Oral contraceptives linked to increased mind wandering in healthy women, study finds

Preliminary research provides evidence that the use of birth control pills is associated with an increased frequency of mind wandering in women. The study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, could help explain why women face higher risks of depression and other mood disorders.

“Oral contraceptives (OC) are the most common type of contraceptive method used in industrialized countries. It is estimated that one woman out of four who are of reproductive age currently use OC and more than 80% of women report to have used it at some point in their lives,” said study author Catherine Raymond of the University of Montreal

“Still, around 10% of OC users report experiencing mood side effects (e.g., depressive symptoms, irritability, mood swings, etc.). Recent large studies also suggest that OC use is associated with the onset of major depression and antidepressant intake.”

“What we wanted to assess in the current study was whether OC use in healthy women was associated with cognitive processes associated with depression in women who do not (or not yet!) suffer from depression. Mind wandering is one of such cognitive process. It refers to all of the thoughts that one has that are not associated with the task at hand. Studies on the subject show that the more you mind wander, the less happy you are,” Raymond said.

“Furthermore, recent studies suggest that mind wandering might be a precursor for cognitive vulnerability among individuals who are at higher risk for mood disorders.”

The researchers compared 28 women currently using OC, 14 naturally cycling women in the luteal phase of their menstrual cycle and 29 men. All of the participants were between the ages of 18 and 35. The researchers also excluded women who had used antidepressants or previously received a psychiatric diagnosis.

Raymond and her colleagues found that women currently using OC reported significantly greater frequency of mind wandering than men. Naturally-cycling women, on the other hand, did not differ from men.

In particular, women currently using OC tended to report having less attentional control — meaning they had trouble concentrating. But they had similar levels of depressed and guilt oriented thoughts and positive constructive daydreaming as the other groups.

“What we found is that healthy women using OC present increased mind wandering frequency (which means that they mind wander more often on a daily basis) as opposed to naturally cycling women and men. Our findings are important in showing that utilization of OC in women could explain some of the sex/gender differences in vulnerability to various mental health disorders,” Raymond told PsyPost.

“Indeed, it was shown many times that women are twice as vulnerable as men to suffer from stress related psychopathologies such as depression. Given previous studies showing that mind wandering can confer increased cognitive vulnerability to mood disorders, our results suggest that an increase in the frequency of mind wandering in OC users could serve as a marker of risk for depressive disorder in women.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. Future research could benefit from longitudinal designs and larger sample sizes.

“As for every correlational study, the question of ‘the chicken or the egg’ remains. Therefore, we still wonder whether OC intake causes an increase in mind wandering, or whether women that mind wandering more frequently present an increased tendency to use OC,” Raymond explained.

“Causational studies (where we would ask women who have not used OC before to use it and measure mind wandering before and after cessation – for example) would be necessary to fill this gap in the literature.”

It is still unclear what effects OC use has on female brain development.

“Not only do adult women use OC, we know that adolescent girls use it more and more. Preliminary data in animal models show that the chronic secretion of some hormones (such as cortisol, for example) during brain development (which ends around 21 to 25 years old in humans) may be problematic for the development of some brain regions that are necessary to regulate the stress response in adulthood,” Raymond said.

“Since synthetic sex hormones that are contained in OC also access the brain, we think that more studies are needed to understand the effect of OC on the developing brain.”

The study, “Increased frequency of mind wandering in healthy women using oral contraceptives“, was authored by Catherine Raymond, Marie-France Marin, Robert-Paul Juster, Sarah Leclaire, Olivier Bourdon, Sophia Cayer-Falardeau, and Sonia J. Lupien.