It’s Time For A Holistic Approach To Birth Control

The word holistic, when applied to medicine, means taking the whole person into account – their lifestyle, their mental and emotional health, and the situational and social factors that impact them, rather than just their history of surgeries or a record of their family members with illnesses.

By Greta Waldon6 min read
Pexels/Alexander Mass

If we took this approach to the way we use, prescribe, and think about birth control, we might see many more women eschewing a medically interventionist approach in favor of more natural, empowering methods that nurture intimacy and agency for both women and men.

Unless you live in a cave, by now, you’ve heard that the various forms of birth control come with a plethora of side effects and complications and that more and more women have been opting out in favor of their natural cycles and hormones. Lately, the intention and manner of birth control prescription have especially been under fire. Whether it’s 15 year olds being prescribed the pill to fix their acne or 25 year olds getting an IUD without fully understanding the possible side effects, women oftentimes do not understand the risks present when their doctors prescribe them their birth control. 

Not only do women deserve to understand the implications of the drugs and medicines they’re putting in their bodies, but they also deserve a holistic approach to their birth control. I’m not condemning birth control altogether, but if medical professionals and patients alike were to consider the patient’s unique lifestyle and medical concerns when choosing their route to avoiding unwanted pregnancy, there would be far fewer women regretting their decision to partake in medical birth control methods. 

Take My Story, for Example

After using the birth control pill for a couple of years, I decided to look for a birth control option without artificial hormones, so that I would be able to get back to my own natural cycle (or so I thought). This led me to the copper IUD (ParaGard). It wasn’t hormone based, instead using copper to make an inhospitable situation inside my uterus. I got one put in, and after experiencing the extremely painful initial cramping, which luckily I knew to expect, I thought everything was going pretty well with it overall. 

Fast forward a year or so, and my list of medical ailments grew. I was losing hair at a rate that my mom noticed and confessed made her pity me. I was having heart palpitations, including one session that lasted for 20 minutes and led to me wearing a heart monitor for 24 hours. I was fainting regularly. 

I did some research online and found stories of other women experiencing similar things with the copper IUD and began to learn about the condition called copper toxicity. As the relationship that caused me to want the IUD in the first place was unraveling anyway, I decided to get mine taken out. 

Does the Copper IUD Really Cause Copper Toxicity?

Here’s where things get interesting. With a simple Google search, you’ll likely find that the most common answer is “not that we know of.” Medical professionals are quick to tell you that there is no proven link between the copper IUD and copper toxicity, but the truth is that, so far, the studies have been inconclusive one way or the other. As the non-profit Natural Womanhood puts it, “Research to date has not found evidence of copper toxicity in animal studies, but research on humans is a) limited, and b) has studied levels of total copper rather than free copper in the body, though free copper is the form that’s toxic to humans. Studies of total copper levels have thus far been inconclusive, with eight studies finding no increase in total copper levels, and four finding a significant increase in total copper levels in copper IUD users.” At the same time, there are endless online forums and blogs describing the experiences of real women who used the copper IUD and who had side effects eerily similar to copper toxicity, many with way scarier stories than mine. 

What might be going on here is that we aren’t looking at the full picture, or the full woman, in our discussions of whether or not a particular birth control method leads always and conclusively to a particular side effect for all women. In reality, there are many women who have used the copper IUD without complaint for many years. If we look a little closer at what’s going on with the many women who do react poorly to the copper IUD, we might find some clues about who this specific birth control method might not be ideal for. 

Again, looking at my own story, I realized I had a few factors that could have warned me against the copper IUD if I had known a little more about it. For one thing, I had been a pescatarian for eight years who largely ate a vegetarian diet. Around the time of getting the IUD, I had begun adding some meat back into my diet, but it was a very slow process, and much of my diet still read like a list of foods high in copper: legumes, nuts and seeds, leafy greens, avocados, tofu, quinoa, and dark chocolate.

Considering environmental factors, diet, and stress, the IUD could potentially be the factor that puts a woman’s body over a healthy copper level.

In addition to my diet, I was in a dysfunctional and unhealthy long-term relationship that kept me in a perpetual state of chronic stress. Stress can increase the copper levels in your blood, and studies have shown that people with high levels of anxiety also have higher plasma levels of copper than control groups. Natural Womanhood puts it well: “Considering other environmental factors that can lead to excess copper in the body (such as having copper pipes in the home), as well as dietary choices and certain preexisting medical conditions, the IUD could potentially be the factor that puts a woman’s body over a healthy copper level.” 

If my doctor had known the details of my diet and my current relationship, would they have been more hesitant to prescribe me the copper IUD? Sadly, many doctors won’t even think to ask about any of these things, let alone allow them to affect their decision to go ahead and prescribe whichever birth control method you’re seeking. 

What About Other Birth Control Methods?

Let’s take one more example, the birth control pill. One of the potential risks of taking the pill is developing blood clots. I personally know someone who developed a blood clot from taking the pill, and it had no small impact on her day-to-day life. Just as having more than one cause of heightened copper levels might lead to greater chances of side effects with the copper IUD, the chance of developing a blood clot, according to the CDC, “increases even more for someone who has more than one of these factors at the same time”: injury to a vein, slow blood flow, increased estrogen, being overweight or obese, and pre-existing medical conditions, among other things. 

Taking the birth control pill increases estrogen, so if you happen to also be overweight, have a more sedentary lifestyle, or meditate for long periods of time with your legs crossed, for example, you’d be at an additionally increased risk for developing a blood clot. Plus, similarly to copper toxicity, “long-term stress can affect how the blood clots,” according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. A study that looked at the impact of acute and chronic stress on thrombosis (blood clots) in both healthy individuals and cardiovascular disease (CVD) patients found that “emerging data support the hypothesis that stress has only a modest effect in promoting the development of CVD in healthy individuals, whereas it might play a critical role contributing to a more severe progression and a worse clinical outcome in patients with a previous cardiovascular pathology.” 

However, a “modest effect” might not be worth the risk of adding the pill to the equation if you’re under chronic stress but otherwise healthy. These are things that both doctors and patients should consider when deciding whether or not the pill is the right birth control method for them. 

A Closer Look at the Stress Factor

Other than learning that the copper IUD wasn’t for me, there was something else I learned the hard way through that experience: If a relationship requires you to take health-compromising measures in order not to get pregnant, chances are you are already in a high-stress situation, making you more vulnerable to the side effects of any medication, including birth control, like I was. It turns out that not only is it incredibly unattractive for a man to be either terrified or disgusted at the idea of impregnating you while still asking you to act like his wife, but it also puts a lot of stress on you as you fear the natural cycles of your own body and the natural consequences of intimacy that most cultures and women throughout history desired and celebrated. 

As the Mayo Clinic puts it, “chronic stress can wreak havoc on your mind and body.” The result of this is that by signing up for birth control without really confronting your own desires, longings, and the reality of your reasons for taking it and the state of your current relationship, you are not only setting yourself up to be more vulnerable to the side effects of birth control, but to basically any other health condition or concern, as well. Not only is a long-term relationship, like mine was, a source of stress if you’re split on things like children and the meaning and goal of intimacy, but the realm of hookup culture is its own Wild West of pregnancy-related stress, as most women naturally want to avoid an unexpected pregnancy from a one night stand or a short fling. While they might feel fun in the moment for some, there is an element of stress involved in the unique risk women bear in these encounters.

The so-called freedoms that birth control provides have made us more stressed and more unhappy, and as a result, more prone to reacting negatively to birth control.

With the current rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychological conditions at an all-time high for young women, I would argue that the so-called freedoms that birth control provides have, rather than making us more fulfilled, made us more stressed and more unhappy, and as a result, more prone to reacting negatively to things like the copper IUD or the birth control pill.

The Most Holistic Birth Control Options

If you’re looking at your risk factors and the complicated stressful nature of trying to medically control birth and are realizing that medical birth control might not be for you, there are other forms of birth control available that come without the laundry list of side effects – namely, total or cycle-specific abstinence, withdrawal methods, and condoms. If you aren’t in a committed, healthy relationship, there is absolutely no shame and definitely no harm in abstaining from sexual intercourse altogether. In fact, that’s your easiest, most effective, and healthiest way to avoid an unwanted pregnancy and much unwanted stress. If you’re married but you and your husband aren’t trying for a baby right now, the Fertility Awareness Method is an empowering way to get to know your own body and cycle and build trust and communication with your husband while still avoiding seeing that pink line on a pregnancy test just yet. 

Since these options avoid medical intervention, work with your body’s natural hormones and cycles, and build trust and intimacy rather than engender stress and tension between you and your man, they truly are the most holistic birth control options available. Whatever you decide is right for you, a holistic approach to birth control will take your full story, situation, lifestyle, and psychology into account. 

Closing Thoughts

The first place I went after I got my IUD taken out was to a health food store that specializes in supplements to stock up on vitamins like zinc that would help me rebalance my system. As I was checking out, I confided to the female cashier why I was buying the supplements. She told me that her own mother had an IUD in when she got pregnant with her (the IUD is over 99% effective, so less than 1% of women get pregnant on it), and she somehow survived the pregnancy and birth, which were both very high risk as she grew and developed in her mother’s womb alongside the IUD.

What I think her mother realized, though, was that the very thing she had been trying to avoid was actually a gift: a totally new, totally unique, beautiful new human, her daughter. If we exchanged our one-size-fits-all, get-them-on-it-as-young-as-we-can birth control mentality for one that utilizes birth control on a truly as-needed and as-called-for basis, we’d begin to see fewer complaints about birth control. Yes, we would see fewer women using the various medicalized methods – maybe far, far fewer – but we would have healthier, happier women and societies as a result. And maybe we’d have more children, too. 

Now that I’ve been off all birth control for several years, met my husband, and am pregnant with our second son, I can round out my story by sharing that my hair is fuller than ever, I rarely experience anxiety unless it’s about my toddler getting bitten by a tick in our woodsy backyard, and I haven’t fainted in years. Sometimes, newfound technology or medical innovation provides options that can cloud what truly matters – embracing our humanity, our deepest longings and desires, and our only too-natural quest for connection, belonging, and fulfillment in our families, communities, and homes. If we’re willing to take a holistic approach to birth control, we’ll find ourselves, more often than not, back on a path that leads to true love, the kind that doesn’t require stress or medication to last a lifetime.

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