This is part one of a two-part inquiry into the restraints placed on women’s bodies and sexuality.
I sat in my doctor’s office at 15-years-old.
I’d barely been on a first date—let alone kissed anyone—but there I was, getting a prescription for a pill I couldn’t pronounce.
“This will help you,” my doctor said.
And I didn’t question her.
I went home and started to take a pill each day, the ten-page pamphlet of side effects collecting dust in my bathroom cabinet.
My doctor didn’t mention any side effects, so I thought: who cares?
I was on hormonal birth control for seven years after that initial appointment. Not once did I question the impacts it had on me mentally or physically.
As reported by Statistics Canada, three quarters of the female population will take oral contraception at some point in their lives.
Intrauterine devices (IUDS), implants, injections, vaginal rings, and skin patches are also hormonal forms of birth control that are commonly used.
Hormonal birth control either contains both progestin and estrogen, or just progestin. The dosage of each can vary. Essentially, these hormones stop ovulation, which means: no babies.
But I had no education on this growing up.
Neither my doctor nor grade-school educators explained how birth control worked or how it could affect my body and, more importantly, my life.
I’m now 23-years-old. I’m frustrated with the lack of information I was provided.
Curious if my experience was similar to others’, I sent out a survey to 20 women regarding their history with hormonal birth control. I received 15 responses, with many of the women being students or recent university graduates from Vancouver Island.
Their experiences came down to mainly two factors: lack of education and consequential side effects.
Lack of Education
Almost all the women I talked to mentioned bare minimum education on hormonal contraception throughout their schooling and within the medical system.
“I didn’t learn anything about pregnancy prevention until I went to my family doctor at the age of 18, and even then, it wasn’t really about pregnancy prevention.” – Brianna Mackey
“Maybe we learned about condoms, but I do not recall any particular talk about birth control specifically.” – Melaina Bagger
The medical system also provided minimal information for some of the survey responders. Doctors also failed to discuss side effects.
“[My doctor] made it seem like birth control was this amazing cure-all pill … [He said] not only could it clear my acne, make periods super predictable, but also make it super easy to prevent pregnancy.” – Sammy McLean
“[My doctor] talked about the symptoms you may experience when you first start taking the pill, but we never discussed any long term effects.” – Zoey Thompson
“Side effects were mentioned briefly and kinda bypassed.” – Brianna Mackey
The average age to begin birth control is 16-years-old. At that age, the last thing I wanted to do was question a medical professional. So I didn’t.
I stayed quiet, as did many of the women I talked to.
There are also non-hormonal birth control options. Condoms are the most common, but there are copper IUDs, diaphragms, spermicide, and probably the least talked about: fertility awareness methods.
While most of the women initially went on birth control to help with issues such as acne and irregular menstruation, there still wasn’t much talk about methods that didn’t include hormones.
“I continuously asked my doctor about alternative [non-hormonal] methods, but since I was already on a hormonal form, she said it was best to stay on to avoid a reaction.” – Melaina Bagger
Which leads to some of the side effects these women experienced both during and after taking hormonal birth control
Most of the women in the survey experienced serious side effects. For some it was physical—they felt lethargic and had more severe PMS symptoms. Others felt a decline in mental health, such as depressive moods and trouble focusing. In many cases, it was a combination of both.
“I’ve been on a lot of different types of oral birth control, and I just mostly feel like a grey cloud over my head. I have brain fog and low libido.” – Tanis Watson
“I noticed that I was feeling more depressed than normal, and very numb to things.” – Zoey Thompson
“I was constantly bloated, in a very apathetic mood, and noticed weight gain. I lost my period for the entirety of being on it.” – Celia Brand
One survey participant, 24-year-old Madison Dougan, told me about her history on hormonal birth control.
Dougan went on birth control at age 16. After tirelessly trying both the Depo-Provera shot and the NuvaRing, she decided to switch to a hormonal IUD: Jaydress. The Jaydress IUD only lasted a year for Dougan before she switched to another brand. The IUD resulted in even worse side effects.
“I experienced the worst cramps, abdominal discomfort, and irregular bleeding starting at three months post-insertion … The increase of hormones [in my body] had encouraged my ovaries to create cysts that would rupture and cause intense burning pain and cramps at any given time throughout my cycle.” – Madison Dougan
Dougan is now on the Nexplanon hormonal subdermal implant, but is still experiencing side effects. She’s had six menstruation segments since July of this year that lasted 7 to 21 days.
For context, the average menstruation cycle lasts for seven days only once a month.
Going off hormonal contraception also had consequential effects for the survey respondents.
“[When I went off the pill] I had more acne flare ups, mood swings, PMS symptoms, and my cycles were just irregular and weird for about six months.” – Sammy McLean
“The most drastic consequence for me, however, was that I did not get my period for almost one year [post pill].” – Selina Ragaz
Only one woman from the survey, Jessica Macdonald, experienced little to no side effects while being on hormonal birth control for an extended period of time.
So why did no one tell us about these potentially devastating side effects?
In hopes of finding more information on hormonal birth control, I spoke to Erin McParland and Anita Carroll, professionals in the fields of holistic nutrition and traditional Western medicine, respectively.
McParland is a registered holistic nutritionist and herbalist here on Vancouver Island and has additional training based around women’s health, hormones, and PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome).
I asked McParland for her view on hormonal birth control and how it can affect the body.
“Our gut-brain axis is one of the key components to a healthy body and mind,” she said. “When taking synthetic hormones like birth control, we can cause damage to our gut that can dramatically impact things like our digestion, [and it can lead to] skin problems, brain fog, weight gain, and even depression and anxiety.”
The description fits with several of the survey responders.
“By taking birth control, [you’re] messing with your body’s natural rhythm,” McParland said.
While it seems doctors are quick to jump to the use of birth control to manage premenstrual symptoms, there may be underlying hormonal imbalances that should be considered first.
“A healthy cycle should come on symptom-free. This means without PMS symptoms. Believe it or not, PMS—although common—is not the norm. Symptoms before our periods indicate that there is most likely [an imbalance] in the body and hormones,” McParland said.
Many things can cause a hormonal imbalance. McParland explained that poor sleep, nutrition, alcohol consumption, and stress levels can impact hormones. Hormonal birth control can also be a factor in imbalance.
McParland said that getting hormones back to a balanced state is really difficult for many people post- pill or IUD. Especially if girls are starting a form of birth control at the age of 15.
With not enough questions being asked, and potential band-aid solutions given to issues that may need a closer look, the system is essentially setting women up for failure.
While this heightens my frustrations, I wanted another perspective.
Carroll is a sexual health educator for Options for Sexual Health (previously called Planned Parenthood) and a professor in the VIU BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) program.
Carroll has over 15 years of experience with sexual health and has extensive training on birth control.
I asked Carroll for her take on the side effects of hormonal contraception.
“[Humans] are a beautiful array of emotions, feelings, thoughts, expectations, and reactions, so some people could take the pill and there would be no reaction—other people could take it and there will be a reaction,” she said.
Carroll mentioned that sometimes it’s not the pill but something else going on in the patient’s life. For example, side-effects may be due to pre-existing mental health issues or other health concerns.
“You have to look at all sides of it,” she said.
Carroll also noted a more positive intent of birth control.
“Some girls start on the pill in adolescence because they have unmanageable premenstrual symptoms, so much so that they can’t even leave their beds. They went on the pill and those symptoms started going away,” she said.
If women are having horrible cycles and the pill is relieving that—essentially improving their quality of life—that’s something to consider.
We also have to consider intimate relationships and the sense of security birth control can bring.
Participant Jenna Sharp said she’s a lot more comfortable getting intimate with her boyfriend knowing she’s protected by an IUD.
As Carroll pointed out, everyone will react differently and want different things for their bodies.
But unlike the 10 minutes you’re allotted with your family doctor, Options for Sexual Health takes a client-focused approach. This means they talk about side effects and provide information on other options.
This is definitely something I would have wanted at 15-years-old.
McParland and Carroll emphasized the need for education on the topic. Carroll suggested setting up an Options for Sexual Health table at VIU.
That’s the common denominator—education and informed consent.
How to Move Forward
There’s a clear need for more education in both the schooling and medical systems. We have been let down by the people who are meant to prepare us for the confusing and sometimes scary world of birth control and contraception. We have even distrusted ourselves.
But now we know better.
“I am not at all against the pill. What I am against is the lack of informed consent … Hormonal birth control users deserve to be given all the information so that they can make an informed decision on if it’s right for them or not.” – Sammy McLean
“[I’ve felt] very unheard by doctors as I have been told that [hormonal] birth control is the only option for me, but I feel more ready than ever to advocate for myself.” – Tanis Watson
“I have never been more unsure, more frustrated, and more disappointed in Western medicine as a whole.” – Madison Dougan
As evidenced by the survey responses I received, something needs to change.
I now sit in my doctor’s office at age 23.
I ask questions, I research, and I finally take ownership of my body.
Now it’s your turn.
For more information on holistic hormone health, contact Erin McParland through her website Fern Woman Wellness.
Options for Sexual Health provides clinics on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights from 5-8 pm at #8-1599 Dufferin Crescent. To make an appointment, call 250-753-9511.