Amanda Brennan, Intern
Growing up, I have distinct memories of TV commercials featuring happy, care-free women shopping or going out with friends, while in the background a voice told of the benefits of the latest birth control pill. Though I was clueless about the advertisement itself, I was struck by one phrase: “Have only four periods a year.” For a girl nearing young womanhood, the idea sounded brilliant! Yet, something always left me unconvinced and unsettled.
When the birth control pill came on the scene in the 1960s, it was intended to be the most reliable contraceptive to date. Now, an estimated 11.2 million women aged 15 to 44 use the Pill each year in the
United States, as noted by the Guttmacher Institute. Oral contraceptive pills, or OCPs, do more than prevent
pregnancy these days; they have additional uses for 58% of users. The study
explained that 31% of women use them for cramping, 28% for regulating menstrual
cycles, 14% for acne, 4% for endometriosis, and 11% for other reasons. It is
believed that 1.5 million women use them without contraceptive intentions at
all. The medical world has deemed OCPs “miracle” drugs, as they are prescribed
more and more each day to treat health issues. But do these pills in cute
packaging deliver healing, or do they wreak havoc on the female body?
With childhood reservations still in the back of my mind, I decided to look into the birth control pill Seasonale, which reduces the frequency of menstruation in a year. I wanted to know the true effects of artificial hormones on the body, specifically the brain. Seasonale’s mechanism of action, the “suppression of gonadotropins,” stuck out to me while searching the Physicians’ Desk Reference. Gonadotropins make up two hormones needed for development and reproduction, luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). Their production is controlled by gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which regulates the sex steroids testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone, thus, contributing to such things as male and female behaviors and maintaining a pregnancy. Usually, cells in the anterior pituitary gland of the brain called gonadotrophs emit LH and FSH, but OCPs manipulate their normal production.
In their recent article, Women’s Brains on Steroids, Drs. Craig H. Kinsley and Elizabeth A. Meyer ask, “What happens, then, when the female brain gets a significant and artificial dose of steroid hormone, either progesterone, estrogen or both? We know what happens below the waist, the pregnancies prevented. What happens above the neck, as this steroidal tsunami washes over the neural coastline?” They found their answer in a study featured in the Brain Research Journal that explored the impact of hormonal contraceptives on the brain at different points in a woman’s cycle. Though not detailed or large, the study found that the part of the brain controlling higher cognitive thinking abilities is affected more among women who take the Pill than among those who do not. Kinsley and Meyer point out that these changes may not always deliver positive results, since many women complain they do not feel like themselves after popping artificial hormones into their bodies via birth control pills. In the end, the authors conclude that “[t]he possibility that an accepted form of chemical contraception has the ability to alter the gross structure of the human brain is a cause for concern, even if the changes seem benign -- for the moment…Like the rest of life, and like the steroid choices made by those ballplayers, there are costs and benefits. The benefits are well established; the costs, however, are still coming to light.”
Now that the Pill is being used for more than just contraceptive purposes, people must ask if it delivers health or merely creates more problems. Rather than just blunt or prevent pain from cramping, shouldn’t a woman know what is causing her cramping in the first place? Rather than blindly take a pill that regulates menstrual cycles, shouldn’t a woman know why her body is out of whack (if, indeed, it is)? I don’t think swallowing pills that can alter brain function, even temporarily, is good medicine. Instead of turning to quick fixes deemed “miracle” drugs, we ought to work with our bodies and not against them. The underlying problems must be addressed with actual cures, not Band-Aids, as explained by Dr. Thomas Hilgers, MD, creator of the innovative women’s health science NaProTechnology.
There is more to scratch your head about than just the Pill’s impact on the brain. As MARRI blogger Katie Staudt mentioned in a recent post, a connection between contraception and the rising divorce rate (among other things) has been found. Furthermore, as high school students continue to be sexually active, more of them will turn to OCPs. As we show in MARRI’s Annual Report on Family Trends, birth control pill use by sexually active high school students rose was at 16% in. Still more young women may be taking the Pill for reasons other than birth control. If these pills can upset the normal functioning of a grown woman’s body, what impact can they have on a developing young woman’s body?
I’m left with one more question: If the use of birth control pills among young women solely for health reasons is increasing, is this not giving them the green flag on sexual activity? Well, it sure is giving them the tools for it.