Tuesday 22 October 2013


 “Why wasn’t I, as a woman, more in control of my fertility?”

This is something I hear a lot in my work as a herbalist. Care-free/careless sex happens, all the time – the abortion clinics are oversubscribed and even in this age of medicalised fertility and contraceptives, there are many children born to unprepared mothers with no fathers there to help bring them up. Sex education needs to encompass female reproductive cycles in far more depth: I didn’t fully understand that my womb waxed and waned in size from a nut to a grapefruit each lunar cycle until after I had given birth to my first child.

My first memorable interaction with plants was making daisy chains with friends, soothing nettle stings with dock leaves and crushing rose petals for perfume. These were the start of a lifelong love affair with the things of the earth. But the first time I ever bought herbs to treat myself was when I was 18 years old, backpacking in Spain. I had met a dark and brooding German punk. Although AIDS advertising had been at its height during my TV-watching youth, I had been undeterred and the sex definitely wasn’t ‘safe’.  I had missed my period and was panicking.

I bought Rue and Pennyroyal, after being told these plants would bring on my period and could be used in the case of unprotected sex as a ‘morning after’ treatment. I don’t remember being told how much to drink or how often but I do remember that after drinking a couple of litres of the strong brew for 3 days on the trot, my blood began to flow. I also had a serve headache and eye pain, most likely side effects of the toxicity.

During my Herbal Medicine Degree course I focused my dissertation on the history of contraception and abortion. I could not enlist a supervisor from the Herbal Medicine faculty as the subject was met with so much resistance. I was told it was unnecessary information and asked to justify the benefit of the project. In the end, a member of the English faculty came to my aid. During my research I became involved with another dark and brooding handsome man. I experimented with Vitamin C, Neem and black cohosh. The Vitamin C alters the ph of the vagina so makes it inhospitable for sperm. I would insert an effervescing pill before sex, it burnt and fizzed and the Neem, also a spermicidal, has an incredibly unpleasant smell, so these precautions weren’t conducive to romance.

Unfortunately, in spite of my erratic experiments, I became pregnant. I drank the weekly dose of the uterine stimulating tincture black cohosh and almost instantly felt sick. Within 5 minutes I had the beginning of a hammering headache and am not sure to this day how I managed to drive home as I could hardly open my eyes from the pain. I phoned my friend saying that I had poisoned myself with this toxic dose. She thankfully helped me with detoxifying juices, clay and reflexology. But even after this dose, I was still pregnant and had to follow it all up with a clinical abortion – something that I felt extremely confused and upset about.

Informed choice and information
I am a firm believer that information and informed choice are essential, as there is only a small margin between a treatment and a toxic effect using these herbs. People around the world have always made and used herbal potions and pessaries with the goal of preventing, and or disrupting pregnancy. Because of the rise of the Catholic church and its anti-contraception laws, important information has been lost so it is impossible for us to say how effective herbal remedies were in the past.

Much of the information remains scarce and fragmented, as most recipes are very old and were transmitted orally, information was closely guarded to avoid persecution. Some historical information remains, and there is some excellent literature on the subject such as Eve’s Herbs by John Riddle. However, exact recipes are rare, and effectiveness rates are untested in modern society. Scientific researchers have done some research on botanical anti-fertility agents, and some promising results have been discovered - herbs like Neem, Mexican Yam, wild carrot seed and Gossypol all have a lot of interesting papers printed about them.

What does herbal contraceptive mean?
There are many different ways in which herbs can impair fertility. Some herbs may affect the ovary, while others act upon the uterus, affect normal hormone production or block certain hormones. Herbs have also been found to interfere with normal sperm production, or mobility. Some herbal contraceptives have a cumulative effect in the body; they need to be taken regularly like the contraceptive pill to maintain the contraceptive effect. Often these type of herbs demand a few monthly cycles to establish effectiveness. 

Some herbs have the ability to interfere with implantation; these herbs can be taken on an “as needed basis”, and are useful as an emergency contraceptive. The actual effect in the body can vary from herb to herb, but the end result makes it difficult for the egg to implant or maintain its grip on the uterine wall by making the mucous membrane of the wall more slippery. Implantation normally occurs about 6 days after the egg has been fertilized. If the egg is unable to get a grip on the slippery mucousa, bleeding will occur as normal. Wild carrot (Daucus carota) has a good reputation as an implantation inhibitor and an American herbalist Rose Robin Bennett has done a lot of research which can be accessed on her website robinrosebennett.com.

Herbal contraception is not properly researched and all too often has to be followed up with clinical abortions. My goal of my writing is to encourage women to educate themselves about their own cycles - learning ones cycles and understanding ovulation times alongside conscious use of herbs can and is used by many women successfully.

 The only herb that has been fully researched with human trials is the wild carrot that I mentioned earlier and the only one that I would have full confidence in. Have a further look into Rose Robin Bennett’s work. There is also a fantastic website Sister Zeus - http://sisterzeus.com, that has in-depth information on lots of differing herbal contraceptives.

I have been discussing my monthly blood cycles in depth with my 5-year-old daughter over her life and wish to help her connect with and understand her own fertility as soon as possible. I am in a stable loving relationship now and we use condoms during the risk times of my cycle. I check my mucous regularly and am aware when I am ovulating. It was deeply profound to realise that my mucous changed over the course of my cycle. I still cannot believe how disconnected I was from my own bodily functions and how long it took me to be aware of what is perfectly natural.

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