With the recent politicization of reproductive rights, words such as “abortion” and even “unprotected sex” remain controversial. But these words and their implications shouldn't be taboos—and neither should birth control. The purpose of birth control is often considered as solely preventing pregnancy, but that’s not the only reason why you might be taking the pill. A 2011 study from the Guttmacher Institute shows that 58% of users take the pill for at least one purpose other than pregnancy prevention, with 31% of these using birth control methods for cramps or menstrual pain.
Dr. Ana G. Cepin, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University and director at the New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Family Planning Clinic, says that it’s important to know that birth control is not a catch-all term. There are more options than just the pill. “Birth control has long acting methods, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs), injections, implants, as well as the pill, the patch, and the ring,” she says. “All of these methods have potential benefits outside of just contraception.”
All of these methods also have different frequencies (e.g. while birth control pills must be taken every day, the ring is applied once per month). Regardless of the form, here are a few non-contraceptive reasons why you might want to use birth control.
1. It helps with irregular periods.
Dr. Beverly Gray is an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Duke University Medical Center and the director of the Ryan Family Planning Clinic. She finds that the main reasons patients use birth control for non-contraceptive purposes is due to problematic menstrual cycles. “Many women with irregular menstrual cycles may not be ovulating regularly,” she says. “By manipulating their menstrual cycles with hormones, you can normalize cycles.”
While the average menstrual cycle is 28 days long, cycles can range from 21 to 35 days. If your cycle is shorter than 21 days, it is considered to be irregular. “Women who have irregular, heavy, or painful periods might benefit from a hormonal method,” Dr. Cepin says. “These methods all work by stopping ovulation, so you don’t have the cyclic hormonal changes women have, which may be beneficial, for example, for patients with migraines associated with their periods.” If your period is irregular, normalizing it will help to stabilize some of the negative symptoms you experience around that time of month.
Samantha Burke, a graduate of Siena University, has found the pill to be a huge help with her periods. “It brought my period from 7+ days to 3-4, and starting my pack on the right day meant that I never had my period on a weekend!”
During the first month after starting birth control, you may experience some negative side effects, but as long as you’re prepared for them, you should be fine!
2. It can stop your period.
You may want to stop your period for a number of reasons. One major patient group that wishes to do so is transgender men (those that were assigned female sex at birth and identify as men). If they don’t wish to have their menstrual periods, they should follow the same methods as cisgender women who wish to stop their periods, temporarily or otherwise.
Dr. Gray cares for transgender male patients who may still be menstruating. “There are times where I will use contraceptives to stop periods for that patient population,” she says. “The birth control methods we typically use to help stop periods are the hormonal IUD, Depo-Provera (contraceptive injection), or taking birth control pills continually (skipping the placebo pills).”
These methods can also be used for a cisgender woman who might want to stop her period. “Women might want to avoid having a cycle for convenience — for instance, going on a trip,” says Dr. Gray. “They may also have significant PMS symptoms or menstrual migraines that could be avoided by skipping cycles.”
A common concern about doing this is that it’ll affect a woman’s chances of getting pregnant. Dr. Gray says that that’s not the case. “Birth control pill use does not impact fertility.” So, if you’re interested in suppressing or stopping your period for any reason, however, the first step is reaching out to your doctor.
3. It reduces pain during periods.
There can come a time, especially for some women, when dark chocolate and heating pads cannot decrease the debilitating pain they experience during their periods.
Dysmenorrhea, also known as painful periods, is the most common menstrual disorder, with over 50 percent of women experiencing pain during at least 1-2 days of their period, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Dysmenorrhea is often caused by high levels of prostaglandins, chemicals in the body with hormone-like qualities. As their level increases in the lining of the uterus, pain tends to occur; however, as the lining is shed, the pain decreases. Birth control methods, such as the pill and IUDs, that contain estrogen and progestin hormones, can help treat dysmenorrhea.
“The methods that work the best to help with painful periods would stop your period – the hormonal IUD and the injection,” Dr. Cepin says. “With the pill, the patch, and the ring, since your bleeding is lighter, cramping also tends to be lighter. These medicines can be taken in a continuous way where there is no withdrawal bleed - so you may not get your period – if you take that way under the supervision of a physician.”
Birth control pills with low doses of estrogen can help to stabilize your estrogen levels because when one’s estrogen levels fall, migraines can occur. However, the pill has different effects on every user. If you’re finding that your migraines are getting worse, talk to your doctor about switching to a different type of birth control pill.
Your pain may be more severe. Endometriosis occurs when the endometrium, a layer of tissue that covers the inside of the uterus, grows outside of the uterus. This leads to pain, especially during menstruation. “For women who have endometriosis or pain with their menstrual cycles due to other reasons, hormonal birth control methods can decrease the amount of menstrual blood and the size of endometriosis implants,” Dr. Gray says. “It [hormonal birth control] decreases the inflammatory process that occurs in menstrual cycles that can increase pain and discomfort.”
Birth control isn’t a cure for endometriosis, but it can help with discomfort, cramping, and pain.
4. It decreases acne and excessive body hair growth.
Breakouts are caused by many factors, but changes in your hormones are near the top of the list. As a result, the birth control pill is great for helping with hormonal acne and body hair growth. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, androgens, male sex hormones, can cause acne by triggering oil glands in the skin. “Pills with decreased androgenic activity help decrease the level of androgens in our system, which tends to improve both acne and abnormal hair growth,” says Dr. Cepin.
Not all birth control methods are effective for treating acne, however. “Combined birth control methods can be used as a treatment for abnormal hair growth (hirsutism),” Dr. Gray says. “They increase the sex hormone binding globulin, which binds to the testosterone that circulates in a woman’s bloodstream. This has the effect of decreasing hair growth.” While your hair that’s already there won’t go, it can prevent future hair growth. In fact, according to Dr. Gray, “some birth control pills are used specifically for this purpose: “combination” oral contraceptives, that contain both estrogen and progesterone.”
If you want to get rid of a sudden breakout, getting on birth control might not be your go-to; there are some simpler options.
Emily Schmidt, a sophomore at Stanford University, has been taking the Pill for the past six weeks to treat hormonal acne. “I’ve already seen an improvement,” she says. “I used to get terrible hormonal acne on my chin and T-zone but fewer infections have developed before my last two periods.” However, if you want to treat hormonal acne without birth control, there are plenty of other ways as well that you might consider.
5. It helps treat PCOS, PMS, and PMDD.
More serious medical health issues can also be treated by birth control methods. One issue that can be treated is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition that’s diagnosed for women with irregular menstrual cycles, a lack of menstrual cycles, or signs of excess male hormones. “If women don’t have any other medical issues that would be causing these issues, they receive a diagnosis of PCOS.”
“PCOS is not something birth control can necessarily treat, but birth control methods can help to manage some of the possible complications,” Dr. Cepin says. “One complication of PCOS is not knowing when or how heavy your period will be. Additionally, if you don’t bleed for a prolonged period of time, an abnormal growth of cells that line the uterus can develop, leading to uterine cancer. Taking methods that help regulate your bleeding is very important for women with PCOS.”
Mood changes from PMS and PMDD, a more extreme version of PMS, are caused by hormonal fluctuations right before or during the placebo week. “All methods that stop ovulation – the pill, the patch, the ring and injections – can help improve PMS symptoms, because your normal cycling of hormones is not occurring,” Dr. Cepin says. “A continuous birth control pill can help skip the side effects. Women who take a birth control with a shorter placebo period have fewer PMS symptoms.”
Birth control has expanded women’s opportunities, providing them with more stability and power in their lives. At times, however, there seems to be a negative connotation associated with birth control. Dr. Cepin believes that it’s less of a stigma and more of misconceptions around a lot of birth control methods.
“Women who are in need of contraception for contraceptive reasons should use it regardless,” she advises. “Women not in need of contraception but who have medical conditions should certainly do so under the advice and management of their physician or care provider.”
Moreover, birth control has different effects on every individual that uses it. The non-contraceptive benefits—a decreased risk of ovarian cancer, more controlled bleeding, reduced risk of period migraines, protection of the uterus—vary from method to person. As always, be sure to consult with your doctor about what’s best for you!
We should support all women’s decisions of whether or not they chose to use birth control. In this multi-factored decision making process, it’s important to be aware of your options and what your choices are—and that these options and choices continue to exist for all women.