Birth control was first introduced in the early 1970’s which forever changed the world as we know it. It provided women with the first opportunity to having a choice on whether they wish to have children as well as when they wish to have them.
The introduction of the pill incited the beginning of the women’s rights movement allowing women for the first time in history to make choices about their life and have a new renowned ownership over their bodies.
But with birth control having its benefits it also comes along with many changes to women’s overall hormonal health and functioning. The purpose of this blog is not to vilify birth control or to convince women to stop taking it but instead to advocate for informed consent and education on the potential affects birth control may have on your body.
Dr. Jolene Brighten, the author of the book Beyond the Pill argues that our bodies’ menstruation cycle can be viewed as an additional vital sign or indicator of women’s health (Brighten, 2019). Whenever we go to a doctor’s office the first vital signs, they take note of are usually our pulse, weight, and blood pressure. The current stage of our menstruation cycle can also be an indicator of our current health and well-being however, regularly overlooked.
When we think of taking a form of birth control whether it be the pill, depo shot, IUD, or one of the other many options in the market, we think of it in terms of affecting solely our reproductive system. This is a limited understanding that is absolutely false. Birth control changes our entire body’s hormone profile which changes our behavior and essentially changes our personality, which most would argue is the one thing that makes us, us (Sarah E. Hill, 2019).
First let’s dive in with a brief understanding of how birth control works in the first place. Naturally women who are born with a vulva experience a menstruation cycle that lasts anywhere between 26 to 30 days (commonly on average 28 days). Estrogen spikes and declines throughout the menstruation cycle and the hormone progesterone is produced, only after ovulation takes place, which helps with the shedding of the lining of the uterus (if not pregnant).
Progesterone stimulates GABA receptors in the brain which induce the feeling of calm. Simultaneously, during the ovulation stage neuroplasticity takes place which gives rise to the ability of learning new things and new languages (Brighten, 2019).
When women are on birth control the synthetic hormones of both progestin and estrogen are introduced into the bloodstream evenly throughout the medication cycle which gives the illusion of having a period resulting in some women as experiencing withdrawal bleeds (happens when hormone levels drop during the scheduled breaks in the medication and there is no medical necessity for this phenomenon). Birth control shuts off communication between the brain and ovaries resulting in the brain stopping the ovaries from producing estrogen and progesterone and prevents the release of an egg.
The synthetic hormone progestin has been linked with higher incidents of depression, especially in younger women and teens resulting in mood swings and even suicidal ideation. This does not mean everyone experiences this. However, it would be beneficial to know this so that we can take the necessary precautions of informing those closest to us the potential side effects. This will provide the necessary support from our loved ones to take note of any drastic changes in our mood and behavior. Every system in our body is affected by hormones so it makes sense that women taking synthetic hormones would also experience an impact on every system in their body.
Some may already know that birth control can impact our libido or sex drive, but did you also know that it suppresses all our sex hormones including estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone (male sex hormone). By turning these hormones off we impact how we as an individual respond and react to everything. The decrease in testosterone alone has many impacts on our overall functioning including potentially a depressive mood, muscle mass degeneration, low energy, vaginal dryness, and in some cases impacts women’s ability to experience orgasm or experience painful orgasm (Brighten, 2019). (Insert head explosion emoji).
There have been several interesting studies completed on the effects of birth control on women and who they are sexually attracted to. There was one study done where women were asked to compile images of physical traits to create an attractive looking face. Women who were not on birth control typically chose more masculine traits as their preference while, you guessed it, women on birth control gravitated towards more feminine traits. Scientists have speculated that evolutionarily speaking women would gravitate towards more masculine males and physical strength due to their role in the community of being the hunter gatherers and protectors. In today’s more modern society women on birth control tend to choose partners based on perceived intelligence and monetary value as the safe choice. There was even a study done where both women on and off birth control were provided with different images of males and images of money while being monitored in an MRI scan. The brain regions of the women on birth control would light up in the same areas as the women off birth control when shown images of males (Brighten, 2019).
There have been numerous cases of women who stopped birth control to become pregnant with their partner and then reported an increase in dissatisfaction within their relationship and or a fear of pregnancy. There have also been studies that show that women who are not on birth control will normally pursue relationships with someone more genetically diverse from themselves, which has many benefits of offering a wide array of robust genes and healthier immune systems to their offspring down the line. While women on birth control tend to be attracted to more similarly genetic individuals like a distant relative or cousin (another head explosion emoji). This is due to the way birth control works in the system “tricking the brain” to believing they are already pregnant which may result in the woman’s seeking protection from family and familiarity rather than sexual attraction in a potential mate (Brighten, 2019).
There has also been evidence that women on birth control have difficulty with understanding or recognizing complex social cues. Women on birth control can differentiate between basic emotions such as being happy or sad while studies show they have trouble recognizing more subtle emotions or cues such as pride. This is important to note because women on birth control may have higher levels of aggression or lack empathy due to their limitations in understanding messages (Sarah E. Hill, 2019).
Cortisol is an important and beneficial hormone that is released during moments of stress to help us cope. It works by several important factors. Firstly, it responds to a stressful situation preparing the body for a fight or flight response by dumping sugars and fats into our blood stream so we can respond quickly to the threat of potential danger. Secondly, it primes the brain for learning and memory consolidation. Thirdly, cortisol gives birth to the rise of new neurons associated with long term memory.
In other words, cortisol activates the parts of our brain to record important information during stressful situations and storing this in our long-term memory for future use. By doing this it not only helps us better adapt to current stressors, but it provides us with the tools necessary to cope with future similar stressors (Sarah E. Hill, 2019). Normally, we experience a surge of cortisol during a stressful event while women on birth control instead experience chronically elevated levels of cortisol similarly seen in individuals diagnosed with PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) (Sarah E. Hill, 2019). This ultimately can lead to problems with emotion regulation, deficits in learning, and memory consolidation.
So, after reading this, I don’t want anyone throwing out their pills or making emergency appointments to having their IUDs removed. Instead, my goal with this blog is to help inform women of the potential side effects and risks to taking birth control so they can make informed decisions for their best interests and overall health.
Birth control has and will continue to provide many women with the freedom to make decisions in how they choose to live their lives and it has even in some cases helped women diagnosed with severe cases of PMDD (premenstrual depressive disorder) that is commonly misdiagnosed.
It has provided the opportunity for women to obtain advanced levels of education, higher pay, and even leadership roles that would otherwise never have been possible. But it is also important to understand that birth control at times has masked symptoms of underlying issues that may result in infertility, impacts our brains and other major systems, and even impacts the way we show up in the world and in our communities. Therefore, when making this decision we need to know the whole picture in its entirety. Have conversations with your OB GYN, seek further counsel from neuropathic physicians, and functional medicine doctors, so you can make an informed decision that works best for you and your body.
Please check out these books for a more in depth understanding of the impact of birth control on your body:
Beyond the Pill by Dr. Jolene Brighten
This is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, And The Law of Unintended Consequences by Sarah E. Hill, PhD
Brighten, D. J. (2019, October 3). Finding Balance Beyond the Pill. (J. Harbinger, Interviewer)
Hill, D. S. (2019, November 21). This is Your Brain on Birth Control. (J. Harbinger, Interviewer)
QUOTE FOR THE WEEK
“Taking the birth control pill just to not get pregnant is like dropping a bomb on your house to blow out a candle. It will do the job, but it won’t only do that job.” – Jordan Harbinger