some notes about birth control pills as PCOS treatment

2 Jun

One of the first lines of treatment for PCOS for women who are NOT trying to get pregnant [and for a few who are] is usually hormonal contraceptives. This has the superficial result of regulating your period, though it doesn’t actually improve your cycle in a meaningful way; you have an artificially-induced period, called a “withdrawal bleed,” when you switch to the week of placebo or iron pills in your pack. [In this post, I am discussing “birth control pills”–but this info applies also to the NuvaRing and the birth control patch.]

There are benefits to this for some women:

1) Obviously, it is more convenient to have a regular period instead of the erratic cycles or spotting that some PCOS ladies get.

2) Birth control pills can also improve bone density if you are otherwise not having cycles [estrogen is important for bone density, and most birth control pills provide it].

3) They also reduce testosterone, which can, in some cases, reduce other symptoms of PCOS–hirsutism [that would be the unwanted hair] and acne. If this is important to you, you might ask your doctor about Yaz, which also contains drospirinone, a drug that can help with those problems.

4) Some women find that hormonal birth control reduces PMS.

5) Having a period can decrease your risk of endometrial problems, including endometriosis, which can be painful and may reduce fertility.

6) Birth control pills can also increase fertility–yes, INCREASE. They are sometimes used as part of a program for treating infertility, as especially the first month after you stop using them, you may experience increased fertility. If your doctor recommends this line of treatment, there is probably more benefit to using them than there is reason to avoid them.

That said, there are also some compelling reasons to avoid hormonal birth control as a first-line treatment for PCOS. They carry risks: not just the standard “increased risk of stroke and blood clots” and less-serious side effects such as nausea or headache, which you always hear about and will see on the monograph that accompanies your prescription, but also the possibility of weight gain, which can make PCOS worse.

In addition–and this is my completely non-medical opinion–using hormonal contraceptives falsely regulates your cycle, which means that it masks one of the most significant measures of your health. At least for me, my menstrual cycle is a sort of litmus test for how well my lifestyle is working to control PCOS. When I eat well and exercise, my cycle is quite regular. If I don’t–well, my body will remind me, through irregular cycles, that it needs better care. This is a valuable way that my body reflects the success or failure of management, and I don’t want to obscure it. It would be a bit like taking ibuprofen every day because you have been prone to headaches: you wouldn’t know whether the headache was still there if you took it every time your dose was up! I would rather commit to treatments that are really treating my insulin resistance problem.

Finally–and let me emphasize that this is only my experience and that many women have excellent experiences with birth control pills–I no longer use hormonal contraceptives because they contribute a great deal to the depression that I have always suffered. Depression and anxiety are common adjuncts to PCOS. If you suffer either of these disorders, it’s important that you track your response to ANY drug you take, including contraceptives, to see whether they contribute to your problem. For me, it’s not worth it.

One final note about hormonal contraceptives AS contraceptives: I had a great experience with NuvaRing and used it for years, and I felt good while I was using it; however, I also got pregnant while I was using it. My doctor at the time said that women with PCOS often seem to have failures of hormonal contraceptives; in retrospect, I believe this to be true because many women with PCOS are overweight, and women over about 150-175 pounds in weight have decreased rates of effectiveness with hormonal birth control. Food for thought, eh?

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