Aka, The Scariest Thing I’ve Read All Month
(This post is a tad serious, but it seriously annoys me when this information isn’t shared with women who take these drugs on daily basis!)
I was on the birth control pill for 10 years and what bothered me the most when I finally started to independently research it were all of the possible negative health ramifications that none of my prescribers or healthcare providers had shared with me. (You can read about many of them in this post.)
This week I learned about a 2014 study that showed a possible link between the birth control pill and the disease multiple sclerosis (MS). MS is an autoimmune (or immune-mediated) disease that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the central nervous system by targeting the myelin, or the insulation around nerve fibers, and the nerve fibers themselves. Symptoms include blurred vision, bladder dysfunction, muscle spasticity, weakness, fatigue and dizziness.
The study was presented at annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in late spring 2014. It found a 35% increased risk in hormonal contraceptive users for the disease:
Women who used any hormonal contraceptive in the 3 years before symptoms onset had a 35% increased risk of developing MS/CIS. Those who had stopped using hormonal contraceptives at least 1 month prior to symptom onset had a 50% increased risk.
Furthermore, women seem to be more likely to develop MS than men. Additionally, there is evidence that the incidence of MS among women is rising while remaining steady among men.
The 2014 study was not conclusive enough to make recommendations, although it did confirm the findings of two previous studies. The researchers of the 2014 study planned to look at lifetime data to determine if the relationship is causal. If it is, then they should find that hormonal contraceptive users on the pill for longer periods of time carry increased risk for the disease.
Not good news for me if that’s the case! However, I could not find any data released from this particular follow-up study. As it’s a long term study, the jury will probably be out for some time yet.
Certain types of birth control pills are worse than others
That said, other work from the same researchers has since indicated that birth control pills that use levonorgestrel and norethindrone have a higher correlation with MS occurrence.
The doctor leading this study compared the introduction of these two drugs and the increase in MS diagnoses and found another possible correlation.
More broadly, she also suggested that “The Pill” may have played a role in the rising incidence of MS in women over the past 50 years. Norethindrone was used in the first oral contraceptive introduced in 1960, and levonorgestrel-containing products entered the market 10 years later. Incidence rates for MS among women have also climbed during this period.
Better diagnosing techniques and other factors are certainly also at play, but this does provide (at least me with) a reason to take pause when considering the value of oral contraceptives compared with their risks.
Of note, norethindrone is rarely used in oral contraceptives anymore – although it is often prescribed in the treatment of endometriosis. Levonorgestrel is only used in the brands Mirena and Liletta.
The pill isn’t all bad when it comes to MS
For women who have already been diagnosed with the disease, the hormones in oral contraceptives actually seem to decrease the severity of MS symptoms.
Some things to keep in mind
Doctors and researchers are still not completely sure why people get MS. However, they do believe that it occurs when individuals with a specific genetic predisposition are exposed to certain environmental factors including chronic stress, diet, lifestyle, and exposure to other factors. Women who have a family history of MS and may be genetically predisposed to the disease may want to reconsider using hormonal methods of birth control.
To conclude, I just want to say that studies like this continue to point out the biggest issue with the birth control pill: we simply do not know all off the potential health ramifications of long term use. Original studies on its safety and efficacy only looked at a small window of time (and most of them looked at women in their 30s and 40s, when most present-day OC users are in their teens and twenties).
And for me, when birth control and solutions to period problems can be effectively obtained without synthetic hormones, the risks simply aren’t worth it. But I believe that all women should have the most up-to-date information on the birth control pill and other hormonal contraceptives so that they can make informed decisions about managing their fertility and health. Knowledge is power, ladies!
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and does not serve as a replacement for personal health care from a licensed professional practitioner.