Although I spend a lot of time talking about how to get pregnant, I’m also a big fan of conscious conception—having your baby at the right time for your family. Some method of contraception is therefore a must, but most of the popular methods out there (like the pill) work by manipulating your hormones, which you can probably guess I’m not a fan of. So you might be wondering—how do you find a safe, effective, non-hormonal form of birth control?
Before we dive into my favorite contraception methods, let’s talk a bit about the dangers of hormonal birth control, and why staying away from hormonal birth control is so incredibly important.
While most people associate the term “hormonal birth control” with the Pill, there are actually a bunch of different hormone-releasing birth control methods out there that are available from your doctor.
The Mirena, Kyleena, Skyla, and Liletta are all IUDs that use the hormone progestin to prevent pregnancy. The birth control shot (sometimes called Depo-Provera, the Depo shot, or DMPA) also uses progestin.
Progestin is an artificial hormone that tricks your body into thinking you’re already pregnant, and so prevents conception by preventing ovulation. Synthetic progestin mimics progesterone, yet the body does not recognize it as naturally produced progesterone, and therefore progestin can produce severe side effects, like an increased risk of cancer, abnormal menstrual flow, fluid retention, nausea, and depression, and can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
The birth control implant (AKA Nexplanon) is a tiny, thin rod about the size of a matchstick that is inserted into your body. The implant releases a synthetic hormone called etonogestrel that manipulates your hormones to prevent you from getting pregnant. Etonogestrel can increase your risk of blood clots, stroke, or heart attack, and comes with a slew of other nasty side effects like pain, numbness, tingling, bleeding or scarring where the implant was inserted, not to mention all of the hormonal side effects like headaches, changes in your period, cramps, mood swings, etc.
The NuvaRing, which uses a combination of progestin (synthetic progesterone) and estrogen, is worn inside your vagina. The small, flexible ring prevents pregnancy by releasing these synthetic hormones into your body to prevent ovulation. The transdermal contraceptive patch, which is a patch that you place on different places during your cycle, also releases synthetic estrogen and progestin and prevents ovulation. The combination of both of these synthetic hormones that mimic natural estrogen and progesterone just muddle your body’s natural hormonal processes even further.
The birth control pill differs based on the brand, but they all use either a combination of progestin and synthetic estrogen or only progestin to prevent ovulation. The pill’s hormones also thicken the mucus on the cervix. Thicker cervical mucus makes it hard for the sperm to swim to an egg. The synthetic hormone levels vary widely depending on the brand of pill, but ALL come with a risk of blood clots, heart attack and stroke, in addition to hormonal side effects.
All of the synthetic hormones found in hormonal birth control methods have one thing in common—they are NOT good for your body. Synthetic hormones are often released in amounts that are too strong for your body to process, and they can interfere with your ability to produce hormones naturally, which creates major imbalances.
If you’ve ever taken any hormone-based birth control methods, you know that they come with an assortment of short-term side effects like mood swings, headaches, acne, bloating, weight gain, irregular bleeding, spotting, breast tenderness, yeast overgrowth, infection, nausea, aches and pains, and low libido. But did you know that there are also long term side effects that impact your overall health?
Your body has receptor sites that are perfectly aligned to accept the exact type and amount of estrogen and progesterone your body produces. When those receptor sites get clogged up with synthetic copies, it interferes will ALL of your body’s process, not just your fertility. So in addition to the side effects that synthetic hormones cause, you can develop other issues, like immune disorders such as eczema, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or rosacea. Here’s a summary of the major systems in your body that are affected when you use synthetic birth control:
Hormonal birth control acts like an antibiotic in your gut, destroying the essential microbiome balance. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, GUT HEALTH IS SO IMPORTANT TO YOUR HEALTH. It quite literally affects all aspects of your life, from your physical health right on up to your psychological health. So when your gut flora is out of whack and imbalanced, you could be struggling with weight gain, gastrointestinal discomfort, leaky gut, etc. Unfortunately, the impact of hormone-releasing birth control on the microbiome will last long after you stop taking it, and while it is possible to rebalance your microbiome, it takes a lot of work!
Hormonal birth control can prevent the absorption of micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals. It doesn’t allow for the absorption of B vitamins, magnesium, and vitamin C in particular, which can lead to short and long term impacts on your health. These micronutrients are essential for hormonal balance and a deficiency can lead to infertility issues, even after you’ve stopped taking birth control. When you’re micronutrient deficient, and unable to absorb what you need even from additional supplementation, you are set up for poor physical and mental health.
New research from the University of Copenhagen has revealed that the birth control pill and other hormonal contraceptives (including the hormonal IUD, patch, and ring) could be causing depression for some women. The new study tracked over 1 million Danish women between the ages of 15 to 34 over the course of 13 years. None of the women had a history of depression, but upon starting with the birth control pill, hormonal IUD, patch or ring, they developed depression at significant rates. The women who were diagnosed with depression were prescribed antidepressants (adding more synthetic hormones into the body which further interrupt the delicate hormonal balance!).
First and foremost, getting in tune with your cycle, recognizing your fertile cues to know exactly WHEN you’re ovulating (and therefore very fertile) is my top recommendation. The Natural Cycles app (recently approved by the FDA to be marketed as a contraceptive) uses a unique algorithm that combines specific fertile cues such as your basal body temperature (your temp taken first thing in the morning before you get out of bed), your personal cycle fluctuations, LH hormone tests, and even the survival rate of sperm to give you “green days” — when you’re highly unlikely to conceive — and “red days,” when you’ll want to abstain or use protection (more on that later).
While there are other cycle tracking apps out there, this particular app is the most effective when it comes to preventing pregnancy. As an added bonus, after using the app for a while, you’ll have a pretty solid idea of when you’re fertile, which will make it that much easier to get pregnant (at the right time, of course!).
For those of you with irregular cycles, chronic anovulatory cycles or another issue that prevents your cycles from being reliable, my top pick would be the Hormone-Free Copper IUD.
So what’s an IUD?
IUD stands for “intrauterine device.” There are several types on the market, but ParaGard is a copper IUD—the copper triggers your immune system to prevent pregnancy without using any synthetic hormones, like other IUDs do. In the unlikely event that an egg does get fertilized and survives, IUDs cause inflammation in the uterus that makes it harder for the egg to implant there. This method is the most effective reversible, non-hormonal form of contraception on the market.
You’ll need to visit your doctor to have an IUD inserted. The procedure is similar to getting a Pap smear. Your doctor will put the IUD in a small tube that she’ll insert into your vagina. She’ll move the tube up through the cervix into the uterus, then she’ll push the IUD out of the tube and pull the tube out. It’s effective as soon as it’s inserted.
Your doctor may suggest you take over-the-counter pain medication such as ibuprofen a few hours before the procedure to offset cramping. The procedure can be uncomfortable, and you may have cramps and bleeding, but they tend to go away in a few days. A copper IUD promotes normal, healthy ovulation, meaning that it doesn’t suppress ovulation and you experience real periods, and you can treat and resolve period and cycle problems with diet and lifestyle changes because there are no synthetic hormones interfering. With a failure rate of just 0.6%, it’s more effective than almost any other method, and it also lasts up to TWELVE YEARS, and your fertility returns to normal as soon as you remove it.
However, it doesn’t come without side effects: You could have heavier and more painful periods. One study found that 38% of IUD-users reported more period pain at first, although it did reduce over the following 12 months. There’s also a small risk of the IUD coming out (5.7% in the first month, and then it decreases to 2% per year). Despite these risks, the copper IUD is still a great choice for many women. You can read more about it here—Hormone-Free Copper IUD: Pros and Cons.
One disadvantage of simply tracking your cycle or an IUD is that while they can keep you from getting pregnant, they won’t give you protection against STDs. A barrier method like condoms are still the best for both birth control and STD protection, but the kind you choose matters!
Many condoms contain synthetic fragrances, flavors, spermicides, and even carcinogenic chemicals, You don’t want any of stuff anywhere near the delicate skin of your vagina! Luckily there’s a newer brand on the market called Sustain Natural Condoms that are not only effective but specifically designed with your vagina health in mind. They also make organic lubricants and menstrual products—all vagina-friendly!
Although they’re technically non-hormonal, I’m still not a fan of diaphragms and cervical caps or sponges because they both require the use of spermicide to be effective. Spermicides contain chemicals that are hormone disruptors, and can cause vaginal irritation and urinary tract infections. In fact, the most common chemical in spermicides, nonoxynol-9, is widely known to cause vaginal irritation. Condoms don’t require the use of a spermicide, and are just as effective (in some cases more effective) as other barrier methods.
There are so many effective and convenient non-hormonal contraceptives on the market, there truly is no need to use hormonal birth control, especially considering the slew of negative side effects associated with methods that use synthetic hormones.
I want to hear from you—leave me a comment below and we can continue the conversation!
What methods of birth control have you tried?
Have you taken (or are you taking) hormonal birth control? Have you experienced any side effects?
Have you tried Natural Cycles, or found another cycle-tracking app that’s worked for you?
Spread some conscious conception lovin’! I bet you have some friends who would love to read this too :).
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Sarah Jane Sandy is a certified nutrition therapist, and a fertility and women’s health expert. She has helped hundreds of women increase their fertility naturally and go on to have healthy full-term pregnancies. She has been working with women and couples trying to get pregnant for over 15 years and over 90% of the women who work with her get pregnant and have healthy babies. Learn more about her own fertility journey here. To send Sarah a message, complete her Contact Form.