Sense and Sensitivity: the dark side to birth control pills?

After experiencing nasty side effects from the contraceptive pill, Sarah Wood, Online Features Columnist, considers the potential problems of taking the pill and the lack of awareness of these issues among women.

Did you know that an estimated 150 million women worldwide take birth control pills? Although by no means shocking since the tiny pills have become routine in contemporary culture, it is an estimation that concerns me to say the least. Birth control pills are often prescribed to women to help with irregular periods, assist acne treatment, calm PMS symptoms, and obviously halt fertility. However, I am concerned that women aren’t being warned of the potentially (and for me, very real) health implications of taking these pills. We owe it to our bodies to stop and really think about the side effects from consistently putting synthetic hormones into our systems.

For clarity I want to separate the risks into two categories: the future, and the present. I will begin with the present, and with my personal experience. I was put on birth control to address persistent acne; initially I have to say that my skin was responding well. Although it was not clear, whilst taking the pill I was not getting any new spots. So under the impression that this was going to be great, the end of four years of acne, I continued taking the combined pill, every evening, thinking nothing of it.

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However, after about three weeks the side effects began. I would wake up feeling so nauseous that even standing in the shower was a challenge. I had my first panic attack, and became more paranoid and anxious than ever before. It got so bad that I ended up sitting through a lecture convincing myself that a pain I had in my leg was a blot clot (a rare side effect of the pill) and ended up running to the health centre mid-panic attack hysterical and convinced I was dying. Whilst this may have been entertaining for the very bored looking patients congregated in the waiting room, when I calmed down, I felt embarrassed and guilty for wasting the doctors’ time. I started researching online to see if other women had similar anxiety on the pill and what I found was astonishing! A surplus of articles, videos, websites, even eBooks dedicated to promoting the bad mental and physical side effects of the pill. I know my mind and my body, and I just knew that this pill was the culprit to my weeks of turmoil. So I stopped that day. However, stopping mid-pack was a bad idea, and I suffered from intense cramps for sixteen days.

By the time Christmas break came, I was beginning to feel like myself again. However, the acne was coming back with a vengeance and I decided that in the New Year I would return to the doctors and talk about alternative treatment. I was convinced that I had just had a bad experience with that one brand of pill and that going on a different one would be best. So I put aside the research and the bad reputations online and gave it another go, under the impression that as so many women are prescribed it, it couldn’t be that bad.

The new pill was even worse. The anxiety returned almost immediately, and brought with it consistent crying episodes and (sorry for the details but I really want to share the whole of this story), it made me bleed for the entire five weeks I was on it. This then left me with anaemia to sort out. I decided that this was it. The pill was not worth it. My mental and physical health took precedent over my acne for good.

The immediate health issues the pill can cause are both mental and physical. From my research, I found it was not uncommon for women to become depressed, irritable, and paranoid which impacted upon their relationships with both partners and friends. Migraines were another symptom, meaning that women’s work suffered from being forced to take days off. Yeast overgrowth in the body and subsequent infections were not rare either.

Although the pill is convenient and for many women it presents no concerning side effects, I wonder if they are just not realising that if they are anxious, irritable, and fatigued and putting it down to stress, that actually their birth control pill could be the culprit – actively changing their personalities, at least that’s how I felt. For lack of better description, I felt like the pill was a poison gradually morphing me into an oestrogen overloaded monster.

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Future side effects are even more worrying to me. The potential damage from permanently tricking the body out of natural ovulation with synthetic hormones is frightening if not for myself, but my future children. Not only does the birth control pill increase the risk of certain cancers such as breast and ovarian, but it also creates an unbalance of bacteria in the intestinal system, which over a long period of time will throw the ecosystem of the gut into turmoil, lowering immunity. In terms of fertility, during my research I also came across a lot of cases whereby women were coming together in online chat rooms and asking each other advice on how long before they naturally ovulate after coming off the pill. They were struggling to fall pregnant, and all dealing with the effects of years on the pill. Some women were recording experiences of not getting their regular cycle back for years after stopping and I am not surprised. How can we expect our bodies to remember it’s natural cycle if we have been tricking it for so long? For me the danger of the pill becomes very real when infertility becomes an issue.

I know that birth control pills have been revolutionary for women, and what they represent is revolutionary and empowering. I know that it is one of the most reliable forms of contraception and that many women who are young and take the pill see it as ideal – they are in no hurry to think about conceiving. However, I wanted to use this space and time to urge a consideration of the negative aspects of the pill that are not promoted to women when I feel they ought to be. If I had been aware or informed, even warned, about the potential side effects both now and in the future from making this pill part of my routine, I definitely would have left the prescription with the doctor.

I don’t know what I was thinking disrupting my natural cycle, and my natural body that was in balance and ‘happy’. I have been told that it could now take months for my body to restore itself, and once it has, I will not be damaging it again with the pill again anytime soon. The pill has been known to cause death. For example, Julie Hennessey a 31-year-old Irish woman, died after the pill caused her to develop deep vein thrombosis (reported by life site news in 2007). This is one example is many many cases of death from a side effect of the pill – other cases included strokes, cancer, embolisms, and cardiac arrest. It is here that I will end with the opinion that, for me, the risks of birth control pills far outweigh the benefits.

Sarah Wood, Online Features Columnist

If you missed Sarah Wood’s last column on three-parent babies, you can find it here. You can also find all our other Features columns here.

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Sense and Sensitivity: Count Nutrients not Calories

As many people choose to create New Years resolutions surrounding their eating habits, Sarah Wood looks at the diet.

Year after year as soon as the New Year approaches it is never long before I hear someone vowing to go on a diet. Whether it has been my mother, her friends, or family members there has been an association with calorie counting and health, and I am not so sure the two should be associated so closely and definitely. I feel hypocritical advising others against calorie counting. I myself have vigorously counted the calories time and time again. I have even kept food diaries and charts, and found myself in tears when I had consumed more calories than I was ‘allowed’. It’s taken a long time, but I have shifted my outlook drastically. I want to emphasise that in those times of restriction I was unhappy, irritable, and the most malnourished I’ve ever felt. Focusing on the quantity of food and recording everything is exhausting, and I want to explain why it is utterly unnecessary. Focusing on the quality of the nourishment in your diet is a resolution that is a realistic commitment.

A calorie is a unit of measurement for the energy potential of food and is measured by bomb calorimeters which do not work the same way as our bodies. What we predict our bodies to do may not necessarily happen. The key word to focus on here is ‘potential’. To me, this word is perfect to explain why calorie counting is dangerous. Think of it this way, considering those calories come from wholesome, nutritious food the ‘potential’ is the vital energy we need to nourish and encourage our bodies. Studies by Dr Michael Noonan illuminate this point. Noonan emphasises in an article written for Bangor Daily News that we should not eat anything that “isn’t food” this includes hydrogenated fats and artificial sweeteners which are common ingredients in low calorie diet foods. Noonan continues and argues that using low fat foods to control weight is a myth we must start debunking, making it clear that a diet low in fat will also be a diet low in vital fat based nutrients like vitamins A, D, and E. Dr Michael Noonan’s study encourages an attitude that If we can help it, we should aim to maximise the energy potential from our food not deplete it. That we need to work with our metabolism, not against it no matter how frustrating it can be. Our bodies thrive off of energy, and whilst nutrition is a way of life, calorie counting is a distraction from life.

I think it is important to compare the goal of both calorie counting and nutrition watching. The ultimate goal for counting calories and restriction is weight loss, but what about health? Unless you have been advised by a doctor or health professional to lose weight because it is affecting the quality of your life surely weight loss should not be a goal. Those two words ‘weight loss’ have become words I now associate with danger, sadness, and emptiness. Now I’m by no means saying weight gain should be a goal but I attempting to illustrate a point. My point, is that our bodies want to be healthy. They want nutrients, vitamins, healthy fats, and occasional treats. Our bodies need balance and unnecessary
weight loss is a threat to that balance. Nutrition doesn’t need to be associated with weight, because that isn’t the goal. The goal is health and wellness. When weight is no longer the centre of attention, it can be replaced with health. If only I had asked myself questions such as “how am I ensuring my health is optimized, and my body is strong?” instead of “how much weight do I still need to shift?” maybe I wouldn’t obsess over making it my business to analyse and scrutinize the latest health regimes.

It may have taken me until adolescence to learn that the process of burning fat or turning nutrients into energy is more complex than simply calorie counting. That if the goal is to lose weight the body will respond better when lean muscle mass is increased, but I’m glad. I’m glad that I had to learn the hard way. Needing to educate myself about the way my body works as a shameful result of depleted health has made nutrition a definite priority in my life. Committing yourself to counting the amount of nutrients you are feeding your body is a far more freeing and manageable approach to your diet. I really do empathise with people who cannot shift their focus from consuming as little calories and fat as possible to wholeness, relaxation, and nutrition because the two mind-sets are unfortunately constantly referred to in unison. We are constantly being fed conflicting information, however, as a way to grasp hold of some clarity I urge you to contemplate one question: How can we possibly recover from running out of energy? And I invite you to share my resolution to view every mealtime as an opportunity to nourish and be kind to your body.

P.S Chocolate is not off the menu (so long as it is raw)

Sarah Wood, Online Features Columnist

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Sense and Sensitivity: does ‘atychiphobia’ sabotage your success?

In her latest column for Exepose Features, Sarah Wood discusses the prevalence of atychiphoba – the fear of failure – at university, and ways in which it can be overcome.

There’s one question I get asked over and over and it is one I feel a lot of people will identify with. It is “why are you always so stressed?” to which I usually reply “I don’t know”. The truth is I know the exact answer to that question, I know why, how, and what makes me ‘so stressed’. Atychiphobia, from the Greek Phobos meaning ‘fear’ and Atyches meaning ‘Unfortunate’. I have a fear of failure. For me this fear is complex, because whilst I am ambitious, and believe there is no better way to learn or obtain success but through trial and error, the very utterance of the word error cripples me with anxiety. At university, fear of failure is something I notice daily, and it is especially visible in deadline or exam weeks. I overhear phrases such as “this essay is worth so much, I cannot afford to fail” or “what if I have to re-sit in the summer?” They and I included are anxious, stressed, and phobic of failing because we care so much about our success, whether it is in our degree, in one essay, or in our careers. We care for and nurture our studies and our work and I question why fear of failure should be allowed to threaten us?

Stephen Schochet author of Fascinating Walt Disney provides some fantastic inspiration and comfort to those that suffer with a fear of failure. Although his book is not written specifically for fear of failure, it is a useful example of the failure vs. optimism battle. In his book he recounts how Walt Disney suffered many failures before reaching success. In 1927 when Walt tried to get MGM to distribute Mickey Mouse, he was told that his idea would simply ‘not work’ and that the idea of an animated mouse would frighten women. Walt Disney was also fired from a newspaper he worked at in his early career, the editor’s reason being that he supposedly “lacked imagination and had no creative ideas”. An opinion I’m sure many of us find laughable. Walt Disney is an ideal example of the value in persevering with trial and error. However,
for people who really do suffer from fear of failure so badly that they live a life characterised by constriction, stress, deadline charts, and
Friday nights writing essays, when they probably deserve to be letting their hair down (no reference to myself there at all) inspiration is admirable, but it only leaves them feeling even more overwhelmed. Yes, I wish I could have the failure breeds success mind set, but I don’t. I do however, firmly believe that the only person that can truly help me is myself. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t ask or accept help from others, of course we should, but even the very choice to accept help is an example of helping yourself, and putting your health at the forefront of your priorities.

The reasons to fear failure are unique to the person affected, for me there are two reasons that I fear failing. Firstly, I struggle to comprehend how I would deal with the associated emotions, namely shame and guilt. Partnered with this is the thought of being considered by others as someone who makes poor choices or frequent mistakes. When these two are fed by the anxiety of fearing failure, it results in the individual putting a wall around themselves, attempting to protect themselves. This response obviously only makes the problem worse, because as time goes on, withdrawal becomes a habitual response. For example, when an important essay is due, I don’t want to be presumptive or speak for anyone else, but I’m sure others will identify with the way I approach my fear in this instance. I over-estimate how much time, and work I need to put into the essay, I reject plans and events in the name of work, and my social life suffers. It’s a truly awful way to be. However, it is essential to admit to yourself that you are like that. It is then that you can tailor a method to help yourself overcome fear of failure and begin to obtain the
work life balance that is so yearned for.

Everybody dislikes failing, or feeling as though they could have done better. However, when this becomes a phobia the psychological consequences can be damaging, and distracting. The problem with phobias and fears is that they work on a subconscious level, meaning that all of the shame, guilt, frustration, and disappointment are constantly sabotaging and threatening potential success. Most poisonous of these
sabotaging emotions is the disappointment, being phobic of the prospect of failing before you have even sat the exam, or ran the race puts disappointment at the forefront of your mind blocking the way for confidence. Fear of failure is essentially a fear of disappointing oneself. Dealing with fear of failure is much like dealing with homesickness, agoraphobia, or another anxiety related concern, there is usually an underlying issue allowing the fear to shout and thrive. I have found that the best way to really fight, and confront this fear is exactly the same way Arachnophobia can be tackled. Face the fear. Put yourself in a situation whereby failure is likely, and experience it. Fail! Because when you do that, you will have no choice but to figure out how to deal with shame, how to strive for success, and hopefully it will work in your favour, wetting your appetite for success in the future. We are human, we are not concrete plans, and we make mistakes. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but I cannot help but feel it sometimes gets forgotten. There is so much value in recognising that every single one of us shares the similarity of adaptability. We are wonderful at adapting, we are intelligent, and whilst we all have different definitions of failure we can all cope. Fear is a matter of perspective, and it lives in the realm of the mind, and fortunately the mind welcomes change, even if it takes a long time to be convinced or coerced into it.

I have spent a lot of time contemplating how to really get rid of, or solve my fear of failure and the most useful advice I have to offer is to think about the worst case scenario. If it really is rationally disastrous then don’t punish yourself for being scared, don’t associate that disaster with shame. Instead replace the shame and guilt with courage, because if you are taking on a challenge that could end in disaster you are brave, courageous, and deserve credit for trying. If on the other hand, you analyse the worst case scenario and realise that you are perhaps being irrational, and failing wouldn’t be as awful and shattering as you are convinced of. Then as difficult as it may be, consider how commendable your effort will be. Effort is extremely admirable, and sometimes the result isn’t as valuable as the knowledge, sense, and perceptions collected in the process.

On the note of boldness and perseverance I leave you with the words of Vincent Van Gough “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” if you suffer from fear of failure I urge you to contemplate Van Gough’s question, and I would like to put forth my own question: how many times has failing ruined your life beyond repair?

Sarah Wood, Online Features Columnist

Sense and Sensitivity: ‘clearing up’ emotional acne scars

Sarah Wood is one of five new Features columnists who will be writing each fortnight. Sarah’s column is based around the title ‘Sense and sensitivity’ which will explore health and social well being as a way of raising awareness of issues that a lot of students suffer with but are not spoken or written about as often as they ought to be.

In her first columnist post of the year, Sarah Wood looks at the emotional effects of acne and the lasting emotional scarring it can leave. Should more emotional, as well as physical support, be given to those with acne?

A Canadian study published in the British Journal of Dermatology found that depression can occur even in the mildest cases of acne and that the 15-24 age group are the most affected. This study is frightening considering just how many students this involves. If we haven’t grappled with acne ourselves, it is likely that we know someone who has.

There are a wealth of treatments available from pills to lotions and even laser treatments for those who can afford it, and hopefully after much trial and error we find the most successful treatment for us. Even if the acne clears and we finally have the clear (or at least less red) skin everyone else has. I ask what about the emotional scarring acne leaves behind. How do we deal with ‘clearing up’ the low self-esteem, the social withdrawal, and the poor confidence that is often a by-product of acne?

A study has found that depression can occur even in the most mild cases of acne

Aged seventeen and right at the beginning of my A-levels I experienced my first acne breakout. Talk about bad timing. I couldn’t bear to leave the house, I became socially anxious, and consumed by a deep embarrassment. School was a place I always thrived in and enjoyed, and suddenly I became painfully aware of the amount of people there were in one small space, and how many would have to look at my face throughout the day. I proceeded to spend the days looking down and avoiding eye contact, no longer actively participating in class and my ability to interact with other students suffered.

It wasn’t until I went to the doctors and was informed that Acne Vulgaris is thought to be caused by an imbalance of hormones, and is not directly linked to diet and lifestyle that I began to feel a little more positive about dealing with the issue. Initially I was convinced that I had caused this myself as a result of poor skin hygiene. Around school all I could hear were the voices of my peers whispering “doesn’t she wash her face” or when I stood in line in the canteen with a cookie “the last thing she needs is more sugar”. In reality no one probably cared or noticed my acne, but for me it was as though I had a vulgar tattoo on my face and was asking for negative judgement wherever I went.

I was prescribed Limecycline tablets to take once a day for six months. They didn’t work. My volcanic face only started to clear up when I was eighteen and prescribed DalacinT topical solution. This is a liquid antibiotic that you apply directly to the affected area (my whole face). To this day I still use DalacinT habitually and highly recommend it to other acne sufferers.

In hindsight I am fascinated that such a cosmetic problem as a ‘spotty face’ effected my life socially, educationally, and mentally. Going to the beach or the pool with friends was a terrifying thought; the thought of bare skin exposure was tear inducing. I would avoid parties because all of the other girls had clear skin, whilst I would have to pile my face in makeup aggravating the problem and making me feel like I had an angry bee under my skin.

I had a part time job in a retail store and I would always volunteer to work in the changing rooms or stock room, in an attempt to come into contact with as little of the public as possible. Parties and work should have been ways to help me grow and blossom socially but they just made me more anxious and fearful. Writing this now it sounds as though I overreacted and blew my acne out of proportion. Perhaps acne is a little easier to deal with as an adult when you have other more prominent problems and have already jumped the hurdle of learning how to form relationships with others. However, at seventeen years old when you are just learning how to form serious bonds and relationships the fear of negative appraisal and the anxiety of not being accepted by others makes you feel frozen and deters you from forming those bonds.

Acne can leave scars deeper than those that are visible - Source: Huffington Post

When I get an acne breakout now I do not get as low as I would have done then, I don’t avoid people, and I don’t hide away in the house. I just get on with it, if you like. After repeated episodes of acne followed by mild depressive episodes I’m tired and bored. I approach acne differently as an adult and I am adamant not to let it control my emotions anymore, but the scars still pulsate ever so softly and threaten to rip open and bleed.

I am concerned that simply offering teenagers or adults lotions and pills to treat acne just isn’t enough. In an ideal world medical staff and dermatologists would have the resources and time to treat acne from a physical and emotional aspect, an acne care package! If this is not feasible perhaps we can do something?

We could campaign to have schools teach students in detail how acne is caused and that whilst it can be controlled with diet, it isn’t necessarily a result of diet. That acne is not something to be ashamed of but it isn’t uncommon the feel that way and they do not need to suffer silently. If you can go to a school counsellor to discuss issues such as mental health there should be no shame in going to discuss acne and subsequent feelings of depression. Giving acne and its emotional effects more time, prominence, and speech are treatments we can give to other sufferers for free. We can use vigilance and sensitivity to notice those suffering with acne and address the social isolation. If that cannot happen, well we must be strong enough to help ourselves and do away with the pessimistic attitude that our acne will never vanish. I wish I had been as strong at seventeen as I am now.

Sarah Wood, Online Features Columnist