To understand the multi-faceted ways the pill can affect women and their relationships, a study was conducted by researchers at the University of Stirling
They questioned more than 2500 women from around the world - both on and off the pill when they met their partners - on how happy they were in their relationship. Here are the findings:
Women on hormonal contraceptives said they were less sexually satisfied and attracted to their partners. But pill-takers were happier in other, non-sexual areas of their relationships, and saw their men as more faithful, more supportive and better providers.
Lead study author Dr Craig Roberts even went as far as suggesting women on the pill should try switching over to condoms before committing to marriage to confirm that they’re still attracted to their partner.
Yes, social media outrage ensued.
Experts speculated about what this could all mean. One theory is that the pill changes your sense of smell, drawing you towards a genetically incompatible male, or at least, a different type of man than you would usually be attracted to.
Encoded in a man’s scent are clues to his genes, which is important in evolutionary terms as it stops us mating with guys in our family whose genes are similar to ours.
The famous “sweaty T-shirt study” of 2008 backed this up. Women on the pill who sniffed the sweaty tees of men (nice job) rated the scents differently to sniffers who were not on the pill.
Could the pill change your taste in men?
Dr Terri Foran, a sexual health physician who specialises in contraception thinks it’s probably not that simple.
“Although there is no doubt that sexual attraction’s primitive, your sense of smell is affected when you’re on the pill, so you’re not able to pick up subtle smells you otherwise would have been able to. But the attraction to your partner naturally changes anyway when you’re three to four years down the track. The best sex organ a woman has is her brain, you just have to work a bit harder to keep the sex exciting.”
The Pill and your memory
The type of information you recall could be affected by taking the pill, say researches from the University of California, US. A small study of 66 women in 2011 (half taking oral contraceptives, half not) discovered that those on the pill have a memory recall more like men's - that is, better able to recall the gist of a story, rather than details.
In this study, women not taking the pill were the exact opposite, and better at remembering the specifics of a given situation, such as the colour of a shirt or whether someone wore glasses.
The researchers say the pill does not actually damage memory, but could change it. It could lead to an explanation of why women are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder than men.
A question of fidelity
Another concern about the pill’s effect on relationships came out of a previous study by the University of Stirling. It found hormones in the pill bring out the green-eyed monster, making you more likely to fret about your partner’s fidelity.
Dr Craig Roberts (yep, him again) asked 275 women a series of questions designed to gauge how much they trusted their partner. All the women were taking the combined pill, and their brands were compared and matched with their answers. The study found the higher the dose of oestrogen, the more likely a woman was to be jealous.
It’s a small study, but adds to the growing science that suggests we are psychologically affected by taking the pill.
Side effects such as going up a bra size may be worth it for the ease of no-brainer contraception, but Professor Kulkarni believes the emotional repercussions are devastating for some women.
“We’ve seen the destruction of relationships, due to women becoming irritable, hostile and prickly when taking the pill. And then they look back and say ‘that wasn’t me’. There can be the breakdown of marriages – and I’ve seen some clients who have lost their jobs because they became so moody and difficult in the workplace.”
Restoring the calm
Since the science on exactly if, how and why the pill affects women psychologically is in such early stages, not all GPs will connect symptoms of mood change to the drug. It’s a chicken and egg situation. “I see a lot of depressed women who aren’t on the pill whose mood is improved by going on it, and other women who say the pill turns them into the bitch from hell,” says Dr Foran.
This can make the link difficult to diagnose since many other factors in women’s lives – stress, relationships, eating and exercise patterns are often looked at as first causes of mood change. But Professor Kulkarni says it is a legitimate area of concern. If you think the pill could be playing havoc on your mental state, here’s what to do fix that.
Revisit your doctor
The script your doctor writes should only come after taking a detailed medical history, and be sure to include your mental health in that discussion. Keeping track of your moods over a few weeks can help you and your doctor see if there is a link with your hormone fluctuations (try the MoodKit app).
“There seems to be a relationship between mood swings and the pill with women who have a family history or who have had anxiety or depression in the past, including postnatal depression. This information tells us a woman is sensitive to hormones,” says Dr Kulkarni.
Family practitioners don’t currently have a list of which pill brands are likely to give certain women psychological side effects, but Professor Kulkarni is aiming to create one with her research. “If you’re feeling depressed for no good reason, or you’re having mood swings or trouble seeing the good side of life and you’re taking the pill, alert your doctor. They can try switching your brand or taking you off before trying something else like antidepressants, which sets up a whole other paradigm of work.”
Ask to switch brands
You don’t have to put up with emotional or physical side effects from your contraception. Ask to switch brands and try different doses of hormones if one doesn’t agree with you. There are new pill formulas coming out all the time, such as Zoely, which is made of a new progestogen/oestradiol combination similar to the hormones you produce naturally.
“Sometimes we’ve seen women deteriorate into major depression and we’ve fixed that by taking out their progestogen-only implant. Another thing we know is that women who are vulnerable to depression tend to do better on the higher dose of oestrogen pill, the 30 microgram,” says Dr Kulkarni.
Try something else
The other choice is to come off the pill and use a non-hormonal, barrier method of contraception such as condoms. The pill’s ability to stabilise hormone levels throughout the cycle helps reduce mood swings for some women. For others, it can be a big downer.
“There are women who are sensitive even to really tiny doses of the hormone in the pill. When that happens you have to look at other methods. I think of contraception as a cafeteria. There are a range of choices and you need to decide what your preferences are,” says Dr Foran.
Perhaps, like many, you haven’t made a new contraception decision since you became sexually active. But just like you left behind your penchant for pashing questionable guys after a few Bacardi Breezers at your local RSL, the decisions you took at 18 may not be what you need at age 25, 30 or 35. And that goes for contraception, too.