Birth control pills come in multiple forms consisting of different mixtures of reproductive hormones. Although birth control pills are widely used and effective, like all medications there are risks and benefits associated with their use. Birth control pills can affect your risk of cardiovascular disease, and they can cause a slight change in your cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol and Cardiovascular Risk Factors
Cholesterol is a fatty substance produced by your liver that is used in making new cells and in the production of hormones and bile acids. HDL cholesterol helps protect your heart and blood vessels, while LDL cholesterol increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. Too much cholesterol in your diet can lead to increased blood levels of cholesterol and a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke. Other cardiac risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, family history and lack of regular exercise. Eating healthy foods, exercising and monitoring your cholesterol levels can help control these risks, but many medications, including birth control pills, can also affect your cholesterol levels.
Birth Control Pills and Cholesterol
Different types of birth control pills contain varied doses and proportions of estrogen and progestin, depending on your individual needs and reasons for taking them. In general, the estrogen in birth control pills can cause your total cholesterol level to rise, with an increase in HDL and decrease in LDL levels, according to MayoClinic.com. Progestins have the opposite effect, lowering HDL and raising LDL cholesterol levels. Any effect birth control pills have on your cholesterol levels will depend on the relative amounts and proportions of hormones present, as well as your own body's response to these hormones. In most cases, any changes that do occur will be small enough that they won't negatively affect your health.
Other Cardiovascular Risks
In addition to changes in your cholesterol levels, birth control pills can have other side effects that impact your risk for cardiovascular disease. According to the Lahey Clinic, if you are a woman over 35 who takes birth control pills and smokes heavily, you are at an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. This risk is even higher if you have other cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure. Birth control pills also increase your risk of developing high blood pressure, especially if you are overweight, have high blood pressure in your family or smoke tobacco. The combination of birth control pills and smoking also increases your risk of developing blood clots.
Benefits of Birth Control Pills
Birth control pills are considered safe and effective for most women, and have additional benefits to their contraceptive effect, according to Planned Parenthood. Combined estrogen and progestin pills offer some protection against osteoporosis, non-cancerous breast lumps, breast and ovarian cysts, endometrial and ovarian cancers, iron deficiency anemia and irregular menstrual symptoms. Talk to your health care provider about whether birth control pills are right for you, how your medical and family history might affect your risks, and which combination of hormones might be best for your individual situation.
- Women’s Heart Foundation: Fats and Cholesterol
- MayoClinic.com: Birth Control FAQ: Benefits, Risks and Choices
- Lahey Clinic; Oral Contraceptives: Risks and Benefits; Rebecca J. Stahl, MA
- Planned Parenthood: Birth Control Pills
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Oral Contraception and Combination Hormonal Methods