A team of researchers at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, have found a link between birth control and depression. Although they don’t say taking hormonal contraceptives such as pills, implants or patches causes clinical depression, they do conclude that women who used them were 40 percent more likely to get a prescription for an antidepressant. The risk for teenagers is 80 percent.

Researchers have been studying this for decades, and some teams have found just the opposite of what the Danish researchers concluded. Birth control is such a complicated topic because all women are genetically and biologically different, which explains why their bodies cannot react just the same when exposed to the variety of different formulations available in the market. Each study helps add a small piece to a huge puzzle.

Researchers have found a link between birth control and depression. Photo credit: Getty Images / Health.com
Researchers have found a link between birth control and depression. Photo credit: Getty Images / Health.com

Moreover, some research teams may differ from others because each of them studies certain groups and has their own methods to measure outcomes. Each of them also approaches an issue from a unique perspective.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Psychiatry, the study involved the medical records of more than 1 million young women and girls aged 15 to 34. Dr. Oejvind Lidegaard and his team at the University of Copenhagen studied this information, which dated back from 1995 through 2013 and was collected from the National Prescription Register and the Psychiatric Central Research Register in Denmark.

The women involved in the study had not been diagnosed with depression or other psychiatric illness before their records were taken into account for research. Progestogen-only pills, transdermal patch, vaginal ring, and levonorgestrel intrauterine system were the types of contraception included.

The researchers’ hypothesis: the use of estrogen and/or progesterone contraception is linked with the subsequent use of antidepressants, as well as a diagnosis of depression at a psychiatric hospital, as reported by Clinical Advisor.

“Use of hormonal contraception, especially among adolescents, was associated with subsequent use of antidepressants and a first diagnosis of depression, suggesting depression as a potential adverse effect of hormonal contraceptive use,” the researchers wrote in the paper, according to NBV News.

However, the actual rates of clinical depression were very small. Only 2.2 out of 100 women using hormonal contraceptives were likely to get prescriptions for an antidepressant every year, while 1.7 out of 100 women not using hormone-based birth control were likely to start antidepressants. This means that the risk of not alarming.

The risk is even lower for women being diagnosed with depression at a psychiatric facility. The team of researchers found that 0.3 out of every 100 hormone-based birth control users were diagnosed with the serious health problem compared to 0.28 percent of women who did not use birth control.

“Therefore for an individual woman, even one using a method of hormonal contraception, the overall probability of experiencing one of these outcomes in this study was still fairly low, particularly for diagnosis of depression,” as explained by Chelsea Polis, a senior research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute, National Public Radio reported.

Biology alone cannot explain everything

Katherine Keyes, who helped review the study for JAMA, noted that the social lives of women must be taken into account, but some people tend to focus only on biology, according to NBC News.

For example, although the risk for depression is higher in teenagers who use hormonal contraceptives, it is worth reminding that this group is going through significant social and biological changes when the start using birth control. As for more mature women, their mood may be compromised if they use contraceptives in between pregnancies.

Keyes considered the study provided relevant information and admitted it lowered her confidence in her hypothesis that hormone-based contraception helps regulate mood. Still, she believes that this paper’s evidence alone cannot change the way doctors prescribe contraceptives although it could help them better monitor their patients’ outcomes.

Depression is one of the most untreated health problems, and women are the most affected, Keyes warned. She emphasized the importance of getting women into their physicians so they can get screened for that severe health issue.

Other interesting facts about the use of hormonal contraceptives

An associate professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Keyes also studies links between birth control and depression. She has found that many women using hormonal contraceptives report mood disorders as they feel irritable, tired and realize they have weight gain. However, that is not critical enough to be considered clinical depression.

Keyes’ findings include positive facts about the use of birth control that don’t have anything to do with depression. She said that women in this group are more likely to go to a doctor, to exercise and to consume green leafy vegetables at least once a week. She described them as “health-conscious women.”

Contraceptives are not directly responsible for those behaviors, though. As reported by NBC News, she pointed out that hormone-based birth control not only protects against pregnancy but also helps decrease the risk of cancer.

Source: NBC News