The first thing to stress when talking about herbal contraception is that it isn’t 100% reliable. Very little thorough scientific research has been done and most evidence for it relies on word of mouth. If you absolutely definitely don’t want to get pregnant, don’t use herbal contraceptives as your sole method.
Having said that, the results of recent research (October 2010) into a male herbal contraceptive pill have been promising. Researchers in Rajasthan University are trying to develop a pill that uses widely available natural herbs. Testing is at a preliminary stage and it will be some years before a conclusive result is obtained. In the meantime we have to rely largely on folklore for our knowledge of herbal contraceptives.
Woman to woman
Mention of herbal contraception crops up comparatively rarely in old scientific papers and books. This is probably because it was usually the woman who would take responsibility for contraception, often undoubtedly, without her husband’s knowledge. She would have consulted the village wise woman, who today would be recognised as a herbalist, who would have provided her with the potion necessary to prevent pregnancy. This information was passed down through the generations orally from woman to woman, mother to daughter, herbalist to patient, and wouldn’t have found its way into any textbooks.
How herbs work
Different herbs act in different ways: some prevent conception; others stop the implantation of the fertilised egg. Some need to be taken on a regular basis; others act more like the morning after pill and can be taken as needed. But, as we said at the start, herbal contraceptives are not 100% reliable, and, even more importantly, an overdose can be extremely dangerous.
But let’s take a brief look at the history of herbal contraception.
One of the most famous herbal contraceptives is silphion, a plant that grew, about 3,500 years ago, in Cyrene in what is now Libya in North Africa. It is mentioned in the love poetry of Catullus, an ancient Roman poet, as well as in the famous cookbook attributed to the legendary first century gourmand, Apicius. It was highly prized for its properties and sold for a price greater than that of silver. In fact so great was the demand for it that it became extinct!
Attempts to farm silphion failed and today it can only be found on ancient coins from Cyrene. But in its day it appears to have been a highly effective contraceptive. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, suggested taking its juice orally or applied to a piece of wool and inserted as a pessary.
Silphion is believed to have been a member of the carrot family resembling fennel, and it’s from this same family that we find one of the herbs popular today for its contraceptive properties.
Queen Anne’s Lace
The seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace (also known as wild carrot) have long been used as a means of preventing implantation. Mentioned by Hippocrates several centuries BC, the seeds work best when taken immediately after intercourse. Queen Anne’s Lace seeds appear to be the most highly-regarded of contraceptive herbs.
Other herbal contraceptives
- Oil and leaf extracts from the Neem tree, a native of India, have been used for thousands of years as contraceptives. Charaka, a first century Indian physician, suggested dipping a rag in the oil and leaving it in the vagina for 15 minutes before intercourse. Today commercial products based on neem oil are available in pill and spermicide formats.
- Pomegranate was used in past times to prevent conception. Its seeds provide one of the best sources of plant oestrogen.
- Wild yam has been used to treat a wide range of women’s health issues and, depending on how it is used, can increase or decrease fertility.
- Research amongst Native American women indicates numerous herbs used for contraception purposes including mistletoe, antelope sage and ragleaf bahia.
A final note
When silphion became extinct its place was taken, to a certain extent, by asafoetida, a close relative from the fennel family. Asafoetida is perhaps best known for its repugnant smell: bad enough to make an effective contraceptive maybe?