Key questions answered about hormonal contraception

Lots of information shared by Optimal Period relates to a natural menstrual cycle, i.e NOT using any form of hormonal contraception. However, we know that hormonal contraceptives are used super frequently. We receive a huge number of questions asking about hormonal contraception, how they work, best ones to use…so to get started let’s start to change that.

Why use hormonal contraceptives?

Hormonal contraceptives are used mainly as a contraceptive to avoid pregnancy (seems obvious doesn’t it), but they can also reduce symptoms such as stomach cramps and mood swings.  They can also prevent having a period for training or competitions.

How do hormonal contraceptives work?

The synthetic hormones released from hormonal contraceptives control natural hormones in the body and prevent a natural menstrual cycle and period.  Hormonal contraceptives work by preventing ovulation (release of the egg).  This stops hormones (follicle stimulating hormone and lutenising hormone for those of you asking) releasing from the brain and this means no messages are sent to the reproductive system to release oestrogen and progesterone [see Menstrual cycle 101].

Sometimes bleeding is experienced, this is called a ‘withdrawal bleed’ and is because of the synthetic hormones.  A withdrawal bleed is NOT the same as a period and is not classed as a period. A regular withdrawal bleed is NOT an indication of a normal menstrual cycle, if you use hormonal contraception you cannot use your withdrawal bleed to indicate if you are experiencing irregular or loss of menstrual cycles.

Types of hormonal contraceptives

There are multiple different types of hormonal contraceptives that you may use:

  • Oral combined contraceptive (oestrogen & progestin) – taken daily
  • Mini pill (progestogen only pill) – taken daily
  • Contraceptive patch – every week
  • Contraceptive injection – every 2-3months
  • Implant – up to every 3yrs
  • Hormonal Intrauterine device (IUD) – up to every 5-10yrs

The NHS provides some helpful info on each type of hormonal contraceptive to help work out ‘which type of hormonal contraception is best for me?’

Symptoms

You may still experience symptoms whilst using hormonal contraception such as irregular bleeding, headaches, changes to mood and reduced motivation.  If you are experiencing severe symptoms which are affecting daily activities, consult a doctor as there may be a better hormonal contraceptive for you. Just like the menstrual cycle, everyone’s experience and interaction with different types of hormonal contraception is unique and sometimes you just need to find the right option for you. If you use hormonal contraceptives just to control those annoying symptoms, find out more about managing menstrual-related symptoms without the use of hormonal contraceptives in our free resources.

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Dr Natalie Brown

Dr Natalie Brown

Hey! I am Natalie, a research associate exploring all things menstrual cycle and sport related, whether that is Olympic performance or factors affecting participation in physical activity. When I am not talking about the menstrual cycle, I love climbing and being active outside. I have a background in physiology and research related to hormonal responses in athletes (male and female), combined with my own personal experience in sport, I am passionate to share information on the menstrual cycle with you.

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