4 Ways Hormonal Birth Control Can Affect Your Gut Health
Antibiotics, stress, and a poor diet get a lot of attention when it comes to factors that can negatively impact the health of our gut. But did you know that using hormonal birth control can be equally as damaging to our gut health?
Using hormonal birth control in itself isn’t a bad thing. Many women need it to prevent pregnancy or to reduce painful symptoms of endometriosis or heavy periods.
But, if your hormonal birth control use is also accompanied by an influx of gut symptoms, it might be time to consider an alternative birth control option.
And if you’re using hormonal birth control while experiencing gut symptoms, you’re not alone. When I first developed symptoms of SIBO and gut imbalances, I was taking The Pill.
And while hormonal birth control wasn’t the only factor behind my declining gut health, knowing what I know now, it definitely contributed.
The connection between gut health and hormonal birth control isn’t widely known. Women are so often blindly prescribed The Pill, without ever knowing the potential side effects it can have on their health. Especially the health of their gut.
Which is why in this blog post, I’m going to dive into a few of the main ways that using hormonal birth control can impact the health of our gut.
Birth Control and Gut Health
Using hormonal birth control has an obvious impact on our hormones and menstrual cycle.
But, like any other prescription medication, it has wide-reaching effects on other body systems.
But, perhaps most concerning is the effects that hormonal birth control can have on our gut health.
We’re now learning that the health of our gut is so important to the health of our entire body.
So, when it comes to the gut health side effects of using hormonal birth control, knowledge is power.
In this article, I’ll dive into the top four ways that hormonal birth control can impact the health of your gut.
And if you do need to be on hormonal birth control, you aren’t doomed to have poor gut health. I’ll also give you ways you can support the health of your gut, even while on hormonal birth control.
Birth Control, Gut Health Connection #1: Microbiome Imbalance
Our gut bacteria, or microbiome, are probably the most essential piece when it comes to maintaining good gut health.
If our gut bacteria are imbalanced, or we have an overgrowth like SIBO or Candida, it’s likely that we’ll be experiencing symptoms even outside out the gut.
And when it comes to hormonal birth control use and our gut bacteria, the evidence suggests there is a real connection.
While there currently aren’t a lot of studies supporting the idea that hormonal birth control directly affects our microbiome, clinically there is proof.
A big name in the functional medicine world, Chris Kresser, has seen many women in his practice who have been on long-term hormonal birth control and who also have altered gut bacteria.
Experiencing recurrent yeast infections are also more common for women using hormonal birth control.
And since yeast infections can be one result of an imbalanced gut microbiome, this evidence indirectly points to the effects that birth control can have on the health of your gut bugs.
Currently, we can’t make any definitive claims regarding the causation between hormonal birth control. But, the evidence is definitely there that shows a link between hormonal birth control use and negative shifts in our gut bacteria.
Estrogen Metabolism in the Gut
Hormonal birth control’s effects on our microbiome can also alter our body’s ability to optimally metabolize estrogen.
Meaning that there are actually certain species of bacteria in our gut, known as the estrobolome, that helps to clear excess and used estrogen out of our system.
These specific, estrogen-metabolizing, bacteria produce an enzyme called beta-glucuronidase. This enzyme is specific for breaking down estrogens.
And when those beta-glucuronidase producing gut bugs are not as prevalent, as can happen with hormonal birth control use, estrogen won’t get metabolized as effeciently in your gut.
So, it’s possible that the bacteria shifts in our gut as a result of hormonal birth control use can actually affect how well we’re able to get rid of excess estrogens.
And when our bodies can’t get rid of those excess estrogens, they often get reabsorbed into our system. Resulting in what is known as Estrogen Dominance.
Symptoms of Estrogen Dominance can include:
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, and have a history of hormonal birth control use, checking for any imbalances in your gut bacteria could be the key you’ve been missing.
How to Support Your Microbiome
Sometimes, you can’t control whether or not you need to use hormonal birth control. But you can make sure that you’re doing everything you can to boost the health of your gut bugs during that time.
Eating a real-food diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, high-quality protein sources, and healthy fats is one way to keep your microbiome thriving.
The undigestible fibers in many fruits and vegetables actually serve as food for our gut bacteria. These prebiotic fibers help to increase the numbers of beneficial bacteria in your gut.
Keeping high levels of good gut bugs helps to reduce your chances of bacterial overgrowths or imbalances that are often common with hormonal birth control.
Using a high quality probiotic, like this one, is also another great way to boost the health of your microbiome. Probiotics can be especially helpful to counteract the potential negative effects of hormonal birth control on the microbiome.
So, just because you’re using hormonal birth control, or have in the past, doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to have poor microbiome health. Focusing on eating gut health-promoting and using a probiotic can do wonders to help support healthy gut bugs.
Birth Control, Gut Health Connection #2: Increased Inflammation
Hormonal birth control and inflammation go hand-in-hand. And inflammation, especially in the gut, is never a good thing.
Gut inflammation can lead to a host of gut-related health issues like leaky gut, change in bowel habits, or even Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD) if you’re genetically predisposed.
In fact, studies have shown that there is an association between IBD and hormonal birth control use.
Now, this doesn’t mean that just because you’re using hormonal birth control you’ll likely get an Autoimmune Disease. But, if you have the genes for Autoimmune Diseases like IBD, hormonal birth control use can be one of the factors that contribute to the eventual development of that disease.
How to Reduce Inflammation
Inflammation brought on by hormonal birth control can be addressed with some simple diet and lifestyle choices.
Reducing inflammation through food can be as easy as switching out your diet of processed foods and refined sugars, to one made up of mainly whole food sources and lots of vegetables.
You can also intentionally include foods that have been shown to fight inflammation into your diet.
Some of these inflammation-fighting foods include turmeric, ginger, and foods high in antioxidants like green tea, berries, and citrus fruits.
When it comes to supplements to help reduce inflammation in the gut, probiotics are again going to be your best friend.
Spore-based probiotics, like this brand, actually work as inflammation-fighting antioxidants in your gut. Helping to reduce that chronic inflammation that can be brought on by hormonal birth control use.
Implementing these diet and supplement changes can certainly put you on the right path to reduce any extra inflammation, even if you do need to use hormonal birth control.
Birth Control, Gut Health Connection #3: Impaired Digestion
Hormonal birth control works by providing our body a constant stream of synthetic sex hormones.
These elevated hormone levels mimic what happens during pregnancy and actually trick your body into thinking you’re pregnant.
Great for preventing pregnancy. But not so great for enabling proper digestion.
The presence of excess estrogen in the body actually contributes to impaired gallbladder function and sluggish bile.
There are actually estrogen and progesterone receptors in your gallbladder. And the increase in these hormones that happens with hormonal birth control use, can actually greatly affect the function of that organ.
One study even found a small, but significant link between hormonal birth control use and gallbladder dysfunction.
Bile is critical in the digestion of fats and fat-soluble vitamins. Many toxins and waste products are also eliminated from the body through bile. So, if your bile is sluggish and your gallbladder isn’t functioning optimally, you won’t be able to digest or eliminate toxins well.
This can lead to SIBO, other gut imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, and an accumulation of toxins in the body.
How to Improve Digestion
Overcoming the negative impacts hormonal birth control can have on our digestion isn’t difficult.
There are a few powerful supplements and self-care practices we can implement that can really give our gut a boost, even while using birth control.
My go-to practice to boost liver function and improve bile quality is castor oil packs.
Castor oil is an oil that is readily absorbed through the skin. It’s extremely high in ricinoleic acid which gives it amazing fluid stimulating properties.
And when castor oil is placed over the liver and gallbladder, it fluid it helps to stimulate is bile.
Although they can be a little messy and daunting at first, castor oil packs are an amazing, not to mention relaxing, way to help improve your digestion.
All you need to get started is some castor oil, an unbleached flannel, a heating pad, and an old towel. The Wellness Mama has a great article on how to do castor oil packs, if you’re interested in learning more.
Including more bitter foods in your diet is an easy and relatively inexpensive way to support your liver and gallbladder function during hormonal birth control use.
Foods like beets, leafy greens (especially dandelion and beet greens), grapefruit, and artichoke are all-stars when it comes to boosting your digestion.
Supplements for Improved Digestion
When it comes to supplements to help improve digestion, there are a few heavy hitters that I’ll recommend.
Dandelion root has traditionally been used to help improve bile flow and quality. Tea is a popular and simple way to benefit from dandelion’s digestive healing properties. I drink dandelion root tea almost every night to help support my liver and gallbladder health.
Milk thistle is another great supplement that has been shown to help support healthy bile and good digestion overall. Taking this supplement before meals can help stimulate digestive juices that aid in the breakdown of your food.
Birth Control, Gut Health Connection #4: Compromised Nutrient Absorption
Hormonal birth control has been shown to deplete the body of key nutrients like zinc, B vitamins, magnesium, selenium and vitamin C.
These are nutrients that we work hard to get from our food and possibly even other supplements and vitamins we take.
So, it’s important to know that using hormonal birth control, no matter how necessary it is, can leave you susceptible to nutrient deficiencies.
Some of these nutrient deficiencies can specifically affect gut function, and may be behind some of your gut symptoms or conditions.
Zinc, for example, works in our digestive tract to enhance the gut lining. This supplement can actually be used to heal leaky gut. But when you’re deficient in it, as is common with hormonal birth control use, your gut is more likely to be leaky.
Selenium is also a critical nutrient when it comes to gut function. This micronutrient helps to regulate glutathione production. Glutathione is required for normal gut function and detoxification.
Diets high in selenium have actually been studied to improve the microbial diversity in the gut.
It’s no secret that the health of our gut relies heavily on our ability to maintain adequate levels of key nutrients and vitamins. And, unfortunately, hormonal birth control does not do us any favors when it comes to improving nutrient status.
But, don’t worry. Even if you’re on birth control, or have been in the past, you can use targeted supplementation to help recover those nutrients that The Pill is possibly depleting.
How to Supplement for Gut Health
The first step to supplementing to support any nutrient deficiencies caused by hormonal birth control is to get tested.
Most General Practitioners will have no problem running a standard vitamin and nutrient panel. And depending on your insurance, the cost is usually pretty minimal.
Once you have the results, you will be able to determine where you need to supplement in order to help boost your gut health.
Conventional lab ranges, however, are often very wide. And a true vitamin or nutrient deficiency may not show up, even if your levels aren’t optimal.
For more information on how to read and interpret your lab ranges, check out this article I wrote on the topic.
The Bottom Line
The research is pretty strong that hormonal birth control negatively impacts the health of your gut.
The synthetic hormones in these forms of birth control can affect everything from the health of our microbiome to how well we’re able to digest the foods we eat.
But, just because you’re on hormonal birth control, or have been in the past, doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to have poor gut health.
There are several proactive measures that you can take, right now, to protect your gut from the potentially damaging effects of hormonal birth control.
Using hormonal birth control in itself isn’t bad. But if you’re on The Pill and experiencing any gut symptoms, it may be worth looking deeper at your birth control as a root cause.
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