Dr. Sarah Hill (@sarahehillphd) is a leading researcher in the dynamic and rapidly expanding field of evolutionary psychology, and the author of This Is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended Consequences.
What We Discuss with Dr. Sarah Hill:
- How hormonal birth control affects women — and the world around them — in ways we are just now beginning to understand.
- Why a woman will be attracted to a certain partner while taking hormonal birth control — and the problems this could cause for a relationship when she stops taking it.
- On a hormonal contraceptive, a woman is twice as likely to have attempted suicide as a woman who was not on a hormonal contraceptive.
- Why, in spite of its drawbacks, Sarah credits the pill to her own ability to achieve a doctorate and career success.
- Why these new findings should be a rallying cry for women to demand more information from science about how their bodies and brains work and to advocate for better research.
- And much more…
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If you happened to catch our recent episode with Dr. Jolene Brighten, you already know that, for all of their positives, hormonal birth control pills come with a hefty assortment of negatives that affect not only a woman’s reproductive system, but her entire body. Science is only now giving these effects the attention they deserve, but one thing is clear: we’ve still got a lot more to learn.
On this episode we gain perspective from someone on the pioneering edge of this research — and author of This Is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended Consequences — Dr. Sarah Hill. Here, we’ll discuss what hormonal birth control has made possible for women of the world since its introduction as well as its potentially dark consequences. As Sarah herself has said, she is not anti-birth control — she is pro-woman. We hope this episode will empower the women in our audience to make informed choices about hormonal birth control that will serve them well.
Please Scroll down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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THANKS, DR. SARAH HILL!
If you enjoyed this session with Dr. Sarah Hill, let her know by clicking on the link below and sending her a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- This Is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended Consequences by Sarah E. Hill, PhD
- Dr. Sarah Hill’s Website
- Dr. Sarah Hill at Instagram
- Dr. Sarah Hill at Facebook
- Dr. Sarah Hill at Twitter
- Jolene Brighten | Finding Balance Beyond the Pill, TJHS 259
Transcript for Sarah Hill | This Is Your Brain on Birth Control (Episode 280)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:03] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. As always, I'm here with producer Jason DeFillippo. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most brilliant and interesting people, and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you.
[00:00:20] We want to help you see the Matrix when it comes to how these amazing people think and behave and help you become a better thinker as well. If you're new to the show, we've got episodes with spies and CEOs, athletes and authors, thinkers and performers as well as toolbox episodes for things like negotiation, public speaking, body language, persuasion, and more. So, if you're smart and you'd like to learn and improve, then he'll be right at home here with us.
[00:00:41] Today on the show, Dr. Sarah Hill. Birth control and hormones such a fascinating subject. The birth control pills, hormones go all over your body. So they affect everything -- your immune system, your hair, your mood, anxiety, et cetera. There are some extreme side effects when it comes to this. If you're taking the birth control pill just to not get pregnant, well, it's like dropping a bomb on your house to blow out a candle. It'll do the job, but it won't only do that job. Today, we're going to learn why you should not choose a life partner or make big decisions while on the pill and what to do instead, how to defend yourself against depression or other mood issues that might be caused by the pill and other hormonal stuff, why and how to take breaks from the birth control pill and when it's time to give your body and your mind a break. Guys, this is for you too. If there are any women in your life, anywhere who might be affected by this, then it affects you too. And besides, you can't tell me this stuff is not absolutely fascinating. I really hope you all enjoyed this episode as much as I enjoyed recording it.
[00:01:35] And if you want to know how I managed to find all these amazing people, I find them through my network. Check out our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. It's great for business, it's great for personal, and it's great for not being that guy who has to call in two years and go, "Hey, I know we haven't talked, but I need a job." Trust me this will change the game for you, and it takes a few minutes a day, jordanharbinger.com/course. By the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribe to the course and the newsletter. So, come join us and you'll be in great company. In the meantime, here's Dr. Sarah Hill.
[00:02:09] The pill changes us because it changes the version of our personality that we express, and it's funny how obvious that seems to be after having read it, but then when you think about the birth control pill -- I don't take it obviously but I would say that most people who take it think, "It switches your ovaries off. I'm good. It just does something down there and we're all set." We don't think this changes my entire body's hormone profile. Therefore all my behavior, therefore my personality, therefore all of the things that make me –or if I'm taking the birth control pill which I never have -- if I'm a female, I'm taking this, all the things that make me, me are now getting like the dials are coming in and getting messed up by this, and we're not necessarily cognizant of that.
Sarah Hill: [00:02:48] Right. Actually, I'm a psychologist and I've spent my career studying women and even studying the effects of women's sex hormones on motivation and who they're attracted to and their sense of self. I still had a blind spot with the birth control pill. I was on it for more than a decade, and during that time I was studying women and the things that make them tick including their hormones, and I never put two and two together, which was a really embarrassing place to be. But I think it goes to show that for many of us, we just don't really think about it. Because we're taking it for this one set of reasons, we never think about the fact that, "Oh yeah, I'm taking sex hormones," and sex hormones have their fingers in so many pots in the body that they're going to be influencing systems ranging from our circulatory system to our immune system, and hugely our brain because there's probably no place in the body that has more receptors for sex hormones than the brain.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:53] That of course, makes sense and you're telling your own story through the book, which I think is kind of cool, brave thing to do. This isn't a medical text, but a lot of books about this stuff -- I don't know what it is -- but sometimes the author's like, "Ooh, I don't want to talk about my own stuff. It's a little too vulnerable. Let me speak in these sorts of weird generalities." And it makes it harder to relate to it. As a man reading a book about birth control and female sex hormones, it's already a little tough for me to kind of put myself in those shoes, so I appreciated the way that you wrote that and the way that you were really open about all of that. There's a piece in the beginning where you say, "Look, I went off the pill. I suddenly had more energy. I started doing more hobbies." Things you had, I guess, probably abandoned a few years before. You felt more alive and you said it was like walking out of black and white into color or something along those lines. And I thought, wow, that is a really dramatic difference. It's not just like, "Oh, I'm sort of more cheerful or I want to go out more." It's like a completely different way of looking at the world.
Sarah Hill: [00:04:48] Yeah. It really felt that way. I felt like I woke up and it was funny because it was about three or so months after I had gone off of the pill and I was in the car. I still remember this moment because over the course of that three months, I had begun to feel like I had more energy. Things just seem more exciting. Like life just felt exciting. It felt like there was like opportunity kind of, you know, around any corner. And I just felt energized and alive. It was like, as I wrote in the book, I started exercising again. I was like noticing men. And it was just like, I just felt invigorated and I thought that I had outgrown those things. I went on the pill end of high school or early college and during that time, of course, your life is changing in a lot of different ways. And I had assumed that I was maturing out of exercise or maturing out of noticing men or maturing out of having energy and just kind of feeling spunky. Then flash forward three months after going off of it after I had been on it for more than a decade and I was in the car with my husband and we were driving home from dinner. Again, this is after I had this experience of listening to music again and going to the gym again. I remember I looked over at him and I said, "I feel like getting into trouble." And he was like, "What does that mean?" And I said, "I have no idea."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:22] That's funny. So it's almost like you got younger and also he was probably like, "This is the best night of my life."
Sarah Hill: [00:06:28] Like let's tear it up. Like I don't know what you have in mind, but let's go and do all of those things. It was, it was like, I felt like myself again, like this person that I was before. And again, I thought that I had just matured out of these things that I just no longer felt it necessary to listen to music or to go to the gym or to feel feminine and sexy and like in tune with the sort of those parts of my personality. And then to have it all back, it just really changed my view of things and especially my view of the birth control pill that I was on.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:04] Yeah, I'm just putting myself in his shoes for a second. That's a lot of pressure. Like you're driving home, you're kind of full. You're not really sure what's going to happen. You're looking forward to climbing in bed and your wife is like, "Hey. Once in a lifetime chance to probably get me to do something that I should know better than to do." And he's like, "Well, let's go to Starbucks and get some coffee. It's going to be a long night." That's really funny. And you hear things -- this is outside of what you've written, so if I get outside of it, stop me here. But I see friends of mine who take testosterone replacement therapy. They're getting these shots either because of a medical issue or because they're 55 and they have income that they are happy to part with it, and they kind of report the same thing. They're like it's like college again or it's like my late 20s again. I mean, they're just really, really different people and they're like, "Yeah, I think I want to get into boxing." And I'm like, "Who are you? You played bridge last week and now you want to start boxing. Who are you?" It does change so much about you and we don't think of the birth control pill as kind of the anabolic steroids for women, in a way. I know that's not an exact comparison, but it's got to be somewhat apt.
Sarah Hill: [00:08:05] Well, yeah, and it's so funny that you said this. I actually just had a conversation today with a friend of mine who's a man, who's on testosterone therapy, and he said when he was reading my book, he felt exactly the same way. That's just really funny that I just had this conversation not more than two hours ago. So with the pill is almost, in some ways, you can think of it as being like the anti-testosterone therapy, because essentially what it's doing is this suppressing women's sex hormones. It's like suppressing their levels of estrogen, progesterone, and also in a huge way testosterone. It's sort of almost like being a 55-year-old man and wanting to play bridge. We have these generations of women in their 20s who are doing this. And so for me, going off of it felt like I think very similar to what it feels like for men when they're doing testosterone therapy and they're being reintroduced to their sex hormones because our sex hormones are part of what gives us our joie de vivre. It's like part of what makes life exciting and it turns the volume up and makes our whites whiter and our brights brighter in terms of our experiences of the world.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:17] Right. Walking out of black and white and into color. In the note that I'll put on this, and I think you did put this in the book, but anabolic steroids -- you can't just roll into a pharmacy or go online -- well you can go online, of course, but you can't go on Amazon or some pharmacy website and be like, "Oh, I'm going to grab a bunch of this stuff." Or like, "Hey, my friend told me that he's doing it, so I'm just going to go grab some of these." I mean, you're injecting these, they're super controlled. They're highly illegal without a prescription. And the birth control pill -- I mean, there are 14-year-old girls whose moms are like, "Yeah, I don't know. I can't keep an eye on her all the time, so let's just go get this crazy life, brain-altering drug and give it to her in the middle of this time in her life when her brain is changing and her preferences are changing. Her body is changing, but no, let's medicate her every single day of this artificial stuff. What could go wrong?"
Sarah Hill: [00:10:05] Yeah, exactly. We've been really cavalier with women's hormones in a way that we haven't with men's, and you're right, it's like, it's very well illustrated by this paradox, where men are not allowed to be on anabolic steroids for a long period of time and they're illegal. That way men won't use them anyway. And with women, yeah, we start them very young sometimes when they're like 14 or 15 and sometimes it has nothing to do with even sex. Because pregnancy prevention in some cases -- because pregnancy prevention is so important in terms of women's ability to advance themselves and stay out of the poor house, I can understand even in some cases, if there are young girls who are engaging in a lot of sexual behavior and they're not being careful, that in some cases it still might make sense to give them the birth control pill while their brain is still developing. But most often, what I see as being the case with these young adolescent women is that they're going on the birth control pill for reasons that are far less sort of consequential in terms of the big picture. These women are going on it for things like clearing up their skin or trying to quote-unquote regulate their cycle or trying to make their menstrual cramps less painful. In some cases with all of the information being out there, this might still be the choice that women make. But I think that it goes to illustrate that we've been really, really cavalier about this sort of idea that we should change a person's personality and who they are and their experiences in the world, so that way they don't have menstrual cramps. I think that if we like actually like think about what hormones do and we'd like to take our blinders off to it, we might begin to treat this as a serious issue because this is a big deal.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:54] It is, and it's a little scary. When I was in college, I had a bunch of athlete friends and some of them were using anabolic steroids and things like that, and I remember hanging out with them and being like, "Guys, you know, you've got to take this seriously." And they're like, "We do, we research online. Look, our friend so-and-so, he's the guy who gives them to us and knows all this stuff about it." And I met that guy. Bear in mind, this is a drug dealer. Okay and he goes, "Yeah, you know, I will only let these guys stay on it for six weeks at a time or depending on the other stuff, 10 weeks at a time. That's all they can do for the next six months to a year. It really depends. We want blood markers." I'm like, this is a drug dealer in university who's doing this. But no, if you want the female variation, you just go, "Yeah, you know, I'm a little crampy," and they're like, "Here's a pill that you can take forever." "What kind of side effects?" "I don't know. Let me know if you have any other weird side effects. I don't know, you get massively depressed." All these things can happen. There's something wrong when the local drug dealer sells steroids to the football players at some university and is more careful than the doctors dishing out birth control pills. There's a big problem here.
Sarah Hill: [00:12:53] Yeah. It goes to show you just how disconnected we are from what the pill is really doing to like what it's being prescribed for. I think that we've all had as a culture this major blind spot because doctors are prescribing this. I think that most doctors aren't terrible people and that they care about the welfare of their patients, but this idea that we'll give women, especially when they're young and their brains are still developing and sex hormones, in addition to day-to-day things that they do when you're a grownup in terms of like fueling sexual desire and your feelings of being alive and other things. They also are head contractors in the remodeling project that goes on in your brain after puberty.
[00:13:39] We don't yet know from research whether or not taking the birth control pill during times of post-pubertal brain development time, which is still going on and pretty full effect up until you're 19 or 20 -- we don't yet know whether or not the birth control pill is influencing the way that women's brains are being organized. There's almost no research on this. When doctors will give this to these young girls whose brains are still developing and we don't know whether or not this has any impact on the way that their brains are being laid out and then allowing them to stay on it. I mean, now I've met women who've been on it for 20 years without stopping at all, and there's no research on that either. It's like nobody has really stopped to ask the questions. Part of what I wanted to do with this book, in addition to just highlighting what we know and we don't know, it's just to wake everybody up to this blind spot. Because I think it has been, the fact that I studied hormones and women's motivational systems for years and yet was on the pill and never put two and two together, and I'm not complete yet. I mean, I have my moments of being like having my head in the clouds, but I should have made this connection. I think that there's a lot of us who just haven't done that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:58] Yeah. It is a little surprising. Because I read the book and I went, all of this completely makes sense from everything I've ever studied about hormones, and I'm not a doctor or anything, but I think when you're taught that something does a specific thing, you don't necessarily go, "Oh, well how does it work?" Okay, what does that affect have on the rest of the endocrine system when you're like a GP or another kind of doctor?" And theoretically you should, but I mean, there's only so many hours in a day and you kind of look at all the other doctors, they're doing the same thing and you're a first-year, second-year physician, you're like, "Well, who am I to question all of this? I mean, nobody else seems to have a big deal going on here."
Sarah Hill: [00:15:29] Yeah, no, I completely agree. And even for me, once I had the epiphany and sort of recognize that, oh yeah, of course, of course taking the birth control pill was going to change what my brain was doing and totally changed the way that I was experiencing the world. It was like you said when you were reading the book, you were like, well, of course, of course, this happens. I had the same reaction to my own thoughts, like, wow, of course, the pill is going to change everything because it's changing your endocrine system, and that's like one of the major communication systems that creates the experience of being the person that you are. You're right I think that a lot of it has to do with -- you know, we take the pill for this very targeted reason. And so we just don't spend any time thinking about the other things that it's doing. Even as a psychologist and somebody who studies biological processes that influence motivation and our experiences in the world, it didn't occur to me. I'm hoping that with the book that it's really going to give people this sort of face-palm moment where they're like, "Of course, of course. This is what was going on. How stupid of me not was stupid of me not to have thought of this before," which was how I felt when it finally dawned on me that that was what was at hand in terms of the differences in the way that I had felt once I went off of it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:43] Let's get into some of the specifics on how this changes your body, your mind, your behavior. One of the first things that you discussed is that it messes up the cortisol response. What does that mean? I mean, we've heard of cortisol. It's the stress hormone. Don't I want to inhibit that? Does that mean I'll feel less stress? What's going on here? Why is cortisol important and why is messing it up a bad idea?
Sarah Hill: [00:17:02] Cortisol is kind of like the redheaded stepchild of hormones, and it's because cortisol is associated with stress. Most of us tend to think about cortisol as being a bad guy, but cortisol isn't what causes stress. Life is what causes stress. Like being stuck in horrible traffic or being rejected. These are the things that cause stress. And then like on the positive side, there's also like Christmas morning and falling in love also causes stress. Life is what causes stress. Cortisol is just they're trying to clean up the scene. Well, you know, cortisol rather than being sort of a bad guy is a hormone that gets released in your body because it actually helps our bodies cope with stress. It does this in a number of different ways. So like one thing that it does is it dumps fat and sugar into our bloodstream. So that way if we need to make a fast getaway from, you know, like lions or tigers that are chasing us, we can. It also primes our brains for learning and memory. So, it is associated with the birth of new neurons in the areas of our brains that are associated with long-term memory. So, it's basically flagging things as being important and moving them into our long-term memory, so that way if something similar happens again, we're ready for it. And we're better able to adapt with whatever stressful situations we're in right now, and then also that we're going to be encountering in the future.
[00:18:22] Cortisol actually does a number of things that help us cope with stress. The thing about cortisol and the way that it influences the way that we respond to stress is that because it's doing a lot of things to help our body cope with stress, it means that it's actually redistributing effort away from other things that our body is doing. Things like, for example, immune system, you know, sort of function and cell repair. Just day to day operations that our body has to do in order to like stay intact and be able to protect itself from germs and other things. The cortisol actually takes effort away from those things. Things like immune function and cell repair and that sort of thing, and directs them toward dealing with whatever a stressful situation is.
[00:19:05] And because of this, like cortisol is, it's a redistributor. It shows up when stress is going on and it takes energy away from these things and then directs it all toward dealing with stressful situations. But so cortisol, it's good. It plays this sort of broker role in our body when we're encountering stress. And so what I've found, and I learned about this at a research talk about something else altogether, was that women who are on hormonal contraceptives, rather than experiencing a big surge in the stress hormone, cortisol in response to stressful things, they don't have any increase in cortisol at all. And this is really surprising, because normally when we're feeling stressed out, within about five minutes of feeling stressed out, we get this huge surge in this stress hormone. And again, the reason for this is that it helps our bodies actually cope with stressful situations. But women on the pill don't have this.
[00:19:59] So when I learned about this, it surprised me for a lot of reasons. The first reason is just that this isn't normal. This isn't something that we see in otherwise healthy, high functioning people. In fact, this sort of a pattern of like not having a stress hormone response to something stressful is something that we usually only see in the context of chronic stress. So people who have, for example, PTSD or people who you know, grew up in the context of trauma. Those folks tend to not have a stress response in response to stressful situations. And the reason for this is all because of that thing that cortisol does, which is taking away energy from basic bodily functions and directing them towards stress. And so if you're somebody who has been in really chronically stressful situations across your whole lifetime, your body will just shut the stress response down because it needs to do that in order to be able to just do basic bodily maintenance, like repairing yourselves and investing in your immune function. I learned about this at this conference. Again, it's really surprising because the pattern that we see in women who are on the birth control pill looks a lot like the pattern that we see in people who have undergone chronic stress.
[00:21:15] And so, after I heard about this little research detail on that I heard about at this conference. I went into the literature to find out whether or not other people had also found this pattern, where women who are on hormonal contraceptives look a little bit like chronic stress victims when it comes to their stress hormone profile. What I found was that there's been several decades worth of research now that has documented this pattern.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:41] So essentially all this stuff was out there before. It was just in these high-level academic papers and people were writing about these studies and they weren't like, "Hey, we should tell all the doctors about all this stuff that we found." It's like, "Nah, let's just go to a conference and give a talk about it, give a couple of speeches and go back in the lab." It seems like there's a disconnect there because all of this stuff, all of these hormones, all this stress response, the hormone receptors are everywhere in our body and everywhere in our brain, and this is not a secret. I mean, this is well documented. It just somehow didn't filter down to the practice level.
Sarah Hill: [00:22:10] Right, well, even more than that, with this particular set of research results showing that women who are on the birth control pill are lacking this stress response, it mostly had been documented until very recently as a footnote in other studies. It was like somebody was doing a study on the effect of early life, low socioeconomic status on the nature of the stress response and so they do this study. They look at whether or not a person's childhood environment influences their stress hormone response when they stress them out in the lab. And "Oh, by the way, we did this study and we had to throw out all of the women because they were all on the pill and therefore had no stress response." And then they just go on with their results about the effects of early life, socioeconomic status. It was just like a footnote.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:58] And it's like, "Hey, you might want to look into that because of the fact that they couldn't even be used in the study because they lack this very necessary bodily process. Maybe someone should raise their hand and be like, "By the way, this is doing this."
Sarah Hill: [00:23:11] Yeah. Like, by the way, somebody might care about that. Like I'd like to know more about that and that was actually the experience I had at this conference when I first heard about it. And so the speaker was a friend of mine and I went up and talked to him afterward and said, "You know, I stopped listening after you mentioned your little, you know, sort of methodological footnote because that's so important and interesting." And he said, "Oh yeah, it is sort of interesting." And it turns out other people have found this too. We found when we went to the literature that several researchers find this effect, and that's when I went into the literature and was really surprised to learn that this is an effect that has been documented now for a very long time. It's only recently that researchers have begun to really get at why this is. And what's really sort of potentially important for women and for doctors to know, is that the picture that's beginning to unfold in terms of the reasons that women who are on the pill have this blunted stress hormone response is because it seems like something in the birth control pill is actually causing women's stress response to go into overdrive.
[00:24:22] So there was this one paper that came out very recently that was really well executed. They had two very large samples of women, and they compared women who are on the birth control pill with naturally cycling women, and they measured several markers of chronic stress. They measured whether or not they had a blunted stress response, which is something that, as I've noted, researchers have been noting with women on the pill for a long time now, but they also looked at other markers such as whether or not these women had elevated blood sugars and blood triglycerides. Because as I had mentioned earlier, one of the things that cortisol does is that it dumps fat and sugar into your bloodstream in case you need to make a fast getaway. They looked at whether pill-taking women might have elevated triglycerides and elevated glucose levels. They also looked at their brains because one thing that we know about chronic stress and chronic cortisol exposure is that it can lead to reduced hippocampal volume, and your hippocampus is an area of your brain that's really important in terms of learning and memory. And we actually see a lot of hippocampal degradation in diseases like Alzheimer's, for example, where you have these profound and very sad effects on memory. And these researchers were interested in whether or not women who are on the birth control pill might also exhibit some of these other signs of chronic stress, like having a reduced hippocampal volume, having elevated blood triglycerides, and also having this blunted stress response.
[00:25:54] And so they went in and they had these two large samples of women, and that's exactly what they found. They found that women who are on the birth control pill have several biological markers of having experienced chronic stress. And this is something that's a big deal and is a big deal because the hippocampal volume thing alone is potentially very important. I mean, these different measures that they took in this study are things that we tend to see only in people who have experienced like childhood trauma or people who have PTSD. There are things that we know can be associated with problems with emotion and mood regulation. We know that they can be associated with problems with learning and memory. There are some studies now demonstrating that women who are on the birth control pill may have problems remembering emotionally nuanced events. And this is something that we know that, for example, that cortisol helps our memories do. When we are experiencing the stress hormone cortisol, it helps grab things from our short-term memory and put it into our long-term memory. It's telling our brain that this is important. Remember this.
[00:27:04] And there's been research now indicating that women who are on the birth control pill, if you give them in a really emotional story, then you stress them out, they experience a big rise in cortisol that normally what they find is that women will remember this information better because it's emotional and cortisol is on the scene, and it filters it right into their long-term memories. But they're finding that women who are on the birth control pill don't have this result. This means that women's memories might be impaired in particular when it comes to their emotional memories. When I think about my own experiences on the birth control pill and just feeling like my life felt flat, I can't help but think that lacking these dynamic changes in the stress hormone cortisol and its ability to allow us to grab on to the emotionally valence things in our environment, both positive and negative and that might've been at least partially responsible for some of the feelings of just feeling the low-level blahs all the time.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:28:03] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest, Dr. Sarah Hill. We'll be right back.
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[00:31:35] Thanks for listening and supporting the show and to learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard from our amazing sponsors, visit jordanharbinger.com/deals. Don't forget we have a worksheet for today's episode so you can make sure you solidify your understanding of the key takeaways from Dr. Hill. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. If you'd like some tips on how to subscribe to the show, just go to jordanharbinger.com/subscribe. Subscribing to the show is absolutely free. It just means that you get all of the latest episodes downloaded automatically to your podcast player, so you don't miss a single thing. And now back to our show with Dr. Sarah Hill.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:09] Yeah, that's horrible actually, because you don't think, "Oh, this is going to contribute to problems with my memory. Problems with the way that I view my life, the story arc of my life, kind of." Not to put too dramatic a spin on it, but who are we if not for these like events that we remember and feel a certain way about. If those are all blunted -- I can imagine somebody going, "Well, on my wedding day and I'm remembering it was like, eh. In my child's birth, and it's like, eh." That's not good for you looking at your future and thinking, but I'm going to have this bright future. It could make you pretty depressed, I think.
Sarah Hill: [00:32:45] No, I think for sure, and you know, so it was not like terribly surprising then when you look at the patterns of things like the risk of depression among women who are on the birth control pill. It's not surprising at all when we really consider the fact that in addition to some of the other things that we know that the birth control pill does in terms of changing what women's sex hormones are doing and changing the activities of some of their neurotransmitter systems, which we might talk about at some point too, but that it's also changing our stress hormone profile in a way that makes us less able to embed our life. It's really not surprising that women sometimes have problems with mood on the birth control pill.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:25] I want to talk about some of this reproductive stuff, evolutionary psychology, because I know you have so much interesting material in the book about that as well. So parental investment is higher for women than men, right?
Sarah Hill: [00:33:35] Yes.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:35] We kind of are there for a certain period of time in terms of gestation of the baby, and then she's got nine-plus months, and then -- what do you call it, the fourth trimester? The first three months of birth, and then, I don't know, the next several years. We found also that children who look more like their fathers tend to get more investment from dad, and I guess that's because what if it looks like me, then I'm more certain that it's mine. I don't know.
Sarah Hill: [00:33:54] Yeah, no, that's so funny. Yeah, so in the beginning of the book, when I'm really just laying out like what is a woman biologically like what does it mean to be a woman. Part of asking that question means what does that mean to be different from men. Why are men and women different from one another? And I addressed this using, you know, an evolutionary biological perspective and that is that a lot of the differences that we see between men and women ultimately owe themselves to the fact that each one of us has had to solve different sets of adaptive problems over the course of evolutionary history.
[00:34:27] For women, we've had to solve some adaptive challenges or some survival and reproductive challenges that have to do with being the sex that has to invest a minimum of nine months in pregnancy. This is the reason, for example, that we see that women tend to be more cautious in terms of sexual partners than are men. Because the costs of making a bad mating decision, especially historically before we had contraception are much more steep for women than they are for men. And to get to this issue that you were talking about with the faces of babies as being evaluated by men, one set of adaptive challenges that men have had to solve over the course of evolutionary history that women have not has been this problem of what's known as paternity uncertainty. And it's just this idea that anytime a woman has a baby, she knows for certain that it's related to her. No woman has ever had a child and looked at it and thought, I don't know. I don't know Jim. What have you been up to for the last couple of years? But for men, you know, there's always a chance that when your partner has a child that is not actually yours. And all of this means is that for men and women, there's been sort of differences in the degree to which evolution by selection has penalized unmitigated love and care of children. For women, we're investing really heavily in any child that that is theirs. Evolution by selection has never penalized that that is, has never been costly for women to invest like crazy, and just like do all the jamboree classes and spend all their time with this baby, and do all of those things. There's no selection that has never penalized that because it's always a woman taking her energies and investing them in a genetic relative and those are the types of things that tend to get rewarded in terms of gene transmission, which is ultimately how traits get inherited and how the process of evolution by selection works
[00:36:26] For men, however, men, you know, would have been penalized in some cases if they just sort of through unmitigated love, devotion of resources toward any child that their partner has. I mean this, of course, is because there's always a chance any child that a man's partner has isn't actually biologically his. There's always the possibility that it might actually belong to somebody else. Because of this, just because this is a possibility. Not saying that this happens with terrible, alarming frequency, but because this is something that sometimes has happened over the course of evolutionary history. Men have been favored by the process of selection, not to just like dump all of their resources with wild abandon into any child that's theirs, but instead to just be sensitive to cues of relatedness. Some cues that men might use as a means of assessing relatedness to a biological child of theirs is the behavior of their partner. Is their partner somebody who has a reputation of not being faithful? If so, maybe they would invest less than a child that she has because you know there's a higher probability that the child is not biologically related to him given his partner's past behavior. Another cue is the actual physical appearance of the child. This is the research that you were alluding to. This idea that men may unconsciously cue into physical similarity between themselves and their children. And then may invest more heavily in children that are more certainly related to themselves. So, children who look phenotypically more similar to themselves, they may invest more heavily in children who do not phenotypically resemble them.
[00:38:09] And there's been a couple of different studies now that have found this to be true, whether looking at it cross-sectionally and actually looking at dads and moms and then their physical resemblance to their children. And these studies find that fathers and children report more emotional closeness to one another when they resemble each other more than they do when they resemble each other less. And that you don't find this pattern for moms and their children. They've also done it experimentally where they've like actually taken faces of babies and then morphed in like his own face into the face of the baby and then shown, you know, men, these pictures of these babies and then asking them, which one would you like to adopt? Which one would you like to invest in and so on and so forth? And men overwhelmingly favor the baby that has had their own face morphed into the photograph, so the baby kind of looks like them. Whereas women don't show that same bias. Women pick at random which baby they liked the best, which just goes to show that men's brains are kind of cued in to similarity in the face of children and that this might allow them to let off the brakes in terms of investment investing more heavily in children that are more certainly theirs.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:21] Yeah. Wow. This is interesting. One other fascinating little tidbit was that men's testosterone levels go up and down in these seemingly fickle ways. You mentioned that if we see some women or our team wins in sports or politics, or we're around weapons that our testosterone levels go up. That's funny. I'm thinking like, okay, so on the way out, next time I'm going to vote, watch a basketball game and then polish my rifle. I don't know.
Sarah Hill: [00:39:45] Exactly and the girls will be like, "Mmm, there's nothing about him."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:50] Right, exactly. Yeah. Stopped by the strip club and then polish the rifles. I don't know. You got to get to work the women in there somehow. It seems really funny because it's so obvious somehow. It's such a blunt instrument seemingly like, "Oh, you guys are so simple. All you need to do is see some women, go see a sports game, or beat someone in some other way, and then like shoot something." I mean that just checks out at every level.
Sarah Hill: [00:40:14] It's so funny because women are always pegged as beingthe fickle, unpredictable ones because our sex hormones changed cyclical and women's sex hormones do change cyclically when they're naturally cycling with estrogen being the dominant sex hormone in the first half of the cycle. So usually, you know, between days zero and date 14 or so, estrogen is dominant and then at the second half of the cycle, progesterone is dominant. Historically we were treated very badly because it was seen that you couldn't predict what women were going to do because our sex hormones were changing all the time.
[00:40:50] But the point with testosterone that I make in the book is women's sex hormones do change cyclically, but they're not capricious and fickle at all. They're actually incredibly predictable. And if you tell me a woman's age and the first day of her last menstrual cycle, I can predict with a remarkable degree of accuracy exactly what's going on with her sex hormones. But for men with testosterone, it's like a totally different ballgame. It's like the wild west men's testosterone levels change all the time. Like you were saying, it may change if they see a beautiful woman. They'll increase after sports win. It'll decrease after a sports loss. It'll increase after your team wins, it'll decrease after your team loses. If your political candidate wins, it'll go up. And it also changes in response to being partnered in having children in, in both of those contexts that actually decreases. And we tend to think about our changing sex hormones as being something that makes us irrational and fickle and we can kind of laugh about it when we think about these things with men and under the presence of guns, but the idea that our sex hormones are responding dynamically.
[00:41:56] For women, these internal cues of conception risk and with men in response to things that increase or decrease the benefits that are associated with investing effort in mating related pursuits. Our hormones are brilliant and they actually lead us to behave in these ways that are really functional given our environment and our bodily context. And so with men, they testosterone, for example, it decreases when they have children and they get married because those are context in which it is not beneficial to most men to be like distracted by how attractive their next-door neighbor. During those times, they need to be reading Goodnight Moon and changing diapers, or they need to be helping make their partner happy if they're trying to maintain the integrity of their long-term pair bond. And so as our sex hormones change -- and both men and women have sex hormones that change -- as they change, they do change what we think, feel and do, but this is a good thing. It's not a bad thing. It doesn't make us capricious and whimsy quality. It allows us to better adapt to our environments and to be able to meet each one of our evolutionary endpoints in a really coordinated, really smart way.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:11] Can you give us a little bit of an overview of how during different times in a woman's cycle, she's looking for different qualities in men and also of course, how that changes mate preference because. If you're messing with that now you're messing with your mate preferences and then suddenly you go off the pill because you want to have kids and it's like, "What the hell?"
Sarah Hill: [00:43:30] Yeah, it's exactly, it's like what did I do? What did I do?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:33] I made a terrible mistake.
Sarah Hill: [00:43:34] Yeah, exactly. So women's sex hormones are, it's really fascinating and this is something that researchers have really kind of dived into over the last couple of decades, and this is just that idea that women during the first half of the ovulatory cycle or the menstrual cycle -- this is when an ag is beginning to mature, and this is all the stuff we learned in health class as the egg follicles are being stimulated and there is an egg that's growing and maturing. This process leads to the release of relatively high levels of estrogen. And estrogen increases as a woman nears closer to ovulation and just as a reminder, ovulation is when a woman's body releases an egg that can then, of course, be fertilized and turn into a baby. And this is, of course, something that evolution by selection has worked really closely with, given that the whole process is driven by the act of reproduction and gene transmission. During times in the cycle when estrogen is relatively high, so this is during those times prior to ovulation, in particular, right near ovulation, so like five or so days prior to ovulation, which is known as the periovulatory phase of the cycle. This is when estrogen levels are relatively high. This is when your body is gearing up for the possibility of conception. And so the sex hormone, estrogen actually cues a whole string of events in our brain that are basically getting women ready to have sex with a potentially really high-quality partner because this is the time in the cycle when conception is possible. And so what the research finds -- what it predicted, I guess first, and then of course, what they have found once they've collected data -- is that given that estrogen levels are relatively high at points in the cycle, when conception risk is high, we should expect that A, it should increase women's desire for sex because an egg isn't going to be able to fertilize itself and so women should be really attuned to activities that might get sperm within proximity of the egg. Women should be more --
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:43] That was a very diplomatic way of putting it.
Sarah Hill: [00:45:47] Yeah, that's what I used to tell my mom when I was about to go out and it would usually keep me from having to be home early, but it's like if --
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:55] Wait. You told your mom, "I'm ovulating, so I need to go and increase activities that -- " Wait, what did you tell your mom?
Sarah Hill: [00:46:01] You might just want to cut that part from the --
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:03] I'm not sure. I think we're leaving that in.
Sarah Hill: [00:46:05] I like my scientific jargon that I was trying to use to get myself out of an early curfew, and then my mom would be like, "No, Sarah, that's disgusting, disgusting. You're coming home early and change your clothes."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:19] Right. You're not wearing that.
Sarah Hill: [00:46:21] Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So, you know, during points in the cycle when conception is possible, estrogen is relatively high and it increases women's desire for sex. It increases their attunement to men generally. Women notice men more when estrogen is relatively high, and at this time when estrogen is high, women are also really attuned to what I'm going to call sexiness cues. At high fertility, women tend to place a greater emphasis on cues that historically have been associated with the sex hormone testosterone in men. Things like a man with a deep voice, like a relatively deeper set eyes, a square jaw, broad shoulders, social dominance. Those types of cues are found particularly sexy to women at high fertility when estrogen is high relative to other points in the cycle. And there's been some really neat research where they've actually looked at a woman's own estrogen levels across the cycle and how that predicts their preference for testosterone markers in men. And what you can find is that, or what you see with this research is that estrogen levels predict the testosterone levels that women prefer in men, and just basically showing that estrogen really likes these manly cues in men. And the idea behind this is that testosterone is believed to be a quote-unquote good genes marker. And what this means is just that testosterone has been historically linked to having a relatively low mutation load and having a relatively good immune system. The idea behind this is just that testosterone is a known immune suppressive. So, if you take exogenous testosterone or guys who are taking steroids, for example, it actually suppresses the activities of your immune system and naturally, your body will not allow itself to produce copious amounts of testosterone unless its immune system can handle it. This is one of the reasons that testosterone is linked to a high genetic quality or believe to be a cue to high genetic quality is just because only a man who has a relatively good immune system, only his body is going to be producing copious amounts of testosterone, because he's the only one who can really afford it immunologically. And so what the research finds is that at high fertility, women tend to have a heightened preference for these sorts of cues to masculinity and sexiness in their partners and that this goes away once estrogen is no longer the dominant sex hormone.
[00:48:56] And so with the birth control pill, of course, what the birth control pill does is it suppresses women's own levels of sex hormones, so it keeps estrogen and progesterone relatively low. Every day you're taking this pill that has a relatively high level of synthetic progesterone or progestins relative to estrogen. So what this means is that when you're taking the birth control pill, you're basically kept in a consistent state of progesterone or progestin in this case, dominance. So, you're never having that opportunity for estrogen to kind of take over the reins and sort of cue into these types of testosterone markers. What researchers predicted might happen to women on the birth control pill is that they might actually exhibit a preference for less masculine men relative to what is observed among naturally cycling women. Researchers have gone out and tested this both by looking at the preferences for male faces of pill-taking compared to non-pill-taking women, but also looking at the faces of partners that were chosen by women who are either on or off of the birth control pill. And in both cases what they found is that women who are on the birth control pill, not only do they prefer a less masculine male face, and this is true whether they're choosing this face as a short-term sexual partner or a long-term committed romantic partner, but they also seem to be choosing partners, men with less masculine faces. When they compared the faces of partners who were chosen by a large sample of women who are on the birth control pill compared to a large sample of women who were naturally cycling the faces of the naturally cycling women's partners were more masculine than those that the birth control pill-taking women's partners.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:48] What does this do then to our long-term versus short-term mating strategies? What does it do to women's mating strategies? Because a guy can't really do much about that, but maybe you can let your five o'clock shadow out a little bit. But like what does this do? Because it seems like then, "Okay great. I'm on the pill. I'm looking for this nice less masculine guy because that's what the pill is telling my brain it wants. I get married. I want to have a baby, I go off the pill and I'm like ‘Where are your cheekbones man? Where's your jawline? What happened? You don't look like the guy I was dating in college. What was I thinking?'" Right. Hopefully, you find out earlier or hopefully, you can adapt, but it seems like kind of dangerous, not good for your marriage, good for spreading genes though.
Sarah Hill: [00:51:26] Well, this is like super provocative. This is a result that is like brain Velcro because once you start thinking about it, it's hard to stop thinking about it. At least, you know, it was for me when I first was learning about this research, because it really is provocative when we think about the idea that the birth control pill might be shaping these big relationship dynamics is pretty interesting stuff. And there has been a research looking at what happens when women are on the birth control pill, choose a partner, and then go off of it. That's like the eight-million-dollar question. And in one of the best-executed versions of this research and what researchers did is they actually followed married couples over time. They did a longitudinal study of married couples, and then they wanted to see what happens with the women in their sample who were on the birth control pill when they chose their partner, what happens at such a point if they go off of it, and how does it change their sexual satisfaction, and how does it change their relationship satisfaction.
[00:52:26] And what they found was that going off of the birth control pill for this sample of women did change their sexual and relationship satisfaction, but whether it got better or worse, dependant on how hot their partner was. So women, who were partnered to attractive men, actually reported an increase in sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction after going off of the birth control pill. But if they were partnered to somebody who is not attractive, they found the opposite. They actually felt worse about their sex life and they felt worse about their partner in the big picture of their relationship even. It's not anything to get alarmed about. I don't want women to be who are listening to this and they chose their partner when they were on the birth control pill to run out and get a good lawyer on retainer.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:53:17] No, it's the guys who were like, "Crap, I've got to start spiking my wife's pumpkin spice lattes with the birth control pill, or our marriage is over again." That guys are more worried, I think right now,
Sarah Hill: [00:53:27] So what the follow-up research says is for those people who are really feeling worried is that the relationship between all of these variables, so the relationship between your pill status at the time you choose your partner, and then how attractive your partner is, and how that changes your relationship satisfaction over time. All of this stuff seems to be incredibly complicated. And it seems to be influenced by a number of factors, including what your pre-birth control pill level of hormones was. How different is the birth control pill making you from the version of yourself that you were before you were on it? But also the relationship dynamics. So there's some really cool work and nonhuman primates. So this is something that hasn't yet been tested and humans, I'm hoping that this gets done soon. Maybe we'll do something like this in my own lab, but what they find is that the way that the birth control pill -- either going on it when you were previously off it or going off of it when you were previously on it -- the way that this influences the relationship dynamics with your existing partners seems to be very much influenced by the quality of the relationship.
[00:54:34] And so the quality of the relationship is also something that's probably going to be paramount here. Looking at the complex dynamics between like how attractive your partner is, the quality of the relationship. Were you on the pill? Were you off of it? What was your level of sex hormones at this time? What is it at this time? It's all very complex and nuanced. We can't make really good predictions yet about who's going to respond, what way to what formulation of the pill, and with what quality of relationship but this is just information for women to have to either better understand their own relationship dynamics, or if you're a woman who is on the birth control pill, just because you -- it's procedural inertia. You've been on it because you were in a sexual relationship. You're not in one right now, but you're hoping to find a long-term partner. I mean, my recommendation to that woman might be, "Hey, if you don't need the birth control pill right now and you're looking for a partner, like maybe you go off it for a little while, maybe you let your naturally cycling hormones have a say in who you're attracted to right now because it could matter in the long term. We just don't yet know. The research isn't at a spot where we can really make a prognosis about what people's relationships are going to look like on and off the birth control pill. But it's something that's really worth, I think, taking into consideration as we move forward and we're thinking about partner choice.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:52] So maybe, and again, the science is -- the jury's still out, but choose long-term partners went off the pill and short term probably use the pill because getting pregnant by the wrong guy trumps pretty much anything else that we might be discussing here.
Sarah Hill: [00:56:04] Oh yeah, no, absolutely. And even with anything that I talk about in my book, and I try to make sure that I mentioned this frequently is like no matter what problem it is, and I'm telling readers about like in terms of things that could potentially go wrong when they're on the birth control pill. I mean, I can't think of a single one of those outcomes that's worse than being barefoot and pregnant at 17. Just to put everything into perspective, not getting pregnant at the wrong time is such a big deal that needs to really factor heavily into women's minds when they're making these decisions. Because I do think that we take birth control for granted and we kind of forget that, you know, without the ability to safely regulate our fertility, our lives would be much worse.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:56:52] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guests, Dr. Sarah Hill. We'll be right back after this.
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Jason DeFillippo: [01:01:25] Thank you for listening and supporting the show. Your support of our advertisers keeps us on the air. To learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard, so you can check out those amazing sponsors, visit jordanharbinger.com/deals. And don't forget the worksheet for today's episode. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast if you're listening to us in the Overcast player, please click that little star next to the episode. We really appreciate it. And now for the conclusion of our episode with Dr. Sarah Hill.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:01:56] Yeah, it's seriously problematic. And if you do a good job in the book of explaining how the pill is essentially unlocked all this human capital. You're a psychologist. It's hard to say whether you'd have made it all the way through your studies. If you were worried about getting pregnant all the time. You'd have had a, certainly a different social life, I would imagine during that period of time. Not to, not to highlight.
Sarah Hill: [01:02:15] That's a nice way of saying that Jordan.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:19] Yes, you know, I'm making an assumption here, but there's a lot of women that want careers and they also want to have a significant other, and it's kind of tricky to have both. Imagine going to medical school and you're in year nine and then you're like, well, I've got to drop out. I mean that's terrible.
Sarah Hill: [01:02:31] Yeah, no, it is terrible. And it's like more than anything. And the birth control pill, what's been so amazing about it is it has allowed women for the first time in history to plan, and it's like most of us won't begin doing something that takes a long time, like going and getting a medical degree or getting a PhD or going to law school unless we feel pretty certain that we're going to be able to complete whatever it is that we're doing. And having the birth control pill and just, you know, having the ability to safely and really effectively regulate our fertility has been an absolute game-changer for women. And you see this when you look at the rates of women who are applying to advanced degree programs, you see that after the birth control pill became legally available to women who were single like back in about 1970 you see that women's applications to postsecondary education and to advanced degree programs like medical school and law schools went from being only 10% of applicants to 50% of applicants. It's really allowed women to dream bigger and do more. And you're right like in so doing, it's opened up all of this new capital.
[01:03:38] Some of the most brilliant women that I know, I don't think that they would be doing the things that they're doing. Some of these women are doing things like coming up with revolutionary treatments for cancer. We're coming up with revolutionary new ideas for the prevention of Alzheimer's disease. And I think about the fact that there is a time in our history before we had access to safe really effective modes of fertility regulation that these women wouldn't be doing these things and how much better we are as a society for having something like this and being able to regulate our fertility and opening up the doors for these really brilliant women to be able to make our world better. It's amazing.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:04:16] I want to go back to some of the different ways that being on and off fertility cycle affect preferences because this stuff is just so dang interesting. So one takeaway here, women see other obviating women at high fertility and often won't like that their men are interacting with her. I mean, how fascinating is this? This is an unconscious process. And of course my take away from this as a guy, I don't know, as a guy who probably should take other things away from this. It's like, "Okay, so if we want to meet some women on the prowl, we bring another woman who we know as a thing for us. We wait for her to get jealous. We have ovulation radar, right?
Sarah Hill: [01:04:53] Right, yeah, it is so fascinating. Like both men and women seem to be able to pick up on another woman's fertility status and the exact mechanisms through which this is going on are probably multifaceted because we know, for example, that men prefer the scent of women at high fertility compared to low fertility, so there's probably some scent-based queuing. We know like when you have men and women looking at faces. And partial body shots of ovulating and non-ovulating women that both men and women seem to be able to detect fertility. And not like in a way where they're asking like is this person fertile but rather like how attractive is this person. And men tend to find women, you know, their faces and bodies more attractive when those women are at high fertility compared to those exact same women when they're at low fertility. And women, as you mentioned, they tend to find women more threatening when these women are at high fertility compared to low fertility. Their jealousy tends to increase. So they feel more jealous of their partner is interacting or even if they like just imagine their partner interacting with somebody who is at high fertility compared to low fertility. All of us seem to have the ability to pick up on these subtle cues to estrogen presence and to high fertility. Who knows? Maybe the birth control pill. Because it's suppressing estrogen and suppressing women's fertility like maybe we're going to have this whole new era of female friendship where women aren't going to be feeling threatened by other women, and so maybe it's going to actually facilitate more female friendship. Stay tuned.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:32] Yeah, cattiness is down globally. Man, there's so many fascinating -- tell me about strippers and tipping during their cycle and while on the pill. Who studied this? That's what I want to know.
Sarah Hill: [01:06:42] Yeah. I know. You're like, "Why was I not working in that research lab in my whole life in college?"
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:47] Can you imagine asking for funding for this? So what we want to know is, and they're just like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. We get it. You have tenure. Here's your money."
Sarah Hill: [01:06:55] Exactly. Yeah. It's like, exactly. We have a fund this and here are some singles. Go have fun gentlemen. Your grant will be funded in singles.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:03] I might come and observe this laboratory during this particular experiment. I can see all of the old guys being like, "This is very curious. Let's go as a group."
Sarah Hill: [01:07:13] Yes, yes. We have to go inspect and make sure that their research methods are above the board. Yes, yes, gentleman.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:18] That's right. Yeah. I want to make sure that this is all properly documented, double-blind.
Sarah Hill: [01:07:23] Yes, excuse me. Could you show me to this champagne room, please? I'm doing research. This study is just so fun and it's a study that it's fun and it's also really clever and it's clever because one problem that we tend to have in science and this is particularly true in psychology because human behavior -- it's like we say one thing and we do another all the time. People are hypocritical and it's because, of course, we don't always know why we're doing the things that we're doing and we also don't always necessarily like to say what we're going to do. It's always better as a researcher to be able to get non-reactive measures. So just measuring people behaving in the wild and then using that as a means of understanding their psychological state. And that was what these researchers did with the infamous lap dancers study. In this study, what the researchers were really interested in was whether or not men can pick up on these subtle cues to fertility. And so do men tend to reward women more when fertility is high? So when estrogen is high across the cycle compared to when fertility is low. And then do we not observe this same type of a thing? Of course, across the cycle when we're looking at women on the birth control pill, because women on the birth control pill, or of course chronically infertile. Estrogen never increases across the cycle. It's kept relatively low across the board. And so what was really clever about this study was that the researchers were able to quantify men's interest in women by studying the tip earnings by these exotic dancers or these strippers. And so what they did is they had strippers in a club, or the club, quote-unquote, the club. They had the strippers make note of a whether or not they were on the birth control pill or whether they were naturally cycling. And then they just had to keep a diary over the course of a month of their tip earnings. And they also had to make note of when they got their period. Because if a woman reports when she gets her period, you can make some pretty good estimates of what her fertility status is and what her hormone status is. Just using that information alone because starting from like ground zero, which is the day that a woman gets her period. Usually starting about, you know, three to five days afterward, you're going to begin to see estrogen levels begin to creep up and then they start to really increase right around a nine, 10, 11, 12 is going to, estrogen tends to be really high cause that's when population is getting ready to occur and that's when conception is possible. And then it starts to decrease.
[01:10:02] Some of these researchers wanted to know was during the times when estrogen is relatively high and conception risk is high, are women actually earning more money? Do men find them more attractive and are giving them more tip earnings on when fertility is high compared to when it is low? And then is this mid-cycle increase in tip earnings that was predicted, is it suppressed in the pill-taking dancers? Like, do pill-taking dancers. Earn a more steady income across the cycle. I'm not having this big, you know, predicted an increase in tip earnings when estrogen is high. The women in the club, they kept track of when they got their period, and then they kept track of what their tip earnings were. And what the researchers found was that low and behold, the naturally cycling women were, in fact, earning a significantly greater amount of money at high fertility compared to low fertility. They were earning the most money. They were getting the most bang for their buck when estrogen levels were really high. And women who are on the birth control pill, on the other hand, had relatively stable tip earnings across the month and they never reached that peak that was reached by the naturally cycling women.
[01:11:09] And so, you know, there's a couple of takeaways here. One that men seem to be able to pick up on cues to estrogen's presence and to fertility, and that they find women most desirable. Whether the women are dancing particularly sexy at this point in time, whether their body is particularly good, whether they've smell particularly good. We don't know any of that from this study. They didn't really get down to the nitty-gritty and like, what is it exactly that's changing at high fertility that's making these women more desirable to men at this time compared to other points in the cycle. We don't know exactly what the mechanism is, but the women at high fertility were earning more money than the same women were earning at points in the cycle when fertility was low and when estrogen was low. Whereas the poor pill takers, those poor pill-taking women, they never reached that apex of earnings. Their overall tip earnings across the cycle were relatively lower than the nationally cycling women and the naturally cycling women were really benefiting from. The rise in estrogen that was occurring mid cycle, right near ovulation.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:12:14] I heard that even the voice and faces judged more attractive during the fertile phase. So is that a health indicator? They seem healthier because their voices and faces judged more attractive because of where they are in their cycle.
Sarah Hill: [01:12:26] Well, it's not so much health per se as it is fertility. Because essentially what everybody is picking up on is like conception risk. Men, of course, have been wired by evolution, by selection to just zero in on qualities that historically had been linked with conception risk. Because by doing so, men historically, who were most attracted to women, when they were able to conceive those men would have probably passed down that preference for those qualities to a greater number of descendants than men who had alternative preferences. Men and women, both that they're evaluating like the voice of women, for example, they find their voices more attractive sounding when those women are at high fertility compared to when they're at relatively low fertility.
[01:13:16] And interestingly, I have to tell you this because I've been like dying to share this with anybody who will listen because I got an email from a vocal coach, and what she found is that her sopranos if they go on the birth control pill because it suppresses estrogen, it actually suppresses their ability to hit the highest notes.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:13:39] What?
Sarah Hill: [01:13:40] Isn't that wild and this just goes to show you that women's voices are influenced by estrogen presence and that women's voices, they do get a little bit higher at high fertility compared to low fertility in the cycle. And when you suppress women's levels of sex hormones, including estrogen in a really big way, that it actually can change the quality of their voice. I just thought that was the most fascinating thing, that the birth control pill might influence your ability to sing soprano.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:14:11] Man, that's incredible. And it shows you just how pervasive -- is pervasive the right word? How this just change everything about your body in one fell swoop? Did you say this in your book? It's like dropping a bomb on a house to try to put out a candle. Like it'll do the job, but a lot of other stuff is going to get messed up in the process.
Sarah Hill: [01:14:28] Yeah, yeah. That's totally what I wrote in my book. Yeah, exactly. It's like it's, it'll do what you want it to do, but it's like not targeted. Because we, we take it for these targeted effects, but it influences everything and the reason for this is that. Because pregnancy and conception because it's required a workaround by just about every single system in our body. Almost every single system in our body is sensitive to changes in sex hormones. I'm really looking forward to the next several decades of research where we look at the impact of the birth control pill, even on things like a woman's gate. Because we know that the way a woman walks is influenced by fluctuating sex hormones. Does the way that women carry themselves change when they're on the birth control versus not?
Jordan Harbinger: [01:15:16] It's so fascinating. The book has so many different ideas in here that were new for me, especially. I mean one of the questions was why did women have periods of the first place? Because not every primate -- or is it primate -- not every animal certainly does this. Does every primate do this?
Sarah Hill: [01:15:29] No. No. So humans are really unique and having a period and periods are a weird thing. They're weird because they're really metabolically costly. Historically calories were hard to come by. Like there wasn't a Taco Bell on every corner like there is right now. Because of that for most of our evolutionary history, we were living a relatively subsistence level. Resources were relatively unpredictable. Our bodies are actually optimized for those types of environments, which is why, of course, we still like things that are sweet and fatty, even though, you know, they make us fat but happy.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:08] Dopamine.
Sarah Hill: [01:16:08] Yes. Our bodies are optimized for environments that relatively resource scarce, and the idea of having this period where we're shedding this endometrial lining -- when we could just reabsorb it into our body which is what most animal species do by the way. The endometrium just gets reabsorbed, so that way the body can recycle the materials that are used to create that to make a new one but we get rid of it. This evolutionary question mark for a really long time where researchers couldn't really get a handle on why it is that women would have a period at all. And so not all that long ago, probably in the last 20 years or so, researchers have begun to put forth this idea that the reason that women shed their endometrial lining in the monthly nuance that is having our periods has everything to do with the fact that there's a competing interest between a mother and a fertilized egg in terms of whether or not that fertilized egg should become a pregnancy. Pregnancy, of course, for human females is something that's incredibly costly. So for mothers, for human women, they should be really choosy about what embryos they allow to implant and actually turn into a pregnancy. But now, in the eyes of a fertilized egg, it should always turn into a pregnancy. Because any fertilized egg, this is it's one shot at life. But from the eyes of the mother, of course, this isn't a very good deal. Mothers should be very picky and should screen embryos for their probability of being able to turn into a successful pregnancy.
[01:17:47] So what researchers have hypothesized is that the endometrial lining, it plays a role in this screening process. The endometrial lining, rather than being something that facilitates conception or makes conception easier for an embryo, it actually is really difficult to get through. It's densely packed with cells. That is very difficult for a fertilized egg to be able to wiggle through and actually be able to implant itself on the wall of the uterus. This is like the first screening mechanism that women's bodies have in order to make the quote-unquote decision, right about whether or not to invest in this fertilized egg. If the fertilized egg can't make it through. Then it just goes out when the endometrial lining sheds that fertilized egg will just go out with the whole nuance that is your period. So that's like the first level of screening. But there are also other screening mechanisms that go on in women's bodies that allow them to test whether or not this is potentially going to be a healthy pregnancy. If the fertilized egg isn't releasing these types of factors that are associated with healthy pregnancies, the endometrial lining will get shed, and then the fertilized egg will make its way outside the body. Basically, the period is something in the shedding of the endometrial lining is something that occurs to allow women to pull the trigger on getting rid of any pregnancies that they don't want to be having. And again, when I say don't want to be having, I don't mean this in the way, like a woman consciously thinking, I would like to be pregnant right now, or not like to be pregnant right now, but just rather that the body is making their decision about whether or not this seems like it's going to be a healthy pregnancy or not.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:19:25] Right. So it's expensive, but it's less expensive than having all these resources diverted towards a non-viable fetus and then dealing with that for, however long that lasts.
Sarah Hill: [01:19:34] Yes, yes. Absolutely.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:19:37] A lot of people are probably wondering why I'm doing this whole show on the birth control pill, but I'm doing this because I want women and those of us that love them to stop thinking something might be wrong with them when maybe there's something wrong with their medication. And so I'd like to leave everyone with some advice here because first of all, the depression thing with the pill is so real. So if you're going on the pill, you advised to tell those close to us that we're going on the pill. Maybe look for some signs of depression. If I change who I seem like I've been for the last X number of years, let me know. Because when you're on the pill, you might just think, "Oh my life's getting crappy, or I'm getting older, I'm losing interest in my partner. That's totally natural. So what if I have a psychotic episode every now and again?" Like all of these things, you just shrug it off, especially if you don't know that it might be caused by the birth control pill.
Sarah Hill: [01:20:23] Absolutely. I think that for a very long time, just because we all have had a little bit of a blind spot when it comes to everything that the birth control pill can do -- when something doesn't feel right, when we go on the birth control pill -- that we tend to internalize it and we tend to blame ourselves. Like you said, that we think, Oh, well my life is just getting worse, or school is harder, or my boyfriend is just more annoying and so I'm not interested in him anymore. And women's doctors for a long time, and it's still the case with some women's doctors reinforce this by telling women that, "No, I have not read about this in my 25 minutes of training on the birth control pill, and so this isn't real." If a woman is going on the birth control pill, yes, absolutely. Tell your friends, tell a partner, keep track of it yourself in a journal. I really recommend keeping track of who you are, what your motivational state is when it comes to things in your life that are important to you in a journal. That way you are able to have a trail of breadcrumbs back to yourself. If you go on the birth control pill and you find that you're experiencing changes in motivation or changes in mood.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:21:37] What if we're already on the pill, how can we assess whether or not our mood is changed if we've already started taking it?
Sarah Hill: [01:21:42] Right. And that's a really great question. It's one of those things where can do you can do post-mortem interviews. You can talk to people that you knew before you were on it. But even more than that, I think that keeping a journal and keeping track of how you're doing in the areas of life, especially those areas of life that I kind of detail in the book that we already know the birth control pill can influence. If you keep a journal and keep track of how you're doing in these different areas and how you're feeling about life. Most of us, when things are going well for us, we should have more good days than we have bad days. And if you're not having more good days than bad days and things in your life are going well. I would recommend talking to your doctor.
[01:22:27] Does it make sense to take a break from the pills? So we actually get to know ourselves off of it. Because I think if he'd been taking it for five, 10 years, you might not even know who you are underneath the hormonal blanket that you've got on.
Sarah Hill: [01:22:38] I think for women who are able to safely do this, I always feel nervous making this recommendation just because I would absolutely hate to have somebody who's not protecting themselves from pregnancy in some other way do this, and then end up with an unwanted pregnancy, which I think would be a really bad outcome. As long as you're protecting yourself from pregnancy in some other way. I think that it's a good idea to take a break and see who you are.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:23:03] Is it safe to say that if you're not having sex and you don't have other medical reasons to be on it, maybe you should talk to your doctor about getting off of it.
Sarah Hill: [01:23:09] It certainly couldn't hurt. I don't think that it could hurt. I think that if you aren't sexually active and you're on it for some other reason, that it might not be a terrible idea to figure out who you are in the absence of the birth control pill and give it a couple of cycles, because when you go off of the birth control pill, it does throw you into a little bit of a hormonal tailspin. If you're getting that same hormonal message every single day for years, and then all of a sudden you take it away and then your body's having to figure out ovulation again, it's going to take a little bit of time and it can be a little bit of a disruptive period for women. I mentioned I'm writing a book about the birth control pill and everybody has a story or a friend with a story. And so I've gotten to talk to a lot of women and some of the things that I've heard from women in terms of big changes, like when they were choosing a spouse or they were choosing a career path and then how it changed. They're feeling at home in their own life changed after they went off of the birth control pill. It really opens my eyes. For me, it was like, I felt like I woke up, but for some of these women, they felt like they woke up and then all of a sudden, they don't like the choices that they'd been making. It was a really eye-opening prospect to me. And so I do think that you're right that if you're in a period in your life where you're making important lasting decisions, that it might not be the worst decision in the world to make those decisions off of hormonal influence and under the influence of your own naturally cycling hormones.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:24:38] Dr. Hill. Thank you so much. This has been awesome. Super fascinating. I loved the book. I highly recommend it. We'll link to it in the show notes. Thanks for spending so much time here with us today. And the book has a lot of other anecdotes that are equally fascinating, surprising, shocking. We didn't even cover everything today, of course. Again, I highly recommend this. Thank you very much for your time.
Sarah Hill: [01:25:00] Thank you so much.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:25:04] Great show Dr. Sarah Hill. This Is Your Brain On Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, And The Law Of Unintended Consequences. That's the name of the book. Of course, we'll link to it in the show notes as we always do. Great big thank you to Dr. Sarah Hill for coming out for that. By the way, there's a worksheet for this episode, so you can review what you've learned from Dr. Sarah Hill. That's at jordanharbinger.com in the show notes and also in the show notes. We've got transcripts, which we have for this episode and every episode, and those can be found in the show notes as well.
[01:25:32] I'm teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships using systems using tiny habits. That's over at our Six-Minute Networking course, which is also free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. Now, you could do it later. Sure, but I think we all know you're not going to do it. You're not going to do it later. Don't kick the can down the road. Dig the well before you get thirsty. Once you need relationships, you are too late. Procrastination leads to stagnation. When it comes to personal and business relationships. These drills, they take a few minutes a day. That's why it's called Six-Minute Networking obviously. I wish I knew this stuff 20 years ago. It does not fluff. This has been an absolute game-changer. Find it all for free at jordanharbinger.com/course. By the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribe to the course and the newsletter. So come join us, you'll be in a smart company. Speaking of building relationships, reach out and/or follow me on social. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram.
[01:26:23] The show has created an association with PodcastOne. This episode was produced by Jen Harbinger and Jason DeFillippo, edited by Jase Sanderson, show notes and worksheets by Robert Fogarty, music by Evan Viola, and I'm your host Jordan Harbinger. Our advice and opinions, and those of our guests are their own, and I'm a lawyer, but I'm not your lawyer and I'm certainly not a doctor. Therefore, I am not your doctor. You know how that works. Do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show. And remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting, which should be in every episode. So, please share the show with those you love and even those you don't. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
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