The Possible Cause of Lupus No One Is Talking About: Birth Control
Autoimmune diseases are a notoriously tricky group of diseases to treat. When a person has an autoimmune disease, their immune system is so overactive that it attacks healthy tissues in the body, causing a number of issues—many of which can be serious and life-threatening—for the affected individual. Women, in particular, are more greatly affected by autoimmune issues than men, and autoimmune diseases tend to run in families.
The autoimmune disease Lupus (in which the immune system attacks nearly every kind of healthy tissue in the body) currently affects an estimated 1.5 million people in the United States, and 90% of them are women. Lupus not only disproportionately affects women, but disproportionately affects African-American women, who are two to three more times as likely to develop the disease than are white women.
Even though it is estimated that 80% of all cases of autoimmune disease are experienced by women, the exact reasons for this gender-specific phenomenon are still unknown. Researchers do speculate, however, that sex hormones could play a key role in women’s elevated risk for autoimmune diseases—particularly the hormones estrogen and prolactin. So what happens when a woman already at-risk for developing an autoimmune disease like Lupus starts taking a pill full of synthetic estrogen—such as the birth control pill—in order to prevent pregnancy?
Author Mike Gaskins recently explored the birth control-autoimmune disease connection for Natural Womanhood:
The disruptive agents that mimic estrogen in our bodies are known as endocrine disruptors, and they’ve gained a lot of notoriety in recent years. Unfortunately, news stories in the mainstream media frequently focus on disruptive chemicals such as dioxins, detergents, BPA, even soy. Unfortunately, they rarely include the most prolific and potent synthetic chemical explicitly designed to mimic natural estrogen in the body—hormonal birth control.
The Connection Between Birth Control and Lupus
Dr. Giles Bole Jr. was the first to posit the connection between birth control and Lupus in 1970 during the Nelson Pill Hearings. During the hearings, Dr. Bole described a rare disease called Lupus Erythematosus that he observed in young women who recently began taking birth control. He demonstrated how some women with LE cells would return to normal if they stopped taking the Pill soon enough, but that others would be saddled with the disease for life. During the same hearings, Dr. Herbert Ratner later testified that an estimated one out of every 2,000 birth control users developed Lupus.
Although research continues to confirm the powerful effects of sex hormones on the immune system (see, for example, the 2015 article “The Immune System Is a Natural Target for Estrogen Action: Opposing Effects of Estrogen in Two Prototypical Autoimmune Diseases”), little has been done to examine whether birth control may actually trigger the development of Lupus. Instead, scientists have focused their efforts on determining whether women who already have Lupus can safely take the Pill.
Population studies continue to exhibit the possibility of a link between the development of Lupus and the use of birth control. For example, a 1999 report published in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism concluded that the incidence of Lupus had tripled in the past forty years, which coincides with widespread introduction of birth control. Ten years later, in 2009, a group of scientists from McGill University in Montreal also released the results of a massive population study that further linked Lupus and birth control: from data collected on 1.7 million women, the researchers found that women on oral contraceptives were 50% more likely to develop Lupus. Notably, similar to what Dr. Bole described in 1970, the McGill researchers found that the greatest risk for developing the disease was in the first three months of taking birth control, during which there was a 2.5-fold increased risk.
Population studies alone may not be able to prove a causal link between the development of Lupus and taking hormonal contraceptives, but the correlations discovered between Lupus and birth control thus far should provide researchers with a particular interest in this autoimmune disease and provide the impetus for further, more detailed studies to be done on the subject.
Speaking as a woman—and especially as a woman with a family history of autoimmune disease—I can say that it’s one potential risk that I am happy to avoid altogether, especially when there are so many effective, side-effect-free ways to plan my family available today.
Whether you have a family history of autoimmune disease or simply want to pursue natural methods of family planning and health management, it may be time to consider learning a Fertility Awareness-Based Method (FABM). When taught by a certified FABM instructor, most Fertility Awareness-Based Methods are more effective than the Pill at avoiding pregnancy, and what’s more, they can help women learn more about their bodies and better treat any health conditions she may have. If you’re interested but don’t know which method to choose, here is a handy quiz to determine what method of natural family planning is best for you.