Oral contraceptives can do a lot more than prevent pregnancy.
There’s a good reason why the pill is the most popular method of birth control in the United States: It’s really good at preventing pregnancy (when taken correctly, it’s up to 99.9% effective). But family planning is not the only benefit of hormonal birth control.
In fact, out of the 11.2 million American women who take the pill, about 14% of them (or roughly 1.5 million) take it only for non-contraceptive reasons. Another 58% of women use it partly for non-contraceptive reasons, according to 2011 research from the Guttmacher Institute. (And with male birth control now a step closer to reality, that number may rise even more in the future.)
Ultimately, the best type of birth control for you will probably depend on multiple factors, says Beatrice Chen, MD, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive services at the University of Pittsburgh. If you’re thinking of making a contraceptive switch, though, here are seven benefits of being on the pill.
Your skin might clear up
About 14% of women take oral contraceptives in part to get rid of their acne, according to the Guttmacher survey. Doctors often prescribe combination birth control pills (which are the most common type and contain both estrogen and progestin) because they can lower the body’s levels of androgen, a hormone that helps produce oils in the skin, says Dr. Chen. One 2011 review by the Cochrane Collaboration found that since combination birth control pills can reduce the amount and severity of breakouts, they might be a good option for women who want a contraceptive and are trying to clear up their skin, too.
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Your periods may get a lot less painful
More than half of women who get their periods experience at least one or two days of pain during their cycle, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. That could be why 31% of women who use the pill partly rely on it to help relieve menstrual cramps or pain. Birth control pills reduce the amount of prostaglandins that the body produces, explains Dr. Chen. That, in turn, prevents the lining of the womb from thickening, which results in lighter periods.
They may get more regular, too
Your weight, medications, stress, and other health conditions can mess with your period, and even a healthy woman may not get her period at the exact same time every month; the average cycle is 28 days, but anywhere between 24 and 31 days is considered normal. Taking the pill can help make your period more predictable. With most birth control pills, you take 21 days of hormone-containing pills, followed by seven days of placebo pills. During the placebo week, the break from synthetic hormones triggers bleeding that mimics a period. (Note: spotting between placebo weeks isn't unusual within the first three months of starting a new type of pill, and can also happen when you miss pills or fail to take them at the same time every day.)
You could lower your risk of endometrial and ovarian cancer
Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States; more than 22,000 women will be diagnosed with it in 2016, according to the American Cancer Society. But research has shown that women who use the pill are less likely to develop this deadly disease—and the longer they take them, the more that risk drops. A 2013 research review published in Obstetrics and Gynecology examined the results of 55 studies and found that for women with average risk, using oral contraceptives reduced lifetime risk of ovarian cancer by 40 to 50%. Likewise, studies have shown that taking birth control pills is linked with lower odds of developing endometrial cancer (the most common type of uterine cancer). The protective effect increases the longer a woman takes the pill, and even continues for up to 30 years after she stops using it.
It could ease symptoms of endometriosis
Endometriosis is a disease that occurs when the tissue that normally lines the uterus starts growing outside of the uterus—for example, on the ovaries, fallopian tubes, or bladder. Some women don’t experience any symptoms, while others can have heavy periods, stomach and lower back pain, and trouble getting pregnant. The hormones in oral contraceptives can slow the growth of these tissues, which can ease the pain and the symptoms.
It can help women with PCOS
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is the most common hormonal disorder among women, with about 10% of all women of childbearing age developing it. In addition to irregular periods, PCOS symptoms include excess hair on the face, chest, back, and limbs, as well as acne, baldness, and weight gain. There's no cure, but taking the pill can help regulate menstrual cycles, reduce hair growth, and clear up acne.
You might experience fewer migraines
Around 50% of women say that they get migraines around their period. That's probably because women experience a drop in estrogen levels during part of the menstrual cycle, says Dr. Chen. Taking oral contraceptives that “skip” your period (as opposed to the three weeks of hormones pill, followed by one week of placebo) can provide a steady dose of estrogen, which helps keep the migraines at bay.
One word of caution: this doesn’t apply to women who have the type of migraines that strike after an "aura," like flashes of light or blind spots in vision. These women already have a higher risk for certain strokes, and experts say that this risk might be even higher when they use oral contraceptives that contain estrogen and progesterone.