About 55 million women in the United States use oral contraception and 98 per cent of U.S. women have used birth control at some point. Most women use oral contraception as their method of birth control. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers oral contraception as an essential medicine. Some women stop taking birth control because it affects their moods. A new study recently published in Scientific Reports aimed to look at the effects of oral contraception on hormones and how that may affect mood.
“We are interested in the effects that sex hormones have on the oxytocin system and behaviour,” study author Dr. Michael Winterdahl told us. “Since a large proportion of women use oral contraceptives as a method of birth control, we wanted to investigate the potential effects on oxytocin, known to mediate social behaviour.”
Dr. Winterdahl, PhD, is an Associate Professor in Neuroimaging with the Department of Nuclear Medicine and PET Center, at Aarhus University in Denmark.
To conduct their research, blood samples of 185 U.S. women aged 21 were taken. Two groups were created among the study participants. Researchers looked at the effects of the oral contraception on adrenocorticotropic hormone, testosterone, progesterone, and estradiol. Participants also answered a variety of questions about their mental well-being.
“Based on previous research, we were expecting to see depressive symptoms and lower scores on a satisfactory with life questionnaire in oral contraceptive users,” Dr. Winterdahl told us. “We thought that the estrogens present in birth control pills would promote higher levels of oxytocin.”
Mood can be greatly affected by hormones in the body, especially the hormones that run through the brain. It’s known that women are twice as likely to suffer from depression than men and that could have to do with the different hormones present in males and females.
“Women have been underrepresented in clinical trials in general,” Dr. Winterdahl told us. “Female physiology has been perceived as too complicated or ignored. Most women have used birth control pills at some point in their lives. It is essential to understand the mechanisms by which birth control pills can affect health and mood.”
In Denmark, a study there found increased rates of depression among women who used oral contraception as opposed to women who did not. Studies have shown that rates of depression among women who use oral contraception varies depending on the type of oral contraception used.
“Women who take oral contraceptives have a much higher level of the oxytocin hormone in their plasma compared to non-users,” Dr. Winterdahl told us about his current study. “Oral contraceptive users had a small but significantly higher score on Satisfaction with Life score.”
Nearly 65 per cent of over 72 million U.S. women aged 15-79 are currently using a method of birth control. The most common is sterilization at over 18 percent, followed by oral contraception pills at over 12 percent, long-acting contraception methods that are reversible at over 10 per cent and condoms at just under nine per cent.
Dr. Winterdahl and his team of researchers were not particularly surprised with the results except when it came to one question on the survey regarding life satisfaction.
“We had hypothesized that estrogens in birth control would raise oxytocin levels and were not surprised by this result,” Dr. Winterdahl told us. “However, we were surprised that oral contraceptive users actually had higher scores for satisfaction with life. This may have been because this was a young sample and subjects with clinical depression were excluded from the study.”
Dr. Winterdahl believes the results of the study show that oral contraceptions can indeed affect a woman’s mood.
“We have found a mechanism that may explain how birth control can affect mood,” Dr. Winterdahl told us. “This may allow us to assess risk profiles for birth control users.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com