Herbalism & Birth Control:
A resource round-up

Herbalists talk a LOT about women’s health.  There are good reasons for this:  In my experience, attendees at many herbal events are overwhelmingly female.  Conventional medicine has a history of dismissing women’s health issues, leading many of those suffering to turn to herbalists to be heard.  Herbalism excels at addressing questions of imbalance, situations where the body needs to be supported and nudged, not bludgeoned by pharmaceuticals, and many women’s reproductive health issues are just such questions.  So, herbalists talk a lot about menstruation, hormones, conception, pregnancy, libido, and menopause.

But despite all this, for a while I didn’t hear much talk about contraception.  Maybe conversations about contraception were happening, and I just missed them.  Maybe contraception genuinely is something that more naturally falls under the domain of pharmaceuticals.  One way or another, I’ve continued to be curious about these questions:

  1. Are there herbs that can be used as reliable contraceptives?
  2. How would one look at pharmaceutical contraceptives from a holistic point of view?
    From an herbalist’s point of view, which pharmaceutical contraceptives are the healthiest choices?
    (Of course, this answer is likely to be different for different people.)
  3. In what ways can herbal medicine be used to support a body that is on contraceptives?  (E.g. to diminish symptoms, for long term health, etc.)

While I’ve yet to satisfy my curiosity, I’ve collected more and more bits and pieces – and I’ve been seeing more herbal information on contraception, from classes at the New England Women’s Herbal Conference to a display in a small herb shop in Phoenix, AZ, from Robin Rose Bennett’s The Gift of Healing Herbs to friends sharing links on Facebook.  I’m using this post as a place to log many of those resources.  I hope that, if you have additional resources to recommend, you’ll get in touch or comment below.

Plush Uterus reads about birth control

Why yes, that is a plush uterus reading about birth control.

As always, please be sure to do your own research and make your own decisions.  I’m not a medical professional, and I’m sharing the information here in the spirit of giving us all more tools to take charge of our own health and sexual care.  Some of the links I’ve shared are purely anecdotal and some of them are inspiration for further research.  Others are closer to being fully-realized and practical resources, but you must use your own common sense in evaluating each source.

Finally, I want to give a shout-out to Jim MacDonald and highly recommend his master herbal article index, which is where I found more than one of these links.  I’ve come across others of these articles when they were shared on social networks, and I’m grateful for all of my wonderful herbal friends who share information and resources so generously!

Herbal Contraception

General/Overviews
Including guidance on the decision to use herbal contraceptives/birth control.

  • Herbal Contraception” on sisterzeus.com.  This somewhat retro website is the most comprehensive resource I’ve found on herbal birth control.  I don’t know who the author is, but the site has been written thoughtfully and with a real dedication to the topic.  Definitely worth exploring.
  • The Prehistory of Sex, by Timothy Taylor, includes an interesting chapter on contraception.  The author argues that women did have access to contraception, using plants as well as through extended breastfeeding.  While the book doesn’t (understandably) contain practical information, the author’s arguments at least present some hope that useful plant-based contraception exists.

Wild Carrot
Wild carrot, or Queen Anne’s Lace, is the herb I’ve heard the most about as a potentially practical method of preventing contraception.

Neem
Granted, neem doesn’t have the most alluring odor.  Still, I’ve heard a lot of secondhand (thirdhand? fifthand?) info about neem being an effective contraceptive as a spermicide or as a male birth control pill. I have yet to find a really good write-up about it, but here’s the best I’ve got:

Wild Yam
This seems to be a controversial one!

A variety of other herbs
Bits and pieces, as well as historical sources.

Notes on Herbal Abortions

Okay, these aren’t herbal…
Non-hormonal, non or minimally invasive methods of birth control.

  • Toni Weschler’s book Take Charge of Your Fertility should be required reading.  This book on the Fertility Awareness Method (NOT the same as the rhythm method) teaches you how to use physiological cues to learn more about your cycle – and be able to work within your cycle to avoid conception.  This could be helpful for women using wild carrot.  Also an invaluable resource for those looking to conceive or just to understand more about their body and cycle.
  • Just gotta put in a good word for the Burlington, Vermont-based Sustain, which sells sustainable, fair trade condoms and organic lubricants.  Glyde and Sir Richard’s are also worth checking out.

 

Herbalists’ Perspectives on Pharmaceutical Contraceptives

So far, I haven’t come up with much in this category.  Here’s what I’ve found:

  • In this interview, Susun Weed speaks passionately about pharmaceutical birth control pills at around the six minute mark.  It’s indicated just before that that she’s commented on birth control in one of her books (Down There?)

 

Herbalists’ Thoughts on Supporting the Body while on Pharmaceutical Contraceptives

While pharmaceutical contraceptives seem to be pretty safe, they’re still often systemic and may be used for decades of a woman’s life.  Are there specific ways we can support our bodies while on contraceptives?  So far, I haven’t seen anything on this.

I’ve seen various vaguely medical websites proclaim that there’s a long list of herbs that shouldn’t be taken with hormonal birth control, for fear of interactions.  The one or two herbalists I’ve asked about this have said that it’s not an issue.  When I asked a nurse who had studied herbalism about possible interactions with the Mirena IUD, she said that she wouldn’t worry; the only herb she might avoid is St. John’s Wort.

I have come across some helpful information for women coming off of hormonal birth control, who might have trouble normalizing their cycles:

 

From prehistory to the pill.

From prehistory to the pill.

Et Cetera

I’ve often found myself frustrated by how birth control seems to be treated as a women’s issue since, after all, it takes two.  Why are the only options for male birth control withdrawal (remarkably ineffective), condoms (definitely useful, but hardly perfect) and vasectomies (admirable in men who know what they want – and don’t want – but a choice many men seem wary of)?  It turns out that, in part, we can blame a woman.  Of course, she had her reasons.

The Birth of the Pill, a pageturner of a pharmaceutical history book by Jonathan Eig, begins with the story of how Margaret Sanger (the founder of Planned Parenthood) approached biologist Gregory Pincus to develop a birth control pill.  Sanger had worked in poor and crowded tenements in New York in the 1910s, where many women died from the strain of too many pregnancies or self-administered abortions – and where abusive relationships and marital rape were commonplace.  These experiences convinced Sanger that women must have access to a birth control pill which, unlike abstinence, withdrawal, or condoms, does not rely on male cooperation.

While there’s still a long way to go, this book is a reminder, sometimes sobering, of how far we’ve come in the last hundred years.  It’s a fascinating read, and I recommend it for anyone who’s tempted to take birth control for granted.  For all their flaws, the protagonists of this book possessed audacity and will.  Rather than resting on their laurels, let’s create pressure for even better birth control.  Do we do that through the pharmaceutical industry, or will we find that better option on our shelves of herbs?  I don’t know the answer to that question – and honestly I’m not sure how to influence the pharmaceutical industry, behemoth that it is – but I’d love to hear what you think about this.  Please don’t hesitate to comment below!


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