Submitted by Leslie Chupp, M.D., associate professor Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at the Permian Basin; Regional Director Laura W. Bush Institute for Women’s Health
Most people are aware that pills, injections, patches and intrauterine devices containing hormones will prevent pregnancy. These preparations are also credited with many other health benefits.
Naturally occurring estrogen hormones stimulate tissues in the breasts, uterus, ovary and skin. Stimulation or growth of tissues is desirable in some situations such as achieving ovulation –- a condition required for pregnancy to occur. But too much or too frequent tissue stimulation from natural hormones can cause harm.
Some forms of breast, ovary and uterine cancers are directly related to long-term hormonal stimulation. One example of this undesired effect was noted when researchers reported much higher than expected rates of ovarian cancer in nuns. It was later concluded that because nuns did not have pregnancies, their ovaries were stimulated many times more over a lifetime than average women. The uninterrupted stimulation of the ovary put nuns at higher risk for ovarian cancer. Other researchers noticed that some women who routinely “skip” periods had a higher chance of getting certain types of uterine cancer. Evidence showed this to be a direct link to higher long-term estrogen stimulation on the tissue lining the uterus.
So how do hormonal contraceptives protect?
Hormones in the birth control pill, injection, patch and one type of intrauterine device are almost, but not exactly, identical to the hormones the body naturally produces. This slight change in the chemical structure of the hormone allows it to be recognized by the tissues but there is an important difference: When these synthetic hormones interact with the tissues of the ovary, uterus, breasts and oil producing skin glands the tissues are not stimulated. Medically, this effect is called “down regulation”. The lessening, or down regulation, of the natural biological stimulation leads to profound health benefits including decrease in menstrual bleeding, less anemia, less menstrual cramping, less chance of developing breast cysts, improvement in acne and a lower chance of developing common types of uterine and ovarian cancer. The cancer protection becomes higher the longer that the hormonal contraceptive is used.
Over fifty years ago the first hormonal contraceptives were developed to prevent pregnancy. Years of scientific testing, observation and refinement have led to newer, safer, and more effective forms of hormonal contraception with added long term women’s health benefits.
Disclaimer: The facts presented in this article and the views expressed are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Board of Directors or other members of West Texas Physicians Alliance.