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The Well+Good Guide to quitting birth control pills


Photo: Scott Webb/Unsplash
Photo: Scott Webb/Unsplash
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Breaking up with your birth control pill is kind of like leaving a longtime love—it’s pretty darn complicated.

Maybe you’re trying to get pregnant or reconnect with your natural menstrual cycle. Maybe you’re finding the pill’s side effects (chronic digestive distress, anyone?) aren’t worth the rewards. Or maybe you’re just trying to limit the amount of artificial substances you put into your body, hormones included. Whatever the reason, the decision to stop taking hormonal contraceptives is a really personal one, and although it’s the right choice for many women, there are lots of things to keep in mind before taking the plunge.

For one thing, it’s important to remember that birth control does have its perks (aside from the whole pregnancy prevention thing). “Non-contraceptive benefits of birth control pills include decreased risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers, while women who are prone to forming ovarian cysts may have a decreased risk of cyst formation while they are on the pill,” notes Dr. Rebecca Nelken, an assistant clinical professor of OB/GYN at the University of Southern California who also runs a private urogynecology practice specializing in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery.

Dr. Nelken also notes that if you started taking the pill to address a specific medical concern—like acne, painful periods, or mood swings—you should be prepared for those issues to return in full force once you stop taking it.

But if you’ve considered all of these factors and still feel like it’s time to dump your hormonal birth control, read on for expert advice on how to make quitting the pill as pain-free as possible.
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Photo: Jeffrey Betts/Stocksnap.io
Photo: Jeffrey Betts/Stocksnap.io

Before you quit

Get your diet in check
The experts we consulted all agree that putting the right fuel into your body will help it adapt to the changes it’s bound to face when going off the pill. Nicole Granato, a certified holistic health and wellness coach who specializes in women’s health issues, recommends that you start to prepare three months in advance to ensure that you’re loaded up with all the supportive nutrients you need.

“Routine is key, starting from the first thing you drink in the morning to how you go to sleep at night,” she says. After starting your day with a cleansing tonic—like apple cider vinegar diluted with water, or some oxygenating chlorophyll water—she says to always eat an easy-to-digest breakfast, like a coconut milk smoothie. “Lunch should be your biggest meal, incorporating healthy fats like avocado, vegetables like Brussels sprouts or sweet potato, and protein,” she adds. “Dinner should be your lightest meal—think soups, brown rice or quinoa, light protein, vegetables, and water.”

Decide on a new method of birth control
Although it can take several months for your fertility to return to its normal levels after quitting the pill, it’s also totally possible to get pregnant right away. And if that’s not in your plan, you need to have another birth control option lined up and ready to go.

Along with barrier methods like condoms and diaphragms, Dr. Nelken says that copper-T IUDs are a good option for non-hormonal birth control. (Most doctors agree—and have one of their own.) And if you’re 100 percent certain you don’t ever want children, she says, you can discuss sterilization with your doctor. There’s also growing support among women for the all-natural fertility awareness method of family planning, although doctors recommend using it in tandem with another form of birth control.

Prep your skin
The bad news: Hormonal fluctuations often cause breakouts. The good news: You can minimize your risk by doing a few things in advance. Trevor Cates, a naturopathic physician who specializes in skincare, recommends supplementing with evening primrose oil and chaste tree berry in advance, while using “mildly acidic” topical skincare products to balance the skin’s pH.

Mentally prepare for what’s to come
We’ll be real with you: For a lot of women, quitting the pill isn’t a bump-free ride. But, says psychiatrist Gail Saltz, M.D., just knowing—and accepting—that you will most likely get some acne, you may feel low, and you may have unpredictable periods for a while can help lessen the blow if those blips do occur. “And once the hormones level out, those things tend to dissipate,” she stresses.

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Photo: Dave Meier/Stocksnap.io
Photo: Dave Meier/Stocksnap.io

Months 1-3

Quit cold-turkey
Unlike other long-term medications, Dr. Nelken says there’s no need to taper off of hormonal birth control. “The ideal time to discontinue birth control is following a hormone-free interval,” she says. “So after having your period, you can simply stop taking the pills.” (She notes that quitting mid-cycle increases the risk of irregular bleeding.)

Get moving
This is a good time to amp up your workout schedule, for two reasons. For one thing, says Yoga Medicine founder Tiffany Cruikshank, a good sweat helps rid any lingering artificial hormones, signaling your body to start producing them naturally again. “Anything that’s associated with detoxification can be really helpful—sweating, breathing, movement,” she says, noting that sun salutations are particularly effective for this. “Circulation is really the key.”

What’s more, says Dr. Saltz, exercise can also help make any post-pill mood swings more manageable. “Regular, intense aerobic activity for 30 minutes, several times a week, is good for mood, anxiety, and irritability,” she says. “Combining that with methods of relaxation—whether that’s practicing mindfulness or doing muscle relaxation or visualization techniques—can be very useful.” Need somewhere to start? Try this 15-minute happiness workout for an instant endorphin boost.

No way, rosé
This would be a really good time to do that no-alcohol challenge you’ve been meaning to take on. “Skipping alcohol throughout the first few months of getting off the pill is essential,” says Granato. “Alcohol has the ability to knock our hormones off balance and create inflammation in the body.” This means that it can intensify many of the symptoms you might already be experiencing in that first month, including acne and bloating. Instead, try making virgin versions of these avocado cocktails—trust us, you won’t miss the booze.

Consider some new supplements
While everyone’s body reacts totally differently in the weeks following a halt in hormonal birth control, Cates says there are some supplements she widely recommends. In addition to continuing to take chaste tree berry for the skin, she says, you may also want to consider a high-quality liver cleanse or liver-supporting supplements like milk thistle, vitamin C, and n-acetyl cysteine. (Your liver, after all, has been working hard to process all those artificial hormones.) Cates also recommends adding a B-complex to your regimen for a few months, since birth control pills are known to deplete some B vitamins.

Iron and magnesium are also important to look at while transitioning off the pill. “I often find that my clients are deficient in these two essential minerals,” says Granato. “When you start upping your intake, you will notice a big improvement when menstruating, from timely periods to less cramping and even more energy.” Here are some magnesium-rich foods that are perfect for this purpose.

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Photo: Patrick Hendry/Stocksnap
Photo: Patrick Hendry/Stocksnap

Beyond month 3

Take stress reduction seriously
For many women—although, by no means all—your hormones should be starting to stabilize by this point. In order to keep them in balance, says Cruikshank, chilling out is vital. “The hormones are really affected by stress levels,” she says, noting that our bodies actually turn progesterone into cortisol when we’re under constant stress. “From the yoga side of it, the simplest way to address stress is by doing restorative postures.” The exact poses you choose don’t really matter, she says. “It’s more about being able to relax and breathe.” (Although she does swear by this one for its stress-reducing effects.)

Don’t hesitate to get professional help
If you’re still experiencing unusual symptoms after three months, all of our experts wholeheartedly agree that you should see a doctor. Those whose periods haven’t resumed might want to consult a gynecologist, while women who are experiencing depression, anxiety, or severe mood swings should consider seeing a mental health professional to explore whether therapy or medication could help.

Even acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help bring sluggish hormones into line, says Cruikshank. “There are a plethora of ‘interesting’ things that can happen when going off the pill—weight fluctuation, digestive changes, irregular bleeding,” she notes. “When needed, an acupuncturist who’s trained in herbs can make a very specific, individualized formula, which can be really helpful.”

Even if you’ve never taken birth control pills, your reproductive hormones could still be out of whack—here are five ways to know whether that’s the case. And if a baby’s your end game, you may also want to consider switching up your workout, your massage, and even your smoothie.