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There are many different forms of birth control available for women looking to prevent pregnancy. Most types contain synthetic hormones that stop ovulation or otherwise prevent the sperm from meeting the egg. If you don’t want to take hormones, you might be wondering if there are any herbal birth control options. Here’s more about what’s out there, what the research says, and other methods that might work for you.

Plants have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries, perhaps longer. Although herbal supplements are labeled as natural, some do produce drug-like effects. As a result, taking certain supplements does carry risks. It’s important to understand that although you may see many herbal supplements on the shelves at your local grocery or drugstore, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved most of these supplements.

Regardless, herbal supplements are widely used and even promoted by experts of certain healing arts, such as acupuncture. Some may even be used for the purpose of contraception. If you start to do your own research on herbal birth control, you’ll soon discover that there isn’t a lot of information from established medical sources.

Sarah Pope writes the popular blog The Healthy Home Economist. She explains that herbs may be helpful at both enhancing and “dampening” fertility, depending on your family planning goals. Women may turn to herbs if they don’t want to take synthetic hormones, chart their cycles, or pay attention to other fertility signs. She believes that herbs combined with a barrier method, such as male or female condoms, can provide good protection against pregnancy.

Katie Spears at Wellness Mama has also done a great deal of research into her own natural family planning. She prefers tracking her fertility to avoid unprotected sex during fertile days each month to taking the pill. She doesn’t promote the use of herbs for birth control for a few key reasons.

  • Some herbs may contain agents that induce abortion and cause miscarriage.
  • Some herbs may affect the body and produce some of the same side effects as hormonal birth control.
  • No herbs are 100 percent effective and using them may carry risks to the fetus if pregnancy occurs.

Because much of what you’ll find online about herbal birth control comes from anecdotal accounts, you can see how difficult it can be to wade through the information. Before you head to the store to pick up any supplements, here’s some more specifics.

Pope’s information on herbal birth control largely comes from the book Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year by Susun S. Weed. In the text, Weed outlines different herbs that can be used for contraception in a number of ways. Certain herbs supposedly work to prevent implantation. Some herbs cause the uterus to contract. Other herbs promote sterility, and the list goes on.

This information is also available on Weed’s website, Natural Health, Herbal Medicine and Sprit Healing the Wise Woman Way, which provides an excerpt from her book. Before reading, it’s important to note that, according to her author profile, Weed has “no official diplomas of any kind.” She began studying herbs in 1965 while she was pregnant and has, through the years, come to take on a level of expertise on the subject in certain circles.

Sterility Promoters

Weed says the following are considered by some people to promote sterility:

  • Stoneseed root was used by women in the Dakota tribe. The root was steeped in cold water for hours and then ingested daily for six months at a time.
  • Jack-in-the-pulpit root, though not as potent, was similarly taken by women in the Hopi tribe after being mixed with cold water.
  • Thistles supposedly promote temporary sterility. They were boiled in water to create tea and consumed by women in the Quinault tribe.

Implantation Preventers

Weed says the following are considered by some people to prevent implantation:

  • Queen Anne’s lace is also known as wild carrot seed is used as birth control, and traces its roots back to India. The seeds are taken for seven days after unprotected intercourse during the fertile period to help prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus.
  • Smartweed leaves grow all over the world and supposedly contain substances that prevent implantation, such as rutin, quercetin, and gallic acid.
  • Rutin can also be purchased on its own for a similar purpose. It may be taken after unprotected sex until the start of menstruation.

Menstruation Starters

Weed says the following herbs are considered by some people to promote menstruation:

  • Ginger root is considered to be the most powerful herb you can take to promote menstruation. It’s taken via power mixed into boiling water several times a day for around five days.
  • Vitamin C may have a similar effect, but it needs to be taken in higher doses. Taking high doses of vitamin C in synthetic form may make your bowels loose.

Of all these herbs, Queen Anne’s Lace is one of the more broadly discussed birth control options on this list. Its influence spans back to antiquity. Even today, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago share that some women in rural North Carolina are known to consume the seeds mixed into water to prevent pregnancy. Apparently, chewing the seeds produces the most effective results.

It’s important to remember that these herbal birth control methods are rarely if ever discussed, promoted, or researched by Western medicine. Still want to explore herbs as an option for birth control? It’s a good idea to meet with a professional herbalist or other licensed practitioner who regularly deals with herbs before starting a course on your own.

As with many medicines, herbal supplements can produce a host of side effects even when used properly. Queen Anne’s lace, for example, may cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms if used improperly.

According to the Essential Herb-Drug-Vitamin Interaction Guide, side effects may include:

  • nausea
  • tiredness
  • allergic reaction
  • low blood pressure
  • excessive sedation or depression when combined with certain drugs
  • increased sensitivity to sunlight when combined with certain drugs
  • worsened kidney irritation or inflammation
  • enhanced effects of other supplements with sedative properties

Different herbs will have different side effects. Different bodies will react differently to herbs. Your pharmacist may have more information to share before you start something new, especially if you’re taking medication.

To avoid side effects, always use herbs as directed on the label or as directed by your doctor. Keep track of any worrisome symptoms you may have so that you can discuss them with your doctor.

There are several reasons why herbal supplements might not be for you. Proceed with caution if you have any of the following risk factors:

  • Whether you have a prescription or take medication that’s over the counter, there may be interactions with herbs. Ask your pharmacist for more information about specific interactions.
  • This one is important if you’re considering using herbs to prevent pregnancy. Herbs can be harmful to a fetus or breast-feeding baby. If you do become pregnant while taking herbs, you should stop taking the herbs until you speak with your doctor about them.
  • Some herbs may interact with anesthesia or produce other side effects in the operating room. Let your doctor know if you’re taking any herbs before you go in for surgery.
  • Herbs haven’t been tested on many people under age 18. People over age 65 may also process the herbs differently.

If you do choose to try herbal birth control methods, speak with your doctor about any side effects you may experience. Treatment may be as simple as discontinuing use and using another type of birth control.

Read more: Homegrown herbal remedies »

Herbal supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA. When taking herbal birth control, it’s important that you:

  • Follow all supplement instructions. Don’t take more than is recommended on the label or by your doctor.
  • Track your usage. This can be helpful if you do experience side effects. Take note of how much of the supplement you’re taking, how long you’ve been taking it, and any symptoms.
  • Read the labels. You should be especially careful about supplements manufactured outside of the United States. It’s been revealed that some herbal supplements from China, India, and Mexico have contained toxic ingredients and prescription drugs.
  • Keep yourself posted. Herbal supplements aren’t approved by the FDA, but the FDA may issue different reviews or reports once they’re on the market. You can check online for any updates.

If you do take herbs for contraception, it’s a good idea to use a backup method, like condoms, to provide additional protection against pregnancy. Condoms contain no synthetic hormones and are up to 82 percent effective. In other words, about 18 in 100 women will get pregnant each year when relying only on male condoms for birth control.

Condoms also protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which is an area that herbal supplements don’t cover.

Are you looking for more hormone-free contraception options? Fertility awareness-based methods (FAMs) are a reliable way to get to know your body and fertile periods. In order to practice FAM, you have to pay attention to your body’s signs and signals to predict when ovulation might happen. The best part of this is that there are no side effects.

You’re most fertile in the five days before ovulation, as well as the day of ovulation. FAM helps you determine ovulation by tracking your basal body temperature with a thermometer upon waking. You can also observe your cervical mucus, keep track of ovulation dates on a standard calendar, or track menstrual cycles to assess possible fertile times.

The effectiveness of FAMs is slightly lower than the effectiveness of other birth control options. Twenty-four out of 100 women practicing FAM will get pregnant each year if they don’t use the method perfectly. Using these methods consistently improves the rate of pregnancy prevention.

There aren’t a lot of research results that prove herbs are effective or safe as a form of birth control. Always tell your doctor if you’re taking herbs to prevent any interactions with medical conditions or medications you may be taking.

You should use caution when using herbal supplements to prevent pregnancy. Between drug interactions, side effects, and other unknowns, herbs may not be worth the risks. You can make an appointment to speak with your doctor about your concerns with hormonal birth control and your desire to explore other options. There are alternatives, like FAM and others, that don’t involve consuming herbs.