This time of year, the holiday season, can be a time of overindulgence for many of us. And how can we talk about overindulgence without taking a look at the liver? To say the liver is important is an understatement. It is the body’s largest gland and while estimates of the number of functions of the liver vary, many textbooks generally cite around 500. Nearly everything we ingest, from drugs and alcohol to vitamins and nutrients, is metabolized by the liver. The vital role it plays in the functioning of our bodies makes the testimony from the 1970 Nelson Pill Hearings about the effects of oral contraceptives on the liver that much scarier.

Research Presented at the Nelson Pill Hearings

Dr. Victor Wynn was one of the first physicians to testify about the effects of hormonal birth control on the liver.

On page 6341 he states, “if you will take cells out of the liver and examine them under the electromicroscope of women taking oral contraceptive medication, you will find some extraordinary changes.” Of these and other changes caused by the pill, he says: “When I say these changes occur, I mean they occur in everybody, more in some than in others, but no person entirely escapes from the metabolic influence of these compounds. It is merely that some manifest the changes more obviously than others.”

Later to testify was Dr. William Spellacy who was specifically called upon to speak about the metabolic effects on the liver. His testimony about the liver begins, “The biochemical effects of the sex hormones on the liver are legion.” Below is a list of liver functions that, based on the research presented in Dr. Spellacy’s testimony, are altered or impaired (NPH 6427):

  • Lowering of total plasma protein level
  • Decrease in the albumin and gamma globulin and increases in other fractions
  • Tests may be abnormal in women on oral contraceptives without disease being present
  • Estrogen (including that in oral contraceptives) interferes with liver function and varies with dosage
  • Some women taking oral contraceptives have abnormally high blood bilirubin levels
  • 1/3 of women who have jaundice on oral contraceptives will get it when pregnant
  • Discontinuation of oral contraceptives “cures” jaundice

He summed up his thoughts on the liver damage caused by hormonal birth control:

“The immediate effects include the alteration of several of the laboratory tests used in medical diagnoses. Aggravation of existing liver disease, if present, to the point where jaundice may be seen has also been shown. There is no answer to the query of will permanent liver damage result from the use of the oral contraceptives.”

The honorary Chairman of the Population Crisis Committee, a “pro-pill” organization focused on population control added his two cents about the effects of oral contraceptives on the women using them. “While metabolic alterations affecting the liver and other organs do result from use of the pill, there is no evidence at this time that they pose serious hazards to health;” General William Draper, Page 6705.

Of course, we shouldn’t assume that just because a medication causes a “legion” of biochemical effects on the livers of otherwise healthy women that there will be any lasting problems, right?

Research Since the Hearings

“Women more commonly present with acute liver failure, autoimmune hepatitis, benign liver lesions, primary biliary cirrhosis, and toxin-mediated hepatotoxicity,” according to a 2013 article in Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Like I mentioned in my piece about rheumatoid arthritis, whenever a health issue affects women disproportionately, there is often a connection with hormonal birth control. While this study doesn’t specifically mention that, it does call for further studies assess the role of sex hormones and other behaviors on liver problems in women.

These connections were well-documented at the 1970 Nelson Pill Hearings but the subsequent research gets more confusing.

Read the rest of the article here.