Do the emotional side-effects of hormonal contraceptives come from pharmacologic or psychological mechanisms?

Med Hypotheses. 2004;63(2):268-73. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2004.02.013.


Hormonal preparations have become one of the most popular methods used for controlling fertility. The literature over the last 40 years continues to reveal how their numerous side effects negatively impact many users and even society at large. Three large cohort trials were the first to demonstrate, on a grand scale, certain emotional and behavioral associations with contraceptive use. Current contraceptive use was associated with an increase rate in depression, divorce, tranquilizer use, sexual dysfunction, and suicide and other violent and accidental deaths. Despite the advent of more "user friendly" contraceptives, the discontinuation rate secondary to side effects has changed little through the years. While in rare cases hormonal preparations can be deadly to the user, there is substantial evidence that their negative effect issues more from their emotional and behavioral properties. This paper reviews the results of over seven studies which further characterize these prominent associations, particularly with hormonal contraception, in an attempt to demonstrate their association with the intrinsic pharmacologic properties of hormonal preparations. Hormonal contraceptive users, in contrast with non users, were found to have higher rates of depression, anxiety, fatigue, neurotic symptoms, sexual disturbances, compulsion, anger, and negative menstrual effects. The question of whether the association of these maladies is directly due to the effect of taking exogenous hormones versus the psychological impact of the contraceptive behavior itself had yet to be studied. Seven small randomized-controlled trials were found in a review of the literature which studied this hypothesis in a direct way. They do not support the origination of these side effects being from the pharmacological properties of hormones. No association was found between hormone levels and emotional functioning in females. Psychiatric evaluations among IUD and oral contraceptive pill (OCP) users reveal no significant differences. Women who were given an OCP placebo experienced a similar side effect profile of OCP users. Different hormonal concentrations and combinations made no significant difference in the side effect profile. A study of women who were given either "weak female hormones" or a placebo failed to duplicate the side effect profile found in all of the other studies where the hormones were labeled as contraceptives. The evidence suggests that most of the side effects of hormonal contraception are a result of a psychological response to the practice of contraception. More study is warranted to further understand this psychological phenomenon, especially now that an effective non-contraceptive method of fertility regulation and more reliable psychological instruments are available. Furthermore, it is reasonable to hypothesize, given the present data, that contraceptive activity itself is inherently damaging to women.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Contraception / psychology*
  • Contraceptives, Oral, Hormonal / adverse effects*
  • Emotions / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Psychology


  • Contraceptives, Oral, Hormonal