Nutrition Support for Birth Control Side Effects
Nutrition support for birth control side effects may not be something you've thought about. Birth control pills have been an empowering scientific milestone. They have given women more autonomy over their reproductive choices and offer an effective solution for some health issues. However, these innocuous-looking little pills—while wonderfully convenient and an excellent temporary quick-fix for acne and painful or heavy periods—can have a few nasty side effects when taken over long periods of time. The good news is that you can do a number of things to support your body while taking oral contraceptives.
Nutritional side-effects of the pill
Birth control pills impact our bodies in numerous ways. While there are well-known side-effects—like headache, nausea, and mood swings—from taking hormonal contraception, what is less discussed are the implications for our nutritional processes.
- They decrease levels of key nutrients such as B12, folate, magnesium, and selenium.
- They over-burden our detoxification pathways for excretion.
- They compromise our gut integrity, causing issues with nutrient absorption.
You can help your body compensate for these tendencies with a few effective practices.
1. REPLENISH LOST NUTRIENTS
Do a detox!
Your body requires a large variety and quantity of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids to detoxify properly. When nutrients are missing, not only can deficiencies impact functioning, but your body is also not able to readily excrete toxins, burdening you with dangerous byproducts.
A detoxification regimen includes a supplement with herbs that benefit the liver and stimulate the gallbladder given in combination with antioxidants that neutralize free radicals and support methylation and healthy estrogen metabolism. In addition to any supplementation while detoxing, a detoxifying diet diet filled with organic vegetables, fruits, and lean meats that support antioxidant status and toxin elimination is essential. Always consult with a qualified practitioner to devise a suitable regimen.
Phase 1 and Phase 2 Detox
An ND-led liver cleanse is often advisable at least once a year, especially if you are on oral contraceptives, due to the environmental toxins we are constantly bombarded with. Typically, a detox like this lasts anywhere from 2 to 3 weeks.
Phase 1 – This requires a combination of vitamins B2, 3, 6, 9, and 12 as well as branched-chain amino acids and glutathione.
Phase 2 – This detoxification pathway requires vitamin C, zinc, selenium, amino acids, DIM, I3C, and CoQ10 among others.
Pretend you’re prenatal!
Though you are likely taking oral contraceptives to avoid pregnancy, a prenatal vitamin can provide great nutritional support! A high quality prenatal typically contains a wide variety of key vitamins and minerals to replenish your nutrient stores. The big hitters to watch for include methylated folate, methylcobalamin, pyroxidine, magnesium glycinate, calcium, selenium, and vitamin C.
Make it mainline!
If you really want to get a jump on it before your gut is healed, some practitioners offer intravenous nutrient therapy. This will give your body expedited access to the nutrients you need by bypassing your gut and going right into your blood stream. Seek out a licensed naturopathic doctor or functional medicine doctor with advanced training in intravenous nutrient therapy. Most patients do well with an infusion called a “Meyer’s Cocktail,” which includes a mixture of saline, magnesium, calcium, B vitamins, and vitamin C. Because these are water soluble vitamins, they are typically safe to receive as often as once a week, depending on how you feel.
2. LOVE ON YOUR LIVER
We are now exposed to so many environmental toxins and chemicals and your liver is your primary means of detoxification. When you take birth control for an extended period, it begins to change the way the liver functions. Oral contraceptives increase the production of sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), whose job is to bind up free hormones floating around in the blood stream.
When we have too much SHBG, it prevents what could otherwise be free hormones from being bioavailable, rendering them unable to activate receptors all around your body. When you aren’t getting the important benefits of these free hormones, it can cause low libido and even thyroid issues. Researchers don’t know why the liver seems to ramp up SHBG production when you are on oral contraceptives, but you can still support the health of your liver and its ability to clear the byproducts of synthetic hormones.
Try these suggestions to support liver health as long as you are on the pill:
- Consume artichokes, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and leafy greens, which all have key nutrients that support both phase one and phase two detoxification pathways in the liver.
- Stay away from sugar, alcohol, and inflammatory fats (canola oil, soybean oil, fried foods) to reduce the burden on your liver.
- Try a comprehensive herbal supplement to nourish the liver, increase hepatocyte (liver cell) regeneration, and stimulate bile production (another component of detoxification). Talk to a health care provider knowledgeable in herbal medicine to ensure it doesn’t interact with other medications you may be taking. Some of my favorite liver-loving herbs include milk thistle, dandelion root, curcumin, and burdock. These also have the added benefit of being potent antioxidants.
3. PROTECT AND HEAL YOUR GUT
Your GI tract is your first defense mechanism against foreign invaders. Everything we eat is filtered by the GI tract before it enters the blood stream, and our gut microbiome is an important piece of that defense.
Birth control pills disrupt the microbiome and compromise gut integrity. When the good bacteria balance is disrupted, it allows for growth of potentially harmful bacteria and invasive yeast called candida, causing symptoms of a dampened immune system, decreased nutrient absorption, and candida overgrowth symptoms such as diarrhea, gas, and bloating.
Clinically, we are seeing oral contraceptive pills, food sensitivities, and NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) act as inflammatory stressors to the GI tract and cause a phenomenon called “leaky gut.” This happens when the tight junctions between cells of your intestines become inflamed and slowly separate, leaving a larger than normal gap between them. These gaps allow larger molecules of food proteins through your intestinal lining and right into your blood stream, which can lead to a hyper-response from your immune system. Signs that you have a leaky gut could look like an autoimmune condition such as Crohn’s disease, increased gas, bloating, constipation, nausea, IBS, and even acne.
The microbiome is now considered an organ, and as with any organ, the solution consists of incorporating nutrients that nourish it and avoiding substances that cause further damage.
Load up on probiotics
More and more we’re understanding that probiotics—the beneficial bacteria essential for overall health—should be consumed to support a flourishing gut. Fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, and sauerkraut, or yogurt and kefir and are rich in probiotics and encourage good gut bacteria. A refrigerated probiotic supplement with at least 25 billion CFU is the next best bet for anyone on the go or who hasn’t quite warmed up to fermented foods yet.
Avoid inflammatory foods and drugs
NSAIDS (ibuprofen, Aspirin, or naproxen) can also increase the permeability of your gut and should be avoided when possible. It may sound strange, avoiding a drug that is supposed to be anti-inflammatory. However NSAIDs tend to irritate the lining of our GI tract and it is well-known that they actually can cause stomach ulcers when used long term. So while they are systemically anti-inflammatory, they cause inflammation locally in your GI tract.
While gluten tends to be a substantial trigger for leaky gut and inflammation, other inflammatory substances are sugar, pesticides, heavy metals, and BPA.
If you are curious what your specific food sensitivities are, you can perform an elimination diet, removing the most common food allergens (gluten, dairy, eggs, corn, and all grains) for two weeks, then reintroduce each food, one day at a time, looking for signs of a reaction. IgG and IgA food allergy panels can also be ordered by your naturopathic doctor and provide insight into your biggest food offenders.
Consume nutrients that heal your gut
Heal your gut with foods rich in glutamine and collagen. These nutrients help to rebuild the tissue and tighten up those cell junction gaps. A great source of these can be found in a hearty, gelatinous bowl of bone broth, chicken, lentils, and spinach. In order to get a therapeutic dosage (1-5 grams daily) of glutamine, it may be a good idea to bring in a supplement that has a combination of glutamine, slippery elm, zinc, and deglycyrrhizinated licorice.
While healing the gut, it’s also important to make sure it’s filled with healthy pre- and probiotics. In addition to fermented foods and a comprehensive probiotic supplement, fuel your good bacteria and keep your digestive system regular by consuming plenty of fibre, the prebiotic which feeds the helpful probiotic bacteria. Add chia and ground flax seeds to anything, lots of veggies and fruit (keep the skins on when possible!), whole grains, and nuts and lentils.
While we know oral contraceptives can come with a host of problems, their convenience, efficacy for certain conditions, and importance for protection from unwanted pregnancy is a non-negotiable for many. By replenishing key nutrients that the pill depletes, healing gut damage, and keeping your liver clean, you can reduce the pill’s side effects while you are depending on its advantages and help the rest of your body maintain a healthy state.
Aminzadeh, A., et al. “Frequency of Candidiasis and Colonization of Candida Albicans in relation to Oral Contraceptive Pills.” Iran Red Crescent Medical Journal 18 no. 10 (2016)
Webb, J.L. “Nutritional effects of oral contraceptive use: A review.” Journal of Reproductive Medicine 25 no. 4 (1980)150-156
White, T., et. al. “Effects of transdermal and oral contraceptives on estrogen-sensitive hepatic proteins.” Contraception 74 no. 4 2006
Wiegratz, I., et. al. “The effect of four oral contraceptives on various sex hormones and serum-binding globulins.” Contraception 67 no. 1 (2003) 25-32