Donders Wonders Blog

The birth control pill influences brain and behavior

This post is also available in Dutch.

To take a pill every day: it’s an important contraceptive used by millions of women. But what is the impact of the pill on brain and behavior?

Even though it’s small, don’t underestimate the pill’s impact.
Photo by author

Decreased libido
If you carefully read the pill’s instruction brochure – which we all of course thoroughly do – you’ll see that it mentions that in some cases it might lead to a decreased libido. This is not the case for everybody, and the specific effects might differ from one woman to another (some experience an increase in sex-drive), but recent research showed that the proportion of women suffering from a decreased libido might actually be a lot higher than the brochure indicates. The exact percentage is unknown, but the fact that it can have an effect is certain. This is probably good to know, just in case you missed some part of that instruction brochure.

Altered partner preference
But there’s more. Various studies show that women’s partner preferences also change due to hormonal factors: Women who take the pill have a decreased preference for physically attractive men than women not taking the contraceptive. This may also have consequences when women stop taking it. Researchers found, for example, that women who quit using the pill became more content with their partner if he was physically attractive, but less content if he was physically unattractive. Based on these findings researchers indicated that the pill could have serious consequences for partner choices and the stability of existing relationships.

Increased chance of depression
In 2016, a Danish doctor analyzed data he collected from more than a million women. He concluded that women who just started taking the pill have a 23% higher chance to be prescribed antidepressants than women who did not use hormonal contraceptives. In teenagers this number was no less than 80%. Women who use the contraceptive pill are also more often diagnosed with depression than non-users. Some researchers fail to replicate this finding, but that could also be due to careful consumers: Those who develop depressive symptoms through pill consumption often quit and are then excluded from the study, rendering the eventual outcome unknown. It may therefore not be justified to completely refute depression as a side-effect of the pill.

Diminished natural fluctuations of sex hormones
The reason the pill can have these serious effects is because it exerts great influence on hormone levels. It keeps the amount of sex hormones (estradiol and progesterone) at a constant level, diminishing all natural fluctuations. This hormonal change not only affects the natural cycle but also influences a lot of different hormones in the body and brain.

It kind of makes sense, then, that taking the pill can really influence your mood and behavior. However, it is important to realize that there are other factors that also influence your libido, partner choice, and mood. Besides, everybody reacts differently to the pill. This blog is not meant to discourage you from taking the pill, but it is good to know how it can affect you, so you can make a more well-informed choice and look out for its potential side effects.

This blog was written by Angelique.
Edited by Annelies.
Translated by Felix.

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