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Birth Control Makes Recovering From Stress Harder, Study Finds

Hannah Frye
July 24, 2023
Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
By Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more.
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July 24, 2023
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Birth control pills offer significant benefits for women's health, but that doesn't mean they're perfect. Some have potential side effects related to mood and quality of life.

In a new groundbreaking study, researchers put birth control to the test to evaluate its impact on stress levels and how those on the pill recover from anxious feelings. Here's what they found and why this discovery is so important. 

Birth control negatively affects stress resilience

A new study published in Behavioural Brain Research found that oral birth control pills seem to negatively impact the body's ability to regulate stress1

The researchers studied the stress responses and hormone levels of 131 young women, with an average age of 20.5 years old. 

To gauge the women's "stress resilience," researchers measured their levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) during a stressful event. ACTH can signal changes in stress levels more quickly than changes in the better-known stress hormone cortisol

"Stress resilience is your natural inborn ability to bounce back from the anxiety response," explains licensed marriage and family therapist at Moment of Clarity Mental Health Center Jeff Yoo, LMFT. "Stress resilience is as natural as the stress response," he adds, noting that everyone will get out of fight-or-flight mode eventually, and the quicker this happens, the better.

For this study, researchers took blood from the women (which provided a stressful environment) and then measured their ACTH levels right after the prick. Then, participants took part in group activities like board games, singing together, group conversation, etc., for 15 minutes. This was meant to encourage a release of anxiety—as social interaction is one of the most effective ways to decrease stress levels2

The results show that the 15 minutes of social activity lowered the stress hormone levels in women who were not on birth control pills. Women on birth control did not experience the same significant dip in their stress hormone levels. However, ACTH levels decreased in 70% of all participants throughout the group activities in some capacity, reiterating the positive impact of socialization after stress.

What these findings mean

There are a few things that are important to note in this study. First, "the study did not specify the particular birth control pills used in the experiment, but it's important to understand the distinction between the two main types: combination pills and progestin-only pills," notes board-certified OB/GYN Karen Toubi, M.D. Below, she describes both:

  • Combination pills: "These birth control pills contain both estrogen and progestin hormones. The presence of synthetic hormones in combination pills can potentially interfere with the body's natural hormonal balance3, including the regulation of the HPA [hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal] axis responsible for stress response. As a result, the release of ACTH and cortisol may be affected, leading to alterations in the body's stress management."
  • Progestin-only pills: "Progestin-only pills, also known as mini-pills, solely contain progestin. While these pills may have a more localized effect compared to combination pills, there is still a possibility that they could influence stress regulation through their impact on the HPA axis."

Interestingly, even within the group of women not on birth control, ACTH measurements demonstrated better stress recovery while in the menstrual and secretory (also known as the luteal) phases than the proliferative (follicular) phase.

While the experiment measured stress levels from a somewhat rudimentary situation like a blood draw, these findings are essential to keep in mind when assessing female stress responses in daily life and traumatic situations. 

The average follicular phase lasts an average of 14 days in a 28-day cycle—meaning about half of the time, women are biologically more likely to struggle to recover from stress, even if they are not on the birth control pill. For those on birth control, the predisposition to poor stress regulation occurs during all cycle phases. 

While this may not be surprising for many people, especially those who have taken birth control pills or experienced mood swings during their cycle, it's essential to understand why this happens and what you can do about it.

What about hormonal IUDs?

"Hormonal intrauterine devices (IUDs) release progestin, similar to progestin-only pills at a much smaller dose. While some experts believe that the hormones in IUDs primarily stay localized within the uterus, recent research suggests that small amounts of hormones may enter the bloodstream. This raises the possibility that hormonal IUDs could potentially affect the HPA axis, leading to alterations in stress regulation. However, given the significantly smaller amount of hormone (most everyone is still ovulating every month), it's much less likely for a mental component to be affected with hormonal IUDs," Toubi says. 

How to boost stress resilience

These findings show why stress resilience may be more challenging if you're on birth control pills or going through certain phases of your cycle. It's helpful to know how to improve your stress resilience, whether you're on the pill or not. Below, a few tips from Yoo and Toubi on how to do so:

  • Practice breathwork: If you can bring greater relaxation and ease into your body, your mind will naturally be at its best and have the chance to restore from the stress," Yoo says. He recommends breathwork—here are three beginner-friendly techniques to try
  • Get regular exercise: "Engage in regular physical activity, as exercise can release endorphins that act as natural stress-relievers, improving mood and reducing stress," Toubi says. Yoo adds that even a simple daily walk could work wonders for alleviating stress and boosting mood. 
  • Make diet & lifestyle adjustments: "Prioritize a balanced diet, sufficient sleep, and avoid excessive consumption of alcohol and stimulants, as they can exacerbate stress levels," Toubi says. 
  • Cultivate a strong social life: Cultivate a strong support system with friends, family, or support groups, as having emotional connections can help in managing stress.

Finally, remember that while many birth control methods aren't perfect, you have options. "If experiencing heightened stress while on birth control, don't hesitate to discuss concerns with health care providers. They can offer guidance and explore alternative contraceptive options," Toubi notes. 

In addition, put your mental health first and consider talking to a therapist if you're struggling to cope with stress. While they can't change how the medication impacts your body, they can help you build a toolbox for recovering and preventing stress. 

The takeaway

A new study finds that birth control pills negatively impact stress resilience. Not everyone is ready to stop taking birth control, which is why incorporating stress-relieving practices into daily life is so important. If you feel that your birth control pill is negatively impacting your physical or mental health, ask your doctor about other options. If nothing else, know that prioritizing your social life isn't indulgent; it's beneficial for both your mental health and longevity.

Hannah Frye author page.
Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor

Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty & Health Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including skin care, women’s health, mental health, sustainability, social media trends, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends and innovations, women’s health research, brain health news, and plenty more.