“After three months off the pill, I felt like an ogre,” says Erica Avey, a former writer and member of the marketing team at the Berlin-based Clue, the latest cycle-tracking app to receive FDA approval as a contraceptive. “It was bad. I experienced: acne, heavy menstrual bleeding, bad cramps, PMS, deflated boobs, weight gain and bloating, mood swings, shorter cycles, general wetness, and increased sex drive… Everyone told me it would take a while for my body to adjust, so I rationed for a few sh*tty months. But it didn’t get better. Not even after six months. I felt disconnected from my body.” Not exactly the best advertisement for getting off the pill and switching to a more natural, hormone-free method of birth control, is it?
Maybe, like Erica was, you’ve also been curious about what it would be like to quit birth control cold turkey. Maybe you’ve even been researching the benefits of using a fertility awareness method (FAM), and are excited about the positive health, lifestyle, and relationship changes that come from being aware of your cycles and not taking hormonal birth control anymore. Maybe you’re looking forward to feeling empowered and growing in awareness of your cycle and the information it provides.
But, as Erica’s story shows, it can be quite the rude awakening for some women to realize they don’t immediately feel better after they stop taking hormonal birth control. For many, like Erica, the experience can even prompt them to get back on the birth control they abandoned, just to regain some semblance of “normalcy.” In fact, over 1,000 women per month Google the phrase “stopped taking birth control for a month then started again.”
So what do you do if you start experiencing the very symptoms you were taking hormonal birth control to eliminate in the first place (i.e. painful periods, acne, PMS symptoms)? Or, what if symptoms you developed while on birth control don’t immediately disappear once you go off it? Or what if, like Erica, going off the pill seemingly prompts all sorts of issues that never existed before?
First of all, don’t panic or feel discouraged. There are indeed non-birth control options available to you to help you manage this transition without synthetic hormones (of which it seems, unfortunately, that Erica was unaware). Read on for some insights to normalize some of what you might be experiencing, and to help you navigate your transition off of birth control confidently, so that you can experience the benefits of taking a natural approach to your fertility and health.
Anticipate the return of symptoms
The reality is that transitioning off hormonal birth control can take time, and it can come with the reappearance of old symptoms or even new symptoms. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you made a mistake when you chose to quit the pill.
If you were prescribed hormonal birth control to eliminate symptoms of a hormonal imbalance, or other reproductive health issue like endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), it’s important to anticipate that these symptoms are likely to return. In fact, because the cause of your initial symptoms (like painful, heavy periods, menstrual migraines, or hormonal acne) likely wasn’t identified and treated in the first place, it actually makes sense they would reappear once the birth control “band aid” is ripped off.
Just remember that the return of any symptoms isn’t a sign that you made the wrong decision to stop hormonal birth control. Instead, it’s an invaluable opportunity to listen to what your body is asking you to pay attention to. These symptoms are telling you that something may be off (and has likely been off for a while), and worth investigating with a qualified healthcare professional who will help you get to the bottom of it—rather than giving you another round of the quick-fix option of hormonal birth control.
Watch out for post-birth control syndrome
This period of transition while your body adjusts to not having hormonal birth control in your system is referred to by some as post-birth control syndrome. As the hormonal birth control transitions out of your system, your body will attempt to begin cycling, and producing and rebalancing the natural hormones (estrogen and progesterone) that have long been suppressed by the steady stream of synthetic hormones in your birth control. After all, birth control is in itself a doctor-prescribed hormonal imbalance.
Many women find that this delicate re-balancing act can come with a host of symptoms that have been collectively termed post-birth control syndrome. In fact, it’s a common enough phenomenon that nearly 2,000 women Google the phrase “side effects of stopping the pill after prolonged use” every single month.
Symptoms of post-birth control syndrome can include:
- Acne, rosacea
- Loss of menstruation for 3-6 months
- Blood sugar dysregulation
- Depression, anxiety, mood changes
- Changes in bowel issues
- Headaches, Migraines
- Hair loss
- Painful periods
- Gas, bloating, or other gut issues
Other things you might notice as your body adjusts to being off birth control could include:
- Yeast infections
- Irregular or painful periods
- Difficulty conceiving
With proper support (in the form of diet and lifestyle changes, plus restorative reproductive medical support if needed), these symptoms can slowly start to disappear as your body resets. For some women, this can happen quickly, while for others it can take months or years. It can depend on a variety of factors, from what form of birth control you were on, to how long you were on it, why you began taking it (I.e., if there any underlying issues that can finally be addressed), and the nuances of your individual body and health.
Track your symptoms
As your body goes through the process of resetting, it can be helpful to begin charting right away, so that you can track the reappearance of your cycle and any symptoms you experience. You can even use an app to do so, like FEMM (or Read Your Body or Kindara, just to name a few), especially if you aren’t relying on it for family planning, but purely as a health tool/record. This will empower you and help you be more in tune with your body, its changes, and any patterns you may notice. Tracking the signs and symptoms of your cycle will be valuable information to share with your healthcare provider or fertility awareness method (FAM) instructor as you navigate this transition period.
Work with a FAM instructor and/or a Restorative Reproductive Medicine (RRM) provider
Transitioning off hormonal birth control and learning a Fertility Awareness Method for the first time can be overwhelming, especially if you were relying on birth control for family planning. Having a FAM instructor to guide you through the process can remove some of the stress of learning a new method, and help you gain confidence in your chosen FAM as both a health tool and family planning method. Plus, you’ll have someone who can review your charting and help you find a trusted restorative reproductive medical provider if your chart indicates issues or symptoms that need to be addressed with professional attention.
A provider trained in restorative reproductive medicine can help diagnose and treat any underlying causes of the symptoms you are experiencing without using hormonal birth control. These providers are trained to treat the cause and not just mask the symptoms or suppress your fertility to eliminate them. While this approach might take a little bit longer, it is an approach that works with your body and how it naturally functions rather than using artificial means—which is truly healing and empowering.
Choose your mindset
As you allow your body the time it needs to adjust, it’s important to approach the process with an attitude of patience and a mindset of curiosity. Although it might be tempting to want to rush the process, being patient and focusing on supporting your body will help you feel more empowered rather than pressured as you wait for your body to adjust. In a similar vein, being curious about what symptoms and patterns you start to notice can help empower you to take charge of your health. Thinking, “That’s interesting that my migraines are back. I should make a note of that to share with my provider,” sounds very different than, “Oh no! These migraines are so bad. Maybe I’m destined to be on hormonal birth control for forever.”
Yes, quitting hormonal birth control and transitioning to a fertility awareness method can be a process, and is far from being a quick-fix. We won’t sugarcoat that! But you can rest assured that even in difficult moments, the ultimate results make the process worth it. Going in with the right expectations, a patient and curious mindset, and the support of your FAM instructor and a knowledgeable medical provider can make the transition much easier.
Having the right kind of support and tempering your expectations when you get off birth control can help you achieve two important goals: managing your health without hormonal birth control, and understanding your body better. With preparation and support, you can be empowered to take charge of your reproductive health.