Why We Are Addicted to Hormonal Birth Control with Holly Grigg-Spall

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

[This is also an episode on The Tranquility Tribe Podcast on iTunes. Listen here.]

All about Holly

Holly Grill-Spall is the author of the bestselling book Sweetening The Pill: Or How We Got Hooked On Hormonal Birth Control, which began as a blog and is now being developed into a documentary! She’s been featured She’s been featured in publications all over ranging from The Guardian to NPR to the Washington Post to Vogue, and Vice called her “the poster girl for a movement of women abandoning the pill in favor of contraceptives that don't wreak havoc on their body and mind.”
Holly has travelled all over the world leading workshops to empower women to take back their bodies from synthetic birth control. Holly’s passion for the subject came out of her own experience taking Yaz for 10 years, starting at age 17. Holly experienced very serious side effects, including effects on her mental health, leading her down a path of research into everything pill-related.

The Pill’s History - Not a Pretty Past

The pill came into the lives of American women in the 1960s, but not before it was tested on vulnerable populations such as those in mental institutions and women of color in developing countries, typically without consent. Synthetic hormones were actually commonly tested on men in the asylums, so the effects on women were relatively less known. After 10 years of being on the market, women who were on the pill began to report strokes, blood clots and even severe depression. These side effects prompted Senate hearings, although it was only male doctors who were testifying rather than women who were the ones experiencing the effects, resulting in feminist protests.

Now more than 50 years later, pervasive marketing has led women take the pill in ways that people would have never dreamed of in the 60’s - they start in their teens and take it through menopause for reasons ranging from PMS to acne to endometritis. The pill has become doctors’ cure-all for anything that goes wrong with women’s health.

The Truth about Hormones

While Holly’s book mostly focuses on the avoiding pregnancy aspect of the pill, she realizes that women are prescribed it for a variety of other reasons, most notably hormonal imbalance problems. However, the pill can’t “fix” these issues per say, as it doesn’t regulate your hormones but rather it suppresses and replaces your own hormones with synthetic ones. Not only are these biologically very different from your own hormones but they also act very differently from your own - you have a steady stream of consistent hormones rather than the rise and fall of your body’s. This is far from what women are typically told in terms of the pill being a productive fix to things. 

Additionally, women really aren’t made aware of all the different side effects that these synthetic hormones can bring about. HeHe herself has experienced mood and anxiety problems because of the pill. Holly’s research has shown that the pill can cause everything from social anxiety and panic attacks to obsessive compulsive tendencies and a lack of motivation and excitement known as anhedonia. 

Are providers in the dark too?

Holly says it’s hard to say. Oral contraceptives came out decades ago and at the time were celebrated as liberation and freedom for women from their biology. They are so widely accepted that it’s literally known as “the pill”! The truth is that there’s unfortunately just not a lot of concentration on women’s health issues in the medical education world, and that combined with the positive storied history of the pill makes it easy to prescribe without hesitation. 

The Pill and Pregnancy

Women are told that once they go off the pill, their period will return quickly along with their fertility - unfortunately, that’s not the case for all women. Holly suggests that you should come off the pill as early as a year before you want to get pregnant - this will let you see if you have an issue that your birth control was masking such as a hormonal imbalance or PCOS and give you time to take care of that before trying to get pregnant.

What are the alternatives?

Holly says that it’s important for you to evaluate why you’re on the pill on the first place. Most women take it to prevent pregnancy along with something else, like dealing with acne, mood swings or cramps, so you have to investigate alternatives to whatever the pill is providing for you. Holly suggests giving yourself a six month break from the pill to see how you feel, while of course covering your bases when it comes to preventing pregnancy through condom use and natural spermicides. Some other alternatives include fertility awareness methods like tracking temperature changes, diaphragms and the copper IUD (although there are side effects that come along with that too).

Of course, if you’re comfortable with how your body has interacted with the pill so far and have educated yourself about possible issues you may face in the future, by all means stay on it - just be aware of your other options!

If you’d like to connect with Holly, you can find all the ways to reach her at her website, www.sweeteningthepill.com. Her book is available wherever your favorite books are sold!

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