Is The Pill Harmful?

Is the Pill Harmful?
Love, Sex

Is the popular birth control method hurting you or your relationship?

Women's website Dear Sugar recently asked users to sound in on what birth control method they recommend. The answers ranged from celibacy and condoms to patches and intrauterine devices (IUDs).

While the methods varied, the users' endorsements of this product or rants against that one were universally resolute. Because, for a woman, birth control is not only a hormone or a shield or a sponge, it's so much more; the Pill, the gateway female-controlled form of contraception, has long represented a social, political and moral battlefield that embodies freedom for some and fear for others. Let's just say its easier remembering to take your pill every day than to try and wade through the issues. Even the ubiquitous "green living" perspective has been added to the list of things to consider when choosing a birth control method.

Since obtaining FDA approval in 1960, the Pill's been blamed for various maladies, such as divorce, cancer, and behavior changes, yet it remains the leading contraceptive for women in the US. According to the Guttmacher Institute, an independent sexual health and reproduction policy group, 31 percent of women of child-bearing age who use contraception are on the birth control pill, under the watchful eye of doctors, pharmacists, partners, spiritual leaders and the media. Recently, the Pill's been receiving an extra bad name, and as other methods of birth control gain popularity, we decided to set the record straight.

Rumor 1: Don't Buy Generic!
Rumors circulated the women's-focused blogosphere recently that generic birth control is less effective than its name-brand counterpart. The tale, originating from a Fox News story, seems to be exactly that—fiction.

"While there might be a slight difference in the filler components that make up a pill, the active ingredients have to be exactly the same or else the drug would never be approved," says Dr. Isabel Blumberg, an OB-GYN in New York.

In his book Understanding The Pill, author Greg Juhn points out that the quality control at generic pill production plants might be less, well, quality, than at name-brand factories, but the lack of outrage from women who've followed their pill regimen to a T and become pregnant speaks for itself in this case.

Rumor 2: "The Divorce Pill"
Meanwhile, a similarly outlandish news story that made headlines several years ago—calling the birth control pill "the divorce pill"—happens to have some, but not complete grounding in actual scientific findings.

Without going too deep into science specifics, a groundbreaking 1995 study conducted in Switzerland by a researcher named Claus Wedekind (who has since returned to studying animals—fish, to be exact) revealed women find the scents of men attractive when the man's immune system genes are most compatible with her own. Well-matched immune system or multi-histiology complex (MHC) genes make for healthy babies, and "Goldilocks-like" pairing is ideal: not too similar but also not too distinct.

Both the Swiss study and replicated versions have proven that women on hormonal birth control—those studied were all on the Pill, not localized hormonal options like the NuvaRing or IUDs—are attracted to the scent of men whose MHC genes are most similar to their own. In other words, men who are bad DNA matches. So what gives?

The Pill and other hormonal birth control prevent ovulation. This signals to a woman's body that she's pregnant, a state in which a woman is better off being around smells that indicate family—those with DNA similarity—for protection rather than scents with less DNA similarity, which indicate potential suitors. As Brown University professor and one of the world's leading scent researchers, Rachel Herz, puts it, "[The Pill] hormonally mimics a state of pregnancy and kin is better to be around during this vulnerable period."

While both scientists and lay persons have since surmised that this poses both fertility and compatibility risks for couples who meet while the woman is on hormonal birth control, tagging it as "the divorce pill" overstates the effect.

"I have seen female patients who are less attracted to their husband and facing fertility issues after going off the pill," says Dr. Diana Kirschner, a clinical psychologist whose been practicing for more than 25 years and the founder of Love in 90 Days workshops. "But there are a lot of other factors that contribute to the lack of desire."

Furthermore, as Herz points out, emotional attachment can beget scent attachment, even if the scent is that of cologne or deodorant.

"Axe commercials have a bonanza on their hands," she says. "For women, how a man smells is the most important factor in her sexual attraction after his level of pleasantness." While the Pill can't be blamed for divorce, its effects on scent and attraction are enough for DNA matchmaking sites like to turn down female clients who take it.

"DNA compatibility doesn't seem to influence how well we get along, how well we play chess or travel together," Herz says. But would she recommend a woman looking to find a reproductively compatible mate stay off hormonal birth control? Absolutely.

Rumor 3: Ugly Side Effects
Two American Heart Association-endorsed 2007 studies revealed that a woman's risk of heart disease increases 20 to 30 percent for every 10 years she takes birth control pills, which only strengthens doctors urgings that women—especially over the age of 35—not smoke while on the Pill. According to the National Cancer Institute, while the Pill's been proven to lower the risk of endometrial and ovarian cancers, there's a possible increased risk of breast cancer associated with it. As Dr. Blumberg says, patients are evaluated based on preexisting and pre-inclined conditions.

"If someone has preexisting factors that put her a higher chance of developing breast cancer, I might consider other non-hormonal options for her," she says.

Then there are the side effects that any old Pill commercial proffers: weight gain, changes in mood, and nausea. Dr. Eden Fromberg, a doctor of osteopathy who practices holistic gynecology and integrated fertility in NYC, also warns that hormones can cause extreme behaviors, and exacerbate depression and high blood pressure.

Of course, women suffering menstrual migraines or heavy cramping, who benefit from period suppression, are likely willing to take the Pill's adverse side effects in exchange for relief.

Dr. Fromberg says while women seek her out for her holistic, non-hormonal approach to medicine, she's seen an increase in the number of young women using IUDs and other non-hormonal birth control options. Both she and Dr. Blumberg and attest to a slow but growing population of women using IUDs, a T-shaped device sold either with or without estrogen that a doctor inserts into the uterus and that stays in for anywhere from 5 to 10 years. Popular in Europe, the device earned a bad rep in the US in the 70s when an earlier form of IUD, the Dalkon Shield, lived up to it's frightening name and resulted in thousands of women suffering from pelvic inflammatory disorder and at least 17 deaths. The brand was pulled from the market, but the device has been slow to rebound.

Rumor 4: Polluting Our Water
As the green movement extends deeper into the crevices of our daily lives, birth control is yet another area where the environmental consequences are being considered. Some research is fingering water and soil pollutants as culprits in the accelerated body weight and earlier menarche in young girls. A March 2008 Associated Press story revealed that the drinking water of 41 million Americans is now contaminated with measurable yet trace amounts of pharmaceuticals, including the synthetic hormones from birth control pills.

One of the leading studies warning scientists to the effects of excreted hormones in our water system was conducted in a Canadian lake, where for seven years, birth control hormones were infused at levels mimicking those occurring naturally elsewhere. Within two months of contamination, male fish began exhibiting female behavior, their gonads shrank and they began producing female egg proteins. Ultimately, the fish species in the test lake stopped reproducing and became virtually extinct.

While federal agencies like the EPA have yet to release definitive findings, the March AP story quoted Mary Buzby—director of environmental technology for drug maker Merck & Co. Inc.—as saying: "There's no doubt about it, pharmaceuticals are being detected in the environment and there is genuine concern that these compounds, in the small concentrations that they're at, could be causing impacts to human health or to aquatic organisms."

Despite risks, the Pill is approaching its fiftieth year on the market. For millions of women—especially those who've experienced unwanted pregnancies in the past, are with men who refuse to use other forms of contraception or have conditions that benefit from staving off periods at all costs—the Pill and its sister hormone supplements are an inarguable choice. Luckily, whether women choose hormonal, non-hormonal, celibacy or other means to avoid becoming pregnant, the most important point is that we have a choice at all.