Some women use birth control even when they aren’t sexually active. Why? Because hormone-based birth control methods can successfully treat other conditions.
Hormones play a huge role in your body’s normal functioning, far beyond sex and reproduction. Hormones control heart rate and sleep cycles and can negatively affect a long list of basic functions if they’re out of whack.
Even if you aren’t looking to prevent pregnancy, you might ask your doctor about using hormone-based birth control to treat these seven conditions.
1. Acne and PCOS
Acne comes in many forms, but if yours is hormonal, oral birth control might help. Besides estrogen and progesterone, ovaries produce small amounts of male hormones classified as androgens, which include testosterone. If your ovaries produce high levels of that hormone, you may suffer from acne.
Be aware that not all oral contraceptives treat acne. However, there are some with the right combination of hormones that can counter that overproduction of testosterone and control breakouts.
Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a condition that likewise involves the overproduction of androgens in the ovaries. These androgens can cause small cysts to form on the ovaries, wreaking havoc on the menstrual cycle, including missed, light, or irregular periods.
PCOS can cause excess hair growth on parts of the body where you don’t want it and thinning hair where you do. It can also cause weight gain, acne, and infertility. Combination birth control pills introduce estrogen and progesterone into your system. Although there’s no cure for PCOS, the pill may mitigate it by putting your female and male hormones back into balance.
2. Heavy and Irregular Periods
Progesterone helps regulate the menstrual cycle and keeps the lining of the uterus from building up. The body does not absorb this hormone well when taken orally, so progestin is the synthetic progesterone used in oral contraceptives.
When the progesterone level is low, the uterus lining becomes thick, prohibiting menstrual blood flow. This causes your period to be irregular. When you finally do begin to bleed, that bleeding may be profuse.
Progestin, in combination with estrogen or on its own, can help regulate your monthly cycle. This will help you avoid the heavy bleeding that comes with too little progesterone.
While we are discussing the uterine lining, we should also mention endometriosis. This condition occurs when the endometrium, the cells that line the uterus, grows in other areas of the pelvis. Those areas might include the ovaries, fallopian tubes, bowel, and the lining of the pelvis itself. Endometriosis can cause severe pain, especially during menstrual cycles. It can also cause fertility problems.
The hormones found in oral contraceptives prevent the lining inside the uterus from getting too thick. They can also reduce outside endometrium growth and the resulting pain and fertility issues.
Prostaglandin is a chemical that is produced in the uterus and causes painful contractions during ovulation. Most women know those intense and painful contractions as “cramps.” Their medical name is “dysmenorrhea.”
Combination birth control pills, the birth control patch, and the vaginal ring work by preventing ovulation. If no egg is released during the monthly cycle, the amount of prostaglandin created is reduced. So is the likelihood of suffering intense and painful cramps.
5. PMS and PMDD
Bloating, mood swings, cramps, tender breasts, and headaches are all symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). An estimated 75% of women who have periods experience at least mild symptoms of PMS.
If your symptoms are severe and keep you from work or social interaction, you might have premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). PMDD is characterized by deep depression, severe anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. About 3% to 8% of menstruating women suffer from PMDD.
One common treatment for PMDD is oral contraceptives. Doctors may prescribe constant use of the pill without the typical week of placebos. Consistent medication keeps women from having a period and experiencing dysphoria.
Wait — aren’t migraines a potential side effect of oral contraception? Yes they are in some cases, but the pill can also be used to help treat them. Changing estrogen levels are a common migraine culprit, which is why the pill’s infusion of estrogen can cause migraines.
The secret to keeping migraines at bay is maintaining consistent estrogen levels, something the pill can also accomplish. As with PMDD, doctors may prescribe the pill and advise you to toss the placebos in your pill pack. Taking the real deal without a break should help keep your estrogen levels on an even keel.
To be clear, birth control does not treat menopause. However, during perimenopause — that transition from having a period to never buying a tampon again — it can help.
Hormone-based contraceptives can keep your period regular and control bleeding, which doesn’t always happen during perimenopause. Birth control can keep bones strong and hot flashes mild. It can also reduce the acne that can go into overdrive during menopause.
That said, hormonal birth control is associated with an elevated risk of serious health issues such as strokes, blood clots, heart attack, and breast cancer. This danger only grows once you hit age 50. Talk to your healthcare provider about ways you can prevent pregnancy while decreasing the risks associated with birth control.
Remaining on your hormonal birth control is wise so long as there’s a chance you could get pregnant. It does, however, mask some of the signs of menopause. So how do you know when it’s time to ditch your birth control?
Your doctor may order a test to determine the levels of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) in your blood. If these levels are elevated, it means you’re likely no longer capable of conceiving. At that point, it may be time to swap your birth control with hormone replacement therapy.
More a Blessing Than a Curse
Yes, there are some side effects and potential health risks involved with various birth control methods. However, the value of hormonal control in treating other health conditions is worth it for a lot of women.
Hormone-based birth control has other benefits as well. Because it controls bleeding, it can help keep you from becoming anemic. Studies have also shown that hormonal birth control reduces the risk of ovarian and uterine cancer.
The pill has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer, it’s true. But since younger women are at less risk overall for the disease, the danger is slight. As women age and stop taking the pill, over time they have no greater risk than women who never did.
Birth control isn’t just for preventing conception. The health benefits of keeping hormones under control extend beyond that immediately obvious purpose. The reason you choose to use birth control and the method you choose are highly personal matters. They’re also subjects you should discuss with your doctor in depth, because there are both risks and rewards.