For millions of women around the world, The Pill has been an absolute Godsend. This simple and effective contraception has allowed women to take greater control of their reproductive rights and invest in their careers, launching a literal economic revolution.
Note: The benefits in this article refer mostly to the combined oral contraceptive pill (COCP), which contains both oestrogen and progestogen. They may not apply for women taking the progestogen-only mini pill.
We know hormones play a big role in the health and appearance of our skin. Sex hormones called androgens (different types of testosterone) stimulate our sebaceous glands to produce oily sebum, which can clog our pores and worsen acne. These androgens increase in men and women during puberty, which is why we often start to break out in pimples at this time in our lives.
But here’s the good news: The Pill can help lower the concentration of androgens in your blood, reducing sebum production and clearing up your skin. This has been shown in heaps of studies, across all different types of combined contraceptive pill. The science is still a little murky on this, but it looks like pills containing cyproterone acetate (Brenda, Diane, Estelle) might have the best effect on acne.
Reduced menstrual bleeding and pain
Seriously agonising periods are caused by excess inflammatory molecules called prostaglandins, which are responsible for the painful contractions of your uterus during menstruation. The Pill inhibits the release of these molecules, which helps to minimise pain and reduce bleeding in menstruating women.
The Pill can be very effective at controlling painful periods associated with endometriosis, and is often a first-line option in the treatment of dysmenorrhea (painful periods).
Of course, some women choose to take the pill continuously, and skip the week of sugar pills when they would normally bleed. This is 100% safe to do, and in most women completely eliminates the pain and bleeding which comes with periods (because they don’t have any).
Reduced risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer
Each time you ovulate, an egg bursts forth from your ovary, and travels down the fallopian tube towards the uterus. This is quite traumatic, and requires a lot of cell division, repair, and hard work from the ovaries. By preventing ovulation, it’s thought that The Pill lowers stress on the ovaries and reduces the risk of developing cancers.
It’s a similar story with endometrial cancer. Endometrium is the tissue that lines your uterus, and it builds up and breaks down with each menstrual cycle. This constant turnover is reduced with The Pill, which is thought to explain its protective effect on this cancer.
The results on colon cancer aren’t yet clear, but initial studies have shown a risk reduction of about 18%.
Regulation of menstrual cycles
Many women experience irregularity of their menstrual cycle at some point in their lives. This could include periods occurring randomly, too frequently, or not at all, and can be really distressing if you’re living with it.
While The Pill in all forms can help regulate bleeding cycles, there’s some evidence that the Triphasic Pill might produce the best results. 80% of the women in one US trial reported considerable improvements in their bleeding patterns and physical functioning when taking the medication.
Management of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and Hirsutism
PCOS is a syndrome defined by the presence of at least two of the three Rotterdam criteria:
- Polycystic ovaries on ultrasound
- Infrequent or irregular cycles, lasting 36 days or more
- Signs of increased male hormones including hirsutism, or raised androgen (male hormone) levels on a blood test
Hirsutism is a common symptom of PCOS and is defined as male-pattern hair growth on a woman's face, chest and back. Other common symptoms include irregular or no periods, issues with weight gain, acne, and difficulty falling pregnant.
We still aren't 100% certain what causes PCOS, but we do know that is is often characterised by high levels of free androgens, which then results in some of the hallmark features of PCOS like hirsutism and absent or irregular periods. Androgens are male hormones including testosterone and dihydrotestosterone which are normally present in low levels in women.
In total, the female hormones in The Pill can lower the concentration of androgens in your blood and help regulate periods, clear up your skin, and reduce any male-pattern hair on your face and body. Not too shabby.
While these are just some of the reasons The Pill might be for you, it’s not for everyone. Always make sure you’re educated on both the pros and cons of any medication.
- Schlesselmann JJ. Risk of endometrial cancer in relation to use of combined oral contraceptives. A practitioner's guide to meta-analysis. Human Reproduction, Volume 12, Issue 9, 1997.
- Collaborative Group on Epidemiological Studies, Beral V, Doll R, Hermon C, Peto R, Reeves G. Ovarian cancer and oral contraceptives: collaborative reanalysis of data from 45 epidemiological studies including 23,257 women with ovarian cancer and 87,303 controls. Lancet, Volume 371, Issue 9609, 2008.
- Wong CL, Farquhar C, Roberts H, Proctor M. Combined oral contraceptive pill (OCP) as treatment for primary dysmenorrhoea. Cochrane Systematic Review, 2009.
- Arowojolu AO, Gallo MF, Lopez LM, Grimes DA. Combined oral contraceptive pills for treatment of acne. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2011.