The Pill: Did You Know. . . ?
Hormonal birth control has revolutionized society by allowing women to decide when they want to have children. This power has given women more freedom than they have ever had. But changing a woman’s sex hormones with the pill also means changing a woman’s brain, and that changes everything about her and around her. Here are just a few examples of what the research suggests.
PARTNER: Estrogen leads to a heightened preference for sexy men. Sexy men = good genes = healthy children. But the pill suppresses ovulation, which means it also suppresses estrogen. This can cause pill-taking women to choose partners for reasons other than physical attraction (like financial fitness). That may be a plus, but it also means there’s a risk that going off the pill means finding out you are not attracted to the partner you chose while on it.
SMELL, SMELL, SMELL: Naturally cycling women literally (if unconsciously) detect a man’s genetic quality by the way he smells. But the pill blunts women’s sensory acuity making make them unable to tell the difference between men who are a good genetic match and men who aren’t. Turning smell around, the scent of naturally cycling women varies through the month, with the fertility signal being most attractive to men. The pill suppresses these signals.
SEX! Women on the pill have lower sexual desire than naturally cycling women. They have sex less frequently and are more likely to experience discomfort. This may result from the suppression of ovulation and its accompanying hormone surge.
STRESS! Women on the pill have a blunted free cortisol response to stress, which sounds great (no stress, yay!), but makes it harder for the brain to grab on to the emotionally complex moments in our lives. When nothing is being flagged as a threat or an opportunity, women can start feeling their world is a little . . . flat. They may also have trouble learning and remembering.
INFLAMMATION: Cortisol helps the body regulate inflammation. With a blunted stress response, pill-taking women are at greater risk of developing autoimmune conditions; in fact, 78% of people suffering from autoimmune diseases are women.
MOOD: The pill affects many neurotransmitters, particularly those associated with reward and pleasure, in ways that can mean trouble for mental health. It’s important to know your family’s history of mental illness and reactions to the pill, and to let someone close to you know you’ve started a new pill so they can note any changes in behavior.
MOTIVATION–HERS AND HIS: Women on the pill are attaining higher levels of education and achievement in fields previously closed to them, like law, medicine, science, government, and business. Interestingly, though, the pill may have the opposite effect on men, since they no longer need to fight as hard to prove themselves worthy of sex.
THE TAKEAWAY: make an informed decision. Weigh the pros and cons. Check out the different varieties of birth control available. This way you can always be the version of yourself you most want to be.
Read more about the surprising effects of the pill in my book
THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON BIRTH CONTROL • AVERY • Sarah E. Hill, PhD • On Sale Now • 978-0-525-53603-1 • $27 ($36 CAN).