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What to Know About Skipping Placebo Birth Control

by Colleen Stinchcombe - February 5 , 2018


Photo Credit by: renewleeds
Photo Credit: by renewleeds, Flickr.com

The average woman is 12-13 years old when she has her first period. Beyond bleeding, periods often bring a host of other symptoms such as abdominal cramping, bloating, food cravings, headaches, fatigue, moodiness and acne. More than 30 percent of women have period pain severe enough that they consider missing out on activities, work and social events.

Over 60% of women already use some form of contraception, with the most popular form being the birth control pill. Birth control is known to reduce pain associated with periods in many women. “I would get extremely bad periods,” a woman named Lauren told me. She described cramping, migraines, nausea and fainting. “The pill helped reduce both my frequency of periods (down to one every three months) and the severity of the symptoms when I did have one.”

In fact, 14% of pill-users take it for non-contraceptive purposes. Most birth control pills essentially provide hormones to make your body believe it’s already pregnant, preventing your body from ovulating. They also tend to come with four to seven days worth of “inactive pills”. The inactive pills are essentially sugar pills or “placebo” pills that contain no useful active ingredients. Women are free to not ingest these pills for as many days as they last, as long as they start up again when the active pills resume. So why does birth control build in a timetable to bleed? Most likely because one of the doctors who helped to invent it was Catholic, and thought it might please the pope.

With all this in mind, it’s no wonder a woman might want to skip the whole ordeal every once in a while. And the reality is, you can, said Dr. Sherry A. Ross, Women’s Health Expert and Author of she-ology. “There’s actually no medical need to have a period if we are controlling it.”

Before you throw away your tampons and pads, there’s more to the story. Beginning to skip your periods is not as simple as opening up the next round of active pills and thinking you’ll never bleed again. One of the biggest mistakes women make is thinking they can stop having a period immediately, according to Dr. Ross, when the process actually takes about two to three months. “Plan ahead,” she said.

It also helps to have a pleasant history with the pill you’re using already. “You need to be very happy with your current pill and the way you’re bleeding,” she said. “If you’re already having ten days of bleeding, it’s going to take a longer time, if at all.”

Taking active birth control pills continuously can have some side effects, too. Spotting (also known as breakthrough bleeding) and cramping are the most common, Dr. Ross said. That was true for one woman I spoke with, Alma, who started skipping her period for a road trip and continued for about a year. “About 3 months after I started bleeding randomly,” she said, and brought the issue to her gynecologist, who assured her it was normal. She continued to take only active pills for several more months. “After that first year I decided I preferred to know when exactly I was gonna bleed instead of having accidents without being prepared.”

While most women are able to take continuous birth control, there are some who benefit more than others. “People that have really bad cramps, those have debilitating cramps or bad PMS, or hormonal migraines, for example, anemia, irregular periods, known endometriosis,” Dr. Ross said, “those women don’t need a period.”

That was true for Jill, who has loved taking the pill continuously and has done so since 2009. “I was getting menstrual migraines that were making me throw up for two days straight at the start of my period,” she said. She said the ability to skip her period has been the most “liberating, awesome, wonderful experience ever.”

The birth control pill isn’t the only way to skip periods. According to Dr. Ross, other forms of birth control often also have this side effect. Methods like the patch can be taken continuously, resulting in a very light or lapsed period. Depo-Provera (the shot), Nexplanon (the progesterone implant that goes under the skin of the arm) and progesterone-coated IUDs like the Mirena can also have a side effect of either causing a very light period or stopping it all together.

I spoke with one woman, Natalie, who tried both the patch and the Depo-Provera shot in the last three years to eliminate her periods. “I get debilitating cramps where I miss a lot of school and work,” she said, which led her to try both methods, ultimately finding the shot worked better for her. “Being on continuous birth control also manages the frequency of my migraines and has seemed to decrease the activity of [my] ovarian cysts.”

One problem with continuous birth control can be getting your insurance to understand the necessity. Natalie’s insurance, for example, often misunderstood or argued over covering enough of the patch that she could take it without breaks. “Sometimes I would just want to scream, ‘Why does my insurance company want me to have a period so badly?’” Chelsi, who told me she’s been taking birth control pills continuously for five years, had similar issues when she moved states, having to get explicit permission from her doctor in order to pick up her prescription on time.

Still, for women who don’t have medical reason to skip periods, there are some potential side effects worth considering when skipping periods long-term. “If you’re on Depo Provera as a birth control and most people take it continuously and you’re not getting a period, there’s an argument to be made that you can’t be on it for more than ten years because you’re going to be prone to osteoporosis,” she said.

As to why more women aren’t jumping at the chance to skip their periods, Dr. Ross imagines it’s in part because our periods can be informative. “Our period naturally tells us a lot about our health and nutrition and how we’re doing,” she said. Skipping it can prevent us from picking up on that.

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Colleen Stinchcombe is a writer living in Phoenix, AZ. She writes for publishers, brands and individuals. Her work can be found on SheKnows.com, Green Living AZ, the Brandless blog, Canadian Pharmacy Blog and elsewhere.


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