Tag Archives: contraceptives

Birth control pills may shrink a part of the brain, lowering sex drive

Many heterosexual couples that use oral contraceptives report having less sex than those who use condoms or other forms of contraceptives. Doctors have long believed that this is due to the hormonal imbalance caused by the pill, but a new study challenges this idea, potentially identifying the root cause. According to the results of the new study, oral contraceptives may shrink an area of the brain that controls sex drive.

Credit: Flickr.

Dr. Michael Lipton, professor of radiology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, along with colleagues, performed brain scans on 50 women, 21 of whom were on the pill.

They noticed that the women who used oral contraceptives had a smaller hypothalamus — a small but crucial part of the brain responsible for regulating hormones. Damage to the hypothalamus is known to affect sex drive, mood, heart rate, and sleep cycles. A smaller hypothalamus doesn’t necessarily mean that it is damaged in any way, though.

“We found a dramatic difference in the size of the brain structures between women who were taking oral contraceptives and those who were not,” Lipton said.

Doctors have known for years that oral contraceptives can drastically alter a woman’s behavioral patterns, including the way they manage emotions, mood, learning, sex, attraction, and stress, among other things.

The reason why women on the pill have a lower sex drive is due to the hormone progesterone, which is dominant throughout the menstrual cycle, sending a message to the body that ovulation is not required.

Researchers also found a correlation between a smaller hypothalamic volume and more frequent bouts of anger and depressive symptoms.

An MRI depicts the hypothalamus – the area of the brain that regulates mood, appetite and sex drive – in red. Credit: Michael Lipton.

Previous studies have found other links between using contraceptives and changes in various brain structures, such as the hippocampus and basal ganglia, as well as cortical thickness.

That being said, if you’re using oral contraceptives, now is not the time to panic. The authors of the new study note that their findings are preliminary and that they merely found an association between the pill and a smaller hypothalamus.

The sample size is also rather small, so the association might prove to be not as strong if more participants are included.

Even so, the findings are rather concerning and warrant more investigation. Among the 47 million U.S. women who currently use contraceptives, about 13% use birth control pills, according to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

In other news this week, scientists at MIT have developed an oral contraceptive that only has to be taken once a month, which could reduce unintended pregnancies that result from forgetting to take a daily dose.

The preliminary study that found a link between oral contraceptives and a shrinking hypothalamus was presented this week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

Hormonal contraception raises the risk of cancer for women by up to 38%

A study which followed more than 1.8 million Danish women for over 11 years worryingly reports that women who used birth control had a 20 percent increase in their relative risk for developing breast cancer, and the longer they used it , the higher their risk.

Image credits: Anqa / Pixabay.

Over the course of the study, 11,517 cases of breast cancer occurred; that’s a low incidence number overall, but within this small incidence, the increase in risk was significant. Overall, the study reports that women who used birth control had a 20 percent increase in their relative risk for developing breast cancer.

However, the risk varied significantly based on how long the women took the contraceptives. Women who took them less than one year only had a 9% increase in relative risk, whereas women who took them for more than 10 years had a 38% increase. This translates into about one extra breast cancer case for every 7,690 women who used hormonal contraception for a year.

The risk was associated with all types of hormonal contraception including the pill, injections or IUDs.

“These results do not suggest that any particular preparation is free of risk,” wrote David Hunter, professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Nuffield Department of Population Health in the UK, in an accompanying editorial. He said that the link between breast cancer and contraceptives is well established, but this study is valuable because it provides quantified information and offers information about new preparations of contraception. “The number of cases increases with age because the risk of breast cancer increased with age,” said Hunter.

If all this scares you, it’s important to note that oral contraceptives decrease the risk of endometrial cancer by 50% and ovarian cancer by up to 30%. Contraceptives are a mixed bag, coming with both positives and negatives and right now, there’s no need to panic. Corresponding author Øjvind Lidegaard comments:

“[Contraceptives] also bring benefits, and we should not forget them. But we should make an individual assessment—doctor and a woman, together—to see what is the most appropriate thing for her to use.”

The study concludes:

“The risk of breast cancer was higher among women who currently or recently used contemporary hormonal contraceptives than among women who had never used hormonal contraceptives, and this risk increased with longer durations of use; however, absolute increases in risk were small.”

The study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

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Cutting contraceptives after marriage might change how women think of their husbands

After studying 118 newlywed couples for up to four years and regularly surveying the women, researchers Florida State University found that choosing a partner while on the pill might affect a woman’s marital satisfaction. After discontinuing hormonal contraceptives, women reported a drop in marital satisfaction. There’s a trick to it, though. Apparently, the drop in satisfaction was experienced only in those cases where the husband was judged as being less attractive. In marriages where the husband was regarded as ‘fit’, satisfaction did not change regardless of contraceptives on or off.

The pill may change how attractive you see your husband

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A study suggests women should consider that contraceptives may alter how attractive they find their partners. Image: Flickr

“Many forms of hormonal contraception weaken the hormonal processes that are associated with preferences for facial attractiveness,” said Michelle Russell, a doctoral candidate at Florida State and the lead author on the study. “Accordingly, women who begin their relationship while using hormonal contraceptives and then stop may begin to prioritize cues of their husbands’ genetic fitness, such as his facial attractiveness, more than when they were taking hormonal contraceptives. In other words, a partner’s attractiveness plays a stronger role in women’s satisfaction when they discontinue hormonal contraceptives.”

Beginning a hormonal contraceptive treatment after the marriage did not appear to make any difference in the women’s satisfaction, positive or negative. In the United States, 17 percent of women ages 17 to 44 were on birth control pills in 2010, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Nearly 5 percent more used other hormonal contraception methods such as injections or a vaginal ring.

In effect, what the study seems to indicate is that the pill can significantly alter how attractive a women think of a man. Discontinuing hormonal contraceptives may have critical unintended effects on women’s relationships. Findings were published in PNAS.

“The research provides some additional information regarding the potential influences of hormonal contraceptives on relationships, but it is too early to give any practical recommendations regarding women’s family planning decisions.”

The takeaway: female ZME readers, discontinue the pill before getting married. If you’re sure your partner’s physical attractiveness matters little to you, then do as you please.

At the same time, readers should take the conclusions with a grain of salt, since causation doesn’t equal correlation, as we know. Discontinuing the pill after marriage is a sign that the couple wants to have a child, a decision undoubtedly associate with high levels of stress for the woman who – let’s face it – will have to handle most of the hurdles that come with it. On the contrary, introducing hormonal contraceptives post-marriage suggests the couple is uninterested in having a child, so the wife is unlikely to be more or less stressed than she was before getting married. The fact that the husband’s physical appearance was decisive factors is peculiar and unsurprising at the same time.

So, what’s your take on this? We’d love to hear some opinions from our married female readers. You can post anonymous, so don’t worry.