill should also not smoke cigarettes, as this can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke even further.
Every woman who is considering hormonal birth control should consult a doctor for a professional opinion, as well as talk to people who are actually taking it. Women should weigh the pros and cons carefully in order to decide if the birth control pill is right for their health.