As far back as the 1970s, researchers have known that hormonal birth control can have an impact on a woman’s nutritional status. OB/GYN Dr. Charis Chambers, who maintains a website called The Period Doctor, recently told Harper’s Bazaar that “the science is there, but it’s certainly not new.”
Back in 2015, Monica Reinagel, a certified nutritionist, addressed this impact on her Nutrition Diva podcast, saying, “Birth control pills can deplete your body of several nutrients, including several in the B vitamin family- Riboflavin, B6, B12, and folic acid, as well as Vitamin C, Magnesium, and Zinc. And because contraceptives are often taken over extended periods of time, for years even, even subtle effects could add up.”
As with many mainstream commentators offering any type of criticism about birth control, Reinagel offers almost an apology along with the education, saying, “Now, I don’t want to overstate the dangers. As far as we know, oral contraceptives aren’t causing widespread nutrient deficiencies in this country.” Given that vitamin and mineral testing is not standard for women of childbearing age in this country, this statement is not particularly helpful. Just because we’re not testing for something doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. Furthermore, what might be the impact of nutritional deficiencies in a teen in particular?
However, Reinagel admits, “research does show that women who take the Pill have lower levels of these nutrients in their bodies.” She emphasizes, “if you’re aware of this potential effect you can easily take steps to compensate” via dietary changes and/or supplements.
A September Harper’s Bazaar article revisited the topic in light of immune health and COVID-19. The author writes, “One of the lesser-known side effects of the Pill is its ability to cause deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals like vitamin B6, magnesium, vitamin b12, folic acid, vitamin C, and zinc, among others.”
Dr. Chambers noted that B vitamins in particular, along with folic acid, are “particularly important for women of reproductive years.” She linked these deficiencies with the extension of birth control’s impacts far beyond the reproductive system, including on liver function and gut permeability, saying, “The human body is so complex. It’s mostly because these hormones are affecting your liver, which affects how everything is metabolized to your body.”
With immune health currently of critical importance, more women should be made aware of this side effect. However, Dr. Chambers believes potential nutritional deficiencies are unworthy of mention to patients due to birth control’s far more serious, even deadly, potential side effects. “We have limited time and… I don’t want to get so lost in the weeds that I miss an opportunity to help you reach your life goals, which is planning your life and your family,” she said.
According to the article, “The reason doctors don’t usually tell their patients about this risk is because their time with you is quick, and they’d rather let you know about more serious complications like strokes and blood clots.”
The article itself feels apologetic at times. “All this isn’t to say that birth control is bad—for many women, it’s essential and life-saving,” the publication states. But nutritional deficiencies are not the only problem with birth control pills.
Perhaps a better strategy would be to give women all of the information about their medications and let them decide for themselves whether it is worth the risk. In a culture concerned with informed consent and so-called “bodily autonomy,” it seems odd for the medical community to exclude hormonal birth control and its risks from these types of conversations.
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