Over the years, women under hormonal birth control have reported that it made them feel depressed. This has gone on for decades and has inspired several research studies. However, most of these studies were deemed inconclusive. A few of the studies were considered believable but were still unable to show a definitive association between birth control and depression.
How does hormonal birth control work?
Hormonal birth control (most pills, rings, and patches) uses synthetic hormones, estrogen, and progestin, to prevent pregnancy by either;
Stopping ovaries from releasing eggs
Thickening cervix mucus to prevent sperm from traveling through the cervix into the uterus.
Mini Pills use progestin in a smaller amount.
The question as to whether birth control can cause depression arises from how they work. Are the resulting hormonal changes enough to cause depression? Hormonal changes, for instance, in premenstrual syndrome (PMS), have been known to cause emotional swings. A lot of women feel irritable or depressed just before their monthly periods.
Whereas most experts agree hormonal changes in PMS cases cause mood swings, they remain inconclusive on the effect of birth control on mood. If you experience depression when using birth control, it may be caused by other reasons apart from birth control.
However, there exists a lot of anecdotal evidence from women who say their depression ended when they quit using birth control. It is easy to interpret this as birth control being the underlying cause of depression. Other women have also reported that birth control improved their mood. In such situations with conflicting reports, you would expect studies to shed some light on the matter, but nope: even they have achieved mixed results.
One particular famous study took place in Denmark. The study analyzed the medical records of women between the age of 15-34 between the years 2000 and 2013. It took into account their body mass index, educational level, and smoking habits. For more accurate results, the Danish study excluded women with preexisting psychiatric conditions and those taking birth control medication for other reasons.
The study concluded that all forms of hormonal birth control increased the risk of developing depression. Higher risks were associated with progesterone-only forms, and the risk was higher in teens between ages 15-19.
Another 2018 retrospective study suggested a potential link between postpartum depression (PPD) and certain forms of birth control. Researchers found that the risk of developing PPD later was higher in women who took birth control containing progestin in the postpartum period.
Two extensive studies in Finland and the United States suggested something different. They showed that people using any hormonal birth control reported fewer depression and anxiety symptoms.
We can’t precisely say that using birth control will lead to depression. The nature of our species is such that each person’s brain and body are unique; hence the response to birth control varies from person to person.
While some studies show that the risk of depression in women using hormonal birth control increased, the overall number of affected women is small. Approximately 2.2 out of 100 women using birth control developed depression, while 1.7 out of 100 women not using birth control developed depression. Hence, only a small number of women will be susceptible to develop depression as a result of birth control.