Another potential side effect to the pill: making it harder for women to read certain emotions

Women who take oral contraceptives have a harder time recognizing emotions like pride or contempt in other people’s faces in comparison to women who aren’t on birth control, new study shows.

Slowly but surely, scientists are finding out more about the subtler side effects of taking the pill. One group of German researchers now ran emotional recognition tests with two groups of healthy women, 42 of whom were on the pill, and 53 who weren’t. They found that the women on the pill were about 10 percent worse on average at reading what the scientists called “more complex” emotions like pride and contempt. In their study in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, the scientists didn’t notice any effect in women being able to spot what they categorized as “more simple” emotions, like happiness or fear.

The scientists aren’t sure yet what’s making it hard for women on oral contraceptives to correctly read these emotions. They assume that neurobiological processes that regulate emotion recognition in the brain are influenced by the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone. Fluctuations in these hormones that steer the the female menstrual cycle are steadied by the pill. Different birth control methods influence the cycle in different ways, another topic the scientists want to address in their follow-up studies.

The group’s findings are the latest among a row of publications looking into the mental side effects of birth control. These findings come at a point where 100 million women worldwide are presently taking the pill and 58 years after the Food and Drug Administration first approved oral contraceptives. Apart from potentially influencing emotional recognition and affect, the hormonal birth control has recently been scrutinized for a possible link to depression. Alexander Lischke, one of the new study’s authors assumes research first needed to establish the pill’s general safety and reliability. Now that this has happened, he says, science can turn to explore its impact on women’s mental health.

As for the impact of his findings, Lischke will also look into how the pill’s potential emotionally impairing side effect could play out in women’s intimate relationships in a future study. But for now, he asks women to not be concerned: “On the basis of present findings there is no need for women to worry about oral contraceptive use leading to impairments in emotion recognition and deleterious effects on their social lives.”

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