More than 100 million women worldwide use the pill as contraception. The pill is believed to be remarkably safe, and it is easy to forget that it can have serious side effects. According to a Dutch report from 2003, users of the pill have a 3-6 times higher risk of developing blood clots in the veins, which is a dangerous condition. In addition, they have a 2-5 times higher risk of developing blood clots in the heart or of suffering from stroke. These numbers are the same for the modern forms of the pill, which have few other few side effects.
If the risk of disease is low, (because of being young and otherwise healthy) than a low percentage increased in risk does not so important. But why is there any increase at all? Light has been thrown on this question by researchers of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. They have proven that users of the pill have lower vitamin E and Q10 levels in their blood than women who do not take the pill. Vitamin E and Q10 are well known antioxidants.
This is nothing new. Already 15 years ago, researchers believed that vitamin E could reduce the risks associated with the pill. It was also known that the pill drains the body of antioxidants, which can be directly linked to an increased risk of blood clot formation. When one lacks vitamin E, the fats in the blood become oxidized, thereby stimulating the platelets to stick together causing the formation of blood clots. Logically, it was suggested that vitamin E should be combined with use of the pill.
The pill uses up the body’s vitamin E and Q10 reserves. This has been proven again, this time in a study where 15 users of the pill in their forties were compared with women in the same age group who did not take the pill. The differences found were statistically valid, and although this was a small study there were no doubts regarding the results. These results were known before the study was completed; the problem was that nobody had been paying any attention to them.
Why does the pill strain the bloods vitamin E and Q10 contents? The pill raises the body’s oestrogen levels. This is why the ovaries go into hibernation so that ovulation is inhibited. The body registers a hormone level high enough that the ovaries can take a break. Even normal (physiologic) levels of oestrogen stimulate the formation of free radicals and therefore cause an increased use of antioxidants. This has been shown in an American study of the cells which compose the inner walls of the blood vessels (endothelium cells). They also showed that free radicals resulting from the presence of oestrogen caused the cells to grow, causing the blood vessels to thicken. It is believed that this increases the risk of blood clots. It also indicates that antioxidants could prevent such side effects.
For practical purposes, women with an increased risk for side effects are advised not to take the pill. This includes women over the age of 35, women with high blood pressure, and so on. All women with an increased risk of blood clots should refrain from using the pill. This causes some amount of contemplation. Who knows if they are in the high risk group? Is their risk so low that a five fold increase in risk is acceptable?
Aside from these problems it is important to know that if you use the pill, your defence against the formation of free radicals is weakened. Even though this is well known, no one has, until recently, thought to reduce this risk with the use of antioxidants.
An important question follows: What is the long term prognosis for women who took the pill for many years when they were young? During the many years they took the pill, they had reduced levels of vitamin E and Q10 in their blood. In the short term, this increased the oxidation of the blood’s fats which increased the risk of blood clots. But does it cause problems in the long term like smoking and high blood pressure? As yet, we can only guess.
- Palan PR Magneson AT, Castillo M, Dunne J, Mikhail MS. Effects of menstrual cycle and oral contraceptive use on serum levels of lipid soluble antioxidants. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2006 May;194(5):e35-8. Epub 2006 Apr 21
- Felty Q. Estrogen-induced DNA synthesis in vascular endothelial cells is mediated by ROS signaling. BMC Cardiovasc Disord 2006 Apr 11;6:16
- Ciavatti M, Renaud S. Oxidative status and oral contraceptive. Its relevance to platelet abnormalities and cardiovascular risk. Free Radic Biol Med. 1991;10(5):325-38
- Saha A, Roy K, De K, Sengupta C. Effects of oral contraceptive norethindron on blood lipid and lipid peroxidation parameters. Acta Pol Pharm. 2000 Nov-Dec;57(6):441-7.
- Tanis BC, Rosendaal FR. Venous and arterial thrombosis during oral contraceptive use: Risks and risk factors. Semin Vasc Med. 2003 Feb;3(1):69-84
- Crook D, Godsland I. Safety evaluation of modern oral contraceptives. Effect on lipoprotein and carbohydrate metabolism. Contraception. 1998 Mar;57(3):189-201