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HOW THE CONTRACEPTIVE PILL AFFECTS YOUR BRAIN

Side effects of the pill

When the pill was first introduced into Australia in 1961 it was only available by prescription to married women, and it was slapped with a huge 27.5% “luxury” tax. Despite that it ushered in a new era for women where they could not only control their fertility, but also enjoy the kind of sexual freedom that was previously out of reach. While other contraception options could be unreliable and messy, the pill was easy, discrete and women were in full control.

Since then, its popularity has grown and now one in four Australian women between the ages of 18 and 49 take some form of the contraception, and worldwide, it is estimated that over 100 million women use it. Yet, over the past six decades precious little research has been done to explore the ways in which it affects our bodies and our minds on a boarder level and with long-term use.

This is one of the reasons Dr Sarah Hill, author of the book ‘How the Pill Changes Everything (Hachette, $32.99)’ decided to explore the topic herself. The other reasons were more personal.

“A couple of months after going off the pill, I realised that I felt . . . different,” she remembers. “I didn’t notice it while it was happening, but one day I realised that my life had recently felt brighter and more interesting. Like I had walked out of a two-dimensional, black-and-white movie into a full- color, three-dimensional, meaning-filled reality. I just felt . . . alive.”

So she started to research how the pill affects a woman’s body and mind and she was shocked at what she discovered.

Hormone rush

The evidence suggested that pill could be changing who we are and how we act. And it all comes down to hormones.

“Although many of us think of hormones as something that “happen” to us, that isn’t quite right. You are your hormones,” she explains. “They help to form your very identity, the beliefs that you have about yourself, and your behaviors. So going on and off the pill can change your very sense of who you are. It can prompt a change in identity—one that’s seemingly common but that scientists haven’t fully explored yet.”

However, what we are starting to understand is that the pill could have far reaching affects on our lives other than just birth control, says Dr Hill. Apart from affecting the more obvious fertility-related aspects of our lives such as our moods and our sex drive, studies show that the pill (in its many formulations) could be affecting seemingly unrelated functions such as our sense of smell, how we attempt to complete difficult tasks, and our ability to learn and remember.

Dr Hill also points out that the pill could even have a hand in who we find attractive, who we ultimately choose as our partners and how satisfied we feel in our relationships. “And this is probably just the tip of the iceberg,” she explains.

Side effects of the pill

Stressed out

One particularly shocking part of that iceberg is the fact that the pill has been proven to actually change our brain. In her book, she explains that brain scans of women who are on the pill show structural and functional differences when compared with those of women who are off the pill. One of these functional differences is with our stress response – women on the pill don’t appear to have a cortisol spike in response to stress.

“It seems to me that the lack of vibrancy that women experience on the pill is also contributed to by the lack of cortisol response (which among other things tells us something meaningful is happening).” she explains.

This lack of cortisol could all be generating feelings of being overwhelmed and being unable to cope with stress, she adds.

Are you affected?

So how do you know if being on the pill changes you? Dr Hill says the best thing to do is to start journalling (preferably before you start the pill) so you can keep a tab on how you are feeling, the decisions you are making and the way you’re thinking. Ask yourself questions such as ‘Do I feel like myself on the pill? Has my mood changed? Do I have more happy days than sad ones on the pill (or vice versa)? Do I go out with friends more or less frequently? Have my relationships changed?’

If you answer yes to some of these questions, or you don’t feel that the pill is working for you, Dr Hill suggests exploring other formulations – there are around 100 versions of the pill – or other forms of contraception with your doctor. If it’s an option, she suggests even taking a break from the pill altogether for periods of time, especially when you’re making choices that will “affect you for the rest of your life”.

And part from being aware of our individual response to the pill, Dr Hill believes the next step is for us to petition for some new contraceptive choices and for more information about what happens to us with the choices we have.

“The big takeaway for me is that the birth control pill changes the version of a woman that her brain creates, and that we need to treat it like a big deal, because it is,” she says. “We shouldn’t have to change who we are to protect ourselves from pregnancy.”

This article was originally published in Marie Claire Australia. For more articles about health, see our FLOW section. And to receive regular updates from us, sign up to our free fortnightly newsletter.