Beyond Preventing Pregnancy, What Can Birth Control Do for You?
By Emily Gleimer, DO, Gynecologic Oncologist
Virtua Gynecologic Oncology Specialists
When used properly, hormonal birth control is highly effective at preventing pregnancy. But did you know about its other benefits, such as regulating your period, controlling bothersome period symptoms and reducing your risk of developing certain types of cancer?
What is hormonal birth control?
Hormonal birth control options include pills, skin patches, vaginal rings, implants, intrauterine devices (IUDs) and shots. They prevent pregnancy by stopping the ovaries from releasing eggs, thickening the cervical mucus to prevent sperm from entering the uterus, and thinning the lining of your uterus to prevent a fertilized egg from implanting.
Most birth control pills, patches and vaginal rings contain the hormones progestin and estrogen. Birth control implants, shots and some IUDs and birth control pills use progestin only.
What are the benefits of hormonal birth control beyond preventing pregnancy?
One major hormonal birth control benefit is that it helps keep your hormone levels steady throughout your menstrual cycle, so you can avoid problems associated with hormone swings. Other benefits include:
You know when you’ll get your period.
With hormonal birth control pills, you know exactly when you’ll get your period. Regardless of whether you use a monthly or an “extended-cycle” pill pack (usually three months), you’ll get your period during the week that you take the inactive pills.
Your period may be lighter.
Many women who use hormonal birth control have shorter, lighter periods—or, in some cases, no period at all. That’s because hormonal birth control thins the lining of your uterus and prevents tissue overgrowth, which minimizes blood loss. Hormonal birth control also can ease painful, heavy periods caused by endometriosis—a condition that causes the tissue that lines the inside of uterus to grow in other parts of the body.
You may have less discomfort before or during your period.
Because hormonal birth control keeps your ovaries from releasing eggs each month, they produce fewer of the hormones that can cause cramps.
Many women also experience fewer or less-severe symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) like mood changes, bloating, appetite changes and tiredness. And because hormonal birth control helps control your hormone levels, it aids in preventing menstrual migraines, acne and unwanted body or facial hair as well.
You will have a lower risk of developing certain types of cancer.
Hormonal birth control pills can lower your risk of developing endometrial, ovarian and colorectal cancer.
- Endometrial cancer occurs in the inner lining of the uterus. Studies have shown that women who have used birth control pills have at least a 30 percent lower risk of developing endometrial cancer when compared to women who never used birth control pills. That’s because using birth control pills keeps the endometrial lining thin and prevents overgrowth, which can decrease the chances that endometrial cancer will develop. And, for every 5 years of birth control use, a woman’s risk of developing endometrial cancer drops by about 24 percent. Even after a woman stops using birth control pills, research shows that her risk of developing endometrial cancer remains low for many years.
- Ovarian cancer occurs in the ovaries, or the reproductive organ that produces eggs. Studies have shown that women who have used birth control pills have a 34 percent lower risk of developing ovarian cancer than women who never used birth control pills. Just like with endometrial cancer risk, the longer a woman uses birth control pills, the lower the risk of ovarian cancer becomes—and research shows that the protective benefits can last for up to 30 years after a woman stops taking birth control pills.
- Colorectal cancer occurs in the colon or rectum. Research shows that birth control pills decrease a woman’s risk of developing colorectal cancer by 15-20 percent.
Is hormonal birth control right for me?
If you want to prevent pregnancy, hormonal birth control is an effective option—but it’s not right for everyone. And although hormonal birth control can provide several benefits in addition to preventing pregnancy, there are still risks and potential side effects that you need to consider.
For example, hormonal birth control slightly increases your risk of developing blood clots. If you have high blood pressure, migraines with aura, heart disease or are over age 35 and a smoker, you should avoid taking hormonal birth control with estrogen.
The best thing you can do is talk to your doctor to ask if hormonal birth control is right for you. If you have specific concerns regarding your period or menstrual cycle, share them with your doctor. Based on your situation, your doctor can recommend the specific type of hormonal birth control that fits your lifestyle and addresses your healthcare needs.
Updated October 8, 2018