Birth control pills (BCPs) are both the most effective and the most hazardous form of contraception. Preventing pregnancy in this way is done by taking an oral dose of a combination of the hormones estrogen and progestin (synthetic progesterone) in amounts higher than the body?s natural levels. This prevents the pituitary hormones that stimulate ovulation and fertilization of the egg from being released, and thus prevents pregnancy.
Though taking oral contraceptives regularly is 99 percent effective in birth control, there are many possible side effects. Weight gain, emotional swings, circulatory and vascular symptoms, and gastrointestinal upset are not uncommon. Blood clots, liver problems, and cancer are also possible, though relatively rare; these were more common in the 1960s with the higher-dose pills. Many women have difficulty with oral contraceptives, though many others seem to tolerate them well. The use of birth control pills is more common in young women and teenagers, which adds another dimension of uncertainty regarding the nutritional effects of these drugs.
Oral contraceptives may create certain nutrient deficiencies and excesses as well as increase the nutritional needs of the user. Most of the B vitamins, particularly pyridoxine (B6) and folic acid, are needed in higher amounts when birth control pills are taken. The copper level usually rises, and zinc levels often fall. Thus, more zinc is needed as well. An increased need for vitamins C, E, and K may also result from the use of birth control pills.
In Nutrition and Vitamin Therapy, Michael Lesser, M.D., points out that birth control pills cause an alkaline imbalance in the vagina that may lead to increased susceptibility to infection. Extra ascorbic acid, 1?2 grams per day, may help balance the acid environment and prevent this problem. He and other authors also suggest that the increased blood levels of copper generated by oral contraceptive use may contribute to depression and emotional symptoms; additional manganese and zinc may reverse these symptoms. Sharon DeBuren, nurse practitioner and nutritionist, adds that the depression from BCPs is also neurochemical reaction to artificial steroids (female hormones), and from a lack of a women?s own superior hormones?estradiol and natural progesterone secreted with ovulation. Iron levels may also rise, and less iron may be required because the pills often reduce the amount of menstrual blood loss, as well.
Because BCPs are metabolized by the liver before being eliminated, a diet low in other liver irritants is suggested. Alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs, pesticides and preservative chemicals in food, as well as fried foods should be avoided. Cutting down on refined foods and sugary treats is also suggested; these foods are "empty" calories and may cause further nutrient depletion. Avoiding nicotine and fried foods is also a good idea to prevent further vascular irritation. Teenage girls on "the pill" must also be particularly careful to avoid nutritional deficiencies, and all would be well advised to take a supportive nutritional supplement. Adequate intake of the antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamins C and E, selenium, and beta-carotene, can help reduce potential toxicity of oral contraceptives. The herb, milk thistle, contains silymarin and may be especially helpful.