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!


Notes from the 2015 New England Women’s Herbal Conference

The New England Women’s Herbal Conference is, in many ways, a demulcent* conference.  Rosemary Gladstar spoke this year about how, from the beginning, she wanted the conference to be nourishing and have a sweetness to it.  It’s a replenishing event, and a soothing one – not in the sense of tranquilizing, but of healing.  The WHC is an inspiring weekend full of engaging teachers and classes, but being an attendee somehow also feels like wrapping oneself up in a nice soft blanket that smells of linden and marshmallow.

Betzy Bancroft showing off the sliminess of marshmallow.

Betzy Bancroft showing off the sliminess of marshmallow.

You might not be surprised to learn that one of the classes I attended this year was on demulcents, “the slimaceous herbs.”  It was taught by Betzy Bancroft of the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism and United Plant Savers.  I’ve gotten to take a few of Betzy’s botany classes in the past, and loved them.  This was even better.  Structuring the class around an herbal action was fascinating, and kept us focused on how these herbs work and the generous ways they can help us.  The big takeaways for me?  First, I should be taking demulcents.  Why haven’t I been taking demulcents lately?  Second, quoting from Betzy’s handout, “When we ingest [demulcents], the moistening and protective qualities…have a cooling and soothing effect on the surfaces of our GI tract, which is a huge area…  Considering also that there is an enormous amount of nervous and immune activity in the GI tract, these benefits can impact not only our gut but other systems as well.  I have particularly seen that soothing the gut will in turn soothe the nerves and hypersensitivities.”  This was an “ah ha!” moment for me.  Soothing the gut as a way to sooth the nerves.  Of course, considering all the nerves that give us “gut feelings” and “butterflies” in our stomachs.

Third, marshmallow apple sauce tastes really good.  I can’t speak highly enough of having samples to try in class.  I’ve always functioned well in lecture-style academia, but I take in more and find it easier to stay present in classes when there are herbs to taste, smell, touch.  From Betzy’s marshmallow apple sauce and chia pudding to Robin Rose Bennett’s rose-infused honey to Lupo Passero’s grounding spritzer and Jenn Allen’s chunk of pinon pine resin, there were so many good scents and tastes, even before entering the dining hall.

The view from my "home" at the WHC.

The view from my “home” at the WHC.

All that is not to mention getting to camp out in the New Hampshire woods in my sweet little two-person tent that goes up as easy as making your bed.  I camped right up against the trees, and in the mornings I woke up to acorns dropping down from above and rolling off the dome of my tent.

Even that’s not to mention the people:  Running into friends from previous “herb camps” and chatting with herbalists and students of herbalism from all over.  Learning from teachers’ experiences, insights, and stories.  Witnessing performances by folks like singer/songwriter Guadalupe Urbina (whose songs have been known to work their way into your dreams), drummer Mz. Imani (who will get you up out of your seat), and silk aerialist Amy Glasser (who has superpowers).

Gorgeous people and decor in the big tent at the WHC's closing circle.

Gorgeous people and decor in the big tent at the WHC’s closing circle.

And I’ve hardly touched on the variety of activities:  Walking the labyrinth at night.  Opportunities to learn about everything from insulin resistance to sacred beekeeping.  Hot cups of chai in the morning from Tulsi Tea and gorgeous artwork and herbwork in the emporium.  All this in a venue that is set up to protect you from the elements as necessary but is fundamentally outdoors.

I must mention the class that I was, perhaps, most excited about this year: Robin Rose Bennett’s talk on wild carrot.  As a woman who has made a conscious choice not to have children, birth control is near and dear to me.  At the same time, it can be a frustrating subject:  The options are limited and none of them are ideal…but that’s a whole other blog post.  I have sometimes thought that I’d love to hear more talk about birth control in herbal circles:  How could herbs be used to support one’s body when on hormonal birth control?  How can we look at birth control options from a wholistic perspective?  Are there any non-mainstream methods of birth control that are viable options?  And so on.  So, when I saw that Robin would be teaching a class on using wild carrot for birth control, I may have actually cheered, and it was the first class to go on my schedule.  I was impressed by Robin’s up front but generous manner in teaching this class, and in sharing the advantages as well as contraindications of this method, as well as by her obvious love for this plant.  (If this is something you’re interested in finding out more about, read Robin’s book The Gift of Healing Herbs.  There is a section specifically on wild carrot, but I’ll bet you end up reading the whole book.)

One of the most nourishing aspects of this conference is the teachers’ and participants’ willingness to speak so compassionately and passionately on such a range of issues, from prickly ones like contraception to the knock-you-down hard ones like grief, trauma, pain, to the things that mainstream society often dismisses as extracurricular, like fragrance, ritual, dance, drums, song.  Considering how safe and comforting this conference feels, it can be surprising to reflect on the ways in which it continues to gently but firmly push aside the status quo.  I’ve only been to three years of this 28-year-old conference, but each year I’ve attended has been more nourishing, more inspiring, and also more fun than the last.  Here’s to next year!

 

*“Demulcent” herbs are soothing, nourishing, and protecting, also mucilaginous, emollient, “slimy.”


Dandelions Take a Stand for Contraception?

Scandelous dandelion, virginal rose image from One More Soul, a website dedicated to “fostering God’s plan for love, chastity, marriage, and children.”

Scandelous dandelion, virginal rose image from One More Soul, a website reportedly dedicated to “fostering God’s plan for love, chastity, marriage, and children.”

This image, I have to admit, almost leaves me speechless.  My first thought was to note the amazing feats of illogic.  How, for example, does the use of contraception lead to single-parent homes?  Contraception – by definition – prevents you from becoming a parent in the first place.  And why is contraception the root of (dum dum DUM) “Sexual Chaos“?  I mean, in my experience contraception generally requires some ability to think ahead, and planning isn’t an activity I’d call chaotic.

But true to form, I’m more interested in the choice of flowers.  I’m not going to dis the chastity rose (although I’m not sure any sort of flower is especially chaste…plants in general are awfully good at getting it on), even though it’s not much like the wild Rosa rugosas that I love best.  But a dandelion?  What substances were these people taking that made them think that the roots of a dandelion – one of our most successfully prolific plants – made a good symbol for contraception?

I suspect the logic went something like: Dandelions=Weeds. Weeds=Bad.
Contraception=Bad.
Dandelions=Contraception.
Sigh.

Dandelions are adaptable.  Dandelions are scrappy and resilient.  Dandelions are crazy-good medicine.   Dandelions are generous:  We mow them down and pull them up and spray them dead, and no matter how often or how shortsightedly we reject them they keep coming back, stronger than ever.  Dandelions stand their ground.  They’re independent and sturdy, not to mention cheerful and cheering.

No matter how we vilify them, dandelions pop up in the ugly cracks and crevices and make those places more beautiful.  This graphic is bizarre and in some ways very ugly, and so maybe it’s only to be expected that a dandelion found its way into it.

I’m totally down with roses, and I’m totally down with loving families of all shapes and sizes and styles.  But when someone compares my choices to a dandelion (and yes, I do use contraceptives) I take that as high praise.  So my second thought when I saw this poster was, “I’m a dandelion!  Yay!”

On this glorious spring day, I’m raising a toast to the dandelion. Will you join me?