New science shows the tiny tablet does way more than just prevent pregnancy – it affects your body and mind in complex ways, both good and bad

The first women who took the birth-control Pill – way back in the Sixties – experienced life-changing empowerment with their reproductive freedom. But today, the responsible, educated part of the population takes the common contraceptive without much thought. Not ideal, as it turns out, since the Pill has now been found to affect everything from your bones to your brain to, yes, your sex appeal.

Description: The Pill’s Secret Powers

The combination Pill works by tricking your body (via artificial versions of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone) into thinking it has already ovulated. In other words, your ovaries don’t release a monthly egg (sorry, eager-beaver sperm). The process sounds deceptively simple, and it works. But the steady levels of excess hormones floating through your blood-stream are doing much more than pushing the pause button on reproduction.

How the Pill changes your looks

Recent studies confirm the Pill can alter your appearance – but not as much as you might think, thanks to new varieties with lower doses of hormones.

The skin solution

The Pill has long been rumoured to clear up pimples and, indeed, studies show that artificial oestrogen can spur the production of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), which lowers testosterone levels. Because testosterone ups your body’s output of sebum – the pore-clogging stuff that can lead to zits – the less you have of the hormone, the clearer your skin might look.

The weight-gain debate

In the past, if you took the Pill you could expect to pack on a few kilos. Early versions were full of high doses of oestrogen, which may prompt the kidneys to step up water retention. The result: bloat. Lots of artificial oestrogen may also encourage breast tissue growth, leading to a bumped-up bra size. But recent research shows that low-dose Pills (some with less than half the amount of hormones in the original kinds) are just as effective at preventing pregnancy. And a US study found that women on low-dose Pills didn’t gain any more weight than women in a control group. Despite this reassurance, weight gain remains a top concern for would-be Pill takers, says gynaecologist Dr Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz.

How the Pill changes your health

Description: How the Pill changes your health

News reports have made much of the Pill’s effects on bones and blood clots. Here’s what the science really says.

The bone truth

A 2010 study found that young women on low-dose oestrogen Pills had a six percent lower spinal bone density than non-users. What’s happening? Natural oestrogen peaks can stimulate bone growth, but the Pill keeps oestrogen levels steady, says study author Dr Delia Scholes. “What we don’t know,” says Scholes, “is what happens to your bones when you quit the Pill.” In other words, though it might negatively affect bones, there’s no proof that taking the Pill leads to osteoporosis or bone fractures.

The blood clot connection

It’s true that Pill users are at a slightly higher risk for venous thromboembolism (VTE), blood clots that form in the legs. But your risk depends on the kind of Pill you take: a study in the British Medical Journal found that women on kinds with drospirenone – a new type of articial progesterone – were about three times more likely to develop certain VTEs than those who took Pills with an older progesterone called levonorgestrel. Still, even with drospirenone, the rate is only three in 10,000. That slim possibility “shouldn’t be a deal breaker or paralyse someone from taking the Pill,” says gynaecologist Dr Ashlesha Patel. If you have a family history of clots or if you smoke – a major no-no when you’re on the Pill – be sure to talk with your gynae about all the ingredients in your potential prescription.

The cancer risk

Whether or not the Pill’s artificial oestrogen increases a woman’s breast cancer risk is still up for debate. A recent Boston University study found that some Pill takers had a 65 percent higher risk of developing oestrogen receptor-negative breast cancer than non-takers; however, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found the opposite – that past or current Pill use did not affect breast cancer risk. (The current bottom line is that if you’re already at high risk – if you have a family history, for instance – you should always get a second opinion before taking the Pill.) Some much better news: studies evaluating Pill users’ risks of developing other cancers are clear-cut. Taking the Pill may decrease your risk for ovarian cancer by 50 percent, as well as slash your risk for endometrial cancer by more than 40 percent.

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