A new study looked at women’s ability to read facial expressions while on birth control

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While birth control can help with many conditions, it often can result in side effects. Getty Images

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. women of reproductive age are currently using contraception. The most common methods used are female sterilization, oral contraception pills (OCPs), and intrauterine devices (IUDs), according to the Centers for Diseases Control (CDC).

And while birth control has helped millions of women prevent pregnancy and regulate their periods, contraception also comes with various side effects for women.

There can be physical side effects — such as breast tenderness, spotting between periods, and weight gain — and there can be the emotional ones: mood swings, increased anxiety, and depression. Some people may not experience any noticeable side effects while on contraception, and some may give up on the idea of pill or drug-based contraception altogether

Now, new research suggests that oral contraceptives may actually result in a woman’s ability to judge social situations.

A new small study found that women who were taking OCPs tended to be poorer judges of deciphering subtle emotional expressions. The study was published today in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

To understand the effects OCPs have on women’s ability to recognize emotional expressions, researchers administered a social-recognition task to two groups: 42 women who took OCPS and 53 women who did not use OCPs.

The task required all women to identify the complex emotional expressions from subtle cues from the eye region of various faces.

“The expressions did not depict basic emotions like, for example, fear or anger but complex ones like, for example, pride or contempt. As a consequence, the emotion recognition task was quite challenging,” the study’s senior author Alexander Lischke, PhD, an experimental psychologist at the University of Greifswald in Germany, told Healthline.

The study found that the OCP users were, on average, approximately 10 percent worse at deciphering complex emotional expressions. This effect was consistent for both positive and negative expressions and was not impacted by either the type of OCP taken or the menstrual cycle phase of nonusers.

The findings suggest that OCPs could, ultimately, affect the way women maintain intimate relationships and go about social interactions. Emotion recognition is, after all, a huge part of how we relate and connect to one another.

“If there’s any kind of bias or misreading [of emotions] that influences our responses to [others], then our responses may be aberrant or not empathic or overly defensive,” Catherine Monk, PhD, a professor of medical psychology in the departments of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University, told Healthline.

For example, if we are not able to accurately interpret whether or not someone is expressing contempt — one of the emotions the study evaluated — we might see it when it’s not actually there and react unnecessarily defensive.

As a result, such misinterpretation of emotions could contribute to friction in social interactions, Monk said.

Hormones are very powerful and can significantly influence our moods, behaviors, and how our brains function.

For example. high levels of estrogen have been associated with mood swings and anxiety, while low levels of progesterone have been linked to anxiety and depression.

However, when it comes to the external hormones used in prescription birth control, and how they impact people’s emotional functioning, there have been mixed theories.

“There have been previous research on mood changes and OCPs, however, the results are not consistent. Some studies suggest that OCPs are associated with depressed mood or anxiety, while some show the opposite,” Dr. Candice Fraser, an obstetrician-gynecologist and founder of Trinity Medical Care in New York, said.

Here’s how the medication works: There are estrogen receptors in areas of the brain — like the hippocampus — that are involved in memory and attention. When these receptors come in contact with estrogen, which is naturally produced by the body, they bind to the hormone and carry out various cognitive functions related to memory and learning.

It’s possible that, when exposed to the man-made hormones used in OCPs, those areas of the brain do not function as well, Monk suspects.

“When you’re on oral contraceptions, you are having this external, exogenous source of estrogen, so there is a question of how is the receptor dealing with that in the brain in terms of what’s typically available,” Monk explained.

In addition, previous studies using brain imaging have identified reduced activation of specific brain regions that are responsible for emotional salience in women taking hormonal contraceptives, compared to those who are not.

So, while it isn’t at all surprising that hormonal contraceptives could affect cognitive function, health experts agree that more research is needed to fully understand how, exactly, they affect emotion regulation and detection.

All things considered, it’s crucial for women to have complete autonomy over their reproductive abilities, says Monk. It’s important to have access to a lot of different tools — OCPs, IUDs, barrier methods — so each woman can choose the contraceptive that’s right for her.

New research suggests oral contraceptive pills (OCPs) could impair women’s ability to decipher emotional expressions. While OCPs have been linked to mood changes, health experts agree that it’s still too soon to tell what kind of effect they have on emotion recognition.