Adapted from a photo by anna marie-grace // CC 2.0

The pill is one of the most intensely studied drugs in history, and believed to be among the safest – safer than aspirin, as an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health noted twenty years ago. Yet young women seem to be quitting in droves, for a variety of reasons: to restore feelings of psychological and emotional health, regain lost libido, relieve cardiovascular symptoms and disorders, or ease anxiety about these or other health issues.

When women report these side effects of birth control pills, physicians often recommend they try another brand, but many of these side effects are common to hormonal birth control, especially oral contraceptives. A new study published this month in Human Reproduction suggests there may be yet another common side effect: Researchers in Finland found that oral contraceptives may worsen insulin sensitivity and are associated with increased levels of circulating inflammatory markers.

The study was very small and ran only for a short time, so drawing conclusions is premature, but since the beginning of the year, I’ve been following several online discussions of young women quitting the pill. Although I have yet to see development of Type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance cited as a reason to quit the pill, I have seen such a variety of health issues and medical problems described that this study caught my eye immediately. Current estimates indicate that 12.6 million, or 10.8 percent, of all U.S. women ages 20 years or older have diabetes (diagnosed and undiagnosed). Could it be related to their birth control? Perhaps in those already genetically predisposed.

Research from the Guttmacher Institute indicates nearly 60% of pill users take it for non-contraceptive reasons, such as for cramps or other menstrual pain, menstrual regulation, acne, endometriosis, as well as for prevention of unintended pregnancy. Fourteen per cent of US pill users (more than 1.5 million women) take birth control pills solely for non-contraceptive reasons. If the Finland study proves to hold true for larger groups over extended periods, there’s another reason to be more cautious prescribing the pill.


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