It has revolutionized women’s sexual and reproductive agency – but the birth control pill has a dark side. In light of a recent study linking the tiny tablet to depression, we explore the potential health fallout for a generation who came of age during a hormonal contraceptive boom.
Melanie Palishen was getting ready for a night out in Williamsburg, Brooklyn when searing rage coursed through her. It was sudden, uncontrollable and totally unprovoked by the friend who found herself in the firing line. “She was talking to me, I turned around and pointed my brush at her face and said, ‘I’m sorry but if you don’t get away from me, I’m going to hit you,’” recalls Palishen. “I quickly started crying and explained that I wasn’t myself. I couldn’t help it. I was struggling to stay stable on these birth control pills.”
In America alone approximately 12 million women take this form of medication every day, often for years at a time. Most, of course, take it to prevent unwanted pregnancy, but many others, like Palishen, are prescribed the pill to address periphery symptoms ranging from acne to PMS.
“Switch them off” is literally what you do every time you take one of those pinky nail-sized pills. They flood your body with synthetic estrogen and progesterone (or “progestin” as the human-made version is known), suppressing your natural menstrual cycle. As soon as you consider the reality of flat-lining your reproductive hormones for multiple years — more than a decade in many cases — it feels icky, but once you delve into the potential health repercussions things get far scarier.
How dangerous is the pill?
Over the last few years Bayer Pharmaceuticals has been bombarded by lawsuits. More than 10,000 former Yaz or Yasmin consumers are seeking compensation for serious side-effects including blood clots, strokes, and heart attacks. Both brands have also been implicated in the deaths of a number of otherwise healthy young women, but this isn’t to say they’re the only culprits causing concern. Medical News Today lists common side-effects as including nausea, migraines, weight gain, irregular periods and spotting, vision changes, decreased libido, and mood swings — irregardless of brand names.
Last week a 13-year study of one million Danish women, aged 15 to 34, revealed some pretty alarming results: Women taking the combined pill were 23% more likely to suffer from depression; those on the mini-pill (progestin-only) were 34% more likely; and teenagers on the pill became depressed 80% more frequently than their naturally-cycling counterparts.
Perhaps most disturbing of all are studies which suggest synthetic hormones are completely altering the structure of young women’s brains. One recent study reported “decreased gray matter volume in the left amygdala/anterior parahippocampal gyrus in women using contraceptives as compared to the control group.” Grey matter controls self-control, decision-making, sensory perception and emotions — vital processes that have a substantial effect on personality and psychological well-being in general.
Of course when you’ve been using hormonal contraceptives since your emotionally turbulent teenage years, it can be hard to attribute cause and effect. Some women report a dampened sex drive (the majority, it can be assumed, never had the chance to become acquainted with their mature un-medicated libido in the first place) and there’s even evidence that the pill alters which partners women are attracted to — meaning some women who come off the pill with the intent to get pregnant find sexual desire for their partner disappears irreversibly.
Many health professionals remain skeptical of research like the Danish study, with one stating “An unintended and unwanted pregnancy far outweighs all the other side effects that could occur from a contraceptive.” The fact that millions of women take the pill and appreciate the peace of mind and stability it provides, cannot and should not be dismissed. After all, those stories don’t make headlines.
What are the alternatives?
Although quick to acknowledge conditions like endometriosis, for which the pill provides medicinal aid, Dr. Briden emphasizes women’s hormones are by no means problematic or unfixable. “They respond to simple things,” she said. “Supportive measures like addressing nutritional deficiencies or dietary intolerances.” Reducing stress levels and getting enough sleep are also essential self-care steps to help the body regulate itself.
When it comes to preventing pregnancy there’s one method you probably won’t learn about in the doctor’s office (Dr Briden believes, “there’s a paternalistic attitude that women are too stupid to track our own cycles”) and it’s known as Fertility Awareness.
Women are only fertile six days out of every month, and by carefully observing and recording objective measures you can accurately track the phases of your cycle. Holly Grigg-Spall, fertility awareness and body literacy advocate, recommends Daysey — a tracking device that predicts your fertile days with 99.3% accuracy. Simply take your temperature daily with the inbuilt thermometer, enter your menstruation days, and the algorithm does the rest for you — highlighting exactly when condoms are needed.
Ultimately, it’s important to acknowledge biological individuality. No two bodies are the same, and what works seamlessly for one person might be experienced very differently by another. If we teach young women how their bodies function, and give them the full picture regarding hormonal birth control so they can weigh it against alternatives, they’ll be better equipped to recognize when something is “off” with their health. Empowerment is key to well-being.