Let’s talk about hormonal birth control and the most common physical changes that they directly make to prevent a pregnancy. This article isn’t about side effects of the pill or any other form of hormonal birth control you choose to use; it’s about that big question: what does hormonal birth control do? These are the physical changes that hormonal birth control actually makes in a female body in order to stop pregnancy. I’ll give you a list below of the most common forms of hormonal birth control and which of the following effects each has:
- Prevents Ovulation
- Thickens (Dries) Cervical Mucus/Fluid
- Prevents Growth of the Uterine Lining
Hormonal Birth Control Direct Effects
If you’re using a form of hormonal birth control that I haven’t covered, take a look at the pamphlet or search it on the internet to see what it does. It shouldn’t be very hard to find and it’s worth knowing what your medicine is changing in your body.
1. Prevent ovulation: no egg, no baby.
No Egg = No Baby
The first job of hormonal birth control is to suppress natural hormones and replace them with artificial ones (which aren’t necessarily similar to the ones they’re overriding) in order to prevent ovulation in a woman’s body. Without ovulation, no egg is released, which means there’s no possibility of conception.
This is all good except that ovulation is an incredible indicator of health and actually the normal rotation of estrogen and progesterone maintains a healthy balance in a woman’s body. These hormones regulate so many balances within the female body, including (but not limited to) hair growth, energy, thyroid, mood, skin, and libido. Women should ovulate for more reasons than just being able to conceive a child. I found an awesome article from one of my favorite researchers called Ode to Ovulation, in which she points out some of the many benefits that come from regularly ovulating.
Contrary to popular belief, women are not just “small men” and our levels of hormones and the healthy cycle of them plays a direct role in both mental and physical health. In fact, when men have hormone issues, they increase supplementation that will increase the correct hormones in their bodies, while women are given hormones that are more similar to male hormones than female hormones. To get an idea of other things that suppress ovulation, I’ve included a short list.
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
- Thyroid disease
- Stress (travel, large events, moving, exams, etc.)
- Inflammatory foods (varies for individuals)
- Eating disorders
- Environmental toxins
You’ll notice that many of those factors are indicators of a necessary change to increase overall health (stress, inflammatory foods, eating disorders, malnutrition, and environmental toxins) while others are diagnoses that we don’t want to have (PCOS and thyroid disease). That alone should leave us questioning if we should be suppressing ovulation just because we can.
2. Thickens cervical mucus
The second job of hormonal birth control is to thicken cervical mucus (decreases water content so that your cervical mucus dries up) so that sperm cannot reach an egg. Watery, elastic cervical fluid allows sperm to move more easily to search for an egg, while tacky or lotion-like cervical fluid (less water content) slows sperm down – and absolutely no cervical fluid doesn’t allow sperm to survive long at all.
There is a long-term risk that accompanies extended “dry” periods, which is that if lady parts are too dry for too long, the body may cease to create cervical fluid altogether and could lose fertility.
3. Prevent the uterine lining growth
The third and final conception prevention method of hormonal birth control is the thinning of the uterine lining to make it inhospitable to an egg trying to implant. This is the final precaution against pregnancy since the egg was already released and sperm made it through the cervical fluid to the egg. Unless the embryo attaches to the uterine lining, a pregnancy cannot be successful.
(This is where hormonal birth control tends to lose pro-life supporters who are typically okay with the other effects.)
What Happens When All Three Fail?
When all the above prevention factors fail, a woman becomes pregnant and falls into the failure rate of pregnancy prevention for the method she uses – in the case of the pill which is the most widely used form of hormonal contraception, that’s 8-9% of women per year (note that this is a typical use statistic since truly perfect use is unlikely and difficult to attain).
Why This Is Important to Know
According to this study on contraceptives in the U.S. use done by the CDC published in 2012 (performed 2006-2010), 43.3% of sexually active women who don’t rely on either male or female sterilization but do practice pregnancy prevention take the pill or another form of hormonal contraception. Another 8.9% of women also used unspecified IUDs, which may have been either hormonal or copper. These numbers are 26% higher than a similarly structured study performed by the CDC in 1995.
Even though those statistics have gone up, I’ve talked to many women personally who didn’t understand any of the workings of hormonal contraceptive and were placed on it as teenagers and just taught that you take it (maybe not even as contraception but for a completely different reason) and that’s just life. I’ve had friends tell me that they’re taking the pill, but that they feel so much better at the middle of their “cycle” when they ovulate every month. We aren’t being taught about what the medicine that we, as generally healthy women, are encouraged to take every day.
Ultimately, the decision to start, continue, or stop taking hormonal birth control is up to you as an individual, and you should consult with your doctor about it. However, you should consult with your doctor when you have all the information and can make a truly informed decision. If you choose that you want to go another route, I suggest heading over to my article about fertility awareness charting, which allows you to identify your ovulation to avoid pregnancy.
Is this news to you? Hopefully not, but maybe it was! If you have any questions, as always, please let me know down in the comments!