Contraception with plants

More and more women want a natural alternative to the contraceptive pill. An alternative without side effects. Whether plants are suitable for contraception is not so easy to answer, as in the age of synthetic hormones, hardly any scientific studies can be found on the subject.

Contraception: Earlier with plants

Thousands of years ago, women were already using contraceptives. Constant pregnancies were exhausting – and births were often associated with mortal danger. Depending on the living conditions of the family or clan, often only a small number of children could be fed. Family planning and contraception have therefore been an important topic for a long time.

While women today swallow a small pill from the pharmaceutical industry every day for contraception (80 percent of all women), in ancient times it was certain plants or herbal preparations that were hoped to have a contraceptive effect. For example, tampons made of grass or algae as well as fruit pods were initially used, which were intended to collect the sperm. But there were also contraceptive plants that were drunk daily as tea.

Natural contraception is increasingly in demand

Since many women today do not tolerate the pill well or fear its long-term side effects, there is a great deal of interest in natural alternatives to contraception. The methods of natural family planning (also called NFP or symptothermal method) are now well known.

Here, the woman observes her body and enters the changes that occur every month in a cycle calendar. This includes measuring the basal body temperature and observing the change in the consistency of the cervical mucus.

In this way, the time of ovulation and the fertile days can be determined very precisely. There have long been apps and so-called cycle computers that help with the evaluation of the data. An ovulation calculator also helps.

Contraceptive plants and abortive plants

However, many women shy away from the effort (which in reality is not an effort at all once you have gotten used to the process) and want a contraceptive that – just like the pill – is simply taken daily, but is of natural origin, has no side effects and still provides safe contraception.

The question now is whether contraceptive plants can fulfill all these wishes. To do this, however, you first have to know the plants that were used for family planning in the past. At least two groups of plants are distinguished:

  • Contraceptive plants
  • Abortifacient plants, i.e. plants that can induce an abortion

This distinction is so important precisely because of the abortifacient effect of some plants. Because it is neither legal nor particularly healthy to initiate an abortion on your own. And abortion is considered being an intervention that takes place after the implantation of the fertilized egg cell in the uterus (about the sixth day after fertilization).

Abortive plants should therefore be planted no later than six days after fertilization. But our topic is contraception – and this takes place BEFORE a possible fertilization, at the latest immediately after the sexual act.

The best way to get to know plants that our ancestors (or today our contemporaries in many developing countries) used for contraception and to find out in which preparations they were used as it is first of all a journey into the past:

Contraception with plants in ancient times

The oldest evidence of contraceptive methods takes us to ancient Egypt. In a tampon recipe from 1550 BC, it is described that finely ground acacia tips were spread on a fibrous ball with dates and honey and inserted into the vagina.

These sticky tampons formed a mechanical barrier for the sperm. Such contraceptive methods may sound strange in today’s world, but they have nevertheless served their purpose. This has also been confirmed by modern studies.

For example, scientists have found that acacia buds contain gum arabic, which converts into lactic acid in the vagina. Since lactic acid has a seed-killing effect, it is still a component of many contraceptive gels today.

Furthermore, vaginal suppositories were made from pomegranate seeds by crushing the seeds and rolling them up in wax. Since the pomegranate contains phytoestrogens ( 5 ), ovulation could have been prevented.

In ancient Rome, wool tampons were soaked in aluminum tincture, cedar resin or olive oil for contraception. And the Germanic tribes resorted to parsley seeds, which are less preventively, but rather to promote excretion after a possible fertilization.

The saying “Parsley helps the man on the horse, the women underground!” reminds us that the abortifacient effect of parsley seeds (not parsley herb!) was the undoing of many pregnant women, as an overdose can be fatal – and in desperation, many a woman resorted to significantly larger portions than would have been necessary.

The fact that, despite the possible dangers, new contraceptive methods have been tried out worldwide clearly shows that birth control has always been a hot topic. Then, however, the church made sure that contraception became more and more of a taboo from the 5th century onwards and in the 15th century they put an end to unpunished contraception, not to mention abortion.

Witch hunt ends contraception with plants

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII directed the so-called bull of witches against all those people who took or passed on contraceptives, among other things. As a result, countless doctors, midwives and herbalists were persecuted and, in the worst case, burned at the stake as witches and wizards. As a result, the old knowledge about herbal contraceptive options was gradually forgotten.

Until the 20th century, contraception was considered something obscene or a sin – the Catholic Church still adheres to it today – until the contraceptive pill saw the light of day in 1960.

Contraception with the contraceptive pill: Not without side effects

The first official birth control pill appeared in 1960. Finally, a safe contraceptive was freely available. The joy did not remain unclouded for long. Over time, side effects such as high blood pressure, thrombosis ( 1 ) or disorders of liver function became apparent. Also, the assumption arises again and again that the pill is associated with an increased risk of cancer, at least as far as some forms of cancer are concerned.

Researchers from the International Agency for Research on Cancer ( IARC) in Lyon, for example, have found that women who use the pill are more likely to develop breast cancer ( 3 ), cervical cancer and liver cancer. Could the way back to the plant world be a healthy and natural solution?

Plants for contraception

The mechanisms of action of herbal contraceptives are very different and depend on the respective plant. Some plants can kill the seeds, others can prevent them from reaching the egg. Then there are plants that do not allow the egg to nest. And still others – if taken by the man – can reduce sperm production, even prevent it.

But even if you know which plants were used for contraception in the past, the information on use and dosage, which was once mostly passed on orally, is pretty much in the dark.

Nevertheless, we do not only have to look into the past to get closer to traditional contraceptive methods. Because there are – far away from the industrialized nations – numerous people who are still familiar with their use today, and there are thousands of plants that are said to have a contraceptive effect, some of which we will now take a closer look at.

Wild yam for contraception

The wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) is similar to the sweet potato and has been used by the indigenous peoples of North, Central and South America since time immemorial not only as food, but also as a contraceptive. Of all yams, the Mexican wild yam is said to be the most suitable for contraception.

Normally, the estrogens on the woman’s fertile days ensure that the cervical mucus becomes thin, so that the sperm cells can migrate to the egg cell in a hurry. After ovulation, the amount of progestins (which also includes progesterone, for example) suddenly increases abruptly.

The progestins make the mucus viscous and sticky. In this way, it closes the cervix from the sperm, which are not needed now – in the infertile phase.

The mini-pill, but also Wild Yam, start right here. The mini-pill consists of a synthetic progestin that makes the cervical mucus so sticky even during the fertile days that the sperm have no chance. However, the reliability of the mini-pill – compared to the “normal” pill – is not as good.

Mexican Wild Yam works like the mini-pill

Wild Yam contains the active ingredient diosgenin – which, by the way, was used to make the very first birth control pills. Diosgenin is the precursor of progesterone, i.e. a progestin. However, diosgenin most likely cannot be converted to progesterone in the body. Nevertheless, Wild Yam seems to have a progestin-like effect, as under its influence the cervical mucus changes in such a way that the sperm slip off it and thus cannot migrate towards the mature egg.

Other experts are of the opinion that the yam forms a film independent of the cervical mucus on the vaginal wall, on the cervix and also in the uterus, which causes the sperm to slip. Since diosgenin alone cannot be responsible for the effect of wild yam, the root seems to contain other substances that can have a contraceptive effect in their entirety.

Therefore, no pure diosgenin preparations should be chosen for contraception, but only wild yam preparations that have been produced from the whole root and thus also contain the entire active ingredient spectrum of the root.

Mexican Wild Yam – The Dosage

Regarding the dosage of wild yam, the information varies, but usually a dose of 3,000 mg per day is recommended – 1,500 mg in the morning and 1,500 mg in the evening. Dried and powdered yams are used in capsule form. With regular and correct intake, the contraceptive safety is said to be 97 percent.

The big problem, however, is that many factors of modern life can thwart the contraceptive effect of the yam, such as stimulants like nicotine and alcohol, but also medications (e.g. antibiotics) and the excessive consumption of sugar.

Furthermore, it is reported that complete protection is only built up after taking it for 9 to 11 weeks. Recent findings even say that wild yam must be taken for at least 6 to 12 months before reliable contraception is possible. Since it is not possible to take the pill at the same time, it must be bridged for a long time with condoms or the like.

The Wild Carrot for Contraception

The seeds of the wild carrot (Daucus carota ssp) were already used in ancient times, e.g. for menstrual cramps, but also as a contraceptive. In some areas, they are still taken either daily or only after sexual intercourse to prevent the implantation of the egg.

Animal studies have shown that wild carrot seeds can prevent pregnancy 100 percent (7). But there are also numerous self-experiments and testimonials from women who speak of extremely high reliability when used correctly and dosed.

In a 14-month study, 13 women took 1 teaspoon of the dried seeds daily. During this time, only one woman became pregnant, but she had reduced the daily dose to less than half. To prevent pregnancy immediately after unprotected intercourse, which can be compared to the “morning-after pill”, a tablespoon of the seeds is recommended daily for a week.

According to the common recipes, the desired amount of dried seeds is crushed with a mortar shortly before use and then stirred into a glass of cold water. Extracts and teas are also used.

The seeds of the wild carrot can be purchased in specialist shops as well as harvested yourself. The brown and dry umbels are cut off and then dried for 2 weeks. The seeds can then be threshed and stored in a sealable glass container in a cool place. Since there are some extremely poisonous plants that look very similar to the wild carrot (e.g. the water hemlock, which is deadly), collecting them is strongly discouraged!

Embelia – An Ayurvedic contraceptive

Embelia (Embelia ribes) is mainly found in eastern India, southern China and Madagascar and is one of the most important Ayurvedic medicinal plants. In the meantime, numerous researchers have dealt with the health effects of Embelia. For example, it has already been shown several times that the active ingredient Embelin protects against cancer and kills tumor cells.

Nevertheless, this plant is rather unknown in our latitudes. In Ayurveda, however, the fruits of Embelia have been used for contraception for a long time and even today the plant is often used as a reliable contraceptive in rural areas of India. The contraceptive effect has also been confirmed in medical studies.

For example, in a one-year Indian study, 48 women took 400 mg of an Embelia fruit extract for 10 days starting on day 5 of their period. The result was that no pregnancies occurred within a year. The fruits of Embelia do not have a hormonal effect, but implantation of the egg can be prevented. There are no known undesirable side effects.

Both the dried Embelia berries and Embelia powder are commercially available as Ayurvedic remedies, which are called Vidanga or Vaividang.

Embelia berries are often combined with other plants. In an Ayurvedic recipe, for example, a powder is made from Embelia berries, pepper (Piper longum) and lead oxide, of which 1g is mixed with milk during menstruation and ingested. This powder is then supposed to protect against pregnancy for a month.

Since lead oxide is toxic and therefore harmful to health, its use must of course be refrained from. However, this example should make it clear that not only the contraceptive pill, but also traditional contraceptives should be viewed with caution. Nevertheless, safety can be increased by combining two or more deliberately selected plants.

Combined application: mint and root

Naturopath Rina Nissim, who co-founded the Geneva Women’s Health Centre and now runs her own practice in Geneva, has been able to gain a lot of experience in herbal contraception during her career, some of which she has recorded in her book “Naturopathy in Gynecology: A Handbook for Women”.

She announced that a success rate of 60 to 80 percent can be achieved through contraception with plants. The best results were achieved with plant combinations. The naturopath has put together two groups of plants, one plant is selected from each:

  • Group 1: Cotton (Gossypium herbacetum), Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), Minemint (Mentha pulegium)
  • Group 2: Lady’s root (Caulophyllum thalictroides), parsley seeds (Petroselium sativum), black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)

However, the combination of mint and lady’s root performed best. An infusion is prepared from the whole herb from the mint, 1 teaspoon of the plant per cup of water is enough. For a maximum of 6 days, 3 cups per day are drunk. It is important to know that the oil of mint is poisonous, which is why the concentrated oil extract of the plant should never be ingested!

However, the tea preparation described can be taken in the limited dose without hesitation. A tea is also made from 3 teaspoons of lady’s root (root pieces) per cup. Again, 3 cups are drunk daily for a maximum of 6 days.

According to Rina Nissim, these two medicinal plants seem to be extremely effective with a short delay in bleeding, while the effectiveness is said to decrease noticeably if the period is more than 6 days overdue. Use may cause temporary muscle cramps, mild nausea, or dizziness.

It is best to get the herbs before an emergency occurs, as you should then react as quickly as possible. And be sure to keep in mind here – as already mentioned at the beginning – that all measures taken after the implantation of the fertilized egg cell constitute an abortion!

However, family planning and contraception are not just women’s business. Men can also become active here:

Herbal contraceptives for men

According to the Austrian Contraception Report, 77 percent of Austrians between the ages of 16 and 49 used contraception in 2012, with women (81 percent) slightly ahead of men (73 percent).

However, men mainly use condoms to protect themselves from diseases such as HIV. In stable partnerships, on the other hand, the topic of contraception is usually left to the woman. If the men do get involved here, it is usually by having themselves sterilized, i.e. by having a vasectomy.

But in many countries there are also herbal contraceptives for men – and still used today. Plants that cause temporary infertility, such as the neem tree (Azadirachta indica), are mainly used.

In India, the neem tree has been considered a miracle tree for thousands of years and is used against all kinds of ailments. The seeds, the leaves and the neem oil are still used today by both women and men for contraception. Accordingly, a study was carried out with 20 employees of the Indian army and their wives to investigate the neem oil for its contraceptive effect. The men took neem oil in gelatin capsules every day.

The investigations showed that the contraceptive effect began after six weeks and lasted for the entire trial period. The effect did not wear off until six weeks after the last intake.

Neem oil can restrict sperm motility and inhibit their maturation. If the contraceptive is discontinued, sperm production resumes at full capacity. The men did not have to deal with side effects such as loss of libido or impotence, nor did they become pregnant. As a result, a neem oil-based contraceptive called “Sensal” was launched on the Indian market ( 22 ).

Other herbal contraceptives for men are, for example, the seeds of the cotton plant, field mint, turmeric or papaya seeds, but their safety has not been scientifically tested.

Contraception with plants: Safety first!

In contrast to conventional contraceptive methods, there is no information on the Pearl Index (which indicates the safety of a contraceptive method) for herbal products due to the comparatively inadequate study situation. Last but not least, it may be due to the fact that the contraceptive effect of herbal preparations – as already mentioned above at Wild Yam – can be influenced by one’s personal lifestyle. For example, stress or a certain diet may reduce the contraceptive effect of plants. In the same way, contraception with plants is less safe if hormonal contraception has been used for years.

To increase safety, it is best to also use the methods of natural family planning and use condoms on fertile days.

Breastfeeding women should please refrain from herbal contraceptives as a matter of principle. You should never use abortifacient plants, as they can have extremely strong side effects and dangerous consequences if used improperly. If you want to use contraception with plants, it would be ideal if you seek advice from an experienced phytotherapeutic naturopath before you start.

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