As an acupuncturist and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, I work with women who have experienced fertility issues. While there are varying causes of infertility, one of the things I do in my own practice is help women regulate their cycles after coming off the pill. It's the first step in starting a deeper dialogue with the body.
I marvel at what the body can do. We are all built of the same brick and mortar, but the nature of elements of these vary—what works for one doesn't necessarily work for the next. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation—on both sides—about how the pill works and we're still finding out how if affects our bodies long term.
What we have found is that synthetic hormones may change normal hormone function. We know that certain hormones found in birth control can prevent the body from absorbing essential vitamins and minerals. While it can help some women deal with debilitating periods and hormone imbalance, side effects for others are varied including nausea, depression, anxiety, weight gain, breast pain, and low libido. Little known fact: the pill is said to alter our senses and skew our lover radar. That's right, research suggests that it may mess with our senses to attract a suitable partner. Who knew!
Regardless of whether you are or aren't on birth control—all forms of hormone contraception must be taken with great care and caution. Sadly, we're not necessarily told this when it's prescribed.
If it's time for you to go off the pill, not because you want to conceive, but because you're interested in healing your hormones or simply as a way to feel more in touch with your body, here are a few natural birth control methods I recommend.
Most of us are familiar with condoms by now, and they're still the only natural birth control method that prevents STDs. They provide a rubber barrier that is placed over the penis to prevent sperm from traveling to the cervix. They are inexpensive and readily available. Because they do protect against STDs, some people prefer to combine condoms with other methods mentioned above for extra precaution. They are considered 98 percent effective and are easy to use.
Downside: They can break occasionally, which is the biggest concern for many health care professionals. Some people can experience skin irritations or reactions to the materials (rubber, latex, etc.) or the inconvenience of having to put a diaphragm in place or a condom on.
2. Natural Fertility Awareness
Hands down, one of the most important things you can do when going off the pill is learn to read your own body's signals. This is where Fertility Awareness or FAM comes in. Here's where I should mention that FAM really won't work until you've found a regular cycle. FAM considers both the lifespan of sperm and ovulation timing to define an approximately 8-day long window in which you can get pregnant. The trick is to avoid having sex during this time, typically it's six days before ovulation and two after. Understanding your body and its own ebbs and flows is the only true way to really know what's going on. It's said to be approximately 88 percent effective when practiced correctly—there are many people out there teaching it (me included). I'd recommend that you explore FAM with a certified health professional in person before relying on it as your primary birth control method.
Downside: It can take a little time to get to know your body rhythms, but once you know them, you're good for life!
3. Cervical Cap
This little silicone cap is inserted into the vagina, much like a diaphragm, and it sits over the cervix to prevent sperm from reaching the egg. The cap can be inserted up several hours before sex and must remain in for six hours after sex. It's like nobody even knows it's there! I also love that it's reusable and lasts around two years. It's easy to purchase and, generally speaking, it's approximately 94 percent effective.
The cervical cap is like a new version of the diaphragm. They work in a very similar way.
Downside: It can take a little practice to make sure it's inserted right, and just like all forms of hormonal birth control, it will not protect you from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). STDs can cause all kinds of serious long-term issues, which is why I advocate for barrier methods as a first option.
4. Copper IUD
The copper IUD works by making your body secrete fluid that prevents pregnancy. This fluid has repellent powers, much like "the force" from your favorite Star Wars movie. The copper ions inhibit the ability of the sperm to move. It's going to take a Jedi Knight to get through. It's also considered to be 99 percent effective.
Downside: It needs to be fitted by a doctor. But more so, I hear a lot of IUDs migrate to other areas of the body and can require surgery to be removed. Periods are often heavier, and cramps are worse for many with an IUD. Excess copper also severely depletes zinc, so it is beneficial to ensure you are supporting your body in the right way if you choose the copper IUD.
5. Withdrawal ("Pulling Out")
The age-old withdrawal method gets a bit of a bad rap, mostly because we've become so disconnected from our bodies we don't know enough about its cues. Withdrawal is actually very effective especially when combined with FAM.
There is just one rule. Your partner needs to make sure they urinate in between ejaculations—because if you're lucky enough to be having sex just like in the movies, you deserve this kind of ease! Withdrawal requires that your partner "withdraw" before climax. It's important to know that sperm can live in pre-ejaculatory fluid. Withdrawal is around 96 percent effective if practiced correctly.
Downside: This method again will not protect against STDs.
These methods provide excellent alternatives to preventing pregnancy especially when used in conjunction with FAM. I encourage you to seek out more resources, especially if you're trying to balance your hormones. Learning about your own body and its daily communications is ultimately in your hands, and while it may take a while, don't give up. Once you get it, it's incredibly fascinating and rewarding to feel that connection.