Though many women have said that hormonal contraceptive methods can affect their mood, research has shown mixed results. A new study found that young women using the birth control pill and other hormonal methods were no more likely to be depressed than other young women. Other experts, however, are skeptical of the study’s approach and results.
Researchers looked at data from 6,654 sexually active women between the ages of 25 and 34 who had participated in four surveys between 1994 and 2008. The women were divided into two groups: those who used hormonal methods such as the pill, the patch, the ring, or an injection, and those who used other methods, including non-hormonal intrauterine devices (IUD), diaphragms, and condoms.
The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found there were some differences between the two groups. Specifically, women who used hormonal methods were younger, less likely to have children, less likely to smoke, and more likely to have graduated from college. The women also seemed to be more health conscious—they were more likely to get regular checkups from doctors and dentists and more likely to engage in individual sports like running.
Even once these differences were accounted for, researchers found that women on hormonal contraception were actually less likely to report symptoms of depression in the week preceding the survey. Moreover, they were 32 percent less likely to have had high levels of depressive symptoms within the previous year and 63 percent less likely to have attempted suicide in the previous year.
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The researchers acknowledge, however, that women who are already depressed are less likely to use hormonal contraception. Still, they believe their findings are important. Katherine Keyes, lead author of the study, told Reuters, “This counters somewhat some of the prevailing wisdom that hormone contraceptive use in general is associated with adverse mental health outcomes in women. When you look at it on a national scale, certainly there’s no evidence that at a population level hormonal contraceptive use is associated with an increased risk of mood problems.”
In fact, Keyes and her colleagues want to do further research on whether hormonal contraception could actually improve women’s moods by helping to even out menstrual cycle mood swings and what the mechanism behind this would be.
Some experts, however, are skeptical of the study’s results. Dr. Ellen Wiebe, the medical director of the Willow Women’s Clinic in Vancouver, British Columbia, wrote a commentary that was published along with the study. She pointed out that the “non-user” group likely included many women who quit taking hormonal contraception due to mood-related side effects. She also believes that the authors used the wrong measure of depression. She told Reuters, “A screen for clinical depression does not capture the actual problems that we see with the mood side effects with hormonal contraception, and the same thing with the sexual side effects.” Weibe would have liked to see the authors ask about irritability, low sex drive, and difficulty getting aroused.
While this study may show that there is no increase in depression on a population level, many women do experience mood changes when they begin to use hormonal contraceptive methods. Clinicians often suggest that they wait a few months as these symptoms may simply go away. It is also possible that changing methods or even brands can help alleviate some of these symptoms. What is most important is that women don’t abandon their method without first talking to a health-care provider and choosing a new or backup method.