Precision Nutrition Blog

Does birth control impact your progress?

by John Berardi, Ph.D.

Birth control is a hot topic in the Figure Athlete world. So, what’s the deal? Does it impact progress or not? Well, as usual, the answer isn’t straightforward. Indeed, my response is typically the dreaded, “It depends.”

Prescription problems

It’s true that nowadays many women between ages 18 and 30 use oral, indictable, or topical forms of birth control. Interestingly, these hormonal prescriptions aren’t always used exclusively to prevent unwanted pregnancy. In fact, more frequently you see teenage girls being placed on birth control hormones to help regulate menstruation. Heck, some are placed on the pill to help control acne!

And while these hormonal interventions are often effective on all counts (preventing unwanted pregnancy, helping regulate menstruation, and helping control acne), they aren’t without risk. For starters, long-term use of birth control hormones may increase the risk of cervical, liver, and breast cancer. Not good.

However, of interest to the lovely ladies of Figure Athlete, should also be the fact that birth control hormones may lead to either: an increase in body fat, specifically in the lower body and the upper arms, or difficulty losing fat in these same areas when increasing exercise volume or decreasing food intake.

Speaking to this last point, in the last few months, I’ve worked with several female clients who, after going off birth control, decreased their body fat percentage within two months. And this was without changing their exercise or their nutrition plan.

As discussed in a previous article, both were sub 15% body fat to start with, and although they didn’t have a hard time staying fit while on the pill, whenever they tried to kick it up a notch to get lean, they’d struggle mightily. Any small dietary transgression, any missed workout, and they’d backslide.

However, both dropped weight immediately after switching to an IUD, and more importantly, have found it relatively easy to kick-start progress when upping exercise volume and reducing calories. Of course, these are just two examples; but they’re both very interesting.

In addition to potential cancer risks as well as a potential negative impact on body composition progress, another birth control risk hangs heavily over many young women. You see, many women report that birth control hormones can decrease their sexual desire and arousal, can decrease their sexual lubrication, and can cause pain during sex.

Now, that doesn’t sound fun; not at all!

Indeed, the two women mentioned above had been on the pill since they were both 16. Since both weren’t sexually active at the time, and since the pill gave them great sexual difficulties years later, they just assumed that either sex was unpleasant or that there was something wrong with them.

Happily, they learned otherwise over a decade later when coming off the pill. They both now enjoy a healthy sexual appetite and an enthusiastic sex life when previously they both reported hating sex. It’s just a shame that it took them so long to figure out the problem and to switch to an IUD.

Hormones will be hormones

While these stories are interesting, there are two major problems associated with anecdotal evidence. First, for every “birth control screwed me up story,” there’s probably an “I didn’t notice anything” story. There are even probably an equivalent number of “the pill saved my life” stories.

So what’s the deal? Well, the birth control hormones are just that — hormones. They’re designed to alter your physiology in a very powerful way.

Think about it.

The main biological function of a man is to share his seed with a woman so that she might become pregnant. And the main biological function of a woman is to receive this seed and become pregnant.

By taking the pill, the patch, etc., you’re chemically preventing what your body was designed to do. And you’re doing it by altering your hormonal environment. Since everyone’s hormonal set-point is different, it only stands to reason that for some women, the pill will act like poison; for some, it’ll be neutral; and for others, it’ll be life-saving.

Remember, it’s not only the medicine that determines health — it’s the environment, as well.

So, although birth control pills, patches, and injections are excellent forms of contraception, there are definitely some things to think about health-wise and physique-wise before simply getting the prescription and living with the consequences.

To help you think through some of these consequences, I’ve interviewed five athletes about their personal experiences with prescription birth control.

Sure, I could’ve written a scientific article on the subject and reviewed all the relevant literature. However, science deals in means. In other words, it takes the average of all the responses of all the test subjects and reports those. And while this can give us a good picture of what most women can expect when, say, taking the pill, it doesn’t do a great job of telling us what happens to each individual person.

Anecdotal stories give the power back to the individual. It allows them to tell their own story. And it allows you to go beyond the means, to consider what individual impact certain lifestyle choices can have.

So, with all of this said, let’s get down to the interviews.

Athlete #1

Athlete #1 is an elite Figure Athlete. She’s won many Figure shows and has repeatedly placed in the top ten at the Arnold Classic and the Olympia.

I started taking the pill when I was a freshman in college for its intended use — to prevent unplanned pregnancy. I ended up taking it for three years, and then I was switched to the patch for another year.

Although I can remember gaining weight when I began taking it, I didn’t think it was a huge amount. And it was definitely worth the trade-off, as it’s a lot harder to stay lean when pregnant. Interestingly, however, when I got involved in fitness, I found that I simply couldn’t lose the extra ten pounds I’d gained until I stopped using prescription birth control. Really, that’s the main reason I stopped taking it.

As far as sex drive and desire, I think I was pretty normal, whatever normal is. So, I don’t think I had a problem there. And it didn’t cause any other side effects I could notice.

In the end, I think prescription birth control is great for preventing pregnancy, but I had to stop using it as my Figure career progressed because it prevented the type of progress I was looking to achieve.

Further, with new literature on the potential negative health effects, I decided it was no longer an option for me. Nowadays, I tell my man, “No glove, no love.”

Athlete #2

Athlete #2 is a former elite level figure skater. She skated competitively for 14 years and was ranked nationally.

I started taking prescription birth control when I was 17. It was recommended that I do so to help regulate my menstruation, as well as to prevent pregnancy should I become sexually active. I was on oral birth control (TriCyclen and Alesse) for about four years.

When I started taking the pills, I really can’t say I noticed any fat gain. However, looking back I definitely recognize a change; they say hindsight is 20/20. I was eating the same and exercising (figure skating plus off-ice training) consistently both prior to taking the pill and during, yet my body fat percentage went from about 15% to 18% in less than a year.

I remember having extensive talks with my coaches at the time about my change in bodyweight and body fat. However, I wasn’t forward with the fact that I was on birth control, and we all chalked it up to my hitting puberty.

I didn’t share that with my coaches because in the skating world prescription birth control is a flat out no. Coaches, trainers, and skaters all think it puts on weight. Seeing as figure skaters have to be small and lean, it’s just not an option for girls who want to be considered competitive and elite.

Now, I really noticed the difference when I retired from skating. My activity levels decreased and I gained a lot of body fat. Over the next year, I got interested in training and got on a program to lose fat. I did well, but not great.

When I switched to the IUD, I did lose a lot of body fat, specifically in the upper arms, butt, and thighs. However, this came at a time where I also changed my training, so I’m not sure that I can attribute my substantially leaner physique to the new program, going off prescription birth control, or a combination of both.

Beyond this, although I didn’t notice any changes with respect to mood either on the pills or IUD, I did notice a huge change in sexual desire. After about a year of the pills, I began losing my sexual appetite. After three years, I began having to use personal lubricants. Finally, after four years I really had no desire left at all; only on very rare occasions.

Fortunately, after one month off the prescription pills, my sexual desires began to increase. Now, I’m more receptive to sex and am more excited about it than when I was 17. What a change! Also, my need for personal lubricants has dropped dramatically.

The only thing that’s uncomfortable about the IUD is the fact that all of the regular menstrual side effects have returned, i.e. extreme cramping, heavier flow, longer duration (seven days). However, I feel that this is much more natural. Ultimately, I think that the IUD is as close as you can get to being natural.

In the end, my advice is this: Don’t just go with the first thing the doc suggests; do your own research beforehand. Keep in mind what you want in life and how each type of birth control will affect those goals and desires. Try to find a birth control method that suits you personally.

Athlete #3

Athlete #3 has been a successful international champion powerlifter, an internationally competitive drug-free bodybuilder, and is recognized as a top expert on female training.

I started taking birth control because the “rhythm method” didn’t work all that well for me. I got pregnant with my first child when I was 17. So, I started taking Ortho 7/7/7 at the age of 18. I took this exclusively for about 13 years.

Unlike most women’s experiences, initially my weight would go up when going off the pill. But then I’d get leaner. I noticed the difference in getting lean in the lower body, particularly the hips, thighs, and glutes. I’d also see a reduction in the appearance of cellulite over time.

Beyond this, I didn’t notice much in the way of mood changes or sexual changes. I do have fewer PMS symptoms now, but I’m not sure if that’s from not being on the pill, from cleaner eating, or from a better balance of essential oils.

And regarding sex, having a child at 17 seemed to have an impact on my sexual desire; so there are a lot of other factors here. I should also note that my skin was better (less acne) when taking oral contraceptives.

When on the pill, I was competing in powerlifting. It was very common in powerlifting to anticipate the start of your menstrual cycle and take more or less pills to delay getting your period since the pill regulates the start date. The concern was the fluid retention, symptoms such as low back pain, and how your period affected performance overall.

For example, I’ve historically performed at my best the week following my period. So, I’d try and time it that way by manipulating pills. It’s certainly not wise, but very common in weight class sports.

With all of this said, I’d still like to make an important point, and take this coming from someone who knows! Remember the role of birth control: to prevent unplanned pregnancy. No contest or bikini is worth an unplanned pregnancy. But no prescription is worth hormonal disruptions for years to come either. So, be smart and educated about your choices.

Athlete #4

Athlete #4 is a successful physique model, champion natural bodybuilder, and is recognized as a top expert on female training.

I’ve been active in sports since the age of five. I started weight training at 13. When I got married at 18, I was in excellent shape. I never had a worry or care about body fat, as I was active, had a healthy diet, and loads of energy.

Since children weren’t an option for me as a college student, I decided to go on the birth control pill. Not one week went by before I was retaining water, and after two weeks, I noticed an increase in body fat and a decrease in my energy levels. My activity levels hadn’t changed, nor had my diet. But my body had.

I continued taking the pill for another month, and the only results were moodiness, and weight gain, which was mostly water retention and a little bit of fat. Being one that’s very sensitive to always looking and feeling my best, I decided quickly that the pill wasn’t a good choice of contraception for me.

After I went off of it, I started doing research only to find out the potential health risks of birth control, which solidified my decision. Meanwhile, my mood was back to normal, and so was my body. I’m sort of a diehard when it comes to taking care of my body, so for me it was an easy choice.

That’s not to say that I feel it’s wrong for anyone to take birth control. However, for me, not taking it was an easy way to not only stay leaner, but to ensure that my body was functioning without being “masked” by any substance.

Athlete #5

Athlete #5 is a new Figure competitor with an extensive sports background, competing in figure skating, soccer, and track and field.

I have a lot of experience with birth control. I started with the pill and took it for about five years. Then I switched to quarterly injections for about three years. Next, I tried the patch for another three years, and now I’m using an IUD.

I started taking birth control at 16 because of headaches. You see, before puberty, I never experienced a headache. However, after puberty, I’d get light headed, get headaches that prevented me from participating in sports, and would pass out (about once every two weeks). These symptoms typically came around the time of month I was supposed to have my period and during physical activity.

I also had very irregular periods. I’d skip a month, and then have it for two days, and then a few weeks later have it again for five days, and so on. In the end, the doc thought the pill was the answer to this. I wasn’t sexually active at the time at all, but the pill really helped, so I was happy.

Before taking the pill at 16, I weighed about 100 to 106 pounds. I’m not sure what my body fat was at the time, but I was skating four hours a day, five days a week. I was also running three times per week for 30 to 60 minutes. My body fat percentage was probably at its lowest at this time.

I didn’t really notice any change in body comp with the pill, although I likely wasn’t all that aware because I never ever had to be. I was thin, my coaches never said anything, and I received enough compliments to make me think there were no issues. I’d hoped for an increase in cup size, but no such luck.

As I got to university, I was still training, but some of my habits changed. I also switched to quarterly birth control injections. Unfortunately, I gained a lot of weight. I was between 125 and 130 pounds at the time despite my training. Beyond this, although I didn’t have headaches, periods, bloating, or any of the usual side effects, I did start to notice an increase in hair growth.

That was it for me. Time for a switch!

At this time, I switched to the patch. The first three months were difficult, as I had what could only be described as “morning sickness” for the first three days after putting on each new patch. Beyond this, I had no other problems or symptoms.

I was able to drop a few pounds while on the patch, but I was very active (teaching physical education, coaching figure skating, lifting weights, and training for a marathon) and wasn’t eating much due to a very busy schedule.

After about three years, however, I was doing some reading and realized that I’d been on some form of hormonal birth control for 11 years — way too long! I decided to try an IUD.

Previous to having this inserted, I was training hard in the gym and had gained some muscle, although I was having difficulty losing fat. No matter what I tried, I’d remain stagnant. Plus, I felt that whenever I had a dietary transgression, even a small one, I’d ruin weeks of progress.

However, once I was off the patch, I lost about six pounds of body fat in less than six weeks — mostly from my lower body, which has been a trouble area for me since I was 20.

I can now eat carbs and not obsess over the body comp impact they may have. I include fruit and whole grains in my diet now and maintain a desirable body composition year round. It’s amazing.

In addition, I’m so happy to say that I now know that it was the birth control that negatively impacted my sex life. Since I wasn’t sexually active when I was 16 and started taking birth control, I really didn’t know what sex should be like. So, when I started sexual activity, I hated it. It wasn’t pleasant; it hurt. Mentally, I wasn’t there and was simply disgusted with the whole act of sex.

Partners would get upset and frustrated. I had to be convinced to have sex at all. Lubricants eased the pain somewhat, but still didn’t make me want to partake. Alcohol was the only real way to convince me. I thought it was me. Or that it was just overrated.

Now, off birth control, there’s no need for a lubricant, I’m engaged (mentally and physically), orgasms are easy to have, and best of all, I look forward to it. Plus, I love it when my partner initiates sex.

Around the same time I also started to experience what I call a “real” period. I had slight cramping, more flow, vibrant color, and duration as it should be. None of these symptoms stop me from participating in physical activity, going to work, etc.

Nowadays, it’s the same, and I’m happy to feel more like a woman. I enjoy sex, look forward to it, initiate it, and think about it once in a while. It’s a whole new thing for me! Not to mention my partner is receptive to the change.

Of course, there are some drawbacks. Since being off birth control, I do have cramping, increased flow, longer periods, and bloating around my time of the month. These are all side-effects most girls start taking birth control to reduce. However, I’m okay with them because the beneficial effects far outweigh them.

The best piece of advice I can give is this: Unless it’s actually improving your health or your ability to function in society, get off i! I’d recommend just going with the normal IUD and experiencing womanhood.

Personally, I think the more control you have over your body the better. The pills, patches, and injections are all artificial manipulating agents — unnatural and not what was intended.

Take control of your birth control

There you have it, straight from the athletes themselves. Five stories and five sets of birth control experiences.

Again, anecdotal testimonies like these aren’t perfect. And these women’s experiences may be nothing like yours. But perhaps their stories can help you think about your own birth control choices. They might even stimulate a new conversation with your own doc.

And that’s what Figure Athlete is all about — taking control of your health, your body composition, and your performance.

First published at www.figureathlete.com
© 1998 — 2008 Testosterone, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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