One of the most common question we receive on our website is how safe is it to take birth control with herbs and certain natural remedies like maca, vitex or senna commonly found in many detox products and skinny teas. We explore safety precautions, outline some common herbal remedies and any safety concerns to be aware of when combining with the pill.
Many women take oral contraceptives for a variety of reasons. Rather than purely as a form of protection from pregnancy, women choose to take different modes of hormone replacements (HRT) such as the Oral Contraceptive Pill (OCP) to regulate their menstrual cycle, to relieve pain from conditions such as endometriosis, or even to treat acne.
Just as women are choosing to take OCP’s for varied reasons, so too are women all over the world drawn to other modes of wellness support, such as natural remedies in the form of herbal medicines.
There are always contradications for every form of medication as combinations of medicines can cause side effects, serious health risks and reduced effectiveness of the medication for treatment. When it comes to blending OCP with herbal medicines, it is important to consider the potential side effects and risks of combining therapies. Especially if a woman is taking OCP to protect from pregnancy, or to balance certain hormones, it is advised to do research, talk to a GP or other expert in the area and decide whether taking the combinations of OCP and herbal therapies will be right for your health.
In reviewing scientific research in this area, it is apparent that there is still much more research needed to determine the complete effects (especially long term) in mixing these therapies. For the results that have been found, below is a general guideline backed by scientific research for some of the most common herbal remedies.
Though it is always suggested that if ever you are in doubt of potential effects of combining, and cannot find a definitive answer from research, or even from your GP, then it is always best to avoid combining to be risk free. If you are taking OCP for non contraceptive purposes, this is usually a long term decision. It may be beneficial to try a natural alternative on its own first for at least 6 months to a year to give your body time to heal itself before making the leap to the pill.
How does birth control affect the body?
There are many variations of OCPs on the market, though all work under the same mechanism. Generally, a pill contains a mix of hormones that prevent pregnancy by impeding ovulation (releasing the egg of from the ovaries to make a woman fertile for pregnancy) through changing the balance of hormones in the body. They also change the lining of the uterus and the make up of the cervical mucus to create an environment, which is harder for sperm to reach the uterus (the opposite of fertility-creating therapies).
Can you take birth control with herbs and natural remedies?
There are a list of contraindicated medicines and herbs listed on most OCP brands information sheet, and this already gives a clue as to how the mechanism by which the pill regulates hormones and protects against pregnancy, can be impeded. Many dietary supplements, medicines and herbal therapies can interfere with the effectiveness of OCP, which can result in ill health, an imbalance of hormones and even pregnancy.
Some herbs contain large amounts of Estrogen, can contract the uterus and promote blood flow, and even promote fertility, making the uterus environment more susceptible to insemination by sperm. This is why it is important to consider what natural supplements and remedies you take (possible for other reasons beyond feminine health – like treating other conditions) to note whether it is safe for you to combine.
There is still limited studies conducted in this area, as mentioned, and research continues to grow as to the interaction of remedies and OCP in women. For the research that has been completed, and results that have been found, below are some of the most common herbal therapies and their relation to combining with birth control.
ST JOHN’S WORT (also known as goateed or hypericum).
Used to treat depression, anxiety and nervous system disorders, St Johns Wort is a popular herbal medicine. One journal study found that it interacted with OCP in those taking the supplement multiple times a day, resulting in a 15% reduction of hormones related to contraception in their bloodstream. Instances of increased uterus blood flow were also reported, which points to ovulation being a risk of taking this potent herb. It is advised that for those taking OCP to protect against pregnancy to not take ST John’s Wort, or combine with another contraception method, like condoms.
Taken by women experiencing menstrual disorders, Vitex is also effective to treat pre-menstrual syndrome. For women using OCP for birth control, it is advised to not take Vitex as it is a known fertility enhancer with the potential to encourage ovulation. Unless you are trying to conceive, Vitex should either not be taken with OCP, or you should protect with another method of birth control.
As a treatment for menopausal symptoms, women take Black Cohosh to support hormonal imbalances. When taken with OCP, however, it can create an overproduction of estrogen, which may interact with birth control and hormone levels to create less balance in the system. It is not suggested to take Black Cohosh with any form of OCP for the hormonal imbalance, and the risk of pregnancy.
The root of the Dong Quai plant is used to make herbal medicine for those who menstrual disorders and symptoms of menopause. People may also take this herb to treat joint pain, hypertension, anemia and even inhibit extreme allergic reactions. Little evidence has been found for the interaction of Dong Quai and OCP, though it has been suggested that it may have a similar effect of Estrogen in the body, which could create some side effects of OCPs. As more research is needed, it is advised to not take while on OCP.
Used to treat bowel issues such as constipation, Senna is an FDA-approved laxative, which can also be used to treat Irritable Bowel syndrome and even promote weight loss. Senna is a very popular ingredient in most detox and skinny tea products. In medicinal usage, it is suggested to consult a professional if you suspect that you are pregnant, before using. Senna may possibly reduce the birth control effect of OCP, though again, there is little research in this area.
Used for kidney issues, bladder conditions and as a diuretic to increase flow of urine, Alfalfa is also used for osteoarthritis and diabetes treatments. As a dietary supplement, Alfalfa is also taken as a source of potassium, iron, calcium and various other vitamins. Possibly mimicking the effect of Estrogen on the body, Alfalfa may result in a decreased effectiveness of birth control.
This herb is used for a wide range of medical treatments, such as boosting strength, energy and the immune system, calming the nervous storm to reduce stress, and as a protection against inflammation and infection. Other conditions this herb treats include migraines, muscle pain, asthma, indigestion, high cholesterol, kidney and liver problems and ulcers (and many more). As it is also a known fertility and sexual boost (as an aphrodisiac), the way in which people use Deer Velvet may impede the functioning of birth control pills as the Estrogen in Deer Velvet may interact with OCP hormones, creating an imbalance in the system. Therefore, this herb may be unsafe for women taking OCP.
This plant is a known stimulant used to treat mental and physical tiredness, and even chronic fatigue syndrome. Also used for cardiovascular problems, Mate promotes blood flow, which may be a side effect that can impede the effectiveness of birth control. Due to the caffeine effect that Mate has on the body, side effects such as restlessness, headache and an increased heartbeat can be felt from those taking Mate with birth control pills (OCP changes the way the body metabolizes caffeine). Both for birth control and these side effects, it’s advised to not take Mate whilst on OCP.
Guarantee is used to enhance athletic performance, to assist weight loss and even to prevent malaria. Similar to Mate in its caffeine effect, side effects of taking Guarana with birth control pills can be jitters, nervous energy, headache and increased heartbeat. In terms of the effectiveness of birth control in combination with this herb, little research has been done.
Maca root is traditionally used to enhance libido and as an energy stimulator in supplementation. Maca’s main interaction with the menstrual cycle is due to its communication with the pituitary gland, which can affect the hormone centre. More studies are needed to be done to determine whether maca is safe to use with OCP. Current research suggests that there is no direct interference with estrogen or testosterone, though there has been results in the effect of maca acting as a phytoestrogen, which may interact with OCP. It has been found to increase fertility in animal studies. Taking these findings into consideration, it is advised to avoid maca if taking birth control pills as it may interfere with the contraception function of OCP.
SHATAVARI (also known as Asparagus racemosus)
The Shatavari herb is used during and after pregnancy to support breast milk flow, as an aid for digestion and as an immune system booster. It also contains steroidal-like saponins that can support function of reproductive hormones such as estrogen and progesterone. It also works on the endocrine system, further interacting with the hormones in the body. Due to this interaction, it is advised that women taking birth control pills do not mix with Shatavari, as there may be hormone disrupting effects.
The takeaway here is to do your own research, consult a professional, and where in doubt, do not risk taking combining birth control with herbs and other natural medicines. Depending on your reason for OCP, you may find that some combinations are fine for your body. When it comes to the use of birth control and herbs it is important to realize that certain herbs can have fertility enhancing effects therefore it may be necessary to support your protection with other contraceptives, such as condoms, to protect against pregnancy.
NOTE: These combinations are not just limited to dietary supplements and treatments, the effects can also be seen in herbal remedies in products that assist with cleansing. Although each internal supplement may not contain much of each of the listed ingredients above, if you are on a cleansing program that requires high dosage of herbs each day, this can lead to disrupting your hormonal balance.
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