Written by my Spring 2018 apprentice, Jill Chmielewski, this post discusses the alternative to taking hormonal birth control.
If you are reading this, my guess is that you’ve been told one of the following:
“You need hormonal birth control to resolve your hormonal imbalances.”
“You would benefit from hormonal birth control to get you through the perimenopausal years.”
“Your teenage daughter needs hormonal birth control to address her period problems.”
My physician told me all of these things, so I feel compelled to share some insight and advice from both my personal experience and my professional experience as a nurse and a women’s health coach.
My first experience with hormone pushing was back in my teenage years…
I was told that “the pill” was the answered prayer to my terrible, irregular periods. I had heavy cramping, heavy bleeding, and horrible PMS symptoms. I was told that I would take the pill and all of my symptoms would disappear.
There was no mention of side effects; no talk of negative repercussions. Just a glowing picture of how the pill would solve my period problems.
Naturally, I was in!
I ended up on the pill for nearly ten years, and I ultimately ended up going through infertility treatment because the root cause of my irregular periods had never been addressed.
After I had my fourth child, my doctor convinced me that the Mirena IUD was the best choice for birth control.
“Fewer side effects than the pill,” I was told, with the bonus of eventually not having any periods whatsoever.
“Some women get a little depressed from the progestin,” he said, but that was it.
It was nothing compared to the roller coaster ride that my natural hormones would cause anyway. So, I said yes, and I proceeded to have two more IUDs inserted subsequently (since the IUD’s birth control effects only last five years).
I’d finally had enough of my IUD
When I asked my doctor to remove my IUD last year, he politely told me that I should keep the Mirena IUD until I hit menopause. “Why would you want to experience perimenopausal symptoms anyway?” he said. He also told me that my periods would be awful if he removed it. We actually got into a bit of a heated discussion. But I stood my ground and decided to remove it anyway. (And my periods have been a breeze since, BTW.)
Several years ago, when my teenage daughter went in for her school physical and was asked whether she had irregular periods or “bad” period symptoms, her simple “yes” answer launched the doctor into her “spiel” about how great the pill would be. There was no mention of the negatives ~ just the promise of blissful asymptomatic periods. We politely declined the offer and instead decided to investigate the root cause of her symptoms on our own.
In my work with women, I consistently hear stories of doctors that convince my clients (and often their daughters) that the pill is the only way to deal with wonky periods and perimenopausal symptoms.
What doctors don’t tell you is that your period reflects what is going on inside of your body (if you follow Nicole you have likely heard this before). Ignoring the symptoms by masking them with fake hormones (from the pill or other hormonal birth control) does nothing to fix the root cause of the problem, which is typically a hormone imbalance. And in most cases, using long-term hormonal birth control not only exacerbates the original problem, but it also creates and contributes to a whole new set of problems too!
Now, I personally don’t think that most conventional medical doctors are intentionally trying to ignore the root cause of hormone imbalances. The truth is, most of them have been trained to manage symptoms and disease with a pill or surgery.
They simply have a limited toolbox to work with, and that often consists of pills, patches or surgery rather than root cause investigation. (I received similar training while in nursing school, which is why I pursued functional medicine training which looks at the root cause of symptoms).
So, what should you do when your doctor recommends hormonal birth control?
1. Ask your doctor to test ALL of your hormones
Not just a blood test measuring the basics as most physicians do. I’m talking about ALL of your hormones, including a full thyroid panel, fasting glucose, fasting insulin, and a complete hormone panel, that includes sex and stress hormones. Hormones work in concert with one another, and any variation in hormones can affect all of the other hormones in the body.
2. Check your vitamin and mineral levels
A deficiency in magnesium alone can be responsible for painful menstrual cramps, and low B vitamins can impair estrogen detoxification. Knowing your nutrient levels and using targeted nutrition and supplements to address deficiencies can be a game changer when it comes to period pain.
3. Investigate food sensitivities
This was a big one for both my daughter and myself. Ongoing gluten and dairy sensitivities were wreaking major havoc on our bods and had a direct effect on our periods. Why? Because they cause inflammation, and anything that causes inflammation will impact your hormones.
5. Consider coming off dairy
Dairy comes from the milk of a lactating mammal, so ingesting dairy regularly ensures that you are bringing in hormones that are not your own. This alone can be a significant contributor to hormone imbalances. Eliminating dairy or decreasing dairy can often have a dramatic impact on period symptoms.
6. Be sure your doc investigates other underlying reasons for hormonal imbalances
Did he/she ask you about stress, sleep or toxin exposure? How about whether you exercise intensely or whether your daughter plays sports that require intense daily practices? Did he/she ask you about your diet, sugar intake, caffeine and alcohol use, or about any digestive issues?
These things can have a significant impact on our hormones and can be a big feeder for PMS and painful periods.
Addressing the root cause of period pain takes time, and often requires a commitment to making food and lifestyle changes. Advocating for yourself or your daughter isn’t always easy, especially when you are sitting across the room from your doctor who claims to be the expert in women’s health.
But you are the expert on your body, and you need to know that there are choices when it comes to addressing PMS and period pain. If you are working with a doctor whose only solution for period pain and PMS is hormonal birth control, it might be time to find a functional medicine practitioner who will work with you to get to the root cause of your symptoms.
Jill Chmielewski is a Women’s Health Coach, Registered Nurse, Entrepreneur, and Mom of four who has a deep passion for helping women—especially moms—become their healthiest, happiest, most balanced selves. Named a women’s health expert, her message – that tiny lifestyle edits lead to greater well-being – is supported through her work of bridging the gap between conventional and integrative health care to experience greater vitality no matter which phase of motherhood a woman is in.