Oral Contraceptives Help Protect Women From Mental Illness, Study Finds
Birth-control pills rely on a mixture of female hormones to prevent women from getting pregnant in the aftermath of sexual intercourse. Use of oral contraceptives comes with a range of known, potentially serious or severe health risks. In a study published in 2014 in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health, researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health explored the potential connection between oral contraception and increased or decreased chances of developing several forms of mental illness.
Oral contraception relies on the chemical effects of the two primary female sex hormones—estrogen and progesterone (known in its manmade form as progestin)—to prevent pregnancy by doing such things as stopping the monthly process of ovulation, stopping fertilized eggs from attaching to the lining of a woman’s uterus and/or stopping a man’s sperm from gaining access to the uterus. Some contraceptive products contain both estrogen and progestin, while others only contain progestin. In addition, some combination products contain equal amounts of estrogen and progestin, while others contain substantially more of one hormone than the other.
While the specific risks of oral contraceptives vary from product to product, known general risks of using this form of contraception include such things as acne, constipation, abdominal cramping, abnormal hair growth, uncomfortable or unusual menstrual changes, chest pain, limb numbness, jaundice, lightheadedness, breathing problems, heavy menstrual discharge, fatigue and appetite loss. Oral contraceptive users may also have higher chances of developing non-cancerous tumors in their livers, as well as liver cancer, breast cancer, blood clots, strokes and heart attacks. Doctors try to limit the risks associated with oral contraception by encouraging avoidance of specific products with the highest chances of triggering harm in any given group of women.
Women and Mental Illness
Statistically speaking, women are substantially more likely than men to develop major depression, panic disorder, other types of anxiety disorders and a range of mental illnesses collectively known as “somatic symptom and related disorders.” Roughly one-third of all people on the planet have at least one of these mental health problems, the World Health Organization reports. Women develop some form of depression more often than any other form of mental illness. In addition, a woman who develops depression may have symptoms that are more severe or last longer than comparable symptoms in a man. Factors that account for female-specific spikes in mental illness to one degree or another include women’s generally diminished economic standing relative to men and the stress associated with the role that women traditionally play in creating and maintaining the bonds that form the underlying basis of human society.
Does Oral Contraception Alter Risk?
In the study published in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health, the Columbia University researchers used data gathered from six years of a federally sponsored project called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to help determine if the use of oral contraception alters a woman’s chances of developing certain forms of mental illness. A total of 1,105 women between the ages of 20 and 39 submitted information during the timeframe under consideration (1999-2004). Some of these women were current oral contraceptive users; others had used oral contraceptives in the past, while a third group of participants had never used an oral contraceptive. The researchers asked all of the participants to detail their contraceptive use in the previous 365 days; they used criteria from the American Psychiatric Association to identify study participants with diagnosable and non-diagnosable cases of major depression, panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
The researchers concluded that, compared to women who only used oral contraceptives in the past and women who had never used oral contraceptives, current oral contraceptive users had a substantially smaller chance of developing diagnosable major depression, diagnosable and non-diagnosable panic disorder and diagnosable and non-diagnosable generalized anxiety disorder. The biggest reductions in mental health risks apparently occur among women who use oral contraception products that contain equal amounts of estrogen and progestin.
The study’s authors note the potential significance of a mental health benefit for women who use oral contraceptives. However, they stress the need for additional research to confirm or deny their findings.