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Study Finds The Birth Control Pill Has a Pretty Terrible Impact on Women's Wellbeing

So, how's that male pill coming along?

FIONA MACDONALD
20 APR 2017
 

A new study has reinforced what many women have been saying for years - the oral contraceptive pill is associated with reduced quality of life and wellbeing in healthy women.

The double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trial found that healthy women reported reduced quality of life, mood, and physical wellbeing after taking a common birth control pill containing ethinylestradiol and levonorgestrel for three months.

 

The findings reinforce earlier research and anecdotal claims that women are struggling with the side effects of the contraceptive pill.

But there was no significant evidence that the contraceptive increased depressive symptoms in the latest study... so, there's that.

Surprisingly, this is one of the most rigorous studies to date to look into the impact of the pill on women's quality of life.

"Despite the fact that an estimated 100 million women around the world use contraceptive pills we know surprisingly little today about the pill's effect on women's health," said lead researcher Angelica Lindén Hirschberg from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

"The scientific base is very limited as regards the contraceptive pill's effect on quality of life and depression and there is a great need for randomised studies where it is compared with placebos."

To fix that, her team took 340 healthy women aged between 18 and 35 and gave them either placebo pills, or contraceptive pills containing ethinylestradiol and levonorgestrel over a three-month period.

 

Ethinylestradiol and levonorgestrel-containing pills are among the most common form of combined oral contraceptive pills around the world because they're the least associated with a risk of blood clots, and they include brand names such as Levlen, Microgynon, Portia, and Alesse.

The study was double blind, which meant that neither the researchers giving out the pills or the women taking them knew whether they were getting a placebo or not.

At the start of the study, the women had their general health measured, including weight, height, and blood pressure.

They also filled out two well-known surveys on general wellbeing and depressive symptoms - the Psychological General Wellbeing Index and the Beck Depression Inventory.

They then went through the same tests at the end of the three months so the researchers could compare the results.

The women who were given contraceptive pills reported that their quality of life was significantly lower at the end of the study than those who were given placebos.

This was true for general quality of life and also specific aspects of wellbeing, such as self control and energy levels.

No significant increase in depressive symptoms was observed.

While it's an interesting first step towards better measuring the pills' side effects, the researchers caution that the changes were relatively small so we can't read too much into them just yet. And we can only apply these findings to ethinylestradiol and levonorgestrel-containg pills.

Also, the study only looked at women over three months - it will require longer monitoring to get a more accurate idea of how the contraceptive pill affects women.

"This might in some cases be a contributing cause of low compliance and irregular use of contraceptive pills," said one of the researchers, Niklas Zethraeus.

"This possible degradation of quality of life should be paid attention to and taken into account in conjunction with prescribing of contraceptive pills and when choosing a method of contraception."

With recent research also providing insight into why periods can be so damn painful and heavy, it seems scientists are finally starting to take women's reproductive health and contraceptive side effects seriously. 

And we're getting some male options too - scientists are making progress with a hormonal contraceptive injection for men, as well as a reversible, condom-free gel that blocks sperm.

More research is needed before we can identify more accurately how the pill impacts women, but these early results are reassuring for many women who've struggled with side effects while on the pill.

The research has been published in the journal Fertility and Sterility.

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