5 surprising effects of the pill

Just when you thought you knew it all about birth control, a stream of new studies comes along to boggle your brain. Here are the known knowns.
© Women's Health // © Women's Health
It can be tough keeping up with the latest info on your current contraceptive, much less all the other options out there—heck, even how many options there are out there! Take the Pill, for example. It's one of the most studied medications a physician can prescribe, says Andrew M. Kaunitz, M. D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Florida College of Medicine at Jacksonville.
Which explains why you see so many news reports about the Pill—and why it's so easy to be confused by the constant onslaught of information. Since all the contradictory research studies and competing ads can make your head spin, we took a candid look at some of the benefits and drawbacks of this popular pregnancy preventer.
1 of 7 Birth control pills (© Jim Craigmyle/Comet/Corbis)

Your cancer risk

Verdict: It Helps
There have been a lot of confusing headlines, so here's the bottom line. One: Despite what you may have heard, taking the Pill has no impact on breast cancer risk. Two: It drastically reduces the lifetime risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers—by 80 percent in women who take it for at least 10 years. Three: It slightly raises the chance of cervical cancer, but the extra risk disappears soon after you stop taking it. All in all, the good news far outweighs the bad.
2 of 7 Medical technician helping a woman getting a mammogram (© Jim Craigmyle/Comet/Corbis)

Your relationships

Verdict: It Hurts
For some women, the Pill can put a damper on sex drive. The synthetic estrogen increases levels of a protein called sex-hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), which adheres to testosterone and makes it less available to the body. The result can be a crash in desire, muted orgasms, or pain during sex, according to Irwin Goldstein, M. D., director of sexual medicine at Alvarado Hospital in San Diego. In fact, some companies even list a decrease in desire as a side effect on the Pill's packaging. And Goldstein's research shows that levels of SHBG can stay elevated for at least several months after going off the Pill.
3 of 7 Troubled couple (© Image Source/Photolibrary)

Your weight

Verdict: It's a Toss-Up
Once and for all: The Pill will not make you fat. In fact, it has zero effect on weight, according to a review of 70 studies from the Centers for Disease Control. "Both men and women tend to gain about a pound a year as they age," says study author David Grimes, M. D. "It's just easier to blame the Pill."
Oral contraceptives may not be so great for your body composition, however. In a 2009 study, researchers from Texas A&M University put a group of 73 women on a weight-training program, and then compared the results of those taking the Pill versus those who didn't take it. Pill users built 60 percent less lean muscle and had lower levels of muscle-building hormones and higher levels of hormones that break down muscle tissue. "If you're already overweight, that could make it harder to lose extra pounds, because the more lean muscle you have, the more calories you burn," says study author Steven E. Riechman, Ph.D., M.P.H.
4 of 7 Close-up of a woman standing on a weighing scales (© Stockdisc White/Photolibrary)

Your mood

Verdict: It Helps
The Pill stabilizes hormone levels throughout the cycle, which helps reduce mood swings for many women. But for some, OCs can be a big downer. Pill users are twice as likely to be depressed as nonusers, according to research from the Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre in Australia. Another study shows that 87 percent of women who stop taking it cite emotional side effects. "A third of Pill users discontinue it within the first three months, and one of the most common reasons is mood," says study coauthor Cynthia Graham, Ph. D., a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford. Before you toss your packs, though, you might try another brand. "Switching to a different type of Pill can often improve your mood a lot," says Jayashri Kulkarni, M. D., director of the Alfred Centre.
5 of 7 Profile of a businesswoman working on a computer (© George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Your heart health

Verdict: It Helps
It's true that women who take the Pill have a slightly increased risk for blood clots, which can be harmful if they break off and travel through the circulatory system. But the types of oral contraceptives available today are much less likely to cause clots than older formulations, which had estrogen doses up to five times higher. "Today's Pill raises the likelihood of having a blood clot threefold," Kaunitz says. "By contrast, pregnancy and childbirth elevate your chances five-to tenfold." As long as you don't already have cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure or diabetes and you're not a smoker, OCs don't increase the risk for heart attack and stroke, and you can safely take them until menopause.
6 of 7 Human heart, computer artwork (© ROGER HARRIS/Science Photo Library/Getty Images)