Davina McCall's new documentary, Pill Revolution, aired this week on Channel 4. The show, which explores the current state of contraception in the UK and how women feel when stopping birth control, has been widely praised for shedding light on an all-too-commonly under-discussed topic.
As a Health Editor, I was delighted when I saw news of the show land in my inbox a few weeks ago. While here at Marie Claire UK we've been covering hormones, mental health and the various forms of contraception for years now, sadly there's still a large gender health gap when it comes to research on female health conditions.
I've been on something of a journey myself over the past twelve months, stopping birth control in December 2022. I'd been on various forms of the pill over the years - both the combined and progesterone-only - but knew, nearing my thirties, that it was time for a change.
I'd been put on birth control as a teenager following a polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) diagnosis and never really stopped to question whether the pill was helping or simply masking my underlying symptoms.
Spoiler alert: this year has taught me that it was the latter, and I've learnt an awful lot about myself, my hormones, and my body in the last six months. Keep scrolling for my story of coming off the pill and whether I experienced the dreaded post-pill acne, plus a wealth of expert quotes on how exactly it can impact your mental health.
Stopping birth control changed my life - here's how
Why I started taking the pill
Let's start at the beginning, shall we? Rewind ten years and you'll find me in a doctor's office, being told that I had the "fairly common" female health condition otherwise known as polycystic ovarian syndrome (or PCOS).
For the one in ten women in the UK who have polycystic ovarian syndrome, you'll likely experience irregular periods, higher levels of androgen hormones in your body, and fluid-filled follicles surrounding the eggs in your ovaries, making it more difficult for the eggs to be released.
As a teenager, the first (and only) advice I was given by an NHS doctor to manage my PCOS symptoms was to take the contraceptive pill. According to the NHS website, "the contraceptive pill may be recommended to induce regular periods, or periods may be induced using an intermittent course of progestogen tablets."
This is fairly standard practice, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who state on their website that most women will be advised the same to aid regular periods and prevent excessive hair growth and acne.
So that's what I did - religiously take the contraceptive pill every day for nearly ten years. While the brand of pill changed over the years - combined pills Microgynon, Rigevidon and Yasmin in the earlier years, and progesterone-only pill Cerelle come my late twenties - my approach to contraception didn't.
It's worth nothing that a side effect of PCOS is hormonal acne, something which I'd struggled with on and off since being a teenager. One of the main reasons I stayed on the pill for so long wasn't, surprise, surprise, for contraception reasons - rather, to ensure I didn't have an acne breakout like I did as a teen that would need specialist treatment, like Roaccutane (been there, done that, and definitely never want to do it again).
Why I stopped birth control
Come December last year, I'd been doing a lot of reading on my female health condition, hormone health, and the ways in which you can manage your PCOS symptoms without taking the pill. I finally felt brave enough to stop taking contraception once and for all.
If you'd met me while I was on the pill, you likely would have found my take on it rather irritating - I'd profess I'd never had any negative side effects as it "just worked for me."
Spoiler alert: I was wrong. The problem with taking hormonal contraception for the large majority of your adult life means you don't actually know what life will be like when you don't take it. For me, the viral Tiktok videos and word-of-mouth stories from friends were enough of a scare-tactic to keep me taking the pill - from the reasonable, science-backed tales of acne returning as your hormones change, to the slightly whacky, like girlfriends swearing they no longer find their partner's scent attractive after stopping contraception.
Six months on, and I can't believe how much better I feel without taking hormonal contraception. It goes without saying that I'm now taking different precautions when it comes to practicing safe sex, but can't stress enough how much both my physical and mental health have improved.
The slight hint of sadness that had always lurked on the edge of my periphery has lifted and I get far fewer mood swings and anxious thoughts.
Amazingly, I've also experienced regular periods and my skin is the best it's been in years. I'm sure certain lifestyle changes are to thank for this - I've spent the year following an anti-inflammation diet and raving about the Glucose Goddess hacks to naturally balance my hormone levels and ease my PCOS symptoms (trust me - they work). That said, I can't help but feel in my gut that stopping the pill has played a large part in some of the factors, especially when it comes to mental health.
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Others who have experienced mental health issues on the pill
It goes without saying that my experience is unique to me, but speaking to Alice Pelton, founder of the world-first contraception review site The Lowdown which was featured in McCall's documentary, she shares that I'm far from being the only one who's mental health has suffered while taking the pill.
"I set up The Lowdown after I struggled with debilitating side effects from hormonal contraception," she shares. "I started taking the contraceptive pill when I was 16 and it made me feel depressed and emotional, impacting my relationships and my ability to do my job."
She's seen the same from her community of over 5,000 women, with impact on mood still being one of the most commonly reported side effects. "It's something we hear about a lot from our community," she shares.
A quick straw-poll of the Marie Claire UK team confirms the same, but highlights that everyone's had different experiences. While over half of the team stopped taking hormonal contraception as they felt it impacted their mental health, one maintains that she never had any issues: "I didn't notice any side effects," she shares confidently.
That said, several other team members had similar experiences to me. "I didn't like how I felt on it and it put me in a very depressive state," another team member explains.
Asking my friend for their stories, too, one explains that while she didn't notice low mood on the pill, she did suffer from little-to-no libido, which in turn impacted both her mental wellbeing and personal relationships.
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The research on the pill and mental health
There's research to back up side effects of both depression and anxiety while taking the pill, as this 2022 study on hormonal contraception and mood disorders published in the Aust Prescr. journal shows. The paper found a link between better information is "urgently needed for primary healthcare practitioners regarding the relationship between oral contraceptive pills and depression."
That said, Pelton stresses that the research on the matter is massively mixed, with studies showing directly contradicting findings. "Some evidence suggests that progestogen-only contraceptive methods may be linked to higher rates of low mood, and there is also research to suggest that non-oral forms of hormonal contraception may be linked with a higher risk of depression (think the hormonal coil, patch and ring)."
She continues by adding that it's a "really complicated space to unpack," purely because it's a known fact that everyone will respond differently to different types of contraception. We're all different, after all, and have different hormone levels, so will notice a wide range of side effects.
Why is there so little research on the pill and mental health issues?
So, what needs to change in order to ensure women are getting provided with the right care and, in turn, contraception?
Part of the problem is the lack of research and funding for said research, share all of the experts I spoke to for this piece. It's no wonder that women are still experiencing issues with the side effects of contraception when the science hasn't really moved on since the invention of the pill in 1950's.
While there's certainly been a rise in fem-tech over recent years, Dr Bryony Henderson, lead GP at Livi, believes that innovation and understanding on female contraception types has stalled as a result of lack of investment.
It draws into question why women are being given a one-size-fits-all approach to contraception when every woman's body is unique. "Rather than giving women generic contraceptive plans, it's essential that we're tailoring both advice and treatment programmes," shares the GP.
That said, she emphasises that this is only part of the solution, calling for action across the board. "It's great that these are key pillars of the government’s Women’s Health Strategy but at the moment we are seeing female health issues being treated in isolation," she adds. "We need to turn these ambitions into action - support female health training for healthcare professionals, recruit female health specialists, and improve supply of vital medication for menopause and contraception to meet prescription needs.”
I'm by no means saying we shouldn't take contraception - far from it. That said, I do think there needs to be more rigorous testing and research into how, exactly, each type of contraception might impact your physical and mental wellbeing.
I'm also passionate about making sure women get tailored and specialised treatment plans, rather than being stuck on the same contraception and left to deal with the side effects on their own. Here's hoping McCall's documentary and the surrounding press will stop this happening for future generations.
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Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, eight-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She regularly hosts panels and presents for things like the MC Sustainability Awards, has an Optimum Nutrition qualification, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw, with health page views up 98% year on year, too. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.
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