First off, let me say that we’re not advocating for or against the use of birth control pills. We used them, and when we decided we were done having kids we stopped using pills and selected a permanent method to prevent conception. The point of this post is simply to remind people that hormones (and medication) can have a significant effect on how you feel, think, and act — whether the hormones are produced by your own body or come in a pill.
In recent years, scientists have started to realise that the brains of women on the pill look fundamentally different. Compared to women who are not taking hormones, some regions of their brains seem to be more typically ‘male’.
There are behavioural changes, too. Women on certain types of pill are not as good at coming up with words – something our gender are usually highly skilled at. On the other hand, they are better at mentally rotating objects, as is often the case in men. Finally, women on a different type of pill are better at recognising faces – something women are usually good at.
In 2015, neuroscientists from the University of California, Los Angeles in the US took brain scans of 90 women who were either currently using the pill or not, and found that two key brain regions were thinner in pill users – the lateral orbitofrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex.
These two regions are involved in emotion regulation, decision-making and reward response, and the researchers believe that their findings could help explain why some women become anxious or depressed when taking the contraceptive pill.
And in 2010, a team from Austria also found that the contraceptive pill could change the shape of the brain regions associated with learning, memory and emotion regulation.
What’s more, new research suggests that oral contraceptive use doesn’t just reduce your risk of certain cancers, lighten your period, alleviate horrible cramps, clear your skin, and improve your mood (among other benefits).
It shows that women who take the pill or use other methods of hormonal contraceptive for more than 10 years may end up with better memories and critical thinking skills post-menopause, according to a study that looked at 830 women around age 60, which was recently published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
The researchers affirm it is unknown whether the cortex would become thicker again if the women on birth control stopped taking the pill or whether it would remain the same. “Maybe you go off the pill and it persists for a week, and, by week two it is back to normal,” Petersen said, Braindecoder.com reported.
This study contradicts the results of a 2010 study published in the journal Brain Research, which found women on the pill showed larger gray matter volumes in the prefrontal cortex, pre- and postcentral gyri, the parahippocampal and fusiform gyri and temporal regions, compared to their non-pill counterparts. It was not determined whether increased gray matter translated into enhanced performance. Similar to the recent study, the findings remain inconclusive and warrant further research.
The point of sharing this information isn’t to make anyone worry. Birth control pills have been used for decades without serious problems for most women. However, it’s worth considering how your medication (or change in medication) may be affecting how you think, feel, and act. The same goes for men — we take medication and have hormonal cycles too!