Back in December 2013, Vanity Fair published an article exposing the previously unreported risks and dangers of the NuvaRing, and other similar new generation hormonal contraception. Thousands of lawsuits are now filed against it. It has even proven deadly for some women. Needless to say, the article scared the heck out of many NuvaRing users.
Risks associated with the oral contraceptive, i.e. blood-clotting, have long been known and reported. But why does it take people dying and lawsuits for women to finally ask important questions and seek understanding about the medicine we put inside our bodies? The shadiness of the pharmaceutial industry is not exactly news these days, so it's up to us to be aware and informed.
But who do we go to for trustworthy information? Unfortunately, does not bring to mind your personal ob/gyn or M.D. right now. If you are, you're in the minority.
Meet Dr. Christiane Northrup. If you don't know who she is, you can thank me later for bringing her into your awareness. She has been a health crusader and leading lady of women's wellness for decades, making sure we get a dose of real knowledge, wisdom and truth. She wrote the must-have manual on the female body - Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom. If you're a woman this is non-negotiable, required reading. If you don't know your body, you don't know yourself.
I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Northrup in this interview where she helps us understand the impact of the choices we make for our bodies, especially when it comes to contraception. What she gets at here is ultimately about conscious, healthy sexuality - an important facet of well-being and health for women (and men too!).
Sandra Lanshin Chiu: I was surprised from this article to see that in this day and age women are still not asking questions about the risks of contraceptive hormones. When it comes to the NuvaRing we are talking about exposing your body to potentially dangerous, incompletely studied, synthetic hormones on a daily basis. Those who do ask questions, they are being told by their doctors "don't worry, no big deal, it's safe, you're fine" when the risks of blood clotting are so significantly heightened with NuvaRing and new generation hormones. As an OB/GYN and long-time crusader for women's health, what was going on in your mind after reading the VF article?
Dr. Christiane Northrup: None of this surprises me. If you go back to the very first birth control pill that came out in the 1960's (ENOVID), you'll see that from the very beginning, birth control pills carried significant, though often downplayed risks. The late Barbara Seamans devoted her life to letting women know about these risks and tried to bring them to the attention of the public.
BUT-- when you look at the statistics, the risks from pregnancy itself always outweigh the risks of taking a contraceptive pill or, in this case Nuva Ring. And despite the fact that the dangers of oral contraceptives have also been well-known and well-documented for decades, and because women and their doctors have been so eager to have a simple "just take it and forget about it" approach to contraception, the vast majority of women and their doctors downplay the risks.
SLC: So many of my women patients don't like the idea of taking hormones via the pill, and would prefer not to. Many in committed relationships don't like condoms, and everyone knows someone who has become pregnant from practicing withdrawal - so that isn’t an ideal choice either.
Women don't seem to consider barrier methods much anymore and have heard horror stories about the IUD. No one even considers fertility awareness methods, thinking it's the antiquated rhythm method used by Catholics. So what’s a girl to do (besides read Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom, obviously)?
If you were the average woman today of reproductive age, in a committed relationship – what form of birth control would you most consider? How would you recommend a woman go about deciding what contraceptive method is best for her now that fear of NuvaRing has spread?
CN: The IUD is making a big comeback. And it is an ideal method for women in committed relationships. It can easily be removed if, as is sometimes the case, it causes cramping and increased bleeding. But most of the time, it's tolerated very well.
Women are woefully misinformed about the so-called "rhythm" method of contraception which, when practiced correctly, has the same failure rate as the pill. The real name of this method is the "fertility awareness method" and it is based on the fact that women can learn when they are fertile - and avoid intercourse with ejaculation during that period of time.
The work of Toni Wechsler, the author of Taking Charge of Your Fertility and Cycle Awareness (for teens) -- is the most comprehensive work on the subject. Remember, fertility is not a disease. It's a gift, to be guarded and treasured. Why take synthetic hormones 24/7 - that result in at least 50 different metabolic derangements in the body - in order to prevent conception-- which can take place only for 3 days per month?
SLC: If you ask a woman on the pill how it works, usually she has no idea. This never ceases to amaze me that so many women do not have the slightest understanding of what hormones they are taking into their body, and what exactly they are doing inside. This is not ok!! As a on OB/GYN what's your comment on this state of unawareness? What's the minimum a woman on the pill should understand about what it’s doing in her body?
CN: The menstrual cycle is an exquisite barometer of our health and our connection to our creativity and fertility. It also connects us to the moon and to the tides. And-- if something in your life is out of balance--it will also let you know by giving you the typical symptoms known as PMS (premenstrual syndrome).
This includes feeling more angry or sad premenstrually when there is something that requires adjustment in your actual life, e.g. you're dating a guy who is not committing to you or who is blowing you off. And you keep hoping he'll change. But a week or so before your period, you find yourself blowing up at him. Of course, when you're on the pill, this emotional red flag doesn't wave because you've artificially created hormone stability. So you assume that everything is fine.
It's kind of like covering the indicator lights on the dashboard of your car with duct tape so you can't see them when they start flashing and indicating an oil change or engine tune up is necessary. I have a doctor friend who told me that if she hasn't been on the pill, she doesn't think she would have ended up divorced. She said, "As soon as I got off the pill, I went into a rage. And that rage was the result of years of unexpressed anger. If I had allowed myself to feel it month by month, and then take responsibility for making adjustments in my behavior in the marriage, I don't think that things would have ended like they did.
I can usually tell within a couple minutes if a woman is open to hearing the truth about the exquisite nature of her menstrual cycle. That said, there are also thousands of women for whom the pill has been a godsend. Studies repeatedly show that despite its risks, its safer than an unwanted pregnancy. So if a woman chooses to stay on the pill - just tell her to be sure to take a good multivitamin with B complex while on the pill. Because the pill is associated with some very well-documented changes in nutrient levels - particularly folic acid. If these vitamins are not replaced to optimal levels, then the chance of a healthy pregnancy (should the woman desire this later) is decreased.
SLC: What do you think of women who use the pill to treat painful cramps (dysmenorrhea) or blemished skin? A lot of women use it to help their skin look better. Most don’t want to, but are so freaked out by the thought of bad skin and are too impatient to wait for the slower (but real and lasting) changes that natural medicines like acupuncture and herbs can bring. So they go for the pill as a quick fix. What do you think of that? What would you say to those women?
CN: I understand the very American "I just want a pill" approach to life. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a quick fix - unless you are setting a broken bone or stitching up a laceration. The state of our skin is a reflection of our state of health. And simply masking that with a pill doesn't solve the problem - it just sends it elsewhere in the body. I have found that acupuncture and herbs (and dietary change) are, hands down, the most effective treatment there is for cramps and period problems.
That's not all, there's more! Stay tuned for more wisdom from Dr. Northrup in Part Two next week....(If you want to know when this and other posts go live, sign up for our newsletter at the top right)