In 1960, when oral contraceptives were first approved by the FDA, they seemed revolutionary: All you had to do was pop a pill a day and you would avoid an unwanted pregnancy. But 50 years later, researchers have discovered that the Pill has a wider impact on women’s health. Here are six unexpected benefits, according to Shari Brasner, MD, an ob-gyn with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City:
* Protects against cancer
Good news for the 80% of American women who have used birth control pills at one point in their lives. In a recent Lancet study involving 110,000 women, those who had previously taken the pill for one to four years were 22% less likely to develop ovarian cancer. Taking the Pill may also cut lifetime risk for endometrial cancer by up to 50%.
- Stops cysts
Taking the Pill helps prevent or reduce the occurrence of functional cysts (the most common kind of ovarian cyst), which form when ovulation goes awry. Oral contraceptives are also used to treat cystic acne, a potentially scarring condition that affects women even into their forties.
* Treats excess hair
Many gynecologists use the Pill to treat hirsutism, or abnormal hair growth on a woman’s face or chest. “The estrogen in the pill raises your levels of sex hormone binding globulin, a glycoprotein that binds with and removes the free testosterone responsible for excess hair growth,” Brasner explains.
* Reduces PMDD
“Certain birth control pills, especially those with drospirenone, may treat symptoms of pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder,” Brasner says. This condition—comparable to the worst PMS of your life—involves bloating, headaches and depression. Suppressing ovulation may curb your symptoms.
* Cuts down on cramps
Most women who go on the Pill notice that their periods become lighter and shorter, making for fewer cramps. “Data suggests that when you’re on the Pill, your uterine muscles don’t release as much prostaglandin,” Brasner explains. This fatty acid triggers inflammation; pain is lower when there’s less around.
* Controls cycles
Why deal with annoying or irregular periods? A growing number of women are skipping the week’s worth of placebos (and bleeding) that come in Pill packets or are taking newer version of the Pill that allow women to have their periods just four time per year. “It used to be that a bride-to-be would ask how to control her cycle before her wedding night,” Brasner recalls. “Now we get patients training for a marathon who want to know how to skip their periods.”