Birth control pills and weight gain: Know the connection

Worried about experiencing weight changes after stopping birth control pills? We tell you if it can cause weight gain.

The primary function of birth control pills is to prevent pregnancy, but they offer more benefits. They can regulate menstrual cycles, making them more predictable and reducing symptoms such as irregular bleeding, heavy periods, and menstrual cramps. Women may even experience relief from period cramps if they take birth control pills on a doctor’s advise. But some people may be apprehensive about the side effects of birth control pills. Weight gain after stopping birth control pills is a common concern. Let us find out if there is a connection between birth control pills and weight gain.

What are birth control pills?

Birth control pills, also known as oral contraceptives or simply the pill, are medications that are taken orally in order to prevent pregnancy. They contain synthetic hormones that suppress ovulation, the process by which an egg is released from the ovary, and regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle, explains gynaecologist and IVF expert Dr Shobha Gupta. Usually, these hormones are progestin and oestrogen. They can weaken the lining of the uterus, which makes it less favourable for the implantation of a fertilised egg, and thicken the cervical mucus, which makes it harder for sperm to reach the egg. If you use them as prescribed, birth control pills can be very effective, says the expert.

Sometimes, birth control pills are also prescribed to treat conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

A woman holding birth control pills
Image courtesy: Freepik

When should women stop taking birth control pills?

The decision to discontinue taking birth control pills should be personal. It may be influenced by a number of factors such as lifestyle modifications, personal health concerns, and family planning objectives. When a woman is ready to have a child, she may decide to stop taking birth control pills. However, some women experience side effects from birth control pills, such as headaches, nausea, breast tenderness, mood swings, or changes in libido, says the expert.

Why do some women gain weight after stopping birth control pills?

There are many studies that explore the connection between birth control pills and weight gain. A 2020 study published in the Obesity journal found that the pill with estrogen and progestin might cause an increase in body fat in people trying to lose weight. As per a review published in The Cochrane Library on average, study participants gained less than 2 kg after 6 or 12 months of using a progestin-only pill.

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But there are also studies that prove otherwise. According to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Women’s Health, oral contraceptives are not associated with short term weight change in obese women.

Weight gain is a complex issue, and while some women may experience weight changes after stopping birth control pills, it is not a universal occurrence, says Dr Gupta. It is mainly because of water retention or hormonal fluctuations. Any weight changes that do occur are often minor and can vary widely from person to person.

What are the factors that may contribute to weight gain after birth control?

Weight gain is a potential side effect of some forms of birth control, although not everyone experiences it. Several factors may contribute to weight gain:

1. Hormonal changes

Combination birth control pills contain synthetic hormones like estrogen and progestin. These hormones can affect appetite, so some women may want to eat more than they usually do. This can lead to higher calorie intake and potential weight gain.

2. Fluid retention

Hormonal contraceptives can cause fluid retention in some people. This may lead to temporary weight gain due to increased water retention in the body, says the expert.

A woman holding up a weighing scale following weight gain
Birth control methods can affect metabolism. Image courtesy: Freepik

3. Changes in metabolism

Hormonal changes induced by certain birth control methods can alter metabolism. This can potentially affect how the body processes calories and stores fat.

4. Individual differences

Not everyone reacts the same way to hormonal contraceptives. Factors such as genetics, lifestyle, and pre-existing metabolic conditions can influence how a woman’s body responds to birth control and whether weight gain happens.

5. Type of birth control

Different forms of birth control may have varying effects on weight. For example, progestin-only methods like the Depo-Provera shot are more strongly associated with weight gain compared to combination birth control pills, says the expert. Some hormonal intrauterine devices (IUDs) contain progestin and may lead to weight gain.

6. Lifestyle factors

Changes in lifestyle habits, such as diet and exercise patterns, can also contribute to weight gain after birth control. For example, if someone becomes less physically active or adopts less healthy eating habits after stopping birth control, they may be more likely to gain weight.

If you are concerned about weight gain after stopping birth control pills, it may be best to focus on overall health and well-being. This may include maintaining a balanced diet, staying physically active, managing stress levels, and seeking support from doctors if needed.