Hormones are very powerful and can significantly influence our moods, behaviors, and how our brains function.
For example. high levels of estrogen have been associated with mood swings and anxiety, while low levels of progesterone have been linked to anxiety and depression.
However, when it comes to the external hormones used in prescription birth control, and how they impact people’s emotional functioning, there have been mixed theories.
“There have been previous research on mood changes and OCPs, however, the results are not consistent. Some studies suggest that OCPs are associated with depressed mood or anxiety, while some show the opposite,” Dr. Candice Fraser, an obstetrician-gynecologist and founder of Trinity Medical Care in New York, said.
Here’s how the medication works: There are estrogen receptors in areas of the brain — like the hippocampus — that are involved in memory and attention. When these receptors come in contact with estrogen, which is naturally produced by the body, they bind to the hormone and carry out various cognitive functions related to memory and learning.
It’s possible that, when exposed to the man-made hormones used in OCPs, those areas of the brain do not function as well, Monk suspects.
“When you’re on oral contraceptions, you are having this external, exogenous source of estrogen, so there is a question of how is the receptor dealing with that in the brain in terms of what’s typically available,” Monk explained.
In addition, previous studies using brain imaging have identified reduced activation of specific brain regions that are responsible for emotional salience in women taking hormonal contraceptives, compared to those who are not.
So, while it isn’t at all surprising that hormonal contraceptives could affect cognitive function, health experts agree that more research is needed to fully understand how, exactly, they affect emotion regulation and detection.
All things considered, it’s crucial for women to have complete autonomy over their reproductive abilities, says Monk. It’s important to have access to a lot of different tools — OCPs, IUDs, barrier methods — so each woman can choose the contraceptive that’s right for her.