Birth Control:

Birth Control Pills for Painful Periods?

By Dr. Ben Kim

From Dr. Ben Kim's Mailbag:

Our doctor is recommending that our teenage daughter be put on birth control medication to remedy anaemia and pain with periods. Can you tell us about the health implications of putting young girls on birth control pills?

- A reader from New Zealand

In general, my experiences have led me to believe that it is best to avoid birth control pills whenever possible. Not because of any major short term concerns; more because of long term health considerations.

Birth control pills are xenoestrogens, which are man-made chemicals that can mimic or amplify the physiological effects of the different types of estrogen that are produced naturally in our bodies.

Long term exposure to xenoestrogens can lead to a physiological state called estrogen dominance, which refers to having too much estrogen and/or too little progesterone.

Review Of Estrogen and Progesterone Output During a Healthy Monthly Cycle

From the onset of puberty to menopause, a woman's body is designed to have estrogen and progesterone work together to fuel and regulate her monthly cycle.

The bulk of estrogen is released into a woman's blood circulation during the first half of her monthly cycle. Estrogen works to build the lining of a woman's uterus to prepare it for implantation of a fertilized egg should fertilization occur.

The bulk of progesterone is released into a woman's blood stream during the second half of a healthy monthly cycle. During this time, progesterone acts to maintain the rich lining of the uterus that estrogen helped to build up during the first two weeks of her cycle.

If a fertilized egg successfully implants into the uterine wall i.e. if a woman becomes pregnant, her body must continue to produce a large amount of progesterone on a continuous basis to maintain a thick and well vascularized uterine wall throughout the course of pregnancy. This job of continuous progesterone production is handled nicely by a healthy placenta.

If there is no implantation/pregnancy, a woman's body stops producing large amounts of progesterone, which results in sloughing off and elimination of the thickened uterine lining, also known as a woman's monthly flow.

This cycle repeats itself about once every month until a woman experiences menopause, with estrogen dominating the first half of each cycle, and progesterone dominating the second half.

When young girls and premenopausal women are continuously exposed to birth control pills and other xenoestrogens, this delicate balance between estrogen and progesterone production can be disrupted. More specifically, some females who are exposed to birth control pills for many years become estrogen dominant; they have too much estrogen or too little progesterone in their bodies.

According to Dr. John Lee, author of What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Premenopause, some common health conditions that are associated with being estrogen dominant are:

  • Chronic headaches
  • Unexplained depression, anxiety, and irritability
  • Uterine fibroids
  • Endometriosis
  • Polycystic ovaries
  • Weight gain (fat tissue around the hips and legs)
  • Irregular menstrual cycle

Here is a comprehensive look at the most common causes of estrogen dominance:

1. Exposure to Xenoestrogens

Significant sources of xenoestrogens:

  • Birth control pills
  • Hormone replacement drugs
  • Condom spermicides
  • Conventional personal care products, particularly cosmetics
  • Plastic cookware
  • Growth hormones found in factory-farmed animal products
  • Pesticides and herbicides
  • DDT
  • PCBs - polychlorinated biphenyls
  • Foaming agents in soaps and detergents

2. Being Overweight

Estrogen is produced in three different areas of the body:

  • Ovaries (testicles in men)
  • Adrenal glands
  • Fat cells

That's right. Estrogen is produced by fat cells. The more fat cells a person has, the greater chance he or she has of experiencing estrogen dominance.

3. Chronic Stress

When a person experiences chronic physical and/or emotional stress, his or her body will begin to convert progesterone into the stress hormone, cortisol. In fact, we now know that a woman who experiences significant stress during pregnancy can actually draw upon her baby's progesterone stores to manufacture enough cortisol to deal with her stress. The point is, stress can lead to a depletion of progesterone, which creates the same condition of estrogen dominance that a woman experiences when she has too much estrogen in her system.

To bring all of this back to the original question about having young girls take birth control pills to address painful periods and associated anemia from excessive blood loss, I recommend taking the following steps with one's food and lifestyle choices before resorting to taking birth control medication:

  1. Strive to avoid unnecessary exposure to xenoestrogens. Study the list of xenoestrogens provided above and do your best to avoid them.
  2. Because fat cells produce estrogen, reaching and maintaining your ideal body weight by losing excess body fat can help to prevent estrogen dominance.
  3. Exercise regularly. Doing so can decrease stress, which can effectively prevent "progesterone drainage" that might be occurring due to a greater-than-normal demand for the stress hormone, cortisol. Regular exercise can also help to ensure that excess fat cells are not contributing to estrogen dominance.
  4. Finally, estrogen dominance must be addressed in part by making a conscious and consistent effort to manage emotional stressors effectively.

My experience has been that young girls and premenopausal women who follow the steps outlined above tend to experience a significant reduction in menstrual flow-related discomfort.

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