Birth control use has been around for 60 years, yet we are just now scratching the surface on its long-term effects on women, let alone female athletes. But before I dive into the current state of affairs on birth control, I want to tell you a bit about my background relating to birth control use as a female athlete.

I have been an athlete my entire life. I started playing softball when I was five years old and went on to play volleyball, basketball, and track during high school. I also played volleyball year-round with a club team and ended up receiving a college scholarship. Thank Christ, I was not introduced to birth control during these pertinent years of female growth. But alas, like most women, birth control gets “prescribed” to us eventually for copious reasons outside of actual pregnancy prevention. Flash forward to when I was in my mid 20’s after my volleyball career ended. I started competing in powerlifting and bodybuilding (figure division.) After my third season of competing in figure, all hell broke loose with my hormones. I was not on birth control during my season, and I only lost my cycle for a month. So to me, I was healthy, right!?! About one month after this season, I got my period back, but I started experiencing crazy symptoms I’ve never had before. Ovarian cysts rupturing, extreme fatigue and water retention, my periods were two-plus weeks long, and my uterine lining was so thin, I would get breakthrough bleeding from lifting. Of course, this was all validated at my OB-GYN when she performed an ultrasound. I expressed to her the nature of my sport (even if you prep “healthfully” this shit takes a toll on your body), and she said that going on oral birth control was the only option to “balance my hormones.”

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Well, I am going to put it blankly, oral birth control, or any birth control for that matter does not “balance your hormones.” It shuts down your reproductive system entirely. So, did my symptoms dissipate? Absolutely, I felt GREAT! I mean, no shit! If you don’t actually have a cycle, of course, you won’t have symptoms. But was the actual problem/root cause addressed? No. Not at all. Just because your symptoms go away because you take a pill does not mean you are healing. In fact, it could make your imbalances worse long-term because they remain unaddressed. My symptoms clearly came from the stress of competing, extremely dieting for the stage, and overtraining for months on end. All of which are pretty much required for bodybuilding. Every woman’s body is different and can handle that stress differently. My body couldn’t handle it.

Female oral contraceptive pill blister on a white background background

 Инна Михальчук ©

Flash forward to today. It’s been over seven years since I have been on the pill. I haven’t had a cycle or period for seven years. Within this timeframe, I slowly started learning about birth control and the negative effects it can have on our bodies over time, especially for female athletes who strive to live and feel optimal! Again, just because you feel “ok” on the pill doesn’t mean it’s not causing havoc internally. So, I finally stopped taking it a month ago, let my body regulate, and work with a functional practitioner to actually resolve the issues. A few reasons I wanted to come off the pill include:

  • I want to figure out what my actual hormone issues are and address them. Not just put a Band-Aid on it.
  • My estrogen was chronically tanked (less than 15 pg/mL) year-round. At one point, it didn’t even show up on my labs it was so low—literally zero. I get blood work frequently, and to see my estrogen levels in the post-menopausal range was devastating.
  • It was potentially hurting my thyroid health. Yes, oral birth control can hinder thyroid function over time. So the fact that in January of this year, I was also diagnosed with hypothyroidism was too much to be a coincidence.
  • I just wanted to get in control of my body. Ignoring my symptoms from seven years ago is not the answer. I want a healthy cycle so I can live optimally and show up at my best.

That being said, as I mentioned, I have been off the pill for a month. And wouldn’t ya know, most of my previous symptoms from seven years ago came right back. All of my symptoms came back except that my uterine lining seems to be holding up. However, this time, I have a few new symptoms to add to my list, such as extreme low back pain and random episodes of depression and anxiety. FUN! But as I said, I am working with a functional practitioner, so after three months off of birth control, I will get blood work, and we will see what is going on. I feel it’s a low progesterone/estrogen dominance issue based on my symptoms, but we will see.

So, how does my story pertain to the health of women and female athletes in general? Because of my experience and what I have learned in this field over the years, doctors cannot prescribe women birth control when they aren’t even trying to prevent pregnancy. That is what the pill was designed for, but now it is handed out like candy for trivial conditions such as acne. Doctors are not digging into the root cause of women’s symptoms, but instead putting a Band-Aid on it and ignoring their duty as health care providers. Women’s health is being ignored! And this is especially frightening when we are seeing a tragic amount of pre-teen girls being prescribed birth control. Some girls get prescribed birth control so young, they only have maybe one to two years of a real period before their reproductive system is shut down! Does anyone else not see how that is completely negligent? And for what? To prevent acne? Are you kidding me?

In case you are still on the fence about the negative effects of long-term birth control use, here is a short list:

  • Irregular Periods/Hormone Imbalance
  • Infertility
  • Gut Dysbiosis
  • Leaky Gut
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease
  • Adrenal and Thyroid Dysfunction
  • Skin Issues: Hair Loss / Dry Skin
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low Libido/Pain with Sex
  • Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies (folate/B12/magnesium, and many more)
  • Increased Risk of Blood Clots
  • Increased Risk of Breast, Cervical, and Liver Cancers
  • Increased Risk of Diabetes
  • Triggers Underlying Autoimmune Disease
  • Increased Risk of Heart Attacks

These are all potential outcomes from long-term birth control use. So tell me, how do these outcomes even come close to outweighing what birth control is more commonly prescribed for? Did you know 60 percent of women are prescribed the pill because of symptoms, NOT pregnancy prevention? That’s pretty staggering.

And the truth is, there are other options/treatments for the symptoms many women experience! Birth control is not the answer.

My hope with this article is simply to raise awareness around not only the dangerous effects of long-term birth control use but how it is so flippantly prescribed to women for pretty much everything. With more awareness, we can expect and demand more from our health care providers and ensure that our daughters, sisters, and mothers are being heard.

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  • Beyond The Pill by Dr. Jolene Brighten