Let me just start with the disclosure that I am not a doctor. In fact, I only made it through 1 week of clinicals in nursing school before deciding that the medical field was NOT for me. (But that’s a disgusting story for another day.) Anyway, again, I’m not a doctor, I can’t diagnose your problems, and my sources are all from the internet. So don’t get Twitter Fingers in my comment section, lol.
This article is about hormonal and non-hormonal birth control methods to prevent pregnancy and alleviate reproductive problems (plus their side effects). On a personal note, I started taking contraceptives when I was 19. I’ve taken birth control pills (mini-pills) on and off for years, then I used the Nexplanon implant for 3 years, which I recently got removed.
I’ve had my own share of side effects, which ultimately lead my decision to switch to natural contraception: hair thinning, weight gain, fatigue, nausea, altered appetite, extreme mood swings, depression, anxiety, altered pH and digestive issues. I was really curious about what other women experienced because a lot of times, I didn’t really associate my symptoms to birth control. For example, I knew that sometimes I would feel super sad- like, so sad that I would lay in the bed all day and cry. At first you may just think it’s PMS, but when it happens regularly, that’s DEPRESSION. So, over the years, I would have spells or spurts of side effects, which made it difficult to tell what was normal for me, and what was caused by the birth control. I did a small survey of a select group of women (my social media friends) and found the results very interesting.
First, the ways that hormonal contraceptives work:
- by preventing the body from ovulating (releasing an egg) with giving doses of hormones, such as progesterone and estrogen
- by thickening the woman’s cervical mucus, which will make it harder for sperm to swim
- by altering the cervical lining, making it difficult for a fertilized egg to implant and develop
The main problem with these methods is that it alters the woman’s natural cycle, which is why side effects occur. For some women, their natural cycle is already messed up, so they need contraceptives to help correct some issues, such as endometriosis, PCOS, and uterine fibroids. In those cases, women normally experience pain, heavy bleeding, discomfort, and irregular cycles which can be alleviated with hormonal contraceptives.
Of the women surveyed, the vast majority were between 26 years -35 years old. Of all the women surveyed, almost 90% have used hormonal contraception either to prevent pregnancy or to control medical problems.
23 of the 28 women who have used birth control have used birth control pills, which is usually the method that doctors will recommend first. It’s easy to use, but also easy to mess up- not taking the pill at the same time each day will reduce the efficiency. The mini-pill is also popular because it’s a short-term birth control. There are no long term commitments- if one brand doesn’t work for you, a different one can be prescribed the next month. Doctors usually prescribe the mini-pill to help with the reproductive issues I mentioned previously.
The birth control patch and vaginal ring are also feasible options, but the patch can cause skin problems and irritation while the vaginal ring is notorious for irritation and slipping out of place. The mini-pill, patch and ring all work by giving small doses of hormones. These are also temporary- the hormones are removed as wastes from your body soon after you quit using them.
Injectable birth control, implants, and IUDs are better for long-term, but it can be scary to have a chemical change your body for long periods of time. If you are uncomfortable with the side effects when using any of these methods, you’d have to get the IUD or implant removed in your doctor’s office, or wait for the injected chemical to be naturally removed (as wastes) from the body. Depo-Provera is the injected birth control, preventing pregnancy for 3 months before the next shot has to be taken again. The implant is about the size of a matchstick and is injected just under the skin in the forearm. It can stay there for up to 3 years, and much like many of the online reviews, I experienced a great first year, before the side effects set in. The IUD is an intrauterine device, meaning your cervix is manually opened by a gynecologist before a small plastic device is placed in your uterus. The main complaints for this method are painful insertion and the device piercing the uterus, which can only be removed with surgery. These 3 methods are kind of a set-it-and-forget-it catchall: there’s no daily routine involved.
As mentioned before, altering a woman’s natural cycle has consequences. The additional hormones often suppress the natural ones that your body makes, which causes imbalances and side effects. The surveyed women reported the following side effects:
The culprit behind weight gain is the hormone dosage: estrogen and progesterone cause an increase in appetite and fluid retention. 63% of the women surveyed reported that they gained weight from using birth control, while around 15% of women actually lost weight. Over half of those surveyed also reported mental and emotional problems, such as depression and anxiety. That one is scary to me because it can affect your relationships with others, including your significant other and children! If a woman doesn’t receive the support she needs, the effects can be heartbreaking.
About 26% of the women surveyed reported sexual problems, such as lower libido, which is insane- but I guess if you don’t even have the desire to have sex, it would be a more difficult to get pregnant. Only 7.4% of the women reported that they didn’t have any side effects of their birth control, and there was one woman (3.7%) who reported that she has used birth control for 8 months with no problems. That’s amazing!
So here’s where things got interesting to me: the same women who have used multiple forms of hormonal birth control have limited knowledge about non-hormonal methods. Why is that? 93.1% of women reported that they were comfortable with condoms, which isn’t surprising: the use of condoms is the main method that is taught during sex-ed as a teen because it prevents STDs and pregnancy. Withdrawal was the runner up with 65.5% of women comfortable using the method. Also known as coitus interuptus, withdrawl is when the guy pulls out before ejaculation, (pretty self-explanatory). Say it with me this time: consistency.
41.4% of the women surveyed knew about tubal ligation or vasectomy, which is a semi-permanent form of birth control. I use the term semi-permanent because there are some cases where “tube tying” can be reversed, but it usually takes major surgery and some complications. You can read more about tubal ligation here, but the concept in women is to basically cut the ovaries off from the rest of the reproductive system, so the egg and sperm can’t combine. This can sometimes send signals to the body to make a woman start menopause prematurely.
In males, the term “vasectomy” comes from the name of the tubes in the scrotum that are blocked during the procedure: the vas deferens. Normally, sperm are made in the testicles before they travel (via the vas deferens) to mix with other fluids to make semen, then ejaculated to meet the egg. A vasectomy cuts that path so the sperm never leave the testicles. There’s this weird stigma that men who have vasectomies don’t ejaculate, which isn’t true: the semen simply doesn’t contain sperm to cause pregnancy .
Unfortunately, the numbers really drop when asking how many women can effectively use a cervical sponge, a cervical cap, use a diaphragm, or track and confirm ovulation. None of those methods would cause the side effects that hormonal birth control can cause, but they do require planning and consistency to be effective.
In a normal menstrual cycle, a woman will have a period, then about 2 weeks later, an egg is released for ovulation. If the egg is fertilized, then implanted, pregnancy occurs. If the egg is not fertilized, then the woman will start menstruating (again) around 2 weeks after ovulation. There are non-hormonal birth control methods, such as basal body temperature (BBT) charting, mobile apps, and ovulation predictor tests, that work to track when ovulation occurs so you can avoid unprotected sex during your fertile window.
How Basal body temperature works:
When you are sleeping or very relaxed the core temperature of your body drops: not very low, but a degree or so lower than your usual. This low, resting temperature is called your basal body temperature (BBT) and it has two phases for each half of your cycle. During the 1st half of a woman’s cycle, between the period and ovulation, the BBT is low. (My temperatures are usually 97.XX °F at this time.) There’s a temperature dip the day before ovulation, then a spike the day after. For the second half of the cycle, your BBT will stay high. (My temperatures are usually 98.XX°F at this time.) The temp will stay in this range for around 2 weeks, until it dips one more time, which is the 1st day of the period.
The key to measuring BBT is to consistently take your temperature the moment you realize that you are awake: after a good nights sleep, BEFORE you get out of bed, or do anything at all. Eating, drinking, checking your phone, getting up to brush your teeth, etc. will alter your temp and cause inaccuracies. Also, before your dig your thermometer out of your medicine cabinet: you’ll need a special thermometer that measures to the hundredths place. These basal thermometers range from simple and sweet, to one that automatically Bluetooth syncs to your phone app. I went for sweet and simple (ahem: cheap) and bought this one from Amazon, along with some extra batteries. Please buy extra batteries.
Basal body temperature can be measured orally, vaginally or rectally. I measure orally, which is just as accurate as the other ones, but hey, wherever you stick your thermometer is nobody’s business. Remember: consistency is key. Here’s an example of of BBT charting via an app. (You can also chart data by hand by printing blank templates from the web.)
Ovulation predictor kits also work similarly. You’d buy a set of ovulation strip tests, like these, that you would dip in your urine first thing in the morning. The “first pee” of the day increases the accuracy of OPKs because it contains the highest levels of hormones. The tests detect the amount of luteinizing hormone (LH) in your body, which surges 12 hours before ovulation. Once you get positive results for ovulation, you should avoid unprotected sex during that window. You’d have to take this test each day for efficiency.
Some women also track ovulation by touching and observing their cervical fluid. During the different phases of a woman’s cycle, her cervical fluid changes. You can read more about how to check the fluid here, but it varies from dry, cloudy, sticky, wet, and slippery. Typically, dry and cloudy days are infertile, and sticky, wet, and slippery days are fertile. Again: consistency… and cleanliness. Please make sure your hands (and nails) are really clean for this method. Don’t track your ovulation and get an infection, sis.
If tracking your fertile days isn’t your thing, you can try a method that physically blocks the path of fertile sperm. The Cervical sponge and cervical cap are both small, round, and soft. The cap is made of silicon, and is used with spermicide to block the entrance to the cervix. The sponge is made of plastic, covers your cervix and contains spermicide to help prevent pregnancy. The only one you can buy in the U.S is the Today Sponge, and each sponge has a fabric loop attached to it to make it easier to remove. The most common complaint for spermicide (and products that contain them) is irritation or sensitivity the main sperm-killing ingredient, Nonoxynol-9.
Overall, your body belongs to YOU. Make decisions that mirror the life that you want to live. I hope that you use the information in this article to fuel your research towards a mentally, emotionally, and physically healthier lifestyle- whatever that is for YOU.
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Until next time! -Nia