Are IUDs Just As Bad As The Pill? Let’s Take A Look At The Pros And Cons

Ditching hormonal birth control is (thankfully) having its moment, but are non-hormonal implants actually any better?

By Andrea Mew5 min read
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Actress Lucy Hale has been a staple in many of our guilty-pleasure television dramas, from Pretty Little Liars to Katy Keene, but do you remember when she was a brand ambassador of sorts for Bayer’s Kyleena, an intrauterine device (IUD)? She praised the little birth control implant, saying it was painless, simple, and a “no-brainer” that she wished she had tried sooner. Kyleena is a hormonal IUD, but there’s also an entirely non-hormonal option out there. 

Whether you know it as the copper IUD or the coil, you’ve probably heard about women having a little piece of metal inserted into their womb as one of the many birth control options. Often touted as the better option – since we know how many complications hormonal birth control can cause – conflicting research suggests that copper IUDs are actually a worse choice and that women should use hormonal IUDs “as a result of lower odds of complications, discontinuation, and failure.” 

So, what’s really going on with all of these mixed signals? Turns out there are a lot of pros and cons to IUDs which you should know before you make the choice to get one inserted.

Pro: You’re Protected from Pregnancy for Much Longer

If you opt for a hormonal IUD like Skyla, Liletta, or Mirena, you get anywhere from five to seven years of protection from pregnancy. Choosing a copper IUD like ParaGard gives you up to 12 years of protection from pregnancy. This option can be attractive because your OB/GYN inserts it, and then you can just forget about birth control upkeep. It’s really a “fix it and forget it” method for pregnancy prevention.

When a copper IUD is placed in your uterus, it acts like spermicide by decapitating sperm (yep, the IUD splits the tail from the head of the sperm) so that they can’t reach your eggs. Zero chance of movement means zero chance of pregnancy, unless the IUD’s effectiveness is interrupted by displacement. Since it’s hormone-free, once you choose to get it removed, you could hypothetically get pregnant right after removal.

When you compare an IUD to the pill or just a plain-old condom, IUDs are the most effective form of preventing pregnancy. Less than one in 100 women using an IUD will get pregnant each year, while as many as 12% of women using the pill will get pregnant and 18% of women just using condoms will get pregnant. 

Pro: If You’re on Copper, You’re Benefitting from a Hormone-Free Method

Let’s first establish that hormone-free and side effect-free are not the same thing. Just because you’re taking a pass on whichever combination of synthetic hormones other birth control methods pump into your body doesn’t mean that you won’t feel any symptoms related to having a piece of metal implanted in your uterus.

Nevertheless, by using a non-hormonal IUD, you won’t experience those potentially lengthy detox periods when getting off birth control that leave you irregular for anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of years. Hormonal IUDs release low doses of hormones into your uterus, so if you opt for one, then you might still face a detox period or any of the potential complications that hormonal birth control poses.

Hormone-free and side effect-free are not the same thing.

Proponents of IUDs also believe that it can decrease your risk of endometrial cancer and cervical cancer, but the decades of data out there don’t necessarily differentiate between hormonal and non-hormonal IUDs.

Con: Your Periods Might Be Heavier

While a hormonal IUD can lighten your periods, a non-hormonal IUD can cause them to get heavier. In your first few months after getting an IUD inserted, you might also have irregular bleeding at unpredictable times. This heavier flow could potentially worsen backaches and cramping. While some women’s periods return to a normal flow after half a year, others deal with heavy flows for much longer.

A heavy period means much more than just extra blood to take care of. If your uterine lining is too thick, you likely have developed a hormonal imbalance between estrogen and progesterone. Similarly, you might start experiencing anovulation, which is when you have a period without your body releasing an egg. Research does suggest that increased menstrual bleeding while using the IUD could decrease over time, but intermenstrual spotting over time can still be pesky.

Con: IUDs Can Be Very Painful

Any OB/GYN worth their snuff will at the very least warn you that because an IUD is a physical, metal implant placed on a sensitive sex organ, you might feel some related pain. This can range from inflammation of your pelvis to full-on pelvic inflammatory disease, backaches, or feeling pain during sexual intercourse. You are also at risk of having your IUD either get stuck in your uterus or even penetrate the uterus. Though this is rare, this complication is very serious in that it can cause organ damage, scarring, and infection.

One writer, Conz Preti, shared in Insider that her copper IUD caused her constant cramping and pain during sex, all while dealing with 10-day long periods. She thought her IUD was poking into her uterus awkwardly, but after an ultrasound showed that it was still in place, her doctors sent her home.

“The cramps became constant. Needing to pee made me cramp. Having one of my kids sit on my lap made me jump in pain. Regardless of whether I was ovulating, menstruating, or having penetrative sex, I was in pain,” she shared.

Con: Your Natural Nutrient Levels Can Become Imbalanced

A copper IUD doesn’t necessarily introduce something foreign into your body. Our bodies need to process copper to keep other minerals like zinc and iron in balance, so you shouldn’t fear a copper IUD simply because it’s metal. That said, if you’re introducing an excess of one mineral into your body, you should be prepared for the other mineral levels to become imbalanced. This can create temporary problems like brain fog, mood swings, fatigue, depression, nausea, irritability, or cravings, just to name a few.

Our bodies need to process copper to keep other minerals like zinc and iron in balance.

One woman in a Facebook group dedicated to discussing IUD side effects shared that, among the nutrient and mineral imbalances she faced from her implant, she felt exhaustion, mood swings, migraines, cold hands/feet, dry skin, constipation, problems concentrating, spaciness, high anxiety, and even lost hair “in globs.” She also reported developing a rare disorder called pulmonary hypertension due to excess levels of copper in her blood.

Let’s analyze one of the potential nutrient and mineral imbalances from excess copper: zinc. Your body needs zinc to work in tandem with magnesium and keep your body functioning properly. With adequate levels of zinc, you’re less likely to feel stressed, your mental capacity is stronger, your mood is better regulated, and you face a higher chance of fighting off sickness and disease. That latter benefit is why, when Covid-19 began to spread, people suggested taking extra zinc to prevent infection.

Con: Too Much Copper Can Disrupt Your Mood

After a woman gives birth, doctors may suggest the option of getting back on birth control to prevent any pregnancies so soon after the last one. Non-hormonal IUDs are a more attractive option in the eyes of physicians because they don’t interrupt a woman’s hormone levels like the pill, patch, shot, or implant does while she’s breastfeeding. 

They might be even more attractive for an older mother because of the length of protection from pregnancy. If you have a geriatric pregnancy in your mid to late 30s and then have a copper IUD implanted in your uterus, you’re nearly fully protected from becoming pregnant ever again since you may hit menopause around the time the IUD loses its effectiveness.

That said, having a piece of copper implanted into a major organ causes elevated levels of copper. Your body’s copper levels already increase with multiple births to create blood vessels, and this level doesn’t tend to go back to normal after birth. Some women actually experience psychosis and postpartum depression thanks to elevated copper levels. 

Though this isn’t the case for all mothers, it does naturally lead you to wonder whether elevated copper levels play a role in certain mothers drowning their newborns, committing suicide, or engaging in any other tragic act of violence related to postpartum depression or psychosis.

There has also been talk that, since copper works well as a metal to conduct energy, the implant can potentially cause racing thoughts, insomnia, heart palpitations, and even dizziness.

Con: You’re at Risk of Heavy Metal Toxicity

Before you get too worried, contracting heavy metal toxicity from your IUD is rare. This doesn’t mean you’re not at risk, though. Healthy women with normal liver function can process minerals like copper, but if you have any pre-existing conditions that affect your liver’s ability to detox your body, then elevating your body’s copper levels can become unsafe.

Your body’s tolerance for excess copper often depends on hereditary factors. Some people are less able to metabolize and therefore effectively eliminate excess minerals from their body. If you already have a rare genetic disorder like Wilson’s Disease, then your body collects copper in glands and vital organs. Again, this disorder is rare, but as life-threatening as it is, introducing extra copper into your body could be fatal.

Some people are less able to metabolize and eliminate excess minerals from their body.

Interestingly enough, some doctors and medical agencies insist that heavy metal toxicity from IUDs is either not possible or so incredibly rare that they downplay any concerns. Take Susan Rubin, associate professor for family and social medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, who claims: “There is no such thing as copper toxicity with an IUD.”

Well, similar things were said to quell fears about silicone breast implants, but we now know that breast implant illness is the real deal and not just a myth.

Though one woman’s negative lived experience can’t negate all of the positive experiences that other women have had while on the copper IUD, it’s really valuable to listen to personal stories and treat them with respect.

Another otherwise healthy woman in her twenties got a copper IUD placed because she didn’t want to use hormonal birth control and felt no adverse symptoms beyond a heavier period. Suddenly, she started experiencing panic attacks and numbness in her limbs. Her symptoms only went that far, but other women like Olivia Bowden had increasingly severe migraines, panic attacks, memory loss, and reported having issues processing information while on the IUD.

“I thought I was getting schizophrenia, or Alzheimer’s. I started hearing voices in my head. It was always two men chatting to each other, kind of like TV or radio presenters, but I couldn't quite make out what they were saying,” Bowden shared.

Closing Thoughts

While there are certainly strong reasons to use a non-hormonal IUD as your preferred form of birth control and the odds of potential complications are in your favor, we shouldn’t ignore the risks that these implants pose to your body. However, you don’t have to entirely sacrifice side effect-free, effective birth control options. A more natural way to prevent pregnancy with no added side effects whatsoever is trying out Fertility Awareness Methods. These methods are effective without the need for extra pharmaceuticals, and if you try it out, you might even feel more empowered by understanding how your body naturally works.

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