Ditching the pill for good

Macleans.ca

New health concerns have women looking for different choices

by Kate Lunau on Monday, November 23, 2009

Teresa Lambert was 15 years old when she first went on the pill. Her family doctor, she says, talked up its benefits: “She said my skin would be clear, and I’d know when my periods were coming.” At the time, it sounded “great,” she says, but 10 years later, she’s feeling differently: the 26-year-old recently went off the pill, and says a lot of her friends are doing the same. “I didn’t want to be taking something that altered my body any more,” says the Calgary native, who now uses condoms instead.

Lambert isn’t alone. While the pill remains one of the most widely used methods of birth control in Canada—only the condom is more popular—a growing number of women are feeling ambivalent about it, or ditching it altogether. In fact, oral contraceptive prescriptions in Canada levelled off in 2008, reports pharmaceutical industry analyst IMS Health Canada. Health care workers are seeing a growing demand for non-hormonal methods. Spurred by concerns about their health, the environment, or even frustration with family doctors, who sometimes seem to push the pill as a modern-day cure-all, Canadian women are looking for other options.

In this age of organic produce and yoga studios on every block, it’s no surprise that a growing number of women don’t want to take hormones every day. Yet a spate of recent studies left some, Lambert included, doubly concerned. In April, U.S. researchers announced that birth control pills seem to impair muscle growth: in 73 healthy women aged 18 to 31, those who weren’t taking oral contraceptives gained 60 per cent more muscle mass than those on the pill. Birth control pills typically contain a mix of estrogen and progesterone, the “pregnancy hormone,” says Steven Riechman of Texas A&M University, one of the study’s authors; the results could be due to the fact that, “when you’re pregnant, you’re not building muscle, because you need to reserve resources for the fetus.”

To prevent pregnancy, the pill suppresses ovulation, which is why Emma Lind, 28, avoids it. “I consider ovulation to be my most powerful time,” says the Ottawa resident, who uses condoms. “My skin clears up, I’ve got lots of energy, and I’m physically present.” Before this fertile phase, a woman’s estrogen and testosterone levels peak, causing a spike in libido, says the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Jerilynn Prior, scientific director of the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research. In women who take the pill, hormone levels stay relatively flat.

It isn’t just a woman’s sex drive that might be affected by the pill; experts speculate it could even impact their taste in men. In a recent paper, University of Sheffield researchers concluded that women on the pill don’t show the same preference for more “masculine” features—like dominant behaviour, or competitiveness—that ovulating women do. What’s more, they’re less likely to choose partners who are genetically dissimilar from themselves. (When genetically similar couples have children, it can cause health problems for the baby.) Though the reasons aren’t fully understood, it seems that men respond to a woman’s cycles, too. Prior cites a surprising study in lap dancers which found that, right before ovulating, they got the most tips.

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.