Photograph taken by Simone Van Der Koelen.
A couple of months ago I wrote a 101 guide to choosing hormone-free contraceptives. Why? Well it’s the number one request in my clinic. Without a doubt there’s an anti-pill "buzz" going around social media and it’s got many of you worried. Finally, we’re paying attention to the fact that our sex hormones impact the health and wellbeing of our entire body – not just reproduction. And so, blocking important biochemical processes like ovulation long term, might just have negative effects elsewhere in our body.
It’s a message I’ve been committed to getting out there for the best part of three years now; I’ve given talks in large businesses like Net-a-Porter, I’ve hosted workshops up and down the country and I’ve given countless interviews in national papers and magazines on the subject. It’s not surprising then, that I’m over the moon this message has gained momentum. And some of the feedback I’ve received shows me we’ve truly helped change women’s lives for the better (cue my happy dance).
But what if the contraceptive pill (or any other hormonal method) is the only choice you’ve got? For some women, the hormone-free alternatives just aren’t an option. I hear you, and let me reassure you, your options aren’t as narrow as you might think.
The truth is, there are many women that use the contraceptive pill and go on to lead very happy and fruitful lives. It’s important we keep that in context. Not everyone experiences the depression, gastrointestinal problems, hair loss, missing periods, low energy and all the other deleterious side effects we’re concerned about. Don’t get me wrong these risk factors are very real. But if you feel that your options are limited there are a number of dietary and lifestyle measures you can take to help lower them. Here are my top 3 recommendations:
1. Eat a wholefood diet rich in key nutrients
Photograph taken by Edgar Castrejon.
The World Health Organization recognises the clinical relevance of nutrient deficiencies driven by long term use of the contraceptive pill. At the top of the list? The research shows that vitamin E, B9, B12, B6, B2 and C; as well as selenium, zinc and magnesium are depleted with long term use. We use these nutrients across various systems in our body, not just reproduction. From our immune system to our cardiovascular system to our central nervous system, there isn’t any corner in the body that these nutrients aren’t needed. That’s why it’s important to ensure you’re eating sufficient amounts of them. You get them from:
B vitamins: free-range eggs, dark green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, rocket and swiss chard, organic grass-feed meat (organs like liver and kidneys are particularly high) and seafood
Vitamin E: a variety of nuts and seeds – sunflower seeds are the highest ( be sure to go raw and organic as they’re much more dense), avocados, spinach and swiss chard
Vitamin C: All varieties of bell peppers raw, berries, kiwi, citrus fruits and raw leafy greens
Zinc: oysters, other seafood (I recommend sardines with the bones as it’s more concentrated) nuts and seeds, beans (if tolerated)
Selenium: Brazil nuts, fish, beef, turkey, chicken
Magnesium: spinach, kale and other leafy greens, beans (especially black eyed beans), nuts and seeds (especially almonds), salmon and mackerel
It’s worth considering a really good multivitamin to help establish a baseline of nutrients while you’re on the pill. But it’s important you don’t rely on just this. Nutrition is best absorbed from your diet!
2. Give your gut some extra TLC
It’s well established that the contraceptive pill disturbs the balance of bacteria in your gut. There’s research that suggests it can drive gastrointestinal inflammation and intestinal hyperpermeability (a.k.a leaky gut resulting in food intolerances) too. And as you’re probably aware, your gut bugs affect a lot. From impacting your weight, immunity, heart, brain and hormones, they’re more influential than Kanye West on a Twitter rant.
My gut go-to’s are vitamin A (found in red and orange fruits and veggies), zinc, Omega 3 EPA from oily fish and vitamin D. A diet high in fibre, more specifically, prebiotics are a must. But if you suffer from chronic bloating, you’ll need to ease into these gently. Leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, tomatoes and onions are some of your best sources. The fibre helps to nourish and grow your good bacteria. And then of course, there’s the fermented foods rich in bacteria to help your gut bugs thrive even more. I love sauerkraut, sashimi, kimchi and if you don’t have problems with dairy, kefir too.
I often find that probiotics can be helpful as well. However, it’s worth working with a practitioner here as there are so many strains that act very differently from one another. Unless you opt for a general formula that’s well tolerated by most, the strains you go for depend entirely on the landscape of your gut bugs which is unique to you. A practitioner can test your microbiome and make the most effective recommendations.
3. Back up your liver
Photograph taken by Skyla Design.
Oh yeah, call in the nutritional Gestapo to help police your liver; the contraceptive pill can place quite a burden! And that’s not just because of the nutritional depletions we’ve already scoped; your liver has to work extra hard to break down all those hormones you’re taking too. Some of the problems I’ve seen in my clinic induced by the strain on our livers are high cholesterol, high sex hormone binding globulin (this can often result in missing periods after coming off the pill), and blood sugar imbalances.
Now let’s be clear, we need to mute the alarm bells that often go off when we talk about the pill and its effects on our liver. Rest assured, your body is designed to detox hormones – those we make and those we take – naturally. Every four minutes your blood is filtered through your liver; it’s an automatic process. However, it can become sluggish if there’s too much to clear out or too little nutrients to support its work.
Given that you are taking additional hormones that we know deplete key nutrients, the contraceptive pill can hit your liver with a double whammy. There’s nothing you can do to alleviate the pressure from taking those extra hormones, but there’s plenty you can do to give your liver the tools it needs to do its best job.
Amino acids from protein sources, like eggs, chicken, turkey and beef are essential. B vitamins and a balance of minerals are important too. When it comes to detoxification I always think you need to hit 3 factors:
Slay: i.e. herbs and nutrients that help to kill bacteria, infections or mute toxins to alleviate pressure from your liver. Milk thistle with standardised extracts of silymarin, dandelion, artichoke and lemon are some of my favourite herbs for hormone clearance.
Snag: these are what we call ‘binders’ that help gather up all the debris from the detoxification process so that it can be quickly thrown out. My favourite is chlorella, but there are a few other binders you can take too.
Sweat: ultimately, detoxified hormones and other toxins are thrown out of your body from your stools and urine. But you can do a lot more to support these exit channels through increasing your sweat too. I tend to recommend sauna therapy (because who doesn’t enjoy 5-10 mins or ‘me time’ at the spa?!).
It’s always a good idea to ensure you’re eating an array of colourful vegetables throughout the day too. The broader the spectrum the more antioxidants you’re getting. This is important because there’s a lot of oxidative stress and free radical damage that naturally occurs during a detox.
If you’d like to work with Kay on balancing your hormones please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org.
References to research and claims are available upon request via email@example.com.