A new study has furthered the understanding of the impact birth-control pills have on women’s stress hormone levels in connection with social activity.

While the link between birth-control pills and stress responses is already well-known, a new study set out to investigate the impact of the pill on the stress hormone ACTH in the context of social activity.

A team from Aarhus University in Denmark, along with researchers from the United States, examined the stress responses of 131 young women as they had a blood sample taken. The group was made up of some women who were on birth-control pills and some who were not.

As socialising is one of the best ways of reducing stress, the women then spent 15 minutes taking part in activities together, which included singing and playing board games.

The researchers found that the social activity lowered the stress hormone level of women who are not on the pill, in the 15 minutes following their blood sample being taken. Those who are on birth-control pills did not experience a lowering of their stress hormone levels.

The study’s last author, Michael Winterdahl, is a visiting scholar at the Translational Neuropsychiatry Unit at the Department of Clinical Medicine. He said: “Being with other people is one of the most effective ways of reducing stress. Our results are really important because they indicate that people who use birth-control pills do not experience the same reduced stress hormone levels in connection with social activity as people who do not use the pill.”

He went on to say: “By studying ACTH levels, we take another step towards understanding how the brain regulates stress as ACTH acts as a neurotransmitter from the brain to the adrenal cortex, which produces cortisol.

“When we analyse ACTH levels, we can gain insight into the quick-response mechanism that controls the body’s reaction to stress.

“There are several competing hypotheses that try to explain the lower cortisol levels in people who use birth-control pills. Our research has pushed us closer to an explanation that centres on the brain and the ACTH dynamics.

“The biochemistry is complex, but we are working based on the assumption that birth-control pills can suppress the body’s own production of progesterone.”

Progesterone is broken down into allopregnanolone, another hormone which is responsible for a range of calming effects and influences the stress response.

The study also showed how the stage a woman is at in her menstrual cycle can have an effect too.

The social activity had no effect on the stress hormone levels of the women whose period had just finished. This is the proliferative phase and is when the body starts to produce hormones to get ovulation going.

The study team said more research is needed to gain a better understanding of the relationship between hormone levels and the body’s stress response.

Read the study in Behavioural Brain Research.

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