Side effects of birth control pills may cause women to have a smaller hypothalamus, which may increase the risk of depression or increased anger, according to the the findings of a new study.
The findings are considered preliminary, but were presented this week at a meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago, indicating that birth control pills may impact the small region at the base of the brain, which regulates emotional responses and plays a crucial role in other functions.
Researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine were originally studying concussion effects among male and female athletes, but discovered that women taking birth control had a smaller hypothalamus, when compared to women who were not on the pills.
The study involved data on 50 women, including 21 women who were taking oral contraceptives. All 50 women underwent a brain MRI, and a validated approach was used to measure hypothalamic volume in each woman.
Researchers found a dramatic difference in the size of the hypothalamus between women who took birth control pills and those who didn’t. Women who took birth control pills had a hypothalamus that was 6% smaller than women not taking birth control.
Smaller hypothalamic volume was also associated with greater anger and showed a strong correlation with depression. There was no difference in mental performance among either group of women.
The hypothalamus is located at the base of the brain above the pituitary gland. It produces hormones and helps regulate essential bodily functions, including body temperature, mood, appetite, sex drive, sleep cycles and heart rate.
This is the first study to examine the side effects birth control pills on the hypothalamus.
Birth control pills are one of the most popular forms of birth control women use, but it is also used to treat other conditions, such as irregular menstruation, acne, endometriosis, and polycystic ovarian syndrome.
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2015 to 2017 approximately 47 million women in the United States were current users of contraceptives. Roughly 13% of them used the pill.
Researchers warn that women should not be alarmed and should not immediately switch their birth control method. There is not enough data to call for a change in birth control recommendations, and there is a 50-year history of birth control pills and their safety, they cautioned.
The findings are considered preliminary and simply shows an association between using the pill and decreased hypothalamus size. However, it doesn’t account for other factors, other possible causes, or possible mood disorders.