Study Warns that Oral Contraceptives May Adversely Affect Women’s Brains

Preliminary findings presented at a meeting of the Radiological Society of North America this week suggest that women who take birth control pills may have a smaller hypothalamus and may therefore be more prone to experiencing anger and depression. According to the small study, conducted by researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, the use of oral contraceptives may have an impact on a small but important area in the center of the brain, known as the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is part of the limbic system and plays a crucial role in regulating many important bodily functions, including mood, body temperature, sleep, sex drive, heart rate and appetite. The hypothalamus also plays a role in the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is a part of any emotional response.

Potential Side Effects of Birth Control

Oral contraceptives have been plagued by reports of serious side effects in recent years. Some of the most popular pills, like Yaz and Yasmin, for instance, have been linked to potentially dangerous blood clots and other serious side effects in users. In fact, the drugs’ manufacturer, Bayer, faced more than 19,000 lawsuits filed by women alleging that the oral contraceptives caused blood clots, heart attacks, strokes, gallbladder problems and other side effects. In this latest study, the researchers were originally analyzing differences in concussion recovery among male and female athletes, when they noticed that women taking birth control pills had a smaller hypothalamus compared to women not taking the pill. There were a total of 50 women involved in the study, including 21 women who were using oral contraceptives, and all of the women underwent a brain MRI to measure hypothalamic volume. According to the study findings, the women on birth control had a hypothalamus that was about 6% smaller than the other women.

What Does the Hypothalamus Do?

The hypothalamus is a small region of the brain located near the pituitary gland. It produces hormones and stimulates many important processes in the body. “There’s a lot of stuff packed in there,” says study author Dr. Michael Lipton, associate director of Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center. “The hypothalamus covers a lot of basic body functions, like sleep regulation, reproductive regulation, ovulation, the menstrual cycle, sex drive, appetite, mood, reward-related behavior and water [balance].” The main role of the hypothalamus is to keep the body in a healthful, balanced state, a state known as homeostasis, and when the hypothalamus isn’t working properly, it can lead to a wide range of problems or disorders.

Smaller Hypothalamic Volume Linked to Anger, Depression

The researchers in this study only looked at oral contraceptives, not at other hormonal forms of birth control that are implanted under the skin or inserted into the uterus, which release hormones in a different way and may therefore have different effects on the body or brain. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 16% of women between the ages of 15 and 44 use the pill to prevent pregnancy or to treat conditions such as irregular periods, acne, cramps, polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis. They reported that, while there was no disparity in mental performance among the female study participants, regardless of birth control use, smaller hypothalamic volume was associated with a statistically significant increase in anger. The researchers also found a possible correlation between a smaller hypothalamus and depression symptoms.

What Do These Findings Mean for Me?

Although the results of this study are concerning, the researchers say that the findings are only preliminary and not necessarily indicative of a cause and effect relationship. “There isn’t enough data here for anyone to worry,” says Lipton. “There’s more than a 50-year history of birth control pills. We’re not advising any changes (in your contraception) based on this preliminary finding.” Still, Lipton added, there could be clinical consequences that this study was simply too small to detect. With growing concerns about the safety of pharmaceutical drugs and a wave of recent recalls affecting medications once believed to pose few health risks, women using birth control pills may want to consider the impact their birth control pills may have on their brains and bodies.