Women on birth control can safely skip the week of placebo pills — and the bleeding, headaches and mood changes that come with it — according to health officials in the United Kingdom.
Since the birth control pill was invented 60 years ago, women taking it have been advised to have 4-7 hormone-free days a month during which they typically experience bleeding that mimics naturally occurring menstrual cycles.
But there is no health benefit associated with skipping a week of birth control, according to the Faculty of Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare, which sets the standards for family planning and sexual health physicians in the United Kingdom.
In fact, because the ovaries start to become active during the break, “the risk of pregnancy could theoretically be lower with extended or continuous regimens than if a 7-day break is taken every month,” according to new guidelines released last week.
John Rock, the gynecologist who helped develop the birth control pill and a devout Catholic, created the break because he hoped the Pope would approve, professor John Guillebaud told the Telegraph.
“Rock thought if it did imitate the natural cycle then the Pope would accept it,” Guillebaud told the British newspaper. “When his campaign to get the pill accepted by the Pope failed, he just simply stopped being a Catholic, having been a committed one for his entire life.”
There is some disagreement on the origin of the break, as an opinion column published by the Guardian notes. Some sources say it was a way to assure women taking early versions of the pill that they were not pregnant.
Doctors have long acknowledged that there is no medical reason to have a monthly “period” while on birth control. Guillebaud, a researcher at University College of London, co-authored one such study which reported similar findings last year.
“If a woman wants to avoid periods on combined hormonal contraception she can run the packets together – we don’t need a regular monthly bleed to be healthy, and lots of women welcome the option of avoiding bleeding,” Sarah Hardman, co-director of the Clinical Effectiveness Unit of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare said in a statement.
Continuous use of combined hormonal contraception, which includes the combined contraceptive pill, transdermal patch and vaginal ring, is also associated with a reduced risk of endometrial, ovarian and colorectal cancers, according to the guidelines. It has also been proven effective at managing painful symptoms associated with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis.
The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare notes women should consult with their doctor before making changes to their birth control methods, the BBC reports.
Given the benefits of continuous use, Guillebuad asked the Telegraph, “how could it be that for 60 years, we have been taking the pill in a sub-optimal way because of this desire to please the Pope?”
Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg