There are many birth control options available for people these days, which is great because you can find a method that works best for you and your lifestyle. Condoms, hormonal birth control pills, IUDs, Nuva Ring, the shot, the implant—the list goes on and on. One of the most popular forms of birth control is the hormonal birth control pill.

A refresher on the hormonal birth control pill

Typically, the hormonal birth control pill uses either a combination of estrogen and progestin, or just progestin to shut down ovulation in your body so you don’t release an egg for fertilization. These hormones are naturally occurring in your body, and the pill just provides you with amounts of these hormones so your body essentially thinks it’s pregnant and doesn’t ovulate. These pills also thicken your cervical mucus so if an egg is released, your womb isn’t in a state where implantation could occur. The pill needs to be taken every day at the same time to be most effective. Even missing one pill can cause some people to get pregnant, so the pill isn’t the best option for someone with a super unpredictable schedule, someone who travels between time zones frequently, or someone who just isn’t punctual. Not brag, but I could win an award for taking my pill on time.

Since the pill is such an effective method (99% effective when taken perfectly), it is a popular option. It’s also popular because it’s non-invasive, can be stopped at any time, is covered in full by most insurance or is fairly inexpensive if it’s not, and doesn’t affect your fertility. Starting in late 2019, studies have begun to help develop a birth control pill that just needs to be taken once a month. What? Sounds too good to be true, right?

How would a once-a-month pill work?

Because of the stomach’s acids and the way our bodies take in and digest medicine, the pill, and most other medications, needs to be taken daily. Doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and MIT discovered a new design for a slow releasing pill while doing research on drugs for HIV and malaria treatment. After doing some research on these other drugs, the team discovered this same design would work for birth control bills. With this once a month design, the birth control hormones for the month are distributed on six little “arms” extending from the center of the whole pill. When the pill capsule is open and spread out inside your body, it looks like a little starfish with six arms full of hormones. The pill is made out of body-safe polyurethane and is taken all folded up in a capsule. Once in the body, its arms will spread out and slowly release the hormones over a period of 29 days. This is the same cycle for most birth control pills, you would just take this one capsule at the beginning of the month and be good to go until 29 days later.

The initial trials on this capsule design were tested on pigs, and the results were really promising. The little legs of the starfish design broke off and passed safely through the body after the hormones were released, and the starfish didn’t obstruct anything from entering or leaving the body either. Pigs have more similar insides to humans than rats, so the positive results in pigs were a good sign. The scientists behind this hope to build artificial stomachs next, and eventually begin testing on humans.

When could this birth control pill be released?

If this birth control ends up being developed, in theory, it should be as effective as the daily pill, that is if the user is taking it at the same time every month. One of the complaints of the daily pill is having to remember to take it at the same time every day, but I would argue that remembering to take a pill at the same time just once a month might be harder to remember because it’s not part of your daily routine. Birth control options that you must take orally, or even the shot, is most effective when taken on time. So this design might make birth control seem like less of a hassle for some women, but it might be harder for others to remember to take it.

Human trials haven’t even begun yet, so it will likely be several more years until this type of pill is available on the market. Either way, it’s incredibly exciting that people have more options for how they want to take their birth control and be in charge of their reproductive health.

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