Ask Dr Libby: How does taking the pill interfere with vitamins and minerals?
I have to stay on the pill for health reasons but I've heard that it interferes with certain vitamins. Which ones do I need extra of to be really healthy? Thank you, Lynette.
Hi Lynette. It is true that the oral contraceptive pill (OCP) can deplete numerous vitamins and minerals in the body. So it's important to know how to best support your body and ensure you are maintaining strong biochemical pathways and optimal health and energy. Here's a list of all the vitamins and minerals that can be affected in varying levels and how to make sure you're getting what you need.
VITAMIN A (RETINOL)
An important antioxidant and immune system vitamin, studies have shown disruption to vitamin A levels and beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) in the blood of those taking the pill. A deficiency in vitamin A can impair healthy eye function, increase susceptibility to infections, cause dry and scaly skin, reduce appetite and vitality, impact teeth and gum health, and lead to heavy menstrual bleeding and cervical problems. Beta-carotene rich foods include sweet potato, carrots, dark leafy greens such as kale and retinol rich foods include liver and other organ meats.
B GROUP VITAMINS
The OCP can interfere with levels of vitamins B1, B2, B6 and B12, all of which have important functions in the body. Vitamin B6 is a nutrient critical in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin, a gut and brain compound that significantly influences our happiness, calm and contentment, our pain response, eating patterns, moods, sleep patterns, psychological drive and sexual desire. It's also needed for blood glucose management. A deficiency in any one of these B vitamins may result in anaemia, fatigue, insomnia, weight loss, depression, irritability, sugar cravings, constipation, gum and mouth infections, eye irritations, skin problems, muscle weakness, nervousness, emotional flare-ups and edema. Whole food sources of B vitamins include dark green leafy vegetables, lentils, almonds, pecans, eggs, asparagus, chicken and fish, bananas and shellfish.
Most problems arise in this deficiency if a woman conceives either on the pill or immediately after coming off it, when the body is still recovering its folate stores. Folate is required by the body to facilitate cell division (a process that begins immediately after conception) and deficiencies result in greater risk of abnormal synthesis of DNA and congenital abnormalities. Deficiency can also lead to damage to the wall of the small intestine, anaemia and elevated homocysteine levels, which have been associated with heart disease, various gynecological conditions and repeated miscarriage. Homocysteine can be maintained at healthy levels if folate and vitamins B6 and B12 are in adequate supply. Folate-rich whole foods include dark leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, citrus fruits, beans, peas, lentils and avocado.
The pill increases destruction of vitamin C inside your body and can reduce levels by up to 30 per cent. This is made worse by smoking, stress, exposure to high levels of pollutants (via foods, drinks, what you breathe or put on your skin), infections and some medications. Vitamin C is also essential for the production of sex hormones, something your body will need to do more of if/when you no longer take the pill. A deficiency can result in bruising, spider veins, bleeding gums, loss of appetite, muscular weakness, anaemia, fatigue and a lowered immune response. Ironically more than two grams of vitamin C per day can interfere with the effectiveness of the pill so don't overdo it when you are taking it. Amp up your capsicum, dark green leafy vegetable, kiwifruit, broccoli, berry and citrus fruit intake or take a good quality supplement.
Deficiency can cause a variety of premenstrual symptoms, lumpy breasts, muscle cramps, anxiety, sleeplessness, sugar cravings and cardiovascular issues. Magnesium-rich foods include spinach, silverbeet, pumpkin seeds, almonds, black beans, avocado, figs and there is even magnesium in pure dark chocolate.
Lowered levels of zinc can lead to poor blood glucose management, sugar cravings, loss of appetite, lousy digestion, poor resistance to infection, skin infections, lowered fertility, tissue repair, scarring and a wide range of other problems. Zinc rich foods include oysters, beef and lamb, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds. You might also consider taking a good quality supplement if you know you are zinc deficient.
Dr Libby is a nutritional biochemist, best-selling author and speaker. The advice contained in this column is not intended to be a substitute for direct, personalised advice from a health professional. Visit drlibby.com.