In a study from the University of Ottawa, scientists found the effects of oral contraceptives (OCs) like birth control pills on the brain and mood of women may come down to age and their gut microbiome.
Oral contraceptives were first introduced in the 1960s and are some of the most commonly used drugs among females, including an estimated 100 million women worldwide.
They normally contain synthetic hormones and are commonly prescribed during adolescence for the following uses: contraception, acne, premenstrual syndrome, and more.
Scientists believe about 20% of users will experience negative consequences, but there is a lack of knowledge to understand why.
Not all women who take OCs will experience adverse effects on mood and cognition and that there are striking individual differences.
In the current study, the team found that one possible factor could be the age of onset of OC use.
Women who have begun taking OCs during early adolescence may be more susceptible to experience these adverse effects on mood.
The gut microbiome may be an important mediator of the effects of OCs on mood because OCs are taken orally, and the gut microbiome can modulate symptoms of depression.
The team says adolescence is a critical period of development during which the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis (which is essentially responsible for starting puberty) becomes active and undergoes maturation, causing an increase in the production and release of gonadal steroid hormones (i.e., estradiol, progesterone and testosterone) and leading to the development of secondary sexual characteristics and sexual maturation.
During this period, the brain also undergoes extensive remodeling and reorganizing, leading to structural/functional changes that are driven by endogenous sex hormones.
It’s important that scientists understand the impact of OCs on the developing adolescent brain, as these effects may be mediated by the gut-brain axis.
The team says this work is very important because women’s health research has been neglected for decades and there are so many questions that are specific to women’s health that need to be imperatively addressed.
They cannot say whether it is safe or not to prescribe OCs to our young women, as many factors must be considered, but they are hopeful that by making the information available, women will be able to make informed decisions for themselves.
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The study was conducted by Nafissa Ismail et al and published in Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology.
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