Though the introduction of the birth control pill 60 years ago was a watershed moment in the movement for female sexual autonomy, we still don’t know much about the medication’s effects on women’s minds.
To fill that information gap, Dr. Sarah Hill has written about the sex hormones in the pill and their relationship to mood, personality and mental health in her book, “This is Your Mind on Birth Control.” She says she got the idea for the book by relating her research on female sex hormones in the brain to her own experience with the birth control pills she had taken for more than a decade.
“I went off of the birth control pill after being on it for a long time and I just felt like my world felt a little bit different,” Hill says. “I felt a little bit like I woke up from a nap. Everything seemed more bright and colorful and I felt more alive than I felt in a long time, and that sort of got me really interested in what does the pill do to the brain and why in the world don’t I know about it.”
Hill says she’s not anti-birth control, and nothing in the book suggests that women should stop using the pill.
“Having all the information that I have now, I probably would still go on the pill,” Hill says. “It’s just really a matter of giving women all of the information that’s out there about the pill and what it does to the brain and how it can influence the way we think, feel and behave, so that way we can best troubleshoot our birth control options.”
The hormones in the pill affect different aspects of women’s mental health and sexual appetite, Hill says, including depression risk, interest in sex and the nature of responses to stress. But these responses vary widely among women who take the pill.
“Because we aren’t at a place yet where science can make great predictions about how each individual woman is going to respond to each pill, I encourage women to keep a journal, to keep note of how they’re performing and how they’re feeling in each of these different areas that we know that the pill can influence what women’s brains are doing, and so that way they can work with their doctor to best optimize their options,” Hill says.
Since girls under the age of 19 are more susceptible to mood-related side effects of the pill, Hill says parents should be cautious when their child is prescribed the pill to treat their acne.
“People who tend to be put on the pill for things like acne tend to be girls whose brains are still developing, and there is almost no research on the effects of the birth control pill on the still developing brain,” Hill says. “This is important because our sex hormones play an important organizational role in the way that our brain develops after puberty and so when you have a girl who’s younger than 20 for example and you put her on the pill, we don’t yet know whether or not the hormones in the birth control pill are having any sort of lasting impact on brain development.”
Hill says she worried about the politicalization of the information in her book. But she says she wrote it because she does not want the decision on what a woman’s brain is doing, or who they are, to be solely determined by a doctor.
“This is really all about empowering women and giving them the information that they need,” Hill says. “People who are trying to strip women of their rights are going to take anything that they possibly can, and I don’t think anything in my book could possibly be used to do that.”
Written by Savana Dunning.