Food Editor Emily Calder discusses the new found evidence that the 7 day break when taking the combined contraceptive pill has no medical benefit
Anyone who takes the combined contraceptive pill knows the drill: you take your pill every day for 21 days, followed by a seven-day break in which you experience a period-like bleed every month. Although the pill certainly gives our periods more regularity, we still find ourselves in panic when we realise that we are due to break at an inconvenient time – be it a holiday, a party, or perhaps during exams. However, it seems that the way we have been taking the pill is perhaps sub-optimal. Recent evidence has been discovered that states that perhaps we do not need to be taking this break as religiously as we have been taught. The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) has said that this week off has no medical benefits; meaning that NHS doctors from now on may advise us that it is in fact perfectly acceptable, and safe, to take the pill continuously.
Some argue that when Catholic scientist John Rock worked on the development of the contraceptive pill in the late 1950’s, he devised the concept of the seven-day break so that the pill could be perceived as merely a replica of a woman’s natural menstrual cycle. This would have, in his mind, made this form of contraception more acceptable to the Vatican; however, he was unsuccessful in convincing the Pope of this. However, things may not be quite so simple. In an interview with Vice, Jane Dickson, Vice President of FSRH, states that the seven-day break exists for a number of reasons “Some of the hormones that were in the pill were 100 times greater in dose than the pills we have now […] part of the reason for the seven-day break was just a break from the massive amount of hormones”. Back in the early days of the contraceptive pill, such high hormonal dosages often caused symptoms similar to pregnancy symptoms, such as morning sickness. For this reason, it was also desirable to have the break to reassure women that they were not pregnant – which is also a reason why people are thankful for this seven-day break today, in spite of not dealing with such severe symptoms.
Whatever the reasons for this seven-day break, some researchers argue that it is hazardous in that it may in fact increase the risk of pregnancy. Allowing the hormone levels to fall again increases the risk of pregnancy significantly, and whilst missing seven days of pills is usually safe, after nine days ovulation is very likely to occur. This means that if you forget a day or two at either end of your break, which many of us often do, you are at risk of becoming pregnant if sexually active. Reducing the effectiveness of a medication which has the primary purpose of preventing pregnancy surely seems counterproductive, especially as we no longer have to deal with such severe side effects that the pill caused in the 1950’s.
A solution to this seems necessary. The pill has been modernised and contains far lower doses, meaning that it is now safer to reduce the frequency and lengths of our ‘breaks’ from it. Medical advice seems to state that a good balance would be to shorten intervals from seven days to four days, and only break a few times a year – this should be enough to reduce the risk of ovulation (and therefore pregnancy) caused by the current protocol. Whilst most professionals believe we do need to have breaks to avoid breakthrough bleeding and overgrowth of tissues, it is perfectly healthy for us to reap the benefits of fewer, shorter periods and experience less discomforts and more chance of successful contraception.
As valuable as this new information might be, I cannot help but be distressed by the wider issues it stems from. With modern medicine being so sophisticated, how are women only now discovering this vital information about our bodies? The fact that we have been ignorant to this for 60 years, especially when, according to Sexual Health Charity ‘FPA’, two-thirds of women aged 20-24 take the contraceptive pill is truly shocking. Not only do we need more research and widely available information about our bodies and contraception, but we need to improve our options as much as we can. The pill is associated with a number of side effects, including mood swings, blood clots, and nausea, and those taking the pill are statistically more likely to suffer from mental health issues. Time after time I have heard friends of mine complain about the impact that the pill has had on them, and many of them have suffered so badly that they have been forced to stop taking it altogether. I feel that this information is a huge wake-up call for the fact that we need more widely available contraceptive options – for both men and women – with as few side effects or risks as possible. Contraception needs to be as accessible as we can make it, and should come with the most up to date information and advice that we can obtain. Women should be granted complete control over our bodies by being given the freedom to use the pill how we so choose, rather than being restrained by perhaps ill-advised and out-dated principles.
The information and respect that women deserve is far overdue – we have arguably been misled for 60 years, and now that the truth is out, we will hopefully gain a better understanding of the contraception that so many of us are taking on a daily-basis.