Contraceptive Uses of Plants – An Ethno-botanical Approach to Women’s Health

Although often perceived as a controversial topic in contemporary conversations regarding medicine, health, and daily life, contraception has been practiced in practically every culture in the world since humans developed civilization. 

Defined as a method of preventing the fertilization of an egg by sperm, contraception has become the term used to describe any method, practice, procedure, or device which prevents fertilization and implantation of a fertilized egg (zygote), as well as those which may terminate an active pregnancy.  For the purposes of this paper, contraception refers to any practice utilized by sexually active people to prevent pregnancy, or to end pregnancy in its early stages.

Currently there are a number of strategies employed by copulating couples to prevent fertilization and implantation, including male and female condoms, birth control pills, patches, and rings, contraceptive shots and intrauterine devices, fertility awareness or natural family planning, emergency contraceptive (Plan B or Morning After Pill), withdrawal before ejaculation, and in cases where pregnancy does occur, there are both chemical and surgical procedures for removing a fetus from the uterus and thus ending the pregnancy.

US News estimates that up to 40% of women between 15-44 are on some type of birth control, most likely the forms that alter a woman's chemistry such that her body behaves as if it is already pregnant, and therefore eggs are not released during the menstrual cycle.  A growing number of women and professionals in the field of health (in addition to environmental scientists) are becoming concerned with the seemingly unregulated use of these contraceptives because of how they affect women's reproductive health.

As more people, and women in particular, are becoming interested in healing therapies which are more connected to the earth and to their own bodies, herbal medicine is providing insights to these people about safer and healthier treatments.  By investigating how women and men have used plants to control their fertility throughout history, several things become clear: people have always used plants as contraceptives, and new options for family planning may be on the horizon.

Emmenegogues

True emmenegogues are herbs that stimulate menstrual flow and activity, according to David Hoffman, who also suggests in Medical Herbalism that the term 'emmenegogue' may have expanded to describe herbs that have an affinity toward the female reproductive system, and help to tonify, normalize, and balance hormones for this system.  However, most texts, journals, and professional herbalists use the term emmenegogue specifically for herbs that bring on menstruation when it has been delayed or obstructed. 

The largest category of herbs used for contraceptive purposes is emmenegogues.  They are used to prevent pregnancy by encouraging the lining of the uterus to release and initiate the bleeding phase of menstruation, thereby preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg, and even to prevent fertilization by using the herbal emmenegogues to start the menstrual cycle very early, and very shortly after sexual activity. 

David Hoffman mentions in Medical Herbalism three herbs which he calls 'True Emmenegogues,' and they are Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens).  They also have a tonifying effect on the uterus, which is beneficial for the woman using the herbs, especially if she hopes to become pregnant in the future.  These three herbs are given credit for their emmenegoguic and contraceptive powers more than any others.

In Native American Ethnobotany, 340 herbs are listed as being used as gynecological aids, compared to 41 used for contraception, and 102 used as abortifacients.  For example, the Cherokee used Angelica (Angelica archangelica) roots and Pennyroyal (Hedeoma puglioides) leaves to induce abortion and as a "tonic for obstructed menses." (Moerman p 74)  The Sanpoil used Yarrow for this purpose, and Mugwort was used by the Blackfoot, Chippewa, Dakota, Kaiwaiisu, Menominee, Omaha, Pawnee, Ponca, and Sioux.  Interestingly, the Lakota people used the roots from a variety of Opuntia as the "medicine for not give birth." (Moerman p 765). 

Abortifacients

            Herbs that induce an abortion are called abortifacients.  These act to stimulate the uterine lining so that an implanted embryo is flushed out with induced menstruation, or they may starve the uterine lining of progesterone, a hormone necessary for carrying a pregnancy.  Today these are likely avoided in practice and discussion because potentially toxic doses  may be required for inducing abortion.

            Margarita Kay, in Healing with plants in the American and Mexican West, found that Mexican women in Baja use the root, branches, and bark of Chaparral (Larrea tridentata) to induce abortion, and that in many markets in Mexico, Marrubio (Marrubium vulgare) or Horehound, is reccommended for its 'oxytocic activity;' meaning that it initiates a very early labor.  There is ancient evidence of this plant being used in this way, as Dioscorides said it brings on menstruation, and expelled the placenta after birth (or the fetus if it died in utero).  Another preparation by the Seri people in Mexico involves making a tea of Desert Broom (Baccharis sarathroides) leaves with the lac of a Creosote bush (lac is created by insects on the leaves of Larrea), which is said to induce abortion.  In 1633, the herbalist Gerard said "Sitting over a hot bath made of Baccharis roots mightily voideth the birth and furtherething those that have extreme laboring their childing," and also that it "brings down the desired sickness," which is menstruation.  Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinale) is often called the prostitute's herb in Mexico, because it is used not only to bring on delayed menstruation and induce abortion, it is given as a douche for a variety of vaginal infections.

Spermicides

            Although there is not much information regarding the use of herbs as spermicides, new research on this topic is continually being generated in India.  A spermicide is usually a gel, wax, or liquid, with ingredients that destroy sperm cells before they have an opportunity to migrate through the cervix.  Spermicides are usually used as a lubricant for sexual activity, or they may be inserted/injected into the vagina before or after intercourse.

            Neem (Azadirachta indica) is an extensively used plant native to India, where it is coined the 'Divine Tree.'  It's uses are numerous, and it is even considered a panacea to cure all diseases to many people.  In the December 1996 issue of the journal Contraception, a study is described where the active constituents in Neem plant demonstrated a clear spermicidal effect, killing human sperm in under 20 seconds. The compound most studied is named NIM-76, and it does not have abortifacient properties, while it decreases motility, velocity, and head displacement of human sperm.

            While most studies on Neem as a contraceptive have been performed on animals, human studies show a great potential for this plant to be used in its oil form as a contraceptive spermicide.

Herbal Pessaries

            A pessary is an herbal concoction which is inserted into the vagina to either kill incoming sperm, prevent the cervix from opening, keeping cervical mucosa from thickening, or stimulating the uterus to abort or initiate menstruation.   Parsley is commonly used by women attempting abortions.  However in a study described in the Indian Journal of Medical Research, pessaries containing the leaves of Neem and Soapnut (Sapindus mukorossi) with the oil of Bergamot mint (Mentha citrata) potentiated the spermicidal activity Neem by eight times.  It acted in this way by preventing the migration of sperm into the cervical mucus.

            Because contraception is so widely practiced among members of the human race, awareness of natural and particularly herbal methods is going to benefit people on a global scale.  Many procedures and recipes have existed for thousands of years, many herbalists and healers of the past openly discussed and advised patients on such matters.  As humanity heads into new eras, it must look to the past for the wisdom of the old healers and their plant allies for safer and healthier ways to manage fertility and population.

Sources

Journal of Ethnopharmacology. A. Jain, S. Katewas, B.L. Chaudhary, P. Galav.  January 2004; 90(1). p 171-177.

Indian Journal of Medical Research.  April 2001; 113. p 135-141.

Contraception. December 1996; 54(6).p 373-378

Native American Ethnobotany. Daniel Moerman.  Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. 1998.

Healing with Plants in the American and Mexican West. Margarita Kay. p 64-68.

Making Plant Medicine. Ricoh Cech.  Horizon Herbs, 2000.

Nature's Medicine Plants that Heal. Joel Swerdlow, Ph.D

Medical Herbalism The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine.  David Hoffman, FNIMH. Healing Arts Press, 2003.

**The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only.  Please do not attempt any of the herbal applications mentioned without the guidance of a trained herbalist.  The Growing Project and its authors are not responsible for any issues, injury, or illness which may occur should you use the remedies discussed herein.**