Whether you’re ready to reclaim your health and hormones and rebalance your body naturally, you’re interested in switching to a more natural approach to preventing pregnancy, or you’re ready to start trying to conceive, coming off hormonal birth control may be top of mind. And that’s amazing news if I do say so myself!
This post was written by Sam, a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, of Sam Wolk Wellness.
It’s no surprise that at this point hormonal birth control is over-prescribed and over-used. Yes, many women still use birth control in order to prevent pregnancy. And I want to make it clear that even as a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, I’m the last person to judge anyone for their decision. But that being said, I DO have a few big issues with birth control.
My experience with birth control, side effects, & what to expect when stopping.
First and foremost, the lack of education surrounding birth control is a huge problem.
So many of my clients are nervous to quit hormonal birth control because they’re terrified of getting pregnant. And I completely get it, considering we aren’t properly educated on how reproduction actually works. We are basically told from a young age that once we get our period, we can get pregnant. Most women I work with don’t realize that we can only physically get pregnant a few days out of every month. I myself didn’t learn this until my late 20s.
My second big issue with the use of birth control is Western Medicine’s approach to “healing” very common (but NOT normal) symptoms with it. I have heard of it being prescribed for everything from heavy or missing periods, to acne, headaches, breast tenderness, and more.
And although hormonal contraception might resolve some of those symptoms in the short term, unfortunately, it’s only a band-aid approach. Whenever someone decides to come off of birth control, those symptoms will more than likely return, and sometimes tenfold. Symptoms are our body’s way of communicating with us that something is out of balance and needs our attention.
The longer we turn to a temporary “quick fix” and avoid addressing the root cause of our symptoms, the longer they go untreated, and the worse they can get over time.
I personally was on hormonal birth control for a long time, originally prescribed for my painful and heavy periods when I was 17. I was excited that I was going to have a “solution” for my uncomfortable, and let’s face it, inconvenient symptoms as a teenager. Who wants to be bedridden with cramps or bleed through pads all day when they should be worrying about getting good grades and going to prom, right?
The big issue is that my doctor never offered any alternative options when it came to healing my symptoms, nor did they tell me about the repercussions of being on it long-term, or what could happen once I decided to come off. It wasn’t until 11 years on the pill when my doctor told me I should consider switching up my medication to “avoid potentially harmful side effects,” that I started researching hormonal birth control and looking for other options. That means that for all of my teens and almost the entirety of my 20s, I didn’t really know anything about hormonal birth control or about my body in general… and unfortunately, that’s way too common.
Here are just a FEW of the possible side effects that people experience on hormonal birth control:
- Damaged microbiome
- Nutrient deficiency
- Increased risk of blood clots
- Changes in libido
- Anxiety and depression
- Weight gain
- Breast tenderness
- Lowered thyroid function
- Increased risk of cancer (!!!)
Once I learned about the potential negative side effects of the pill, I knew I wanted to be done for good. I made the decision to quit the pill cold turkey, which is where things got a little complicated for me, and can for many other women as well.
About 4 months after quitting the pill, my periods started getting heavier and more painful (as expected), but I also started experiencing side effects I had never in my life experienced…things like acne, severe bloat, rapid weight gain in my hips, brain fog, and all-day fatigue.
(In hindsight, it made so much sense that my body was freaking out, seeing as the pill was suppressing my body’s natural functions for so long.)
I went back to my doctor and asked for additional help and her immediate response was “get back on the pill, ASAP.” I knew that I couldn’t go backward at this point. All that was going to do was put a hold on the answers I so desperately needed. I was ready to figure out how to balance my hormones once and for all, without the use of a daily medication.
At that point, I started learning all that I could about female hormones and hormonal birth control, by reading books like “Woman Code” by Alissa Vitti and “Beyond the Pill” by Dr. Jolene Brighten. Both of these books are still incredible resources that I suggest to my clients all of the time!
It was at this point that I finally learned that what I had been experiencing was “Post-Birth Control Syndrome” (PBCS), which is extremely common for women who come off of hormonal birth control quickly. Unfortunately, PBCS was not (and is still really not) recognized by Western medicine, which is why I was struggling to get the answers I needed (and deserved!).
Here are just a couple of common symptoms post-birth control:
- Irregular/missing periods
- Heavy flow
- Mood changes
- Nutrient depletion
- Mood changes
- Blood sugar dysregulation
- Weight gain
- Severe cramping
- Breast tenderness
- Hair loss
- Leaky gut
YIKES. And why are we not warned about this when we are prescribed birth control in the first place?!
How to prepare for quitting birth control & Ways to support your body after.
Another important thing to consider is that any symptoms you may have experienced before starting hormonal birth control, could return. For example, if you experienced heavy and painful periods prior to going on birth control, there’s a good chance that those symptoms could come back, and not even necessarily right away. Post-Birth Control Syndrome symptoms can arise 4-6 months after quitting birth control, and in some cases even longer. This is why it is SO important to properly prepare your body prior to transitioning off.
First, have a plan in place before stopping birth control.
Although quitting the pill seems like a simple enough step to take (it’s such a thrilling feeling to throw that little plastic package in the trash for good!), there’s so much that we can and should do to prepare our bodies ahead of time, to avoid the very common PBCS symptoms. I always recommend preparing your body for at least 6 months. This will help minimize the possibility of those symptoms happening, or the severity of them.
When helping clients prepare their bodies to go off of birth control, or when working with those who are dealing with PBCS, I have a go-to action plan that I implement:
- Identify nutrient deficiencies
- Prioritize gut health
- Give the liver some love
- Learn to track ovulation
I’ll go into each step in a bit more detail below!
Identify nutrient deficiencies.
Hormonal birth control not only depletes so many necessary key nutrients that our body needs to function optimally, but it also makes it more difficult to absorb them. These include things like: magnesium, zinc, copper, folic acid, vitamins B2, B6, B12, and vitamins C and E. Some studies have also shown that birth control can decrease the body’s absorption of calcium as well.
When deciding to come off of birth control, I suggest prioritizing nutrient-dense foods that are high in these key vitamins and minerals as much as possible.
Some key foods to include:
- Organic produce (you can check the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen to ensure you’re avoiding the most highly-sprayed produce)
- Grass-fed meat (Incorporating organ meats is also a great option! If you don’t like the thought of eating organ meats, you can try a supplement form)
- Pasture-raised poultry and eggs
- Raw or grass-fed dairy
- Wild, fatty fish
- Organic nuts and seeds
After you do quit hormonal contraception, I highly suggest getting a Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis (HTMA) done by a certified practitioner. HTMA is a functional lab test that uses a small amount of hair (the first 1/2 inch of hair taken from either 1 or multiple spots on the head as close to the root as possible) to evaluate the hair’s mineral content. This is extremely valuable information because you can really understand what minerals your body is in need of post-birth control, which in turn can help support your hormones and overall health.
Prioritize gut health.
Hormonal birth control can impact the gut and its ability to absorb certain nutrients, so before you quit, you’ll want to do as much as possible to strengthen the gut microbiome. It’s going to be key to prioritize nutrient-dense, whole foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals, such as:
- Fermented foods: Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha contain beneficial bacteria that can improve gut health and support immune function.
- Prebiotic foods: Prebiotic foods such as onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, and bananas contain fibers that feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut and help them thrive.
- Bone broth: Bone broth is rich in collagen, gelatin, and amino acids that support gut health by repairing the gut lining and reducing inflammation.
- Omega-3-rich foods: Omega-3-rich foods such as fatty fish, flaxseeds, and chia seeds can reduce inflammation and support gut health.
- Fiber-rich foods: Fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes promote regular bowel movements and promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
- Anti-inflammatory foods: Anti-inflammatory foods such as turmeric, ginger, green tea, and berries can help to reduce inflammation in the gut and support overall gut health.
- Probiotic supplements: In addition to fermented foods, taking a probiotic supplement can also improve gut health and balance hormones after coming off of hormonal birth control. I recommend working with a holistic practitioner who can help you figure out what supplements are best for you.
Aside from dietary shifts, there are also lifestyle factors like minimizing stress, getting quality, uninterrupted sleep, exercising cyclically, and prioritizing mindfulness, which are all going to be incredibly important when it comes to supporting gut health.
Give the liver some love.
Supporting the liver is extremely important when quitting birth control because the liver plays a crucial role in metabolizing and eliminating the hormones that are used. Hormonal birth control contains synthetic hormones that are processed by the liver before being excreted from the body.
When halting use of the pill, the liver needs to work extra hard to help eliminate the excess hormones that have built up in the system. If the liver is not functioning as optimally as it should, it may not be able to effectively metabolize and eliminate those hormones, which can lead to a range of PBCS symptoms. This is why it’s crucial to support the liver before and after coming off, and here’s how:
- Pile on the dark leafy greens! Leafy greens are particularly rich in compounds such as chlorophyll, which help remove toxins from the body.
- Add some bitter greens: Milk thistle, dandelion, or arugula (I love dandelion root and milk thistle tea!)
- Try some beets! They include betaine, a unique compound that helps produce an important enzyme that aids in detox.
- Eat more berries: Berries such as blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries are rich in antioxidants, which can neutralize free radicals and support liver health.
- Increase citrus fruits: Citrus fruits like lemons, limes, and grapefruits are rich in vitamin C, which is essential for the production of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that supports the liver.
- Add 1 Tbsp of flaxseeds each day: Flaxseeds contain lignans, a type of phytoestrogen that can support the liver.
- Prioritize healthy fats like avocado, nuts, and seeds.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Drink plenty of clean, mineral-rich water to assist your body with eliminating toxins. (and don’t forget to stick to glass or stainless steel drinking vessels to avoid additional toxic plastic exposure)
- Reduce coffee or other caffeinated beverages. (I know, I know, I’m so sorry for this one!)
- Cut back or avoid inflammatory foods like processed foods, alcohol, and sugar.
- Complete an audit on your household and beauty products. Avoiding endocrine-disrupting chemicals is going to be super important. Good news, you’re already in the right place for all things low tox products, as Becca’s blog is an awesome resource!
- Other practices to support detoxification like: dry brushing, infrared sauna, castor oil packs, brisk walks (break a sweat!), or Epsom salt baths.
*Always check with your doctor before beginning any detox practices, and do not try these if you are pregnant.
Start tracking ovulation.
While on hormonal birth control, your menstrual cycle is regulated by the hormones that are in the pill, so when you come off of it, it may take some time for your natural cycle to return. I definitely suggest getting ahead of tracking ovulation right away.
I often recommend the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) for tracking ovulation, which is a practice that involves tracking and monitoring your menstrual cycle to determine your fertile window, using biomarkers like basal body temperature, cervical mucus, and cervical position. This is an amazing option whether you’re hoping to conceive or trying to prevent pregnancy. Not only is it highly effective, but it also helps you get way more in tune with your body’s natural cycle.
Learn more about FAM here: “How to Use the Fertility Awareness Method for Birth Control & Best BBT Thermometer“
Lastly, be patient and trust the process.
I know it can feel frustrating, but coming off of hormonal birth control is a huge adjustment for your body and its delicate hormone system. Trust that in time, your body will find its natural balance again.
That being said, I highly recommend working with a Functional Medicine Doctor or a Holistic Practitioner who can support you and your specific symptoms that you may be dealing with. You don’t have to try to figure this all out on your own!
About the author:
Sam is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and Certified Yoga Teacher based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is passionate about female hormones, gut health, and living a healthy (balanced) lifestyle. Her main goal with her clients is to help them get to the root cause of their issues, through nutrition and lifestyle shifts. You can learn more about her and follow along with her journey on Instagram @samwolkwellness.
- Oral contraceptives and changes in nutritional requirements
- The Ultimate Guide to Coming Off the Pill
- How to Quit the Pill Without Side Effects