Coming Off Hormonal Birth Control

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I like to think of 2017 as my year of physical healing - I think that this is in large part due to the fact that this was the year I decided to come off hormonal birth control. Before we get into things, I want to preface this post by making it clear that my intention for writing it is not to try to convince anyone that birth control pills are "good" or "bad", but to share my personal experiences, and how much my health and wellness journey has been affected by my decision to stop taking them.

I am so grateful every day that I decided to start this blog. It used to be weird and uncomfortable for me to share such personal information about myself, but I can now recognize how healing and therapeutic writing these blog posts is for me. I enjoy reading about other women's health journeys because it helps me see that no one is perfect, it reminds me that our bodies are constantly ebbing and flowing, and it allows me to feel a deeper sense of connection with the people that I choose to follow on social media - I try to remember this whenever I experience fear or doubt about publishing a blog post on a vulnerable/sensitive topic.

I hope that my story is helpful to whoever is reading it - if anything, I want it to provide a different perspective, and also serve as a reminder that an important (and often neglected) aspect of health and well-being is fostering a deeper connection with ourselves. I spent so many years being disconnected from my body (most of my life, in fact), so it’s been so wonderful to re-establish this connection with myself, and make the conscious decision to share my journey with others. Not to mention, periods/hormonal issues are a very common thing that most women will deal with at some point in their lives, so I’ve (finally) decided to share my experiences.

The beginning

I took hormonal birth control for almost 10 years, and didn’t have any desire to come off it until around year 8 or 9. I remember being prescribed Tri-Cyclen Lo when I was around 17 years old. My doctor, like many other doctors, prescribed it to me because I was having skin issues, as well as irregular menstrual cycles and painful period cramps. I actually remember being excited to start taking it - it seemed like the majority of girls my age were on it, and I was looking forward to finally being a part of that club. It was almost like a rite of passage to me, which when I think back on it, is pretty bizarre...

The first month that I started taking the pill I didn't notice any major changes, but there were some small things that happened, such as feeling like I put on a few extra pounds. This feeling went away, though, and I also noticed that my skin cleared up, my cycle "regulated" and my periods were much less problematic (i.e. they were lighter, and I barely had any cramps). To a teenage girl who didn't know much about hormones and women's reproductive health, the pill was a dream come true to me. I continued to take it faithfully, every day, for almost 10 years.

Fast forward to my early 20's, when I started nursing school and was introduced to shift work (i.e. 12 hour shifts, from 7am-7pm or 7pm-7am). I remember being a little annoyed that I had to remember to take my birth control pills while working crazy hours (I normally took them at 7:30 am every day), but I wasn't annoyed enough to stop taking them.

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I can also recall being happy to know when I'd be getting my "period" each month (when you're on the pill, the bleeding that you experience each month is not actually a true period - you also don’t ovulate. I didn't know/fully understand this until a few years ago). I was also glad that for the most part, I didn't have to worry about my skin breaking out or doing anything unpredictable, even if I wasn’t eating particularly well or taking care of myself (i.e. getting enough sleep, maintaining a good skincare routine, etc.)

By this point in time, I had figured out that I was very sensitive to gluten, dairy and sugar - even though they wreaked havoc on my digestion, the pill made sure that these foods didn’t cause any skin issues, so I would still consume them more often than I should have. I kind of knew at this point that the pill was masking some issues that were going on in my body, but I wasn’t ready to deal them at this time. As you can imagine, I didn't even want to think about what would happen if I stopped taking it. Would I break out in cystic acne? Have super irregular cycles again? It was too much of a risk in my eyes. I figured I would take myself off it at some point in the future - just not anytime soon.

The turning point

As you may know from reading my blog/Instagram posts, I was in a car accident in 2015 that ultimately led to me going on long-term disability from my job as a registered nurse for the majority of 2017. I feel that it's important to touch on this time in my life, as it directly impacted my decision to come off the birth control pill. I can vividly remember how things happened at this time - in the fall of 2016, I was starting to experience increasing amounts of pain, and was missing more and more shifts from work.

By the time Christmas 2016 rolled around, I was running on fumes. Exhausted from trying to work full-time while going for chiropractic and massage treatments, not having the energy or physical ability to cook and clean for myself (I was living on my own), and battling anxiety, stress-induced nausea, and adrenal fatigue (that I wasn't even aware of at the time). On Christmas Eve, I remember feeling a little off/under the weather. I didn't think too much of it - I had Christmas dinner with my family, watched a holiday movie with everyone, and went to bed (I was staying at my mom's place that night). 

On Christmas morning, I woke up with a dry, hacking cough. It only proceeded to get worse - over the next week, I spent all my time in bed or on the couch, trying to get rid of what was probably the worst flu I had ever experienced. I was absolutely exhausted, beyond stressed about my finances as I couldn’t work, and feeling pretty hopeless. It was at this point that I decided to ask my mom if I could move back home. Of course, being the gem of a human being that she is, she welcomed me back home with open arms. I officially moved back in the first week of January 2017.

So, there I was, living at home again, off work, and not really sure about what was going to happen next. I spent the majority of that first month in my pjs, fuzzy socks and bathrobe, only leaving the house to grab groceries, see my doctor, or go for a massage/chiropractic treatment. I remember thinking "now might be a good time to try and come off birth control". I was still scared, though - what if my pain improved and I was able to go back to work, but I was experiencing all these crazy symptoms as a result of stopping it?

When February rolled around, I was still experiencing major pain issues, and it was pretty clear to me I wouldn't be able to work for at least a few months. The idea of coming off the pill had been popping up more frequently in my mind - I had also been hearing many things about how being on it long term could cause a whole host of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and that it’s been linked to anxiety and depression.

The urge to stop taking the pill was getting strong with each passing day…it also helped that I was getting pretty annoyed about the fact that I had to set an alarm every day to take it at 7:30 am, as I was sleeping in until 9 or 10 am most days. The week that I got my period in February, I decided that I wouldn't start a new pack of birth control pills once my period was over, like I normally did. I was kind of nervous about this decision, but also really curious to see what would happen.

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Ok...now what?

It felt kind of bizarre at first to not pop that little pill in my mouth every morning, but it was also really nice. I was a little bit anxious that I’d start experiencing a bunch of crazy symptoms, but I think that because I was being mindful of my nutrition, supplementation and sleep at this time, I had a bit of a head start when it came to creating a healthy environment for my hormones.

In mid-April, I had been off the pill for two months. I’d been dealing with a few stubborn breakouts, but I hadn’t gotten a period yet. Finally, one day, I got one! I had pretty bad cramps the first couple of days, and definitely had some major PMS the days leading up to it, but all in all I was just so happy that my body was trying to regulate my hormones and get things back to normal that I wasn’t too bothered by any of it.

As each week passed, I realized that my cycles were still much longer than the typical 26-32 days. I was getting my period every 6-9 weeks, and even though I was trying to track my cycle, I was struggling because it was hard to figure out which phase I was in. I also had no idea that each phase of a woman’s cycle is so different!

The book that changed my life

Once I realized that my cycles were still quite irregular, I decided to purchase “Woman Code” by Alissa Vitti; a book that had been recommended to me by several women in my life, and that I had seen many times on social media. I was feeling more in tune with my body at this than I ever had before, and I wanted to try to balance out my hormones using diet, exercise and natural products/supplements, which is exactly what Woman Code recommends. I bought it on Amazon and about a week later, it was in my hands.

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You may have seen me talk about cycle syncing on my Instagram - basically, it is the concept that in each phase of your cycle, your body thrives with different types of food, rest, exercise and socializing. In Woman Code, Alissa goes into detail about how to best support yourself in each phase. I’ll admit, as a perfectionist who spent most of her life trying to control everything and was terrified of “going with the flow” (pun intended), the concept of cycle syncing was pretty new and intimidating to me. However, I think I knew deep down that I couldn’t continue treating my body as I was - I wanted to nourish it, embrace all the different aspects of my hormonal shifts, and learn more about my feminine and masculine energies.

I’ve been educating myself about cycle syncing and women’s reproductive health for over a year and a half now, so I wanted to share a quick overview about the 4 phases of a woman’s cycle, and everything I’ve learned about how to best support your hormones and body in each phase.

The four phases

  1. Menstrual (3-7 days in length) - your period; hormone levels decline to their lowest concentrations. A great time for rest and restoration (i.e. meditation, long walks, light yoga), reflection (your intuition and your brain’s ability to communicate between the left and right hemispheres is highest at this time), and consumption of nourishing foods to support the process of menstruation and replenish your body’s nutrient stores (i.e. wild rice, beets, cacao, seafood, kelp, blueberries).

  2. Follicular (7-10 days in length) - after your period, and before you ovulate - all hormones are at low levels and are slowly starting to increase in concentration. You will likely experience higher energy levels, an increase in creativity and a willingness to try new things. A great time for exercise such as weights/cardio, and your body will likely crave lighter, fresh foods (i.e. veggies, sauerkraut, eggs, avocado, oranges).

  3. Ovulatory (3-5 days in length) - when you’re ovulating - rises in FSH (follicle stimulating hormone), LH (luteinizing hormone), and estrogen, as well as a rise and then drop in testosterone (after ovulation occurs) all facilitate communication, a desire to socialize, and increased libido and energy. You’ll likely be able to crush high-intensity workouts in this phase of your cycle, and it’s recommended to consume foods that support estrogen elimination (i.e. raw fruits and veggies) and promote vascular and oxidative health for your ovaries (i.e. salmon, turmeric, red lentils, spinach, brussels sprouts, figs).

  4. Luteal (10-14 days in length)- before your period - this is when estrogen, progesterone and testosterone all reach peak concentrations, and then start to decrease to their lowest levels right before menstruation. The first half of this phase, you’ll likely have more energy to expend; in the second half, you may find yourself wanting to rest more/ease up on socializing and intense workouts. Consuming foods rich in B vitamins, eating leafy greens, roasted root veggies (i.e. sweet potato, squash, parsnips) and chickpeas can all help with PMS symptoms such as sugar cravings, fluid retention and irritability.

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It took me a few months to implement cycle syncing; as I mentioned, it was hard to know which phase of my cycle I was in - unless I was actually on my period, it was pretty much a guessing game for me. In the summer of 2017, I decided to go and see my doctor, as I had been off the pill for several months, was still having irregular cycles, and just had a gut feeling that something wasn’t quite right…

Investigating my hormonal imbalances

When I first visited my doctor’s office, I expressed concern that I was having irregular cycles - especially since I had experienced this issue for several years as a teenager, prior to going on the birth control pill. I had a hunch that had I not been on the pill for the last 10 years, and been under the impression that I was having “regular periods” while on it, I probably would have addressed this issue sooner.

My doctor ordered hormone tests for me in the summer of 2017 - they were pretty general (i.e. not done at a specific point in my cycle), and nothing came back out of range. I decided to wait a couple more months, and see if my body could balance things out on its own. By October of 2017, however, I was growing more concerned. Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful that I was getting my period at all, but like I said, I just had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right.

The next step in investigating the root cause of my hormonal issues was a pelvic ultrasound. I had this done in early November - it took around 15-20 minutes, and I vividly remember trying to read the ultrasound technician’s face for any clues as to what she was seeing. I even tried to discern what the ultrasound monitor was showing myself - sadly, this was not a skill that I was taught in nursing school, so I had no luck there.

The ultrasound tech left the room for almost 10 minutes to consult with a radiologist - this did NOT help my stress level go down at all. When she came back, I tried to ask her what she had seen, but she told me that I would have to wait until my doctor received the results to have them explained to me.

Fast forward to November 9, 2017 (I remember the date thanks to an Instagram photo of pancakes I had shared that day - #foodblogger perks), and I was sitting in my doctor’s office, anxiously waiting for her to finish analyzing my ultrasound results. She turned to me and told me that there were several enlarged follicles on both of my ovaries, and that it looked like I had PCOS - polycystic ovarian syndrome.

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The diagnosis

Funnily enough (or not so funnily enough - after everything I’ve experienced in my 28 years on this Earth, it’s that there really are no coincidences) when I went off the pill in February 2018, I also discovered someone who is now one of my favourite wellness bloggers/Instagram accounts - Lee from America. I was originally drawn to her page/website because of her coconut fat ball recipe, but I was quickly captivated by how openly she talked about her health journey, and her struggles with PCOS.

I hadn’t heard too much about PCOS, but thanks to Lee, I learned that it was a hormonal condition that affects 1 in 10 women, and is only becoming more prevalent as each year passes by. I also learned that PCOS is characterized by things like cystic acne, hair loss/excess hair growth, weight gain, infertility, an excess of male hormones (androgens), insulin resistance, and, very commonly, irregular periods.

As the months went by, and I continued to learn more about PCOS thanks to Lee’s Instagram and blog posts, I started to wonder if I had it, too…after all, it was very common, and I was experiencing a few of its hallmark symptoms. When my doctor officially gave me the diagnosis of PCOS, I felt a mixture of both relief and sadness. At this point, I hadn't gotten a handle on my hormones, and was worried about the long-term health effects of PCOS, if it’s not managed well (i.e. infertility, diabetes, endometrial cancer, cardiovascular disease).

Learning to manage PCOS

I’ve been hesitant to talk about my PCOS diagnosis because a) I don’t want it to define me and b) I wanted to wait until I knew everything about it and knew how to manage it. Well, it’s been almost a year since my diagnosis, and I still don’t know everything about PCOS - and I’ve realized that that’s ok. In fact, I’ve been fortunate enough to recognize that there is something so beautiful about sharing your story while you’re still a work in progress…we are works in progress our whole lives, and waiting to do or share something until we’ve got it all figured out will only hinder us from speaking our truths and making meaningful connections.

With all that being said, I have made leaps and bounds when it comes to learning about my body, women’s reproductive health, and how different foods, supplements, lifestyle factors and personal care products can impact my cycle! When I think back to how much my body has been through over the years (disordered eating, over exercising, anxiety, depression, poor nutrition, etc.), I’m so incredibly grateful for how resilient it is, and how much it can communicate to me, if I take the time to tune into its wisdom.

Cycle syncing has also had a massive impact on how I nourish and take care of myself. I won’t go into the specific details of it in this post (I touched on it a little bit above, where I outlined the four phases of a woman’s cycle - I couldn’t resist haha. There will definitely be a proper blog post on this topic in the future), but I will say that it has 100%, without a doubt, changed my life.

I love knowing that I’m nourishing my body with a variety of nutrients, different types of exercise, and a lifestyle that supports my social life and rest/restoration. It did take me some time to find out what worked best for me, and though I’m definitely not super strict with the whole idea of cycle syncing (i.e. I try to follow the guidelines, but I also listen to my body and what it’s telling me in terms of cravings, exercise, sleep, etc.), I think it’s an extremely beneficial concept that all women should be made aware of.

How I’m doing now

Since coming off hormonal birth control, I’ve been able to foster a much deeper connection with myself - I’ve become a happier, less anxious, more spiritual person, and I now treat my mind and body with the love and care that they deserve. I’ve also been able to let go of my need for control and perfection, and embrace the messier aspects of life, while enjoying all the beauty and abundance around me (I know this probably sounds cheesy AF to a lot of people, but once you go through prolonged periods of pain, difficulty, sadness, etc., you’re able to recognize and appreciate the good things in life).

I’m also so happy and grateful to share that as of 2018, I now have regular 30-32 day cycles, and my PCOS is pretty much under control. I never thought that I would be so excited about having a regular menstrual cycle (or to be talking about it on the Internet), but here I am - and I couldn’t be happier to be where I am today. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this whole experience, it’s that our bodies are amazing, resilient, wonderful things, and that we truly have the power to tap into their wisdom and help them thrive.

This experience has also taught me how important it is to be your own strongest advocate. In the 10 years that I was on hormonal birth control, I asked doctors and other health care professionals many times about whether it was bad to be on it long term. I was always told that it was better to stay on it rather than go off, and after my PCOS diagnosis, it was suggested to me that I go on it again as a way to “regulate my cycles”. As you can imagine, I said no to this option.

I’m so proud of myself for standing my ground, and navigating my own path to healing and hormone health. I have noticed such a shift in the way that women’s health is being approached these days - band-aid solutions that mask symptoms but don’t address the root cause of the issue are no longer being accepted as the first line of treatment. I’m so happy to be approaching my own health and wellness with this mindset, and I’m also incredibly grateful that I made the decision to come off the pill in the first place. I can’t imagine if I had waited until a time when I was older and potentially ready to have children, only to find out about my PCOS diagnosis at that time.

As I said, I would love to do a whole blog post on cycle syncing one day, where I can go into more detail about my individual experience with it, as well as discuss nutrition, exercise, herbs, supplements, and lifestyle changes that helped me manage my PCOS. For now, I will wrap things up on this post - for those of you that made it to the end of this, thank you so much for reading! I love writing about my personal experiences, especially when I’m able to talk about struggles I have dealt with. To quote the wise, wonderful Oprah Winfrey, “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have”. Thank you all so much for letting me speak mine.

xo

Zakiya

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