Birth Control Might Change Who Women Feel Attracted To

Each week, we read what’s going on the world of science and bring the wildest findings straight to you. Here’s the latest:

Women’s sense of attraction to men changes when they’re on hormonal birth control

Women may be attracted to certain men because of their smell—a theory explored by so-called “smelly t-shirt” experiments, when women smell recently worn shirts and say which odors they’re most drawn to.

Previous research has suggested that hormonal birth control can interfere with this attraction, and change who women seek out as partners. A new study, out in Evolutionary Psychological Science, found that if women met their partners while on birth control, and then go off it, it can lead to a shift in their mate preferences and potentially lead to sexual or relationship dissatisfaction.

Women who are not on hormonal birth control are naturally drawn to the body odor of men who have different immune systems to their own, says first author Gurit Birnbaum, an associate professor at the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology in Israel. A potential child would benefit from having parents with different immune systems, and so women have evolved to be sexually attracted to men with dissimilar immune systems, especially during high-fertility phases of their cycles.

“The larger the dissimilarity between mates’ immune systems, the more threats the immune system can combat,” Birnbaum says. Since hormonal birth control suppresses ovulation, a woman’s perception of a man may then change, and she may be attracted to or seek out a different partner.

On hormonal birth control, women could pick men who are cooperative and help with childcare instead of ones who are immune-compatible (not that they’re mutually exclusive). Women who were on hormonal birth control when they met their partners, and then later go off—which often happens when a couple decides to have a baby—may feel “disenchanted” with their partner choice, Birnbaum says.

“Prior studies have provided evidence for this hypothesis, indicating that women who had used hormonal contraceptives when they first met their partner and then ceased to take them experience lower levels of sexual and relationship satisfaction and are more likely to get divorced,” she tells me.

In the new study, three groups of women were compared: women who were on birth control when they met their partners, and then went off of it; women who were on birth control when they met their partners and were still taking it; and women who weren’t on birth control when they met their partners.

They found that the women who were on birth control and then stopped were more vulnerable to feeling desire for images of attractive men during high-fertility phases of their cycles, compared to the other women. “Still, it is unclear whether these women would have acted on their expressed desires and actually flirted with alternative partners,” Birnbaum tells me. “Indeed, people do not necessarily realize their fantasies or are even interested in carrying them out.”

How should women use this information? Birnbaum says she would recommend withholding pill use till you find a long-term partner, and use alternative non-hormonal contraceptives in the meantime. “Let your body choose the right partner for you without the hormonal interference induced by pills,” she tells me. (For short-term partners, it’s not as big of an issue.)

But at the very least, Birnbaum says, physicians should tell young women about these effects, while we continue to learn how much influence they have on relationships and love.

People with radical beliefs have a hard time knowing when they’re wrong

A lot of us may still be reeling from uncomfortable conversations around the holiday dinner table, and wondering why a certain relative refuses to budge on the latest divisive issue. A new study, published in Current Biology, looked at people who have radical beliefs—on both the right and left—and found one reason people are seemingly unable to have their minds changed.

The research examined something called metacognitive sensitivity, which is the ability to reflect on whether your beliefs and decisions are right, or feel appropriately confident in a decision. We would hope to feel more confident when we are correct, and less confident when we are wrong. Having too little or too much metacognitive sensitivity leads to problems—not being confident in right decisions, or being too confident in wrong ones.

Participants were shown two squares with flashing dots, and had to say which of the squares contained more dots. After, the subjects rated their confidence levels. The research found that people with radical beliefs, determined through questionnaires that tested for traits like intolerance to others’ viewpoints, dogmatic and rigid beliefs, and authoritarianism, had less metacognitive sensitivity.

Their confidence levels weren’t aligned with their actual performance, and they had higher confidence levels in their errors, and were less able to notice mistakes, says Max Rollwage, a PhD student in cognitive Neuroscience and Computational Psychiatry, and first author on the paper.

In a follow-up experiment, people were given more information about which square contained more dots, and allowed to change their confidence levels on their answer, if they had chosen wrongly. The people with radical beliefs still held onto their high confidence reports about their errors.

“In times of increasing political polarization and entrenchment of opinion, the ability to reflect on our viewpoints may be crucial for a fruitful discourse,” Rollwage tells me. “It is not yet clear whether reduced metacognition is the cause or consequence (or both) of radicalization, nevertheless it is easy to imagine that deficits in metacognition will contribute to the consolidation of radical beliefs.”

The good news? Rollwage says that other research from their lab has shown that metacognition can be improved through practice—it’s a skill you can learn, not a fixed trait. “Enhancing metacognition may provide an opportunity to counteract or prevent radical views,” he says.

Case report: A man’s treatment for depression gave him delusions

A 31-year-old man, referred to as Mr. A, was brought to the psychiatric emergency service at the University of Amsterdam after neighbors complained about his odd behaviors. Mr. A was convinced that brown spots on the wall of his living room were caused by asbestos and that his neighbors, the police, and his medical practitioners were scheming to kick him out of his house.

These delusions didn’t come out of nowhere: They were a result of an electrode placed deep into Mr. A’s brain to treat his depression. For nine years, Mr. A had tried antidepressants, psychotherapy, and electroconvulsive therapy, but his symptoms wouldn’t relent. He was unable to work, despite having a master’s degree, and was “extremely invalidated in daily life and suffered greatly,” says Ilse Graat, the first author on the paper, published in Brain Stimulation.

Mr. A qualified for an experimental treatment called deep brain stimulation, when an electrode is implanted into the brain to release electricity, and can target certain areas of the brain in different ways. DBS has been frequently used for movement disorders, like Parkinson’s, and it’s a relatively new treatment for psychiatric disorders, like OCD and major depressive disorder.

Graat and his co-authors reported that when they used a high current for the stimulation, Mr. A noticed his depressive symptoms going away. But then came his paranoid delusions. When his doctors lowered the current of the DBS, the delusions remarkably disappeared within hours. But, the depression symptoms came back. When they again increased the current, the delusions immediately returned.

The story of Mr. A reveals that DBS in certain parts of the brain, the nucleus accumbens in this case, may induce delusions. With such a new treatment, it’s important for us to learn and record any such side effects, Graat says, so we know about them for future patients. Also, stimulation side effects can be an interesting way to investigate the underlying causes of certain types of psychosis and delusions.

“We assume that in our patient, high-current stimulation of dopaminergic brain reward pathways may have instantaneously triggered overvalued ideas, that could be adjusted again by lowering the stimulation,” he says.

Your weekly health and science reads

Here’s what “millennial burnout” is like for 16 different people. By Anne Helen Petersen in Buzzfeed News.
If you haven’t read the widely-circulated article on millennial burnout and why it’s so hard to go to UPS and schedule appointments, do so now. When you’re done, check out this compilation of burnout experiences from people of all ages and races that Petersen collected, which reveals how widespread the feeling of burnout really is.

Why meeting another’s gaze is so powerful. By Christian Jarrett in BBC Future.
Full of interesting tidbits about eye contact. As I thought, there’s such a thing as too much eye contact–no one likes gazes longer than nine seconds, writes Jarrett (who also writes for this site).

Thank you for not eating your placenta . By Jennifer Gunter in The New York Times.
Turns out “placentophagy” is not an ancient practice.

What fullness is. On getting weight reduction surgery. By Roxane Gay in Medium.
A beautiful read on thinness, weight loss surgery, food, and the relationship to your body and hunger.

Why exercise alone won’t save you. By Vybarr Cregan-Reid in The Guardian.
Rather than joining a gym for this year’s resolution, maybe we should strive to make everyday life more active instead.

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The Pill Affects Who You’re Attracted To, IE Your Boyfriend May Not Be As Hot As You Think

For years, we’ve thought of the Pill as a miracle contraceptive for regulating our periods and preventing unwanted pregnancies, but now we have good reason to believe that the Pill affects our attraction to others as well. According to a new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, going off the Pill may make women more inclined to prioritize attractive, or “genetically fit,” partners. This means that if your partner isn’t conventionally attractive, you might be less interested in them after going off of birth control. In the same vein, if your partner is a already a looker, you might become more excited by his looks (or find him even more attractive) post-Pill.

All of these findings are based on a study of 118 heterosexual couples who met while the woman was taking the Pill. Researchers then measured the women’s level of attraction to their male partners after they had ceased with their method of birth control. According to Michelle Russell, the lead author of the study, the fact that majority of the women found attraction more important post-Pill likely has to do with the fluctuations of estrogen and hormonal changes that come with going off of birth control. The Pill, after all, is designed to trick your body into thinking that it’s pregnant. Because of this, other studies have shown that women on the Pill are more attracted to men of a similar chemical makeup, since, evolutionarily speaking, pregnant women are physically drawn to their kin rather than their partners.

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There’s also reason to believe that, by influencing attraction, the Pill can affect one’s marital happiness and sexual satisfaction. When speaking about the increased priority of attraction after going off of birth control, Michelle Russell tells TIME : “The effect that it would have on marital satisfaction would carry more weight.”

Russell and her team have discovered that, on average, women who quit the Pill after their honeymoon are less sexually satisfied than women who began dating their husbands while on the Pill, and continued their usage through marriage. In terms of marital happiness, however, satisfaction only decreased alongside a decreased attraction to their partner.

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In the end, then, it all seems to boil down to hormones, and whether or not our signals are telling us that the person in front of us is a desirable mate. Still, Russell contends that more research needs to be done in order to make any definitive conclusions. Certain brands of birth control, for instance, may be a confounding factor, Russell said. “Previous research suggests that estrogen partially accounts for women’s preferences for specific qualities in their partners, and vary in the amount of estrogen they contain. It’s possible that the effects we found may be stronger or weaker depending on the amount of estrogen in a particular formulation.”

Before you make any big decisions about your birth control usage, therefore, it’s important to recognize that there are always multiple issues at play. Hormones are a tricky business, and they’re always in flux, so it’s going to take a lot of research before pinpointing birth control as an impetus for attraction (or lack thereof). The important thing is to do your research in the meantime and figure out what option is right for you. Russell takes care to note, for instance, that hers is simply one of the many studies out there. “Any drug that you take, people want to be informed consumers. This is just one factor women might want to consider when deciding whether or not to use them.”

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And for many women, there are more important things to consider than attraction, such as a decrease in migraines, cramps, or, most importantly, the security of being able to have a child when and if the time is right. But no matter what the reason may be, or what new studies might find, the decision to use birth control will always be yours and yours alone.

Image: Fotolia

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The post-wedding period is typically the most popular time for women to stop taking birth control. For most, it’s in hopes of starting a family. For me, it was to save my marriage.

Since meeting my husband four years previously, I had tried three different types of oral contraceptive — and each had side effects that put a tremendous strain on our relationship.

The first pill made me bleed profusely every time we had sex. The second caused me to become jealous and paranoid. We argued — loudly, intensely, emotionally, and often in public. My self-esteem was rock bottom and I lashed out at any perceived slight. The third option was just the final shovel of dirt on my already well-buried libido.

The Pill had driven a wedge between us. I found it was hard to discern my true feelings from those driven by its impact. And we were both exhausted by the cycle of melodrama. I knew this relationship wasn’t going to work if nothing changed.

So, in 2009, after being married for six months, I decided to ditch them completely. That decision saved my marriage.

Now, when I come across articles with various tips about how to improve your relationship, I can’t help but think some of them could be as simple as “step one: ditch the Pill.”

Here are the five ways I found that going off of hormonal birth control improved my own marriage:

1. I feel more present and in control of my emotions.

The psychological side effects of the Pill made me feel both detached from my husband, and attached to what I perceived as insurmountable problems.

Coming off the Pill was like reconnecting with my husband and the world around me at large. Everything seemed to look brighter, smell sweeter, feel better and seem more real.

I’m also free of the cycle of obsessive negative thinking. Disagreements, when they rarely come up, are quickly resolved. I feel a wider range of emotions and feel them more strongly — but they’re more feelings of happiness, bliss, joy, and excitement.

Of the 30% of women who stop using the Pill because of their dissatisfaction with it, the most commonly cited reason is the side effects, namely, a negative change in their mood.

In fact, research has shown that women on the Pill are almost twice as likely to be depressed as those who aren’t. The combination of suppressed hormones, vitamin deficiency, and poor gut health often created by the Pill can be the perfect storm for psychological issues.

2. Choosing a new method strengthened our relationship.

When I came to realize the birth control pill was causing psychological and physical side effects, it was my husband who first encouraged me to write about it. He didn’t expect me to keep taking the pills. He didn’t resent me for everything they’d put us through. And he was happy to use condoms until I figured out what came next.

As we weren’t ready for a baby, we had to find another way stop that from happening too soon. Talking through this decision and deciding to take shared responsibility brought us closer.

In the end, I decided to learn fertility awareness and after trying a range of methodologies, I picked a fertility monitor called Daysy last year. Each morning, when I wake up, I use the device to take my basal body temperature (which changes when you ovulate). It then displays a red or green light to indicate whether I am fertile or infertile. I find it keeps things easy, spontaneous and stress-free. Now my husband gets to ask me, “red or green?” My unique fertility has become a sexy secret that we share.

And the support he showed during this process made me understand how much he cared for my well-being.

3. I found creative fulfillment outside of my relationship.

As a writer, I found the birth control pill sapped my creativity. After I’d been on the Pill for a few years, it became incredibly hard to think with any clarity, let alone transfer those thoughts to the blank page. I found it harder and harder to express my thoughts. I experienced brain fog. Writing was like walking through thick mud.

It’s telling, I feel, that once I was off the Pill I immediately began a daily blog that then became several articles in major publications, a book proposal, a published book and then the inspiration for a documentary, all in the space of a few years.

This work gave me a passion, a place of fulfillment, and a vocation. And a healthy relationship requires independent growth as much as paired progress.

4. Body literacy gave us intimacy.

Instead of keeping the burden of pregnancy prevention solely on me, learning about fertility awareness allowed my husband and I to share the responsibility — a far more respectful and loving situation.

And knowing that I’m only fertile for a relatively short time during my monthly cycle alleviated so much of the fear and anxiety around sex, for both of us. No more unplanned pregnancy panics or concerns about condom mishaps. My fertility device is like a helpful mediator in this journey — it’s not on me alone to track and interpret my fertile signs, and it makes the conversation about where I am in my cycle simple and fun.

My fertile window is when I am most physically attracted to my husband and being aware of this has kept things fresh ten years into our relationship.

5. I know I love my husband with the “Pill goggles” off.

Research shows that the birth control pill can affect who you are attracted to — it’s all down to changes in the pheromones we give off when we’re fertile and ovulating and how these are suppressed by hormonal contraceptives.

When I’m interviewed about my book, I’m often asked if coming off the Pill ruined my relationship, since there have been suggestions that some women find their partner less attractive when they stop taking the Pill. “No,” I say, “I’m happily married!”

Doctors like Julie Holland (who wrote “Moody Bitches,” about the impact of hormones on our mental health) have recommended women come off the Pill before making a long-term commitment to their partner to see if they still like them with the Pill goggles off.

I’m glad to say coming off the Pill didn’t end my relationship — in fact, it actually improved my marriage.

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In September, a Danish study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that women who use hormonal contraceptives are more likely to be officially diagnosed with depression, or to use anti-depressants.

My reaction? Duh.

I was in my 20s when I started using oral contraception. I had gotten pregnant at 18, and at 19, delivered a beautiful, healthy baby boy. As a single teenage mother working and attending college, I was terrified of getting pregnant again, so despite my fear of the unknown effects of hormonal birth control, I opted for the pill.

My gynecologist was a cheerful, overly friendly man with cul-de-sac hair recession and a red sports car. “You will love this!” he mansplained to me while writing my prescription. “It’s going to allow you to have all the sex you want with no negatives, and no babies.” Sounded great to me.

Hormones have incredible, awe-inspiring powers: They can spiral DNA into a brand new human being. They can cause the breakdown of your entire reproductive tract. They can cause cancer, produce cysts, and ferment like a witches brew. Hormonal birth control works by altering these hormones. It delivers synthetic progestin and estrogen throughout the body, preventing a woman’s ovaries from ovulating. Without an egg, there can be no pregnancy. The hormones also alter the cervical mucous, making it more difficult for sperm to traverse the cervix and womb on their way to the fallopian tubes and into the ovaries.

A few weeks after starting the pill, my body started to feel strange. I felt hyper, and I had sweeping sensations down my arms and legs, as if every cell was overtuned and vibrating. I also started having sudden and inexplicable mood swings. I would be stable and calm one minute, and depressed and frustrated the next.

At first, I shrugged it off as stress. But over a few weeks, my symptoms intensified. My mood swings appeared out of the blue and disappeared just as mysteriously. I would burst into tears in the time it took to open my door and step outside. I would be overwhelmed with feelings of intense despair and hopelessness, only to be pulled back into a more manageable, dull sadness.

After a few months of this madness, I was desperate for some sanity. So I went off the pill. A week later, I felt like myself again: a bit anxious and neurotic, but happy-ish, and only overwhelmed with despair when there was reason to feel so. For the next few years, I stayed away from hormonal contraception, opting instead for condoms. When I went back to that same gynecologist, he mentioned I might want to try something called Depo-Provera. “You could just get a shot in your arm,” he said, eyebrows waggling cheerfully. “BOOM! You’re good to go.”

I was young, sexually active, and I really, really didn’t want another unplanned pregnancy. So I decided to give it a try.

The shot was administered in my upper arm, and it hurt enough for my eyes to glisten, but it was over quickly. And just like that, I went from worrying daily about birth control to having to think about it just once every few months. I was elated.

But then, I started to cry.

I am a person who cries somewhat regularly. I think crying is healthy, and I feel deeply. But on Depo-Provera, I cried every day over the smallest of transgressions. If a person bumped into me at the local Starbucks and didn’t acknowledge my existence? Tears. A little boy who misses his mom at school? Big gulps. Tiny sparkles of light and long shadows over the face of my love? Waterworks. A raccoon scrounging for food in the suburban bushes? Even this had me bawling.

The tears were followed by something even more traumatizing: My hair started falling out. In the shower, I’d run my fingers through my locks and find my hands covered in hair. My bathroom sink clogged. Was I sick? I was certainly afraid.

At the urging of my concerned mother, I decided to finally do some long-overdue research. I connected the dots: Hormonal birth control was screwing with my body — and my mind. When my roommate, who was also on Depo-Provera, pulled me aside one day to reveal a tangerine sized bald spot in the thick of her glorious, dark hair, that was it. Since then, I’ve gone off hormonal birth control for good. It wasn’t worth my sanity (or my hairline).

Going off of all hormonal birth control was the best choice for me. It wasn’t ideal when it came to actually preventing pregnancy — a few years after I quit the pill, I was pregnant again with a beautiful baby girl — but it was the right decision for my physical and mental health, both short- and long-term. And I know that when it comes time to talk with my kids about safe sex and pregnancy prevention, I will explain why hormonal birth control might not be a good idea, and advocate for other forms of contraception.

Birth control not attracted to boyfriend

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