Researchers studying the brain found that women taking oral contraceptives, commonly known as birth control pills, had significantly smaller hypothalamus volume, compared to women not taking the pill, according to a new study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).
Researchers found that women taking oral contraceptives had significantly smaller hypothalamus volume compared to women not taking the pill
Located at the base of the brain above the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus produces hormones and helps regulate essential bodily functions including body temperature, mood, appetite, sex drive, sleep cycles and heart rate.
Structural effects of sex hormones, including oral contraceptive pills, on the human hypothalamus have never been reported, according to the researchers. This may be in part because validated methods to quantitatively analyze MRI exams of the hypothalamus have not been available.
The effects of oral contraceptives on this small but essential part of the living human brain lacks research
“There is a lack of research on the effects of oral contraceptives on this small but essential part of the living human brain,” said Michael L. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., FACR, professor of radiology at the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and medical director of MRI Services at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “We validated methods for assessing the volume of the hypothalamus and confirm, for the first time, that current oral contraceptive pill usage is associated with smaller hypothalamic volume.”
Oral contraceptives are among the most popular forms of birth control
Oral contraceptives are among the most popular forms of birth control and are also used to treat a host of conditions, including irregular menstruation, cramps, acne, endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome. According to a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, from 2015 to 2017 approximately 47 million women aged 15–49 in the U.S. reported current use of contraceptives. Of those, 12.6% used the pill.
In his study, Dr. Lipton and colleagues recruited a group of 50 healthy women, including 21 women who were taking oral contraceptives. All 50 women underwent brain MRI, and a validated approach was used to measure hypothalamic volume.
“We found a dramatic difference in the size of the brain structures between women who were taking oral contraceptives and those who were not,” Dr. Lipton said. “This initial study shows a strong association and should motivate further investigation into the effects of oral contraceptives on brain structure and their potential impact on brain function.”
Other findings from the study
Other findings from the study, which Dr. Lipton described as “preliminary,” were that smaller hypothalamic volume was also associated with greater anger and showed a strong correlation with depressive symptoms. However, the study found no significant correlation between hypothalamic volume and cognitive performance.
Razi Berry is the founder and publisher of the journal Naturopathic Doctor News & Review, which has been in print since 2005, and the premier consumer-faced website of naturopathic medicine, NaturalPath. She is the host of The Love is Medicine Project docuseries, The Natural Cancer Prevention Summit, The Heart Revolution-Heal, Empower and Follow Your Heart, and the popular 10-week Sugar Free Summer program. From a near death experience as a young girl that healed her failing heart, to later overcoming infertility and chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia through naturopathic medicine, Razi has lived the mind/body healing paradigm. Her projects uniquely capture the tradition and philosophy of naturopathy: The healing power of nature, the vital life force in every living thing and the undeniable role that science and mind/body medicine have in creating health and overcoming dis-ease. You can follow Razi on social media: Facebook at Razi Berry, Instagram at Razi.Berry and join the Love is Medicine group to explore the convergence of love and health. Look for more, and listen to more Love is Medicine podcast episodes here.