The Pill’s Surprising (and Scary) Effects on the Brain

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.

14 Comments »

  1. Pls advise which contraceptive is most beneficial?
    Me and my friends are on DEPO Provera?

    Comment by Elize — July 2, 2020 @ 7:21 AM

  2. Thank you Dr. Anen God bless you and your love

    Comment by Steve Banis — July 3, 2020 @ 2:12 AM

  3. This is an interesting read. As far as moodiness, I’m the complete opposite! I’ve found that if I’m off the pill, I’m moodier than ever! I end up with horrible PMS. I’ve been taking the pill on and off (mostly on) for 19 years now – since my daughter was born. I should have been on it much sooner! My periods became manageable – before my cycle was all over the place, my periods were long (up to 2 weeks!), and heavy. Although I still get mood swings, they aren’t as pronounced. I haven’t had any testing done regarding how it affects my gut biome or leaky gut. I took a Viome test to see what my gut likes and doesn’t like and have tried to eat accordingly. And I’ve never had brain scans done. I did try going off the pill around this last Christmas. After getting my first “normal” period I went right back on. It was difficult to work through. It reminded me why I was on it! At some point I would love to come in and get a SPECT scan!

    Comment by Michelle Horst — July 3, 2020 @ 3:39 AM

  4. Birth control has ruined my life. My doctor thought I was crazy and wouldnt believe me about the symptoms going on. I havent been on them for just over a year and I feel so much better but theres still some lingering symptoms at times.

    Comment by Amy Ewing — July 17, 2020 @ 7:46 AM

  5. I have been on my current pill for over 10 months now. It actually helps me regulate my emotions. It’s also effective in stopping my menstruation as long as I make sure to take a break every 2-3 months. But every time I take a break, that’s when my mood swings get really nasty. The issues that I was able to ignore whenever I’m on the pill are magnified when I’m off it. It’s hard to regulate my emotions, I get suicidal thoughts, and I’m sabotaging my relationship with my husband. I lose interest in the things I usually enjoy and the worst is I lose interest in living my life like I just want to disappear right away.

    Comment by Wilma — February 1, 2022 @ 8:47 AM

  6. I started taking the pill (ortho tri cyclen lo) at the age of 16. I’m 24 now. I stopped taking the pill a little over 2 years ago. I didn’t have any negative effects from it that I noticed, but when I stopped taking it, I developed mild to severe anxiety. I went from having 0 anxiety to 100. In this post it says it could take a few months for your body’s hormones levels to even out. Will this ever happen to me!? 2 freaking years

    Comment by McKinzie Cordier — March 3, 2022 @ 6:49 PM

  7. Prescribed birth control for abnormal vaginal bleeding. Got aygestin. Didnt know it was birth control. Never wanted birth control because I didn’t want to mess with my body hormones. I was never told it was. I got depression when I was on it. Took for a few weeks. Bleeding stopped. I stopped taking it because of how bad it made me feel emotionally. I know I didn’t take it as long as others on here. But every few weeks I get depression and lack of interest in people I care about. Especially my boyfriend and its confusing me a lot on whether I love him. I never had this lack of interest towards people I love before the pill. Never ever been an issue. Every few weeks to month it happens. I feel like effects still lingering. It sucks because I don’t know sometimes how I feel towards people I love.

    Comment by Jennifer — May 15, 2022 @ 5:57 PM

  8. I found the complete opposite. I've been off the pill for 6 months now (before that, on the pill for 10 years) and I went from never having anxiety and depression, and being so good at managing my emotions, to now being this mess I don't recognise. I all of a sudden get anxiety and depression over the smallest problems, when I used to be able to feel normal. I'm not liking not being on the pill. I'd be back on it, but I'm trying to get pregnant.

    Comment by Katie — November 29, 2022 @ 2:06 AM

  9. I have been researching this for years trying to find answers. I have been on birth control for almost 20 years. I hope I’m right about length of time. I went off my Yasmin in the spring of 2017.. the same spring I moved out of my parents home and bought my own house. This is when I began to have crippling anxiety. I was so confused. Why all of a sudden at 32 am I losing my grip? I’ve been on Zoloft and Paxil for the last 5 years to control my mood. I’m trying to get off of birth control again by weaning off of it, but my anxiety and depression are remaining. I don’t know what to do. I feel hormonally confused. Do I need my Yasmin forever?

    Comment by Darcie — December 20, 2022 @ 6:22 AM

  10. Honestly, I’ve tried 19 different birth control options. I want my tubes removed and a uterine ablation, but was talked into trying birth control again. Worst mistake of my life. I bled for 5 weeks solid and became increasingly more depressed until I woke up 1 day and realized that I’m suicidal. I stopped taking them and mentally felt ok I about 3 days, but physically… I’m a wreck. Major gastrointestinal issues for several weeks so far and non stop bleeding again. I’d rather get repeated abortions than this poison.

    Comment by Dawn — December 26, 2022 @ 8:46 AM

  11. When I went off camrese birth control, the side effects started slowly after about 3 months being off of it. First it was terrible acne on my back and face. Then the weight gain. I was gaining everything I had worked so hard to lose. I couldn’t lose no matter what I did. I just kept gaining until I had gained 50 lbs. The worst was my depression. It spiraled out of control. I woke up everyday wanting to die. I kept telling doctors none of this was normal for me…not to this degree anyway. I felt they didn’t believe me. My depression got so severe, I finally tried to kill myself but luckily did not succeed. It was my brother who thought I had PCOS. He is a pharmacist. He turned out to be right & I realized it was stopping the birth control that had exasperated all my PCOS symptoms. For those that have a hormonal imbalance & do not want to be on birth control, natural progesterone is a great answer. You will become fertile right away & it helps with all PCOS side effects. take prometrium (100 mg) at bedtime days 15 thru 25 of your cycle. 11 days . It’s the brand name for bio identical progesterone but it uses peanut oil as a base so use a different form if allergic to peanuts. I hope the troubles I’ve had in the past can help someone else to find the answers they need.

    Comment by Heidi — January 1, 2023 @ 8:51 PM

  12. Heidi is one of those few rare people in the world that is still trying to help others. That is a commendable trait in any person.

    I struggle with a genetic condition called Hidranitis Supravarita. There's a chance that I've dealt with a lot of auto inflammatory diseases throughout my entire life, that's what I'm trying to figure out now.

    I went on to the pill 2 years ago, I take tricira lo, I recently stopped taking it because I believe that it's been causing my genetic depression to become worse. My genetic skin condition rebounded almost instantly within 2 weeks. It's painful and I can't wear clothing.

    It's insane to me that at 27 years old, since puberty, last year and a half to two years has been basically been, acne free. And now almost instantly I'm breaking out not only with acne and blackheads but my skin condition is out of control.

    I went on birth control because an ex-boyfriend wanted me to. I thought maybe he would love me more. I went to the health clinic here, I asked about birth control and had questions about it but they never went into detail about the side effects. I'm not sure if I should go back on the pill and choose depression over this painful skin. I ask myself everyday why I was born, because I don't see the point. I'm not suicidal I'm just sick and tired of this.

    Comment by Shelby — January 16, 2023 @ 10:10 AM

  13. I was on the pill from 15 years old until 32 when I got pregnant with my daughter and a year and a half later my son. I got my tubes tied and stop taking the pill. I am now an emotional wreck. My periods are heavy & painful. I have extreme mood swings especially the week before my period. It is causing horrible depression & I usually blow up on my husband a few days before my period. I know it’s hormonal it’s hormonal. How can you take hormones for that many years and then stop and think it’s not going to make you crazy? I need help!!! I am losing my mind and my marriage.

    Comment by Alicia — January 28, 2023 @ 11:29 AM

  14. Hello Alicia, thank you for reaching out. For more information about SPECT scans and our services, please contact our Care Coordinators at https://www.amenclinics.com/schedule-visit/.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — February 7, 2023 @ 8:12 AM

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