You already know it’s one of the most popular and effective forms of contraception out there, but the Pill does so much more than just prevent unwanted pregnancy. It also comes with some noteworthy non-contraceptive benefits. In fact, 14 percent of users—1.5 million women—count on oral contraceptives exclusively to help them with issues that have zero to do with pregnancy prevention, according to a Guttmacher Institute study.
Of course, the Pill is far from perfect. There are also downsides and some health risks that go along with it. Here’s a look at some of the most common benefits and side effects that go along with popping that little pill every day.
1. You can say goodbye to painful cramps and hello to lighter periods.
Normally, after you ovulate, your body produces the hormone progesterone, which builds up the uterine lining to create a cushy home for a fertilized egg. If you don’t end up becoming pregnant during that cycle, the uterine lining is shed—and along with that often comes painful cramping and heavy bleeding. “On the Pill, you’re breaking the cycle,” says Lauren F. Streicher, M.D., associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and author of Sex Rx: Hormones, Health, and Your Best Sex Ever. “You’re not ovulating so you’re not building up the lining of the uterus and you’re not getting a heavy menstrual bleed.”
2. You can also choose how often to have your period—or skip it entirely.
You don’t need to have your period every single month. With oral contraceptives, you can skip the sugar pills and instead take the active pills in the pack back-to-back to stop your monthly flow. Not only is it perfectly safe, but skipping your monthly period altogether also helps prevent endometriosis-related pain and menstrual migraines. “If you get a migraine every time you get your period, you can take the Pill straight through and avoid that headache,” says Streicher.
3. It eases PMS symptoms.
The steady stream of hormones you get in oral contraceptives can help control the mood swings associated with PMS. Certain types of birth control pills—namely, Yaz, Yasmin, and a newer pill, Beyaz—also help beat PMS-related bloating. That’s because they contain a type of progesterone, drospirenone, that acts as a mild diuretic. Both Yaz and Beyaz are also FDA-approved to help with symptoms of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which is a severe form of PMS that affects five to 10 percent of women.
4. You’ll have clearer skin.
Acne can be triggered by the hormone testosterone, which, contrary to popular belief, women do have in small doses. Because oral contraceptives help lower the amount of free testosterone circulating in your system, they reduce these hormone-fueled breakouts, according to Streicher.
5. But you may also have vaginal dryness and a lower libido.
There’s a downside to the Pill getting rid of that free testosterone in your system: Your libido may take a nosedive and you can also develop vaginal dryness, according to Streicher. The good news: It’s a rare side effect. “It effects maybe one to two percent of people, so it’s a small group—but a real one,” she says. If your private parts seem parched, which can make sex painful, a vaginal lubricant can help significantly.
6. Your risk of blood clots and stroke go up.
The hormones in birth control pills increase the levels of clotting factors in the blood. That’s important because a blood clot can block a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain, leading to an ischemic stroke, especially if you’re over age 35 and a smoker. The good news is that if you’re a healthy non-smoker and have no other risk factors, the risk of stroke in Pill users is small: 8.5 strokes per 100,000 women, according to research from Loyola University.
7. The Pill may slightly increase your risk of certain cancers.
Some research shows that taking birth control pills for five years or more ups the risk of cervical cancer. According to theNational Cancer Institute (NCI), research shows that the longer you’re on oral contraceptives, the higher the risk of cervical cancer. But once you stop taking birth control pills, the risk goes down over time. Although study results are mixed, some women on oral contraceptives may have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer, according to the NCI. However, research shows that 10 or more years after women stop take birth control pills their risk of developing breast cancer goes back to the same level as if they had never been on the Pill.
8. But it also cuts the risk of other types of cancer.
Birth control pills reduce the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers. In fact, the longer you’re on the Pill, the lower your risk. According to NCI, the risk goes down by 10 to 12 percent after being on oral contraceptives for a year and by about 50 percent after five years. In fact, a 2015 study in The Lancet Oncology estimates that over the past 50 years, about 400,000 cases of endometrial cancer in high-income countries have been prevented thanks to the Pill. Not too shabby.