Birth control pills are the most common contraceptives in America. They’re safe, convenient and effective at preventing pregnancy. And since their invention in the 1950s, birth control pills have come a long way.
With several different formulas created with different needs in mind, birth control pills are far from one-size-fits-all. It’s easier than ever to find the type of pill that works best for you.
But did you know that the health benefits of birth control pills go beyond just preventing pregnancy?
Out of the millions of women who use the pill, roughly 14% take it for non-contraceptive reasons. From reducing period pain and PMS symptoms, to treating acne or anemia, you’ll be surprised to learn how much this little pill can do.
What is the pill and how does it work?
Birth control pills are taken daily to prevent pregnancy. The pills contain hormones similar to the ones that naturally exist in a woman’s body. Those hormones help prevent ovulation. And without ovulation, there’s no egg released for sperm to fertilize.
There are two types of birth control pills: progestin-only pills and combination pills (which contain both progestin and estrogen). Both types of pills are highly effective – they just contain different amounts of hormones.
You can also choose between conventional pills and extended-cycle pills. The conventional pills come with 24 active pills and four inactive pills. This enables you to get your period regularly, every month. Extended-cycle pills are designed so you take more active pills in a row and typically have your period four times a year, or once every three months.
The big benefit of birth control pills: More effective pregnancy prevention
By definition and design, birth control pills help prevent pregnancy. But the big benefit is that birth control pills are significantly more effective than barrier methods like condoms, diaphragms, caps or sponges. When used correctly, those methods are 71 to 86% effective, depending on the type used.
By taking the pill at the same time every day, you maintain a steady level of the hormones in your body, making it a very effective form of pregnancy prevention. With correct use, the pill is over 90% effective.
Benefits of birth control pills beyond preventing pregnancy
Birth control pills for irregular periods
If you’re someone who needs to carry a stash of “just-in-case” tampons around in the bottom of your purse, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that over 1 in 10 women experience irregular or abnormal periods between their first period and menopause.
Irregular periods are typically caused by hormone imbalances. Because birth control pills contain progestin and estrogen, they’re able to help balance your hormones and regulate your menstrual cycle.
Birth control pills can make your period more predictable, so you always know when it’s coming. The pill can also stop spotting between periods, help lighten heavy periods and even make you skip your period altogether.
Birth control pills can help with cramps and other period symptoms
When Aunt Flo arrives each month, she often brings with her a host of other unwanted guests – including painful cramps. You could ride it out with a heating pad, a couple Midol or another common way to stop period pain, or you could say goodbye to severely painful cramps with the help from a little pill.
Because birth control pills help regulate your period by balancing your hormones, the pill can also reduce period pain when cramps are caused by a hormone imbalance. During your menstrual cycle, your uterine lining produces hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins help your uterus contract in order to shed the lining.
But too much of these prostaglandins can cause painful cramps, which is often called dysmenorrhea. The combination pill can help balance your hormone levels by reducing the amount of prostaglandins produced.
Birth control pills can help with acne
Breakouts happen to everyone. Most women notice a couple of pimples popping up near their periods. When facials, face masks and cleansers don’t help, you might be surprised to find out that birth control pills can.
The ovaries produce a hormone called androgen. Androgen helps produce oils on the skin. If you produce higher than average levels of androgen or are more sensitive to androgens in the blood, this can cause frequent breakouts.
Combination birth control pills can help lower the amount of androgen you produce, which can help reduce hormonal acne.
Birth control reduces risks of endometrial and ovarian cancers
For women who have used combination birth control pills – pills that contain both estrogen and progestin – studies show they are anywhere from 30 to 50% less likely to develop endometrial or ovarian cancers . The longer you take the pill, the more your risk is lowered.
However, taking a birth control pill doesn’t replace regular check-ups and Pap tests. The pill can be a healthy addition to a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, a diet full of fruits and vegetables, and annual preventive care visits.
Birth control can treat endometriosis
Endometriosis is a painful condition caused when the uterine lining (endometrium) grows outside the uterus. The uterine lining sheds during menstruation. Uterine lining growing outside the uterus has nowhere to go, and this causes extremely painful cramps. And, as tissue builds up over time, the tissue can become swollen and inflamed.
Birth control with high levels of progestin is a common treatment for endometriosis. The pill can be used to skip your period, which keeps the uterine lining from shedding and stops painful endometriosis symptoms. Progestin also thins the uterine lining, which can lessen painful symptoms when you do get your period.
Birth control can protect against other conditions
Birth control pills can also help with a wide range of other conditions, from anemia to hair loss.
Heavy periods may make you prone to anemia due to the amount of blood lost. When you’re anemic, you don’t have enough red blood cells to carry healthy amounts of oxygen throughout your body.
Anemia can make you feel tired, weak and even out of breath. By lightening your period or making you skip it altogether, the pill can reduce the amount of blood loss and alleviate anemia symptoms.
If you have certain types of hair loss (like alopecia) or excessive hair growth (like hirsutism), birth control pills can be a surprising treatment. They regulate the amount of androgens, male hormones, in your body. Keeping androgen levels within normal range may also help hair growth return to normal levels.
Birth control pills can also help with many other painful conditions, like migraines, mood swings and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). If you’re not sure whether birth control will help you, read more about when to talk to your doctor about painful period symptoms.
Get the most out of that little pill
Birth control pills have been around for decades, and they do a lot more than just prevent pregnancy. Millions of women use birth control pills to help manage painful period symptoms and other conditions. And with several formulas available, finding the right contraceptive for you is easier than ever.
Whether you’re on the pill and wondering if a different one would be more effective, or this would be your first time, make an appointment with an OB-GYN or certified nurse-midwife to get help selecting the right pill for you.
OB-GYNs and midwives are experts in women’s health – making them experts in birth control, too. You can also make an appointment with a primary care doctor.
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