When taken correctly, the combined contraceptive pill is more than 99% effective at preventing pregnancy. But many women don’t realise certain foods, medication, bouts of illness and even some herbal remedies can stop their birth control working. We spoke to medical experts to find out exactly what to look out for when using the combined pill, to ensure you’re fully protected at every stage in your cycle…
Most antibiotics are perfectly safe to take alongside your contraceptive pill, but some medication – rifampicin and rifabutin in particular (which can be used to treat illnesses including tuberculosis and meningitis) – can “interfere with the effectiveness of the combined pill”, says Dr Narendra Pisal, Consultant Gynaecologist at London Gynaecology. Should you have any doubt about your medication, consult with your doctor.
Whether you’ve been sick from an infection or as a result of a heavy night on the tiles, Dr Pisal says: “If you are sick within two hours of taking the pill it won’t be absorbed by your body, and you should take it again (as soon as you feel well enough).” Providing you’re not sick again, your contraception won’t be affected.
Just like vomiting, if you’ve taken laxatives or suffer with diarrhoea, it can interfere with the Pill’s absorption and, as a result, can stop it from working. Similarly, if you suffer with “inflammatory bowel disease or frequent digestive upset, this can prevent the body from absorbing medications correctly, which includes contraceptive pills.” says Dr Jenna Macciochi, lecturer at the University of Sussex. Should you experience stomach upset, it’s advised to use additional precautions to avoid risk of pregnancy.
Two years ago, detox tea brand Bootea came under fire after a string of unwanted pregnancies were reported by their consumers due to the laxative effect of the drink. Many detox teas work to flush toxins from your body, so it’s important to bear in mind that your contraceptive pill could well be flushed away at the same time. If you’re unsure, it’s best to use a back-up contraceptive device to avoid putting yourself at risk.
Soy beans contain trace amounts of oestrogen-like compounds known as isoflavones. These compounds “mimic our own oestrogen levels” says Dr Macciochi, and when consumed in excessive quantities can block the contraceptive pill’s effectiveness. Because the combined pill uses hormones to stop the body from ovulating, consuming oestrogen-based products like soy milk could alter the level of hormones in the body, which can cause it to stop working and put you at risk of an unplanned pregnancy.
Hailed for their detoxifying properties, charcoal-infused foods have had a bit of a moment in the health world, with wellness gurus everywhere recommending the stuff. Activated charcoal works to detox and cleanse the body, but because charcoal is so absorbent – activated charcoal is actually given to people in hospital to counteract an overdose – it’s been reported that charcoal foods or supplements are likely to absorb medications, including the contraceptive pill.
A surprising one, but grapefruit contains a chemical which slows digestion which, in turn, affects the way your body breaks down and absorbs certain medicines. In the case of birth control, grapefruit and grapefruit juice decrease the breakdown of oestrogen in the body, essentially affecting your hormone levels. When these are out of balance, it can render the Pill less effective, says Dr Macciochi.
Starting At The Wrong Time
Starting the pill on the first day of your cycle protects you from pregnancy straight away, but leaving it later than this can put you at risk: “We recommend that you start the pill as soon as possible, but if you do not start the packet on day one, it may not work for that cycle,” says Dr Pisal.
St John’s Wort
A popular herbal remedy for mild cases of depression, St John’s Wort is used by around two million people in the UK alone. Although it’s been praised as an effective alternative remedy for depression and anxiety, St John's wort has the potential to stop the oral contraceptive pill from working, as the herb dilutes the effect of the pill. “Any woman using a combined or progestogen-only contraceptive should avoid any herbal products that contain it”, says Dr Amy Bibby from Qure, an on-demand healthcare app.
This might be an obvious one, but forgetting to take the pill is one of the main reported reasons that contraception fails. Forgetting one pill doesn’t mean you’re definitely going to get pregnant, but it will increase your chances.
“Forgetting to take the pill can obviously increase your risk. It is easy to forget this in a busy lifestyle. Always set a reminder and follow the ‘missed pill’ advice from the leaflet," says Dr Pisal.
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