The Pill’s Surprising (and Scary) Effects on the Brain
The Pill is the most popular form of contraception in the U.S. with over 9 million women using it. Oral contraceptive pills (OCP) contain synthetic hormones that hijack your cyclical hormonal process, replacing it with a steady supply of low levels of synthetic estrogen and progesterone. You may already be aware that OCPs have been shown to cause problems with blood pressure and blood clots and increase the incidence of strokes, especially if you smoke or have a history of migraine headaches. But did you know that OCPs also affect your brain and mental well-being?
The Pill’s Impact on the Brain
Although it has been on the market for more than 50 years, relatively few studies have looked into hormonal birth control’s effects on the brain. A 2014 study in Frontiers in Neuroscience delved into the existing science and found that taking the Pill alters neurotransmitter function and causes structural changes in the brain, including changes in the prefrontal cortex (associated with impulse control, focus, and judgment), anterior cingulate gyrus (the brain’s gear shifter that lets you go from thought to thought), cerebellum (motor control and thought coordination), and parahippocampus (involved with memory).
Although the researchers didn’t offer an interpretation of what these changes mean, it appears that the longer you take the Pill the more pronounced the differences are. And their findings suggest that some of these changes may not be entirely reversible even if you stop taking the Pill.
The Pill and Emotional Health
For decades, many women have complained the OCPs cause such extreme moodiness and other emotional issues that they quit taking them. Studies back up their claims and show that, in some women, taking the Pill is associated with a wide range of mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, compulsive behavior, anger, and neurotic symptoms.
Scientists from Denmark found that women ages 15-34 taking OCPs were 23% more likely to start taking antidepressants for the first time than non-OCP users. In fact, studies have shown that bouts of depression have been reported by 16-56% of women on hormonal birth control, which depletes serotonin.
Oral contraceptives also affect mental health indirectly. They put you at greater risk of autoimmune diseases and elevated cortisol levels, both of which are associated with an increased incidence of anxiety and depression. They have also been linked to lower levels of testosterone, which is associated with low libido, depression, and memory problems. And low-testosterone problems can remain even after stopping OCPs, meaning you could be facing long-term sexual and mental health problems.
Synthetic birth control can also disrupt the gut microbiome and interfere with the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals, according to a 2015 study. This can lead to nutritional deficiencies as well as psychological issues because your gut health can affect your mental health.
3 Strategies If You’re Taking the Pill
1. Because OCPs can deplete nutrient absorption, it’s important to supplement your diet with B vitamins (folate, B6, and B12), vitamin E, and magnesium.
2. Be aware that stopping OCPs isn’t necessarily a quick-fix solution. Some women experience a rash of symptoms—including mood swings, anxiety, and depression—in the months following cessation of hormonal birth control. Some hormonal experts have started calling this effect “post-birth control syndrome.”
3. If you’re experiencing emotional, psychological, or cognitive symptoms while taking OCPs or after quitting, it’s critical to get a full evaluation that includes measuring hormone levels. Brain imaging tests can also help determine the root cause of your issues.
At Amen Clinics, we take a unique brain-body approach to treatment that includes brain SPECT imaging as well as laboratory testing to check hormone levels and other important biological factors that could be contributing to emotional, psychological, or cognitive symptoms. By getting to the root cause of your symptoms, we can create a more effective, personalized treatment plan for you.
If you want to join the tens of thousands of people who have already enhanced their brain health, overcome their symptoms, and improved their quality of life at Amen Clinics, speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.