Wondering how to prevent pregnancy reliably and safely, without using birth control pills? This article will cover some of the most time-tested natural birth control methods that are also now backed up by science. In addition, we’re taking a look at some risks associated with the leading way to currently prevent pregnancy: birth control pills.
What’s Wrong with Birth Control Pills?
About 70 percent of all women at some point turn to non-permanent, non-invasive hormonal methods of birth control — especially birth control pills. (1) Still, the dangers of birth control pills include possible side effects like: cystic acne, anxiety or moodiness, breast tenderness, weight gain, or for some, difficulty getting pregnant after stopping the pill. It’s so surprise that many women are looking for natural birth control methods instead. For women who wish to avoid unnecessary medical procedures, including those who consider one day having a natural child birth, this is especially true.
Although there’s a lot of ongoing controversy regarding the pros and cons of using birth control pills, and every woman reacts somewhat differently, evidence suggests the effects of these hormonal medications can include both serious and minor reactions. Birth control side effects are common and may include: (2)
- Higher risk of breast cancer
- Increased risk of blood clotting, heart attack and stroke
- Migraines (including new cases or worsening of symptoms)
- Gallbladder symptoms and disease
- Increased blood pressure
- Weight gain or changes in appetite
- Mood changes, including mood swings, increased anxiety or symptoms of depression
- Nausea, irregular bleeding or spotting between periods
- Rarely, benign liver tumors
- Breast tenderness or swelling
One of the risks of birth control pills (synthetic hormonal contraception) is that these medications impede the normal functioning of a woman’s ovaries, thereby interfering with their beneficial effects. Birth control pills fool a woman’s body into thinking she’s already pregnant by continuously raising levels of certain hormones, especially estrogen.
This can have a negative impact on healthy bone production and maintenance, possibly contributing to significant bone loss among many other disorders. Evidence suggests that women who are the greatest risk of developing these problems are those who: older than 35, smoke, are overweight, have a family history of disorders tied to hormonal complications, and who have other health problems — like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart or vascular disease, or blood cholesterol and triglyceride abnormalities.
In most cases, the lower the dose of synthetic hormones used, the fewer side effects that occur. However, even if a woman experiences no obvious side effects when taking the pill, synthetic hormones can still take a silent toll on a woman’s body that may show up many years later, including difficulty becoming pregnant. This isn’t always the case, and studies suggest that birth control pills are not a significant risk factor for infertility, but many women report missing signs of hormonal problems in their younger years due to masking them by taking the pill, only to find out years down the road that they had an untreated problem.
9 Natural Birth Control Methods that Work (When Used Correctly)
There are many safe and effective forms of natural birth control (natural contraceptives) to consider, including:
1. Male condoms: At around a 98 percent effectiveness rate when used correctly, they are nearly as effective as taking the pill. However, sometimes they are not used properly, which lowers their effectiveness (the same can be said for female condoms). (3)
2. Female condoms: While these are not as familiar to most people, female condoms are 95 percent effective and are less likely to tear than male condoms. A female condom consists of a small pouch that fits inside the vagina before sex.
3. Natural family planning/fertility awareness: This is a great method for helping women track their natural cycles, identify times of fertility, treat PMS symptoms and evaluate the effects of stress on hormones/menstrual cycle. More details on how to use this method are described below.
4. Temperature method: This is a way to pinpoint the day of ovulation so that sex can be avoided for a few days before and after peak ovulation days. The temperature method involves taking your basal body temperature (your temperature upon first waking up in the morning) each morning with an accurate “basal” thermometer. Then, you note the rise in temperature that occurs after ovulation takes place. Ovulation causes a slight, but noticeable rise in body temperature which can be tracked over time. When you measure your temperature every morning, you can learn to evaluate data over several months to recognize your own fertility pattern. This helps you figure out which days to avoid sex. Temperature method is most reliable when combined with the mucus method; the two methods combined can have a success rate as high as 98 percent. Alone, the temperature method is about 75 percent effective. (4)
5. Diaphragms: These must be fitted by a doctor and are about 88 to 94 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. (5) They are thin, soft rubber rings that are inserted into the upper part of the vagina to cover the cervix and act as a barrier to sperm. They last for about 2 years unused, and cost about $70.
6. Cervical cap: This is a heavy rubber cap that fits tightly over the cervix. It must be put into place by a doctor and can be left in place for 48 hours. These have a 85 to 91 percent effectiveness rate depending on how carefully it’s used. (6)
7 Lady Comp: Lady Comp is a type of fertility monitor that’s been used in Europe for nearly 30 years. According to the official Lady Comp website, this monitor is an “intelligent, non-invasive, natural method of contraception … it’s a next-generation fertility monitor that learns, analyses and indicates ovulation, fertile and non-fertile days with 99.3 percent premium accuracy, which is free of invasive hormones and side effects.” There are several monitors available depending on your budget and needs. Most tell you whether you’re fertile by displaying a red light on your “fertile days” and a green light during your infertile phase, allowing you to predict your peak-ovulation days.
8. Mucus method: This involves tracking changes in the amount and texture of vaginal discharge, which reflect rising levels of estrogen in the body. For the first few days after your period, there is often no discharge, but there will be a cloudy, tacky mucus as estrogen starts to rise. When the discharge starts to increase in volume and becomes clear and stringy, ovulation is near. A return to the tacky, cloudy mucus or no discharge means that ovulation has passed. This method can work very well (about 90 percent effectively) when used by women with regular cycles, however it’s not a good match for those who have irregular periods, frequent vaginal infections or irregular mucus, who have recently given birth, or who have taken emergency contraceptives recently (like Plan B). (7)
9. Calendar method: This is a term for practicing abstention from sex during the week the woman is ovulating. This technique works best when a woman’s menstrual cycle is very regular. The calendar method doesn’t work very well for couples who use it by itself (about a 75 percent success rate), but it can be effective when combined with the temperature and mucus methods (more on this type of “rhythm method” is described below).
How Natural Birth Control Methods Work: Tracking Fertility Days
Most women have an “average” cycle of about 28 days. Hormones in a woman’s body cause an egg to be released from the ovary, which is known as ovulation. The egg travels through the fallopian tube towards the uterus and is only available to be fertilized for 12 to 24 hours during the fertile window. If sperm penetrates the egg, the fertilized egg will attach to the lining of the uterus, and that is the start of pregnancy.
The Your Fertility website states that: “The likelihood of actually becoming pregnant is dramatically increased if you have intercourse in the three days leading up to and including ovulation. If a woman has sex on any of these three days, she has a 27 to 33 percent chance of becoming pregnant.”
Other days surrounding the peak fertility days, the chance of conception drops to about 10 to 16 percent. The number of days in a woman’s cycle before ovulation will typically range from 13 to 20 days (starting from the first day of per period).
There are about six days in a woman’s “fertile window.” (Refresher: “Fertile window” refers to the days during a woman’s cycle when she can get pregnant.) This window reflects the lifespan of sperm (5 days) and the lifespan of the ovum (24 hours). The natural birth control methods above help pinpoint these days. Sometimes, these methods use an extended fertility window to err on the safe side when it comes to preventing pregnancy, such as making the window 8 to 9 days instead of 6. (8)
In order to use many of these natural birth control methods, such as the calendar method, here are directions and guidelines to get you started:
1. Start by keeping track of your cycles for about 3-6 months. The more time you give yourself to record data for your cycles, the more accurate these methods will be (many experts recommend preparing for 6 to 12 months of your cycle).
Using a calendar, write down the number of days in each menstrual cycle — counting from the first day of your period to the first day of your next period. Ovulation happens about two weeks before the next expected period starts. If your cycle is on average 28 days long, and day one is when you first start bleeding, day 14 is around your most fertile day. If ovulation typically happens on day 14, your most fertile days are days 12, 13, and 14.
2. Once you have an idea of your regular cycle, take note of your shortest menstrual cycle on record. Subtract 18 from the total number of days in your shortest cycle. This number should be the first fertile day in your cycle. If your cycle is about 28 days long, subtract 18 from 28 to get 10. This means the 10th day after you begin bleeding (when your cycle starts) is potentially the most fertile day of the month, and the days surrounding this day are also potentially fertile. To be very careful about not getting pregnant, you may have to avoid sex for a longer period of time if your cycles vary in length (no sex for about 7 to 9 days per month).
3. Now do the same for your longest menstrual cycle. Subtract 11 from the total number of days in your longest cycle. If the longest cycle was 30 days, it would look like this: 30-11= 19. This means 19 days after you start bleeding should be the last fertile day of your cycle. If you’re hoping to get pregnant, you should plan to have sex during nearly all of your most fertile days. If you’re hoping to avoid pregnancy, avoid sex during your entire extended fertile window for best protection. For best results, try to keep tracking your cycle and updating your data every month to help you pinpoint your fertile window.
Natural Ways to Prevent Pregnancy that Are NOT Reliable
The fertility awareness method (FAM) and natural family planning (NFP) are two popular and effective forms of natural contraception that are often misunderstood and said to be unreliable. The misconceptions surrounding their effectiveness mostly stem from people associating FAM or NFP with the sometimes-inaccurate “rhythm method.”
What is the rhythm method?
The rhythm method is also called the calendar method or the calendar rhythm method. This is basically the method described above for tracking fertility days. Like other natural birth control methods, the rhythm method relies on avoiding conception by limiting sexual intercourse to the times of a woman’s menstrual cycle when ovulation is least likely to occur.
The rhythm method was used by couples for many years prior to the development of FAM and NFP to help couples try and track fertility cycles in order to prevent pregnancy — but it didn’t utilize the same scientific principles or measurements that newer and improved fertility methods use (like temperature changes, mucus and so on). Therefore, many feel it does not do justice to the nature and practice of FAM or NFP (also called by other names like the Sympto-Thermal Method, the Ovulation Method, and the Billings Method. (9) FAM and NFP combine the calendar/rhythm method, the basal body temperature method and the cervical mucus method, so they do more than simply rely on one type of measurement.
Overall, evidence suggests that calendar/rhythm methods work about 75 to 87 percent of the time, but that’s not a risk some couples are willing to take. (10) In other words, in the first year of typical use, an estimated 13 out of 100 women practicing the rhythm method alone for birth control will get pregnant.
Other concerns with natural birth control being reliable (stress, irregular periods and inconsistency) :
Some couples, and doctors, also feel that FAM or NFP are difficult, time-consuming techniques that most women are not willing to learn and practice properly. This has contributed to their mixed (sometimes negative) reputation for not always working well.
The key to using these natural birth control methods is to learn how to accurately and diligently track fertility. If a woman’s cycle is irregular, this may be more difficult to do. Overall, these methods take preparation and willingness to wait and learn. They are both based on a woman learning her signs of fertility. The main difference between them is that NFP practitioners choose, often due to religious reasons, to abstain from having sex during the woman’s fertile days. On the other hand, it’s common for FAM practitioner to use barrier methods of contraception (such as condoms) during fertile days.
It’s important to note that certain factors can impact hormone levels and make it harder to determine your ovulation cycle naturally. For example, your normal basal body temperature can be thrown off due to being sick, fatigued and/or suffering from an ongoing lack of sleep. Because these can change your body temperature, they make methods such as the temperature method unreliable when used alone. To prevent “accidents,” it’s a better idea to combine several natural birth control methods together for best results, such as the mucus method and temperature method. Programs including Lady Comp help do this for you by giving you temperature information and questions/prompts to look for.
Precautions Regarding Natural Birth Control Methods
Keep in mind that natural birth control methods don’t usually work 100 percent of the time, so remember there’s always a risk for conception if you choose to have sex. If you want to use natural methods for birth control, consult your healthcare provider first if any of the following situations apply to you, since these can affect your cycle and fertility:
- You recently had your very first period.
- You gave birth within the past several months.
- You recently stopped taking birth control pills or other hormonal contraceptives.
- You’re currently breastfeeding (this usually means you cannot get pregnant).
- You have irregular menstrual cycles, or sometimes miss periods for extended periods of time (called amenorrhea).
- You’re approaching menopause or in peri-menopause.
Final Thoughts on Natural Birth Control Methods
- More than 100 million women worldwide use birth control pills, however, there are dangers associated with birth control pills due to unnaturally altering a woman’s estrogen levels. Levels are often raised far too high, causing symptoms of “estrogen dominance.”
- Risks associated with birth control pills may include: moodiness or depression, breast tenderness, nutrient deficiencies and possibly a higher risk for certain types of cancers.
- I recommend utilizing safer, natural birth control methods that can also effectively help prevent pregnancy. These include Natural Family Planning (NFP, also called FAM), condoms or diaphragms, the temperature method or the mucus method.
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