Bill of health for the pill

It is not only a most efficient contraceptive method, but it also has additional benefits for women, says Consultant Obstetrician Dr. Nalinda Rodrigo
By Smriti Daniel

Infertility? Cancer? Mood swings? Weight gain? The threat of one of these, let alone all four is enough to put a woman off the pill forever; but despite their worrisome reputation, birth control pills are among the most reliable forms of contraception. They also offer women of all ages several health benefits, says Consultant Obstetrician Dr. Nalinda Rodrigo.

A pill is essentially a cocktail of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone, which when taken orally will suppress your pituitary gland, preventing ovulation or the monthly release of the egg into the womb. The hormones also thicken the secretions around the cervix, hindering a sperm’s progress. In the unlikely event that sperm meets egg, the zygote will find the womb an inhospitable place, its thin lining less than receptive to an egg. Which is why, when taken correctly, the pill offers one of the most sure fire methods of avoiding pregnancy altogether. Unfortunately all these effects are diluted if you miss your daily dose once too often.

However women with severe diabetes or abnormally high hypertension are advised not to take the pill. Deep vein thrombosis, migraine, clinical depression and liver disease are other conditions which might lead your doctor to suggest another form of contraception like the loop or a cervical cap. If you are a serious smoker, and over the age of 35, being on the pill might lead to higher risk of experiencing a stroke, so remember to mention it to your doctor.

Breastfeeding mothers are also advised against taking the pill since it can reduce the flow of milk. As in the case of any other medication, the efficacy of the pill is reduced if you are experiencing diarrhoea or vomiting, or if you are taking certain antibiotics and antiepileptic drugs.

But if you’ve decided to get on the pill, here’s the good news. Many women express the concern that several years on a birth control pill could significantly lessen their chances of becoming pregnant when they finally stop taking their daily dose. On the contrary, however, birth control pills actually regulate your hormones, strengthening your natural cycle and protecting your fertility for the time when you want to get pregnant. The fact is that as women age, their fertility is eroded.

A woman’s chances of conceiving are at their best in her early twenties when she is at her most fertile. This situation deteriorates as women age and increasingly having a child requires more in the way of impeccable timing, a healthy reproductive system and plain luck. Even if you’ve been on the pill for years, when you decide you want to conceive, all you need to do is stop taking them.

By their regulation of key hormones, pills actually offer women protection against certain diseases. They decrease your chances of getting endometrial cancer in the lining of your uterus, ovarian cancer, ovarian cysts, endometriosis and breast cancer. The pill also protects against pregnancies that occur outside the uterus (ectopic pregnancy). These benefits increase the longer a woman is on the pill. Most women associate cramping and lower back pain with the first day of their period.

Over-the-counter medications do little to ease their discomfort. Birth control pills are known to decrease menstrual cramps and eliminate the pain experienced with ovulation. Birth control pills are often prescribed for women with irregular periods. If your period tends to skip months or if it comes too often, the hormones in the pills will help return you to normal. They also produce the happy side effect of reduced volume and duration in menstrual bleeding. There are now fewer chances of becoming anaemic from heavy bleeding.

Acne, among the more unsightly manifestations of hormonal imbalance, can also be rectified by birth control pills. The hormones in the birth control pill can help stop acne from forming, but might take several months to work. Women with excess male hormones also complain of hair growth on the chin, chest and lower belly. By regulating your hormones, pills curtail excessive hair growth.

Side effects

A small percentage of women experience mood swings, headaches and weight gain on the pill. The good news is that there are many, many types of pills, each with its own ratio of hormones and your doctor will be able to suggest something that will suit you better.

In the meantime, a healthy diet and exercise can make a world of difference. For those willing to ride it out, the side effects usually go away in the first three or four cycles.

There is little in the way of research on the effect of pills on women in their fifties. However, doctors believe that the pill can help women even out the ups and downs of fluctuating hormones during menopause.

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