Over the last couple of years birth control and it’s affect on mood, most commonly depression, has been in the news. Many are left wondering if birth control is safe for women. I’ve assessed a couple of studies, looking at various groups of women to get a better idea of what the research is saying.
What is depression?
Like most conditions, a person must experience a certain number of symptoms to be diagnosed with a major depressive episode.
Five or more of the following symptoms must be present on most days for at least 2 weeks
Diminished interest or pleasure*
Significant weight loss or weight gain
Insomnia or hypersomnia
Psychomotor agitation or impairment
Fatigue or loss of energy
Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
Decreased ability to think, concentrate, or ability to be decisive
Recurrent thoughts of death/suicide, or a suicide attempt
*One of these symptoms MUST be present
Select Populations & Birth Control
A study conducted in Sweden (Zethraeus, 2017), looked at the effects of a combined pill (150 mg of levonorgestrel and 30 mg of ethinylestradiol) on general well being and depression in women aged 18-35. Compared to the placebo group, there was no difference in anxiety, depressed mood, general health. However, there WAS a significant reduction in in general well-being in women who used a levonorgestrel-containing OC, compared to women taking the placebo.
A study by Horibe analyzed the connection between postpartum depression, drugs, and reported adverse events. They found that levonorgestrel was the top drug reported in connection with postpartum depression. This was followed by other progestins: etonogrestrol and drospirenone (further down in the list). The authors concluded that contraceptives or intrauterine devices with progestin might convey risk for postpartum depression.
With this in mind, I believe that postpartum women should be aware of the risk of depression with many of the pharmaceuticals they may taking during that first postpartum year. Moreover, it’s important to have these conversations with their doctors of what may happen, and what the next steps would be. Currently progestin-only contraception is considered first-line therapy for breastfeeding women. Estrogen-containing contraceptives are not started until breastfeeding is stopped as it may decrease milk supply.
A groundbreaking study (looking at over a million women!) in 2016 by Skovlund, looked to investigate if hormonal contraception is associated with antidepressant use and a depression diagnosis. They ended up finding that adolescents (15 to 19 years) using hormonal contraception are more sensitive than older women (20 to 34 years old). when it came to getting a diagnosis of depression or using antidepressants. This effect was seen in both the combination pill as well as progestin-only pills (which was more predominant). The study also indicated that the incidence of depression and use of antidepressants decreased with age.
For teens considering taking birth control, I would ask yourself why this might be. What is the outcome you are hoping to achieve? There are two conditions in which girls are given birth control as a treatment: endometriosis and acne (usually resulting from PCOS).
If you are experiencing heavy and painful periods (where you are unable on some days to go to school), talk to your medical doctor about endometriosis and if it’s a possibility. If you are experiencing acne, hair growth in places usually seen in males, and even irregular periods, talk to your doctor about PCOS as a possible explanation.
Women with Bipolar Disorder and Depression
The study by Pagano aimed to look at the safety of contraception in women with depression and/or bipolar disorder. This was a meta analysis which looked at 6 studies that met their specific inclusion criteria. They found that oral contraception, levonorgestrel-releasing IUD and the depo shot, were not associated with worse clinical outcomes of depression or bipolar disorder in women who already had this condition.
A couple things to note about this review: there was no standard definition or assessment of depressive and bipolar disorders or symptoms across studies, and the use of depression medication was unknown in three of the six studies.
Final Thoughts on Birth Control and Depression
Overall, while there’s no clear cut answer on whether birth control causes depression – these studies still give you an idea of what the risk might be. Here are a couple of questions to think about if you’re considering taking birth control:
Why do you want to take birth control?
Are you considering birth control because of painful periods or ‘regulating’ your cycle?
Are you considering birth control because you want to prevent a pregnancy?
Are you willing to live with side effects (ie. a decreased quality of life)?
Are you an adolescent?
Have you given birth within the past year?
While there isn’t a naturopathic alternative to birth control (I’m talking about supplements, not the fertility awareness method), it’s necessary to dive deeper into why you may be considering this option. This may also have you wondering what’s going on in your body and if you can help support it in other ways – perhaps with the assistance of Naturopathic Doctor as well!
Zethraeus N, Dreber A, Ranehill E et al. A first-choice combined oral contraceptive influences general well-being in healthy women: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Fertil Steril. 2017;107(5):1238-1245. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2017.02.120.
Horibe M, Hane Y, Abe J et al. Contraceptives as possible risk factors for postpartum depression: A retrospective study of the food and drug administration adverse event reporting system, 2004-2015. Nurs Open. 2018;5(2):131-138. doi:10.1002/nop2.121.
Pagano H, Zapata L, Berry-Bibee E, Nanda K, Curtis K. Safety of hormonal contraception and intrauterine devices among women with depressive and bipolar disorders: a systematic review. Contraception. 2016;94(6):641-649. doi:10.1016/j.contraception.2016.06.012.
Worly B, Gur T, Schaffir J. The relationship between progestin hormonal contraception and depression: a systematic review. Contraception. 2018. doi:10.1016/j.contraception.2018.01.010.
Skovlund C, Mørch L, Kessing L, Lidegaard Ø. Association of Hormonal Contraception With Depression. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016;73(11):1154. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.2387.