The fringe benefits of hormonal birth control
Yes, they help prevent pregnancy. But contraceptives such as the pill can also fight acne, ease period pain and even reduce cancer risk. Learn about the surprising health perks here.
Usually, the main thing people use hormonal birth control for is avoiding pregnancy. And for good reason, since these contraceptives are highly effective at preventing unplanned pregnancies if you use them correctly. Plus, there are plenty of options. Women can choose to use pills, intrauterine devices (IUDs), shots, implants, vaginal rings and patches. The pill and IUDs are particularly popular, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
But did you know that hormonal birth control also has other health benefits, from clearer skin to lighter periods? Learn the basics about how this form of contraception works and some of the perks that go beyond preventing pregnancy.
Hormonal birth control, explained
Hormonal birth control works to prevent pregnancy in a couple of ways. It stops or reduces ovulation (the release of an egg). It also thickens your cervical mucus so that sperm can’t swim up into your uterus. And it makes your uterine lining thinner to prevent an egg from attaching, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
The contraceptives contain either progestin or a combination of progestin and estrogen. Options include:
- The pill: Oral contraceptives that you take daily
- Hormonal IUD: A small device placed in your uterus by an OB-GYN
- Shot: An injection given every 3 months by your OB-GYN
- Patch: A small skin patch that you change weekly
- Vaginal ring: A flexible plastic ring that you place inside your vagina and change monthly
- Implant: A small flexible rod that is inserted under the skin of your upper arm. It lasts for up to 3 years.
How can it improve my health?
The perks vary a bit depending on the method you choose. But here are some of the biggest ways hormonal birth control can improve your health:
It makes periods easier. “Any form of hormonal birth control works by suppressing your natural menstrual cycle, which is characterized by fluctuations in your levels of estrogen and progesterone,” says Maureen Whelihan, MD. She’s a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist in Greenacres, Florida. Without these fluctuations, your period will tend to be lighter, and you’ll have fewer cramps. This can be a boon if you’re used to dealing with irregular or heavy periods.
It can clear up some forms of acne. This is a real bonus if you struggle with zits and breakouts. There’s a reason hormonal birth control may help control acne, says Dr. Whelihan. “Some women’s acne is triggered by testosterone, and hormonal birth control blocks your natural production of it.” (Testosterone is primarily a male hormone, but women also produce it.)
It can relieve premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Most women experience at least some of the common, mild symptoms of PMS. These include irritability, bloating and headaches. PMS can also cause more intense symptoms, such as sudden bad moods.
“PMS is probably linked to the variation in your hormones over the course of a cycle,” explains Dr. Whelihan. Estrogen levels rise early in your cycle, then drop quickly just before your period. This can trigger mood changes. When you’re on the pill, or some other form of hormonal birth control, your hormones stay steady rather than rising and dropping. The result: PMS symptoms are much more manageable.
PMDD is a serious condition that can cause severe depression, anger, anxiety and insomnia, among other things. Symptoms tend to appear the week before your period and can last for several days after it ends, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Hormonal birth control can help, though it isn’t a surefire solution.
That said, there is a particular formulation of the combined pill (containing drospirenone and ethinyl estradiol) that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating PMDD. That’s in addition to its primary use of preventing pregnancy. This pill is sold under the brand name Yaz, among others.
(Wondering if it’s time to switch up your birth control? Learn more.)
It may help prevent anemia. Up to 5% of women who have heavy periods develop iron-deficiency anemia, according to the Office on Women’s Health. When you’re anemic, your blood doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells. These cells contain a vital protein that carries oxygen around the body. If you tend to bleed heavily each month, hormonal birth control such as the pill or an IUD can help because it causes lighter periods. This means you lose less blood.
It can help control endometriosis. This is a painful condition in which the tissue that normally lines the uterus (the endometrium) develops outside the uterus. Those rogue areas of tissue swell every month in preparation for a possible pregnancy, just like the tissue inside the uterus does. And that can cause severe pain during your period. How can hormonal birth control help control endometriosis? By leveling out your hormones, it lessens flare-ups, according to Brigham and Women’s Hospital. It can also prevent the condition from becoming worse by slowing the growth of endometrial tissue.
It may reduce your risk of certain cancers. There is some good evidence that hormonal birth control can cut your risk of developing a few types of cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, your risk of endometrial cancer is reduced by at least 30% if you’ve ever used oral contraceptives.
Taking the pill for any length of time reduces your ovarian cancer risk by 30% to 50%. The longer you take them, the more protection you get — and it lasts for up to 30 years after you go off the pill.
Your risk of colorectal cancer is also 15% to 20% lower on oral contraceptives. But be aware: Avoiding cancer should not be the sole reason to take hormonal birth control. It can also raise your risk of other types of cancer, such as breast cancer and cervical cancer, but the risk declines after use of oral contraceptives is stopped. Your OB-GYN can talk you through the pluses and minuses.
Learn how to get your birth control online, step by step.
Who shouldn’t use hormonal birth control?
Not all women are perfect candidates for hormonal birth control methods. Always speak to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any form of birth control. But in general, you should avoid hormonal birth control if you:
- Have a history of breast cancer
- Are a smoker and over the age of 35
- Have a clotting disorder or a history of blood clots in your legs (deep vein thrombosis) or lungs (pulmonary embolism)
- Have high blood pressure
If you’re interested in finding out if hormonal contraception is right for you, take our free assessment. Optum providers will review your history. If you’re eligible, they’ll help you get set up to have your birth control subscription shipped right to your door.
Pill/IUD use: National Center for Health Statistics (2018). “Current Contraceptive Status Among Women Aged 15–49: United States, 2015–2017”
Anemia stats: Office on Women’s Health (2019). “Iron-deficiency anemia”
PMMD facts: Johns Hopkins Health. “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)”
PMMD and the combined pill: Cleveland Clinic (2020). “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)”
Endometriosis and the pill: Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Medical Treatments for Endometriosis”
Cancer statistics: National Cancer Institute (2018). “Oral Contraceptives and Cancer Risk”