3.7 Herbal Abortives and Birth Control
Disclaimer: This is not anything you should try at home without supervision from a knowledgeable herb person.
From Colette Gardiner <coletteg.efn.org>:
Current and reliable information on herbal birth control is rare. In the Western tradition much information on birth control as well as safe birthing techniques was destroyed during the European Witch hunts circa 1450-1700. Having such knowledge was proof positive that you were a witch. Other historical information is often incomplete, with only a local common name, or no exact dosages. Researchers often discard supportive techniques such as fasting or ritual as mere superstition. Current studies tend to be anecdotal rather than strictly lab controlled data. This does not mean they are not of value, but again pertinent info may be missing. Such as was the woman pregnant in the first place? Anecdotal info can give us ideas on where to start and what the possibilities are. They have also shown us that herbal abortives are not themselves without side effects, often severe. All herbal info on abortives should be thoroughly researched before use. Some herbalists feel that herbal abortions are more dangerous than clinical abortions. Abortive herbs are toxic and do have side effects. They are not safer because they are natural. Clinical abortions are certainly more effective. Most importantly an herbal abortion should never be undertaken unless a women is willing to follow up with a clinical abortion if the herbs fail.
Varying success rates have been claimed for herbal birth control. Estimates vary from 20%-80%. It is important to remember that most of these rates are based on the incidence of successfully bringing on a delayed period, not in aborting a definite pregnancy. Since many herbs seem to work the best close to the time of the first missed menstrual period, many women have not had a pregnancy test at the time they took herbal abortives. Studies on the success rate of herbal abortives in non-confirmed pregnancies is quite high (70%-80%). Success rates with confirmed pregnancies is substantially lower, 20% or less. Also there's not as much research on herbal abortives with confirmed pregnancy.
Rina Nissim, founder of the Dispensaire des Femmes in Switzerland claims a success rate of 60%-80% in women who believed they were pregnant (non-tested). Their method involved the use of at least two herbs at a time. Generally one emmenagogue (bleeding stimulator) with an oxytocic (uterine contraction stimulator) for no more than six days starting as soon as a woman's period is late. They have found that starting the herbal regimen later than six days overdue drops the success rate to 20%.
In a survey I conducted (appendix A) with a small group of women there appeared to be a high success rate (about 75%). However only one of the women had a positive pregnancy test, so actual success rates were certainly much lower. My experience with women where there has been more complete information, such as positive pregnancy tests and follow up leads me to guess at a realistic success rate of 20% at this time. In a highly quoted New Mexico study, Cotton root bark had a very high success rate, with a fairly low toxicity. However it appears that very few of the women were actually pregnant based on blood tests and screening.
Less info is available on prevention of pregnancy with herbs. In an informal study (appendix B) by Robin Bennett with Wild Carrot Seed used on a semi- regular basis as an implantation preventer she had a 98% success rate with few side effects. There is also a much quoted seven year study involving one hundred women in Alaska that also claimed high success rates for wild carrot seed. But no one seems to have any specifics on it.
In general many herbal abortives are mildly poisonous to potentially fatal in large doses.
Almost all women report at least one of the following side effects:
- Increased bleeding
- Dizziness and nausea sometimes extreme enough to cause fear.
- Visual disturbances
- Sweats or chills
Less commonly reported side effects:
- Incomplete abortion
- Irregular cycles for 1-3 months
The above can also occur in clinical abortions.
- Kidney irritation
- Breast Lumps (Tansy)
Almost all women reported heavier bleeding and clotting than normal and felt that this was an indication of an aborted pregnancy. While this is indeed a sign of aborted pregnancy it's also common with use of emmenagogues. Common sense would indicate that when using emmenagogues there would be the chance of hemorrhage, but it appears to be a not very common side effect compared to the other effects. Most side effects appear to be of short duration. I do know of one case where a women experienced severe long term endocrine imbalance after using herbal abortives.
Serious side effects
The most serious side effects seem to occur when women use herbal abortives, remain pregnant and attempt to carry to term. There is a high enough rate of reported instances to call for extreme caution.
- Incomplete or low implantation of the placenta
(reported frequently by many practitioners)
- Premature detachment of the placenta before or during birth
Consequences of these side effects can be severe and potentially fatal. Severe hemorrhage can and does occur under these circumstances. In one case a women lost ⅓ of her blood volume before bleeding could be stopped. Treatment consists of total bed rest and staying close to a hospital. The risks to both mother and fetus are extreme.
- A few isolated reports of toxaemia possibly related to herbal abortives.
One final very subjective note
Clinic workers who see many clinical abortions note that women who used herbal abortives on their current pregnancy seem to have darker, thicker blood with more clotting.
Use of herbal abortives as a labor facilitator
A few of the herbs that are used as herbal abortives maybe safely used in the last trimester of pregnancy under specific conditions to help facilitate healthy labor. While safe if properly used they should not be used unless a problem exists and only with the help of a practitioner.
There are two main types of herbs used as abortives. Emmenagogues and oxytocics.
Emmenagogues stimulate blood circulation to the pelvic area and uterus and help to stimulate menstruation.
- Vitamin C - no buffers or fillers. Dose: 500 mg every hour for 12 hours up to 5 days.
Toxicity: possible kidney irritation, loose bowels.
- Ginger - Zingiber officinale, Dose: 1 oz. fresh or dry root to pint of water.
Toxicity: possible light-headedness.
- Pennyroyal - Mentha pulegium & Hedeoma pulegiodes, Dose: ¼ cup of herb to 1 quart water once a day for no more than 6 days.
Toxicity: nausea, numbness in hand and legs, liver irritation, kidney and bladder irritation, diarrhea, The essential oil is fatal internally. Contraindications: kidney conditions.
- Angelica root - Angelica archangelica, Dosage: ¼ cup herb to 1 quart water as tea. Tincture - 10-20 drops every two hours. Dried root less toxic than fresh.
Toxicity: irritant to kidney and liver, not studied as much as pennyroyal. Contraindicated in diabetes as it raises blood sugar levels.
- Mugwort Leaf - Artemisia vulgaris, Dosage: 3 teaspoon per cup tea, 3 cups per day, for no more than six days.
Toxicity: higher doses can cause liver damage and convulsions. Nausea. Contraindications: Uterine inflammation or recent pelvic infection.
- Black Cohosh Root - Cimicifuga racemosa, Dosage: 3 teaspoons per cup, 4 times a day. Tincture 20 drops every 6 hours.
Toxicity: Diarrhea, dizziness, headache, decreased pulse rate, tremors, fatalities can occur in large enough doses.
- Tansy - Tanacetum vulgare. Note: Do not confuse with tansy ragwort, Senecio jacobaea, which is a poisonous plant known to cause death in cattle thru liver failure. Dosage: Tea, 4-8 teaspoons per qt. sipped throughout day. 10 drops tincture in warm water every two hours til bleeding commences, for no more than 5 days.
Toxicity: breast lumps, possible hemorrhage, liver irritant. Essential oil is fatal - do not ingest.
They imitate oxytocin in the body to stimulate uterine contractions and release prostaglandin hormones. All oxytocic herbs are toxic to some degree. Women can experience very painful contractions. They are generally hard on the liver. Women with a history of liver disease such as hepatitis may wish to avoid them all together.
- Blue Cohosh root - Caulophyllum thalictroides, Dosage: Tea - 3 teaspoons herb per cup, 3 cups per day, tincture - 20 drops every 4 hours, for six days or til bleeding commences. Toxicity: nausea, vomiting, headaches, convulsions in large doses, kidney and liver irritant, Contraindications: low blood pressure. Some of the constituents of Cohosh are more soluble as tincture.
- Angelica - see emmenagogues.
- Cotton root bark - Gossypium herbacetum, Dosage: 12 teaspoons per quart, ½ - 1 quart thru day. Tincture 10 drops every few hours til bleeding commences, for no more than 6 days.
Toxicity : seemingly low based on the New Mexico study. Cotton is a heavily sprayed crop with pesticides that are only used on non food crops. Those pesticides can cause liver irritation, and other problems. Organic cotton root bark may be difficult to find.
Other herbs used
- Wild Carrot Seed - Daucus carota, used as a preventative. Dosage: 1 teaspoon a day chewed and washed down with fluid. Believed to work as an implantation preventor by making the uterine lining unsuitable. See appendix B.
Toxicity: So far appears to be low toxicity, long term effects unknown. Identification must be absolute as many wild members of this family look similar and can be fatal.
- Trillium root - Trillium spp. Dosage: tincture 30 drops 3-4 times a day. Tea 3 teaspoons per cup, 1 quart per day. Trillium root is used by midwives to facilitate softening of the cervix and is often used as a labor adjunct in the case of rigid os or as a preparatory agent before trying to induce labor with stronger herbs. It occasionally will start labor on it's own. As an abortive there is not a lot of current use info on effectiveness and side effects. Trillium root should only be harvested from garden grown plants as it is rare in the wild due to habitat destruction by logging and urban growth.
- Parsley - Petroselinum spp. Used as a fresh plant vaginal insert for 24 hours. Personally I have heard of no cases of even bringing on a delayed period with this method.
Misc. Herbs listed as abortives: Agave, Osha, Mistletoe, Rue, Peyote, Sweet flag, Papaya seed, Feverfew, Motherwort, Wood Sorrel, Damiana.
The above is by no means an exhaustive list, many mild emmenagogues are listed as abortives in literature both scientific and folkloric: Marjoram, Oregano, Beet, Celery, Papaya fruit, Peppermint, Valerian, etc. While they may help facilitate onset of a slow period, such as the type where there's cramping and pelvic heaviness but bleeding has not yet commenced, it's doubtful they would act as abortives.
Dosages mentioned above may be on the conservative side in many cases. However, since the serious side effects show up at higher doses it's best to be cautious. I've seen better results with tea than with tincture and with mixing 2 -3 herbs together in a blend. Herbal abortives effects may be enhanced by a day of fasting, working with ritual, and massage of the uterine acupressure points along the ankles several times a day for at least ten minutes at a time. Again the success rate is very low for actual pregnancies.
Ideally if a woman wished to use herbal abortives I would recommend finding a clinic that does early pregnancy testing of the type that can detect pregnancy within a few days of conception, preferably one that can see women on a walk in basis so you don't have to wait for an appointment. Then if you are not pregnant you can use a mild emmenagogue such as marjoram, without stressing your body. Since early testing is not 100% accurate and if you are fairly sure you are pregnant, you may wish to use one of the less toxic abortives such as Vitamin C. Since most of the abortives are so hard on the body they should only be used in cases of confirmed pregnancy. Why put your liver thru more stress than it already gets in today's world?
Survey on herbal birth control and abortives
Of the 10 women in the study:
None had used herbs preventatively as contraception
6 had previously been pregnant
8 could tell very accurately when they ovulated
8 of the women had used herbal abortives
1 women had delayed ovulation time with herbs use
1 women was a practitioner who counseled about herbal abortives
6 of the women had side effects
6 of the 8 women who used herbal abortives brought on a delayed period with herbs. Only one of these women had a confirmed pregnancy, but all the women felt they were pregnant. Two of these women were a few weeks late. A few of these women had unsuccessful herbal abortive attempts at other times.
Time Frame Abortives Used:
Brought on period with herbs at:
Three weeks overdue - 1 women
Two weeks overdue - 1 women
When period was due - 4 women
Many of the women reported friends who used herbal abortives successfully, but I did not use those accounts in my survey. In general the second hand reports were very similar to the survey results.
A practitioner reported that several women in her area were drinking sassafras tea as a contraceptive. She didn't give details on safety or effectiveness.
One women reported that either Vitamin A or Goldenseal seemed to delay ovulation. I've heard no other instances of this.
Wild Carrot Seed as an Herbal Contraceptive
Survey conducted by Robin Bennett
In Robin's info she stresses that it was a small study, and that she did not use scientific, double blind methods etc.
In her survey there were three dosage regimes
1) Every day
2) Daily for 7 -8 days surrounding ovulation
3) For 7 days following intercourse
The dosage for all women was one teaspoon daily chewed and washed down with fluids. Half of the women in the study used it as their only form of birth control. The study lasted for one year. Out of the ten women in the study: one became pregnant and had a clinical abortion. She became pregnant when she used the seeds for only three days around ovulation instead of the recommended 7-8. She had a clinical abortion. Two other women suspected they were pregnant and used herbal emmenagogues to bring on their period. One of these women was using the seeds daily. The other women was using them for 7-8 days surrounding ovulation. One of the women discontinued seed use in order to become pregnant and did. There were some mild side effects such as gas and slightly earlier periods. Some women felt that anything less than the full dose actually enhanced fertility. None of the women reported any symptoms of uterine irritation and subsequent exams showed no signs of it. In her handout Robin mentions some lab studies using WCS as an implantation preventor in mice, but did not give details.
From allissa.foxcomm.net (Allissa Gaul): the lab studies are:
- Comparitive Physiology and Ecology, 9:70-74, "Abortifacient effect of carrotseed extract and its reversal by progesterone in albino rats", by Kaliwal, BB, first author.
- Journal of Advanced Zoology 7:36-41, "The estrogenic efficacy of carrot seeds" by Kant, A., et al.
>> A friend of mine does not use birth control. Is there an natural form for the abortion process?
Somebody else tried to be helpful:
> Here is a formula that is intended to induce a miscarriage:
> 20 drops blue cohosh
> 20 drops black cohosh
> 20 drops pennyroyal
> Measure the tinctures into a cup of warm water ...
And finally some Common Sense; Jonathan Treasure replied to above:
It is debatable whether using herbal medicine to cause uterine rejection of a conceptus is any more "natural" then an a D&C. Herbs can be potent and potentially dangerous - just because they grew out of the ground doesn't confer the status "natural" on anything they may be used for especially when the only alternative is orthodox procedural medicine. However the answer is YES, herbal abortion is possible, in certain circumstances.
It would however be quite insane to take a recommendation from an internet list and simply believe that is the end of it....we are not talking about a common cold here. The reply giving cohosh/pennyroyal recipes was just plain daft - how late is she, how old is she, what is her general health, nutritional status, psychological state, emotional strength, domestic situation, support network etc etc etc etc etc. All these questions come before some generic formula can be given. Then the formula given was not related to strength of tincture, dried or fresh plant used, etc. The dose pattern given was potentially excessive. It might harm or her or it may not work at all. Would you then write to this list again? Grow up! I would urge your friend to consult someone who is experienced in the herbal management of ob/gyn if there is a real need (e.g. legality/finance) to go this route.