Do birth control pills make you emotional
Feel like a different person on the pill? Here’s how it affects your mood |
Science Mar 26, 2020 / Sarah E. Hill PhD
If you think your contraception is making you anxious or depressed, you’re not imagining things. Evolutionary psychologist Sarah E. Hill explains what happens to your brain on birth control.
Most women know at least one or two other women who have had a bad reaction to the pill. In fact, the question that many of us have about the pill: “Why does the pill make me crazy?”
Before I get into what the research says about all this, let me just address the elephant in the room — the whole thing about women’s sex hormones influencing mood. Which they do. This might be the world’s oldest cliché about women, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Women’s sex hormones influence women’s moods. Men’s sex hormones affect men’s moods. It would be impossible for them not to.
Back to the question. To start with, all of us feel a little crazy sometimes. Life is hard and can make anyone feel anxious and overwhelmed at times. For some women, being on the pill can magnify these feelings, leading to anxiety disorders and depression. But if these things happen to you, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy; it just means you’re on the wrong pill.
Mood-related issues like anxiety and depression are super-common among women on the pill. Almost half of all women who go on the pill stop using it within the first year because of intolerable side effects, and the one most frequently cited is unpleasant changes in mood. Sometimes it’s intolerable anxiety; other times, it’s intolerable depression; or maybe both simultaneously. And even though some women’s doctors may tell them that those mood changes aren’t real or important, a growing body of research suggests otherwise.
The Scandinavian nation of Denmark is home to a number of nationwide registers, collections of data from its citizens on different health and social issues. Because all Danish citizens have a unique personal identification number, researchers have been able to link individual people’s data across different registers, giving them access to tons of information about patterns of health and social behavior in a whole population.
From these registers, we’ve learned valuable lessons about the powerful effects that the birth control pill can have on mood. In the first of these studies, the researchers looked at the records of all the healthy, nondepressed women living in Denmark between the ages of 15 and 34. They then followed the prescription and mental health records of these women (more than a million of them) for 14 years to see whether going on hormonal contraceptives influenced the likelihood of later being diagnosed with depression or being prescribed antidepressants.
The researchers found that women on hormonal contraceptives were 50 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression six months later, compared with women who were not prescribed hormonal contraceptives during this time. They also found the women on hormonal contraceptives were 40 percent more likely to be prescribed an antidepressant than were women who weren’t prescribed hormonal contraceptives during this time. The results of this study, as well as others, suggest the pill can increase some women’s risk of depression. This seemed particularly true for non-oral products (such as a patch, vaginal ring or hormonal IUD) and for young women (ages 15 to 19), whose brains are not yet done developing and may be more prone to the influence of hormonal signaling.
As a scientist, I’m obliged to point out we don’t know for sure that the pills caused this increase. Correlation doesn’t equal causation. It’s possible the researchers found pill taking and depression to be related because they were each related to some other third variable. For instance, women who seek medical interventions to prevent pregnancy might be more likely to seek medical interventions for depression. Or, getting into a new sexual relationship (which can prompt a pill prescription) could be what’s increasing women’s depression risk.
However, the researchers statistically tested for the influence of a number of third variables, and each of these tests found that hormonal contraceptives predicted depression risk even after statistically controlling for these third variables. Even though this wasn’t a double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment, the researchers took great care with their study design and data analysis and the results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the top medical journal in the US.
More recently, the same team looked at whether hormonal contraceptives might increase women’s risk of suicide. Researchers tracked hormonal contraceptive usage and suicide attempts and deaths in all Danish women who’d turned 15 between 1996 and 2013. (As in their prior study, they did not include any women who had previously diagnosed psychological problems or who had used antidepressants. They also didn’t include women already on hormonal contraceptives when they entered the study. ) They followed the women for an average of eight years and then compared the likelihood of having attempted or successfully committed suicide among the women who were prescribed hormonal contraceptives and those who were not.
The women on hormonal contraceptives were twice as likely to have attempted suicide during this time than the women not on hormonal contraceptives. But the risk of successful suicide attempts was actually higher: It was triple that of women not on hormonal contraceptives. As with depression risk, the biggest negative impact of hormonal contraceptives on suicide risk was found for young women (ages 15 to 19) on non-oral products.
When it comes to why the pill can mess with your mood, the two systems that shoulder most of the blame are the HPA axis and some of our neurotransmitter systems. First, the HPA axis (or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis). It’s made up of three systems working together — the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, the adrenal glands — and plays a central role in the body’s stress response. The type of blunting of the HPA axis we tend to see in pill-taking women is a known contributor to mental health problems, including the types of mood disturbances characteristic of PTSD. Because lacking the biological tools necessary to deal with stress literally harms your ability to cope, having a broken stress response might be a key player in the development of anxiety and depression. It could also harm emotional well-being in indirect ways through its negative impact on our ability to absorb emotionally meaningful events from our environments.
The second piece is the role that neurotransmitter systems play in making women feel lousy on the pill. Before I explain, I need you to know three quick things.
Quick Thing 1: Neurotransmitters are chemicals that the brain uses to communicate with itself and the rest of the body.
Quick Thing 2: Excitatory neurotransmitters tell your brain cells to get ready for action, making them more likely to fire off messages to other brain cells.
Quick Thing 3: Inhibitory neurotransmitters tell your brain cells to slow their roll, making them less likely to fire off messages to other cells in the brain.
The most prevalent and frequently used inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain is GABA. It’s often on the scene in a big way when your brain is trying to slow itself down. GABA gets released when you’re relaxing in your PJ pants, and it’s also released when doing things like meditation and yoga.
Interestingly, you can get a relaxed GABA-rific experience from other things that stimulate GABA receptors, such as alcohol and benzodiazepines like Xanax. And our bodies actually produce compounds that work much like alcohol and Xanax. One of the most powerful is allopregnanolone, a neurosteroid. It gets synthesized when progesterone is broken down in the body and has the effect of kick-starting action by your GABA receptors.
Unfortunately for women on the pill, the artificial progestins in the pill don’t seem to offer this same benefit. In fact, research suggests that women on the pill may have lower levels of these natural sedatives relative to what’s observed in its absence, regardless of the point in the cycle.
This can mean bad news for women’s mental health. When GABA receptors aren’t properly stimulated, it’s known to make people feel anxious, overwhelmed and depressed. A number of mental-health-related issues, including panic disorder, depression, bipolar disorder and the mood-related symptoms of PMS, are characterized by lower-than-average levels of GABAergic activity. Lack of such activity can also increase a person’s risk of alcohol dependence.
Research suggests that changes in dopamine and serotonin signaling may also play a role in mood-related changes seen on the pill. Dopamine and serotonin, like GABA, are neurotransmitters. These chemicals come on the scene when we’re spending time with people we love, eating hot fudge sundaes, falling in love, having sex and having orgasms.
Not surprisingly, these neurotransmitter systems change what they do in response to women’s cyclically changing sex hormones. In particular, the research finds that estrogen makes rewarding things feel even more rewarding than they do in its absence and that progesterone attenuates these effects. Estrogen makes sex feel sexier, chocolate taste yummier, and getting status boosts feel boost-ier.
Given that the pill keeps estrogen levels low across the cycle and stimulates progesterone receptors, it’s possible the pill might have the effect of dampening reward processing in the brain. And if the world seems unrewarding, this makes us feel depressed. One hallmark symptom of depression is that people no longer find pleasure in things that they used to find pleasure in. So it’s also possible that the pill might increase a person’s risk of depression by making pleasure less pleasurable. Consistent with this idea, research finds that pill-taking women — when compared with their naturally cycling counterparts — have a blunted positive emotional response to happy things and don’t experience activity in the reward centers of their brains when looking at pictures of their romantic partners.
It seems pretty clear from the research that the pill can cause some women some pretty serious problems with their mental health, but the science isn’t yet at a point where we can make strong predictions about exactly what’s going to happen to whom, and on what.
However, according to the research, you might have a greater risk of experiencing negative mood effects on the pill if:
- You have a history of depression or mental illness (although there is also evidence that the pill can stabilize mood in certain women with mental illness).
- You have a personal or family history of mood-related side effects on the birth control pill.
- You are taking progestin-only pills.
- You are using a non-oral product.
- You are taking multi-phasic pills (pills with an increasing dose of hormones across the cycle rather than a constant dose).
- You are 19 or younger.
These bullet points can give you a starting point to initiate a conversation with your doctor about any mental health concerns. They aren’t your fate, though. Even if you’re an 18-year-old with a family history of depression and you’re on the birth control patch, if you aren’t experiencing signs of troubled mental health, the chances are incredibly low that you’re going to suddenly develop mood problems from birth control. This is especially true if you’ve been on it for a while and seem to be tolerating it well.
What’s more, while some women experience negative mood changes on the pill, some women experience the opposite reaction. They feel a whole lot better and mentally healthier on the pill than off it. Research also finds that the pill can offer huge mood-stabilizing benefits to women who have severe PMS.
The most critical thing about the pill’s effects will come from you: How do you feel on it?
Any time you start a new pill, please let someone close to you know about it. Ask them to make note and tell you if they notice any changes in your behavior that might suggest the onset of depression.
Because the hormones in the pill influence what the brain does, it’s almost impossible to separate out what the hormones are doing from who we are. We feel like the version of reality that is created by our brain on the pill is real. This can make it difficult to notice depression creeping in. Rather than feeling like the pill is messing with our mood, it just feels like our life is getting crappier or our job has gotten more stressful. If you tell your person that you are trying a new pill, they may be able to help you recognize problems that start to develop so that you can look for a new pill or an alternative means of protecting yourself from pregnancy.
On top of this, consider keeping a journal. If possible, start it before going on the pill so you have a log of how you were feeling before and after. Having hard evidence of your mood prior to the pill can be a good way for you to think about your past more objectively, making it easier to recognize any changes. In each entry, make note of your mood, energy level and well-being using some sort of scale (1=”I feel sad/anxious” and 10=”I feel great”). This will help you keep tabs on how things change for you (or not) when trying out a new pill.
If you’re already on the pill, it’s not too late to keep track of how you’re feeling. Make a note of your patterns. If you have more happy days than sad ones, that probably means everything’s on the right track. None of us feel happy all the time, but we should feel happier more often than sad when things in our lives are going well. If you have fewer happy days than you think you should, talk to your doctor. It could be time to try a new pill or address an issue with your mental health that you’ve let go too long.
Excerpted with permission from the new book This Is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended Consequences by Sarah E. Hill PhD. Published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. © 2019 by Sarah E. Hill.
Watch her TEDxVienna Talk now:
Does Birth Control Make You Moody?
Written by Hope Cristol
In this Article
- How Hormonal Contraceptives Work
- Is There a Link Between Birth Control and Emotions?
- Possible Explanations
- When to See a Doctor
Lots of women get irritable, depressed, or feel out of sorts just before their monthly periods. Those can be symptoms of a common condition called premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
But could your birth control pills and other hormonal contraceptives trigger similar emotional swings? Or might they do the reverse and actually improve your moods?
How Hormonal Contraceptives Work
Most birth control pills, patches, and rings combine two lab-made female sex hormones, estrogen and progestin. “Minipills” have only progestin, and in a smaller amount.
Combined hormonal contraceptives stop the normal rise and fall of your body’s natural hormones. That blocks your body from ovulating and releasing an egg to be fertilized by sperm.
Is There a Link Between Birth Control and Emotions?
Women have complained about mood-related changes like depression and anxiety ever since the pill came out in 1960. The newest generation of pills have lower doses of hormones. Even so, a sizeable number of women still quit the pill because of side effects.
During a typical 28-day menstrual cycle, estrogen levels reach their peak around day 14. That’s when many women feel best emotionally and physically. Most hormonal contraceptives smooth this mountain-shaped hormonal cycle into an even line for the first 21 days. Then the levels of estrogen and progestin plunge during the final 7 days.
Limited research suggests that compared with women who don’t use hormonal birth control, those who do are more likely report feeling depressed, anxious, and angry. But those symptoms don’t make the list of common side effects. Other studies have turned up no significant link between hormone combinations or concentrations and differences in mood. Still more research has found that women on the pill and those taking dummy pills report similar symptoms, suggesting that any effects they noticed were unrelated to the actual pills.
Doctors sometimes prescribe hormonal contraceptives to ease the discomfort that practically every woman notices at one time or another during their monthly periods.
Symptoms of premenstrual syndrome can include:
- Angry outbursts
- Crying spells
- Feeling down or depressed
- Trouble sleeping
- Tender breasts
- Aches and pains
- Bloating or weight gain
The FDA has approved a specific type of hormonal birth control pill -- containing drospirenone and ethinyl estradiol -- to treat a more serious form of PMS called premenstrual dysphoric disorder. But the hormones may work better to ease physical symptoms than mood-related ones. It also can take some trial and error for your doctors to hit on the right medication and dosage.
If scientists can’t firmly connect the dots between birth control hormones and emotional turbulence, why do some women believe there’s a link?
- Greater sensitivity to changes to levels of estrogen and other hormones
- Stress from the need to avoid pregnancy and to take the pill as prescribed
- Heightened perception of possible symptoms among women with existing depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions
When to See a Doctor
If your mood swings are mild or moderate, exercise, healthier eating, relaxation, and other lifestyle changes may bring you relief. See your doctor if you feel depressed, feel no energy, or have other severe symptoms that interfere with your daily life.
what the use of oral contraceptives can lead to
Taking contraceptives is often associated with various kinds of concerns. Someone is afraid that they will gain weight, someone is afraid that skin problems will begin, someone is basically afraid that something will go wrong, because "these are hormones." But in reality, from properly selected birth control pills, one can expect not only a contraceptive effect, but also some very pleasant “side effects”.
Website editor nine0003
When taken correctly, oral contraceptives are quite effective - they protect against unwanted pregnancy even better than condoms and a spiral. Of course, birth control pills will not be able to protect against sexually transmitted diseases, but they do their job perfectly well. nine0003
Do not self-medicate! In our articles, we collect the latest scientific data and the opinions of authoritative health experts. But remember: only a doctor can diagnose and prescribe treatment.
In addition, taking contraceptives can solve a whole range of problems that have not been able to get rid of before. We have collected the coolest side effects of oral contraceptives and we are sure that after reading this material, you will seriously think about choosing this particular method of contraception. nine0003
But we want to warn you: pills “like a friend’s” may not suit you, and therefore you need to choose contraceptives together with your doctor. How to choose the right contraceptives and what tests you will have to pass were described in a separate article.
Do you take birth control pills?
Let's get back to side effects: not everyone and not always has such side effects, but a competent specialist will be able to choose just such drugs that will cope not only with their main task - protection against unwanted pregnancy, but also with the solution of some other problems. nine0003
Click and see
Relief of periods
Yes, if your periods are too intense and you are having difficulty coping with this turbulent flow, then pills will help to ease your periods. Under the influence of the hormones that are part of the pills, the lining of the uterus becomes thinner - as a result, menstruation becomes more scarce.
All information about menstruation was collected for you in a separate guide.
Taking oral contraceptives can be a way to make your periods more regular, both in terms of duration and start time. On tablets, the cycle will stop fluctuating back and forth, but will become clearer and begin to fit into the classic 28 days.
Headaches will become less frequent
Some people say that headaches, which often occur before menstruation, after the start of oral contraceptives weaken or completely stop. It is a pity that this does not always happen and in some cases, on the contrary, they may appear. nine0003
The stomach will hurt less
Another unpleasant symptom that often accompanies the onset of menstruation and its first days is painful uterine contractions. Often they cause serious discomfort, because of which you have to take pills. Hormonal oral contraceptives can also regulate this process - menstruation will become not only more scarce, but also less painful.
The risk of developing cancer will decrease
Researchers from Germany studied the relationship between the use of oral contraceptives and the risk of developing various types of cancer. It turned out that among women who took birth control pills, the chances of developing endometrial cancer and ovarian cancer were lower by 30% and 50%, respectively. Impressive difference! nine0003
Acne will disappear
Instead of correcting the diet and treating acne, can you just take the right birth control? This is indeed possible in some cases. The fact is that an increased level of androgens, such as testosterone, may be to blame for the appearance of acne. It is a male hormone that is also produced in women. Taking birth control pills that contain estrogen and progesterone can clear up your skin and reduce your chances of developing acne. In general, the most important thing here is to choose the right drugs. nine0003
Your chances of anemia will decrease
I'm sure you didn't think about that. But some researchers suggest that taking birth control pills reduces the chance of developing anemia. This is due to the fact that such pills help maintain normal iron levels: menstruation becomes less abundant, blood loss decreases, iron concentration does not decrease.
Sex will become more enjoyable
Although some women report a decrease in libido while taking oral contraceptives, on the contrary, someone emphasizes that sex becomes more enjoyable, since taking pills can increase the production of natural lubrication - sexual intercourse in such case becomes less painful (if it was before) and more pleasant. nine0003
Your mood will improve
Yes, it is true that birth control pills can make you more emotionally stable. If you noted that you are thrown from negative to positive, then taking contraceptives can “stop” these swings and stabilize your mood. This will positively affect your mental health. Some scientists note that taking the pill may even reduce the chances of developing depression.
You can start choosing other men
We don't know if this is good or bad, but some studies indicate that women who take oral contraceptives sometimes change their preferences when choosing partners. They begin to pay attention not to his sexual attractiveness, but to other, more "mundane" features.
Is it true that birth control pills cure infertility?
Yes it is. Treatment of infertility with contraceptives is actively practiced all over the world. This method is especially relevant for the so-called "anovulatory infertility", when a woman does not ovulate, that is, an egg does not come out of the follicle, which means that pregnancy is impossible. This is a fairly common problem. It occurs in every fourth woman suffering from infertility. nine0003
The absence of ovulation is explained by disturbances in the growth and maturation of the follicles in which the eggs are located. By the middle of the cycle, one of them should reach its maximum size, i.e., turn into a dominant follicle, and "release" an egg from its "embrace". However, if this process fails, ovulation does not occur. To stimulate it, the doctor may suggest infertility treatment with birth control pills.
Reasons for not ovulating
Lack of ovulation can be triggered by a variety of reasons. So, for example, in young girls, this problem is usually caused by a lack of weight, emotional upheavals, chronic lack of sleep, and brain injuries.
Prevention of infertility is easier than cure
In women from 20 to 35 years old, ovulation disappears most often due to inflammatory diseases, polycystic ovary syndrome, diseases of the adrenal glands and the thyroid gland. nine0003
The culprits of anovulatory infertility can be hormonal imbalances (for example, excess prolactin or testosterone), as well as complications after abortion or childbirth.
After 35 years, the lack of ovulation can be provoked not only by the listed reasons, but also by depletion of the egg supply, aging of the reproductive system, and various diseases.
Contraceptive pills for preventing infertility
Prevention of infertility is easier than cure. To avoid depleting your egg reserve before you want to become a mother, take birth control pills. Oral contraceptives will "freeze" the work of the ovaries, which means that the precious supply of eggs will be saved. In addition, taking contraceptives, such as COCs, will allow you to achieve the maximum contraceptive effect and thus avoid abortion, which can also cause a lack of ovulation. nine0003
Contraceptive pills for infertility
To stimulate ovulation, it is necessary to activate the ovaries.