I’ve gotten dozens of requests for natural alternatives to hormonal contraceptives and while my naturally introverted nature tends to shy away from controversial topics, I decided it was time to tackle this one.
Personally, I have a plethora of non-medical reasons for avoiding contraceptives, but there are some solid medical/scientific reasons to make this decision as well.
Hormonal contraceptives are made from artificial hormone-like substances that attempt to mimic the effects of naturally occurring hormones in the body. Hormonal contraceptives work by:
- “Suppressing the release of hormones that trigger ovulation;
- Stimulating production of thick cervical mucus, which prevents sperm survival and ability to travel to a ripe egg in the fallopian tube in the event that ovulation does occur;
- Disrupting the ability of the cilia (whip-like cells that line the fallopian tube) to move a fertilized egg toward the uterus in the event that conception does occur;
- Preventing buildup of the uterine lining, and thereby inhibiting implantation of a fertilized egg in the event that one arrives in the uterus.” (source)
Personally, the mere possibility that conception could occur and then the fertilized egg could be prevented form implanting is enough to keep me from ever wanting to use hormonal contraceptives (along with a host of other reasons), but it turns out that artificial hormones aren’t good for mom either (or the water supply for that matter):
“In The Breast Cancer Prevention Program, Sam Epstein, MD, writes, “more than 20 well-controlled studies have demonstrated the clear risk of premenopausal breast cancer with the use of oral contraceptives. These estimates indicate that a young woman who uses oral contraceptives has up to ten times the risk for developing breast cancer as does a non-user, particularly if she uses the Pill during her teens or early twenties; if she uses the Pill for two years or more; if she uses the Pill before her first full-term pregnancy; if she has a family history of breast cancer.” Thus, a woman who takes the Pill for two years before she’s 25 and before she’s had a pregnancy to term increases her risk of breast cancer tenfold.
A study conducted by the World Health Organization found that women who carry the human papilloma virus (HPV) and who have taken the Pill for five to nine years are nearly three times more likely than non-Pill users to develop cervical cancer.7 (HPV affects a third of all women in their twenties.) Women with HPV who’ve taken the Pill for more than ten years are four times more likely than non-users to develop the disease.
Women who have a history of migraine headaches and who take combined oral contraceptives are two to four times more likely to have a stroke than women who have migraines and don’t take the Pill.8
Women who use low-dose oral contraceptive pills have a two-fold increased risk of a fatal heart attack compared to non-users.9 Women who take oral contraceptives and smoke have a 12-fold increase in fatal heart attacks and a 3.1-fold increase in fatal brain hemorrhage.10 Women who use the Pill after the age of 45 have a 144 percent greater risk of developing breast cancer than women who have never used it.11
Because of blocked hormone production, women who take the Pill have decreased sensitivity to smell. Because sexual interest is communicated through smell, the Pill may decrease women’s sex drives.12
In Solved: The Riddle of Illness, Dr. Stephen Langer writes that “the Pill. . . can cause severe bodily damage in hypothyroidism.”
Oral contraceptives may aggravate insulin resistance and longterm risk of diabetes and heart disease.13″ (source and references here)
IUDs carry additional concerns:
[Additional risks] include uterine perforation, which may lead to a hysterectomy, and infections, such as a pelvic or tubo-ovarian abscess. Use of all IUDs has been associated with an increased incidence of PID (Pelvic Inflammatory Disease). The IUD may occasionally result in pregnancy and if this were to occur, an ectopic pregnancy would be more likely to occur. An ectopic pregnancy is one in which the unborn child implants himself/ herself in a location other than in the mother’s uterus, usually in the fallopian tube. According to Rossing and Daling, two prominent researchers, women who had used an IUD for three or more years were more than twice as likely to have a tubal pregnancy as women who had never used an IUD even years after the IUD had been removed. Ectopic pregnancy remains the leading cause of maternal death in the United States. The IUD may also cause back aches, cramping, dyspareunia (painful intercourse), dysmenorrhea (painful menstrual cycles), and infertility.” (source)
Even sterilization, which is becoming an increasingly popular option, has its risks:
“Tubal ligation does not always prevent conception. When conception does occur, it is associated with a much higher incidence of ectopic pregnancy, which, as was noted, is the leading cause of death in pregnant women. In addition, women who undergo the procedure may experience complications from the anesthesia or from surgery. Complications include bladder puncture, bleeding, and even cardiac arrest after inflation of the abdomen with carbon dioxide Some women who have undergone a tubal ligation experience a syndrome of intermittent vaginal bleeding associated with severe cramping pain in the lower abdomen.
About 50% of men who undergo a vasectomy will develop anti-sperm antibodies. In essence, their bodies will come to recognize their own sperm as “the enemy.” This could lead to a higher incidence of autoimmune disease. Several studies have noted that men who undergo a vasectomy have a higher incidence of developing prostate cancer, especially 15-20 years after their vasectomy, although one large study did not find a link. Also, some research evidence suggests that there is an association between vasectomy and a recently identified form of dementia, Primary Progressive Aphasia” (source)
I’m guessing that hormone imbalance is a widespread problem in today’s world, as the post on how to balance hormones naturally is consistently my most viewed posts.
Statistically, many people use hormonal contraceptives to help “balance hormones” or prevent acne, etc. The problem is that this is just treating the symptoms and not addressing the root cause. The body naturally moves toward balance so if hormones are out of whack, it is not from a contraceptive deficiency, but rater that the body is not producing the natural hormones optimally.
Treating some of the symptoms with hormonal contraceptives not only doesn’t fix the root of the problem, but it can lead to bigger problems in the future as the underlying imbalance can still be causing other problems in the body.
If skin issues are the problem, check out this post about oil cleansing, which has completely gotten rid of my acne.
If hormone balance is the goal, check out this post about many ways to balance hormones naturally. I’ve also found some supplements that help a lot (excerpt from the above post):
- “Maca- A tuber in the radish family that has a history of boosting hormone production and libido. Many women notice less PMS, increased fertility, and improved skin while men notice increased sperm production, libido and better sleep. Maca is also high in minerals and essential fatty acids, making it great for hormones. It is available in powder form (least expensive option) or in capsules.
- Magnesium- Magnesium supports hundreds of reactions in the body and often contributes to better sleep (which is great for hormones!). There are several effective forms of Magnesium: In powder form with a product like Natural Calm so that you can vary your dose and work up slowly, ionic liquid form can be added to food and drinks and dose can be worked up slowly,or transdermal form by using Magnesium oil applied to skin. This is often the most effective option for those with damaged digestive tract or severe deficiency.
- Vitamin D- A pre-hormone is supportive of hormone function. Best obtained from the sun if possible, or Fermented Cod Liver Oil.
- Fermented Cod Liver Oil- Provides many of the necessary building blocks for hormone production including Vitamins A, D, and K. It also is a great source of Omega-3s and beneficial fats.
- Gelatin is a great source of calcium, magnesium and phosphate. It supports hormone production and digestive health and helps sooth inflammation, especially in joints. We use Great Lakes Kosher as I was able to verify with the company that it is sourced from grass-fed, humanely raised cows, and as such is higher in nutrients.”
Natural Ways to Prevent/Delay Pregnancy:
Hopefully I’ve made a case for why taking artificial hormones aren’t the best option for delaying pregnancy, but if just balancing hormones isn’t the reason for taking hormonal contraceptives and there is the need to delay or prevent pregnancy, there are other options (that are much healthier).
I’ll address the methods I have tried so that I can speak from experience:
Natural Family Planning (NFP) or Fertility Awareness Methods (FAM) are natural ways of preventing or achieving pregnancy based on the body’s natural hormonal cues. These methods carry no side effects and actually help women get to know their bodies better. I know of several cases of women who discovered problems (endometriosis, anovulation, etc) from practicing these methods since they were in touch with their hormonal cues.
While these methods get a bad rap, they have come a really long way from the Rhythm Methods of the past and many are now as effective as hormonal methods (and more effective than barrier methods) when used consistently. These methods can be used to delay or achieve pregnancy, so those who decide to conceive don’t have to worry about the risk of infertility, birth defects or delayed fertility after coming off of contraceptives.
The basic concept is using cues like Basal Body Temperature (BBT), mucus production, cervical position and other symptoms to effectively predict ovulation and avoid intercourse during this time. There are classes teaching how to practice these methods in most areas, or for those who can’t find a class, there are websites like Fertility Friend (free website) that allow users to chart symptoms and pinpoint ovulation. These websites now even have apps and mobile features for easy tracking.
High Tech NFP…
What I’ll be using personally to give myself a little space after this pregnancy, is a computer that does the tracking and calculation of NFP for me. Thanks to emerging technology, there are several great options available now (I might be using all of them…):
- The Lady Comp Fertility Monitor- Considered the Cadillac of fertility/NFP computers, this model just requires a daily input of Basal Body Temp (BBT) and it gives easy to understand red light (high probability of fertility), yellow light (possible fertility), and green light (ovulation has passed=no fertility). It works best with a cycle, though thanks to its knowledge of over 700,000 cycles, it is accurate even while breastfeeding (once cycle has returned or is about to), for irregular cycles and in pre-menopause. Click here for a ton of reviews and FAQs on this model. The price is the only downside, though in comparison to a lifetime of hormonal contraceptives (and any associated health problems) the cost is minimal. I know many people who have had great success both delaying and achieving with the LadyComp. There is also the more-expensive Baby Comp which helps predict gender for those who are trying to conceive, thought he Lady Comp can do this too (just time intercourse as close as possible to ovulation for a higher chance of a boy or a couple of days before for higher chance of a girl)
- The OvaCue Fertility Monitor- “The OvaCue predicts ovulation using the patented Electrolyte Method™ - a technique that has been demonstrated to be 98.3% accurate in predicting ovulation in clinical studies overseen by the National Institute of Health. Here’s how it works: Throughout your monthly cycle, your body retains or discards varying amounts of minerals, such as sodium and potassium (electrolytes). The OvaCue tracks the changes in these electrolyte levels in your saliva over time and processes this information to precisely define your time of peak fertility.” I’ll be using this method before my cycle returns and then using both this and the LadyComp to track fertility signs.
- If those options don’t seem like a good fit, NFP can be done without a computer with a simple Basal Thermometer and knowledge of the method.
- Methods like ClearBlue monitors which measure Luteinizing Hormone and estrogen to pinpoint ovulation. Though cheaper upfront, these require the purchase of additional ovulation strips to use each day, so they can be more expensive in the long run.
- OV-Watch – I don’t have personal experience with this one, but it claims to take computer readings every 30 minutes during sleep to accurately predict ovulation.
- Fertile Focus- I haven’t used this one personally but have a friend who had success with it. It is also the least expensive option. The basic idea is that this microscope shows changes in the woman’s saliva before ovulation (the same changes the Ovacue can read) and that by examining saliva each day she can predict ovulation. Like I said, I haven’t tried it, but it is an option that is out there.
Why I Don’t Recommend Herbs:
There are herbs that work as contraceptives, but I won’t list them or recommend them for several reasons:
- Many have abortifacient properties that can lead to early miscarriage.
- Most also impact the body in the same way that hormonal contraceptives do and cause similar problems for the mom as well. Herbs are highly effective and potent, and have to be used with care. Certain herbs should be avoided for these reasons.
- None of the “contraceptive” herbs are completely effective, they do have side effects and many can cause birth defects if conception does occur.
What do you think? Ever used natural methods for balancing hormones or delaying pregnancy?
Larimore WL, Stanford JB. Postfertilization effects of oral contraceptives and their relationship to informed consent. Arch Fam Med.
International Agency for Research on Cancer, Combined estrogen-progestogen contraceptives and combined estrogen-progestogen menopausal therapy. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. 2007; Vol 91. available at http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol91/mono91-6E.pdf
Kahlenborn C, et al. “Oral Contraceptive Use as a Risk Factor for Premenopausal Breast Cancer: A Meta-analysis” Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2006: 81(10):1290-1302
The study re-enforces the classification of OCs as Type 1 carcinogens by the International Agency for Cancer Research (WHO).
Kahlenborn C. Breast Cancer, Its Link to Abortion and the Birth Control Pill, One More Soul. 2000, 229-231.
Hume K. Effects of contraceptive medication on the cervix. The Biology of the Cervix. Retrieved on Apr 11, 2008 from http://www.billings-ovulation-method.org/omrrca/bulletin/vol25/no2/effects.shtml.
Overall cancer risk from several cancers due to oral contraceptive use: Kahlenborn C. Breast Cancer, Its Link to abortion and the Birth Control Pill, 2000. One More Soul, 2000, 228-229.
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, Injection (Depo-Provera), retrieved from http://www.sexualityandu.ca/professionals/contraception-1-3.aspx September 27, 2008
Mia AR, et al. Effects of prolonged use of injectable hormonal contraceptive on serum lipid profile. Mymensingh Med J. 2005 Jan; 14(1):19-21.
Herrero R, et al. Injectable contraceptives and risk of invasive cervical cancer: evidence of an association. Int J Cancer. 1990; 46(1):5-7.
Rahwan R. Chemical Contraceptives, Interceptives and Abortifacients, 1995. College of Pharmacy, Ohio State University.
Klonoff-Cohen HS, et al. An epidemiologic study of contraception and preeclampsia. JAMA. 1989 Dec; 262(22):3143-3147.
Rosenberg L, et al. Vasectomy and the risk of prostate cancer. Am J Epidemiol. 1990; 132(6):1051-1055.
Giovannucci E, et al. A prospective cohort study of vasectomy and prostate cancer in US men. JAMA. 1993 Feb; 269(7):873-877.
John EM, et al. Vasectomy and prostate cancer: results from a multiethnic case-control study. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1995 May; 87:662-669.
Kahlenborn C. Breast Cancer, Its Link to Abortion and the Birth Control Pill. One More Soul. 2000; 12, 226.
Kippley JF, Kippley SK. The Art of Natural Family Planning (Fourth Edition). The Couple to Couple League. 2007; 245.