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Oral contraception offers great benefits, but can rob your body blind

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by Ross Pelton

The Pill
When “the pill” was approved for contraception in 1960, it quickly became one of the most important social and cultural revolutions in the history of the world. It’s estimated that more than 80 percent of women born in the United State after 1945 have used oral contraceptives, or OCs. Currently an estimated 12-million women in the U.S., and more than 100-million worldwide are using oral contraceptives.

There is no question that oral contraceptives have brought an unprecedented level of freedom to women in making choices about their health, pleasure and family planning, but a side effect rarely mentioned by the prescribing physician or organization is that they deplete a wide range of nutrients from women’s bodies. Health problems that can develop from these nutrient depletions include depression, sleep disorders, anemia, low energy, migraine headaches, heart attacks, strokes, blood clots, diabetes, a weakened immune system, birth defects, accelerated aging, and cancers of the uterus, colon and breast. Some of these show up more quickly than others; studies report that about 50 percent of women who begin using oral contraceptives will discontinue use within the first six to 12 months due to side effects.

Many of the problems that can develop don’t cause noticeable symptoms and can take years to develop, so women are not even aware of a health risk. For example, women taking oral contraceptives have lower levels of vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid, which can cause elevated blood levels of homocysteine, which in turn accelerates plaque buildup in the arteries. Years later this can cause a heart attack or stroke, or necessitate cardiac bypass surgery.

Oral contraceptive-induced depletion of vitamin B6 and the amino acid tyrosine—required for the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which control moods and emotions—greatly increase a woman’s risk of depression. A review of nine clinical trials reported the incidence of depression in women taking oral contraceptives ranged from 16- to 56 percent. Low levels of serotonin also increase the likelihood of developing sleep problems, because serotonin is the precursor for melatonin, the chemical in the brain that triggers sleep.

Over time, many women taking OCs complain of fatigue, tiredness and low energy. Several nutrients required for energy production are depleted by oral contraceptives, including vitamin B12, folic acid, magnesium, selenium and coenzyme Q10. And lower levels of several nutrients depleted by oral contraceptives—vitamin C, selenium, zinc and coenzyme Q10—weaken a woman’s immune system.
Oral contraceptives can also increase a woman’s risk of giving birth to an infant with birth defects. Folic acid deficiency is known to be the number one cause of neural tube birth defects, and women taking OCs have lower levels of folic acid compared to non-users.

Exacerbating health concerns, sexual side effects are one of the most common reasons women discontinue taking oral contraceptives. To put it bluntly, the pill lowers sex drive. This is because women taking OCs have lower levels of dihydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and testosterone, the two hormones that regulate sex drive in both men and women. So when the woman starts to experience decreased desire for sex, greater difficulty becoming aroused, vaginal dryness resulting in painful sex, or difficulty or inability to achieve orgasms, both parties have a vested interest in finding better contraceptive options.

How to Fix It

Most health problems caused by oral contraceptives can be prevented or corrected by taking adequate nutritional supplementation, but it can’t be accomplished with a one-a-day supplement. In most cases, nutrient intakes substantially greater than the Recommended Dietary Allowence (RDA) are required. For example, RDAs for vitamins B1, B2 and B6 are about 1.5 mg to 2 mg daily, but 10- to 25 mg twice daily are necessary for significant results. The RDA for vitamin C for adult women is 75 mg daily, but at least 500 mg twice daily would be more effective.

Nutrients such as tyrosine and coenzyme Q10 are not included in most multivitamin/mineral formulations and must be purchased individually. A recommended dose would be 500 mg of tyrosine twice daily, and 50- to 100 mg of coenzyme Q10 daily.

If you are going off the pill, your body may be significantly depleted, and you’ll probably want to supplement to restore as you explore other methods of contraception. In any event, it’s always a good idea to consult your physician or health professional for specific guidance.