Most women who have been on the pill can tell: hormonal contraceptives are not changing only what’s going on with their ovaries. Their brain is affected, their gut is affected, their energy and mood are affected. And that’s only what they can perceive. But how can we know what artificial hormones really do to the women who absorb them?
There is a dearth of studies on the topic, according to Chandler Marrs, MS, MA, PhD, CEO, the founder, creator and driving force behind Lucine Health Sciences and Hormones Matter. And that’s what she is working to change. She has done extensive research already and her organization is sponsoring more studies to measure the effects of contraceptives. I heard Dr. Marrs speak at the recent Contraceptive Conundrum conference, where she demonstrated how the artificial hormones in contraceptives affect many areas of the body (her presentation slides can be viewed here).
For many of us who don’t have a background in biology, it is difficult to fathom this business of hormones and how they function. The key is to understand that hormones are messengers to the cells in the body and as such act as regulators for many bodily functions.
Hormones are supposed to ensure smooth functioning of your body. For example: a well-functioning pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that regulates the level of sugar in your body. If you have too much sugar, insulin is produced and tells your cells to absorb the sugar so that the body produces energy. If there is something wrong, for example not enough insulin is produced, your body is in danger. The sugars you absorb go into your bloodstream instead of the cells that need it. You may experience fatigue, extreme hunger, frequent infections. The regulator is not doing its job.
We could compare your body as a fast food chain, with you as the CEO, while your hormones are like the managers of the individual restaurants.
Things happen very fast at each restaurant. A manager is always there to make sure things are done right: enough people to take orders, the cooking crew watching over the burgers and making sure they’re not burning, the cleaning staff keeping the place neat, the credit card machines functioning. This process occurs in thousands of places around the country at the same time so that, more or less, the entire fast food chain is functioning pretty smoothly. Customers keep coming, the company makes money and continues to function and grow.
When a woman goes on hormonal contraceptives, it’s like the CEO all of a sudden decides that he wants the restaurant to stop serving hamburgers and go vegetarian. The current managers are not able to change; they’re only trained to run the hamburgers process, that’s what they’re used to doing. So the CEO decides to replace those managers with managers who are experts in vegetarian food.
He hires a bunch of new managers who look like the old ones, wear similar uniforms, have similar training. The only problem is that, like artificial hormones that attempt to replicate the processes of your natural hormones, they’re not quite the same. The new managers try to imitate the old ones, but they’re lacking in major skills that regulate the restaurant. While these new managers know how to turn the grilling crew into a vegetarian crew, they really don’t know how to manage the cashiers and the restaurant maintenance. The CEO is happy, because he thinks that now all his restaurants are doing what he requested and turning out great vegetarian meals, but in fact, bad things are happening. The facilities are getting shabbier, the customers are getting bad service and the reputation of the chain is suffering.
The managers are the natural hormones that know your body and are designed to make it function for its original purpose. When you decide to bring in the hormones in contraceptives, it is as if you are firing these managers and bringing in new ones that are specialized in one area (turning off your ovaries), but not so good in other areas. They are even toxic to some other natural functions of your body. These new hormones manage your body so that it stops the natural process of ovulation, the production of endometrium (lining of the uterus) and cervical mucus, and even your periods. Basically it tells your body it’s pregnant, and the old “menu” or “script” is over for right now. It’s all fine and good, but the problem is that this new manager is not good at regulating other important functions that don’t affect only the reproductive functions.
Estrogen and progesterone hormones, the two main regulators for the reproductive system, have roles in the entire body. They impact many services performed by the cells of your body. For instance, they impact the brain regulation of your mood. The new hormone may change the way your body absorbs or discards critical nutrients. They can also impact the hormones that make your body interested in sex so that you find your libido pretty much non-existent.
Keep in mind that these new “managers” will differ depending on the formulation of contraceptive you are using. The managers that are used in the combined oral contraceptive pill are different from the ones used in the mini-pill. They’re all synthetic versions of the real hormones, and they all share a similar ability (to stop ovulation), but they differ in the lack of expertise they have, and that’s why you have different side effects with different contraceptives.
What we know, according to Dr. Marrs, is that when we use artificial contraceptives, as with steroids, we alter everything else in the body. For instance, there are estrogen receptors all over the body, including in the brain, heart, lungs, bones. When these new “managers” connect to the cells (the restaurant’s staff) in these areas, they change ways your cells respond and act. They may cause anxiety by interacting with brain receptors, or blood clots by increasing platelet coagulation in your blood.
Of great concern to Dr. Marrs is that synthetic estrogen behaves differently from the estrogen produced by the woman’s body. That difference can result in long-term morphological changes. An example is how “the lack of endogenous estradiol turns the mitochondria, an important component of your cells, into blobs,” which increases the chances for women to fall prey to degenerative diseases. Mitochondria are also essential for the immune system; their destruction has an impact. We know for example that it weakens natural resistance to STDs. Remember how the new manager neglected the building’s maintenance?
“We need endogenous hormones for a balance and good health,” said Dr. Marrs. The artificial ones are different in shape, potency and metabolism, which does harm to the human body, some immediately visible (side effects), some less easy to perceive but that may be even more damaging.
“We underestimate the risks of synthetic hormones significantly by ignoring the vast reach hormones have on health,” writes Dr. Marrs. If only more medical professionals will begin to heed her cautions.