Natural Birth Control: a Vegan and Low Waste Alternative to the Pill
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Going vegan several years ago seemed like an achievement in and of itself, like finally being able to say that my actions lined up with my ethos. Years later, what then felt like an end towards which I had been striving now feels like the very beginning, when I awoke to a new life that I am still now learning to navigate. If going vegan is only the beginning of the journey, it’s because we soon find out that it is, in fact, the very least we can do and that leading a cruelty-free life goes well beyond what we choose to eat or not to eat.
This is how, a couple of years after taking the initial plunge, I came to a realization: as vegan as my diet was, there were other areas of my life where I could make improvements. And contraception was one of them. I had always known that pharmaceuticals in general were widely tested on animals and/or contained animal products but, as many of us have been led to believe from an early age, I thought the only alternatives to the pill were either unreliable or highly inconvenient.
So this is how my quest for a vegan alternative to “typical” contraception began. At first, I started looking into whether there was such thing as a “vegan pill” because I was still driven by the mindset that the best way to handle fertility is to suppress it completely. While my original research wasn’t as fruitful as I had hoped, I learned quite a few things along the way. Indeed, while I was looking for a better pill, I stumbled upon a number of articles that explained its harmful effects. What truly convinced me was Alisa Vitti’s book Woman Code. If you are looking to understand how harmful the pill can be, she really is the person to turn to! I’ve also learned a lot from her You Tube videos. Really, they’re a gold mine!
I became convinced that it was no longer going to be the answer for me and I basically just stopped taking it… And we agreed to use condoms until I could find an alternative that would suit us both (because of course it takes two to tango!). We still use these vegan condoms on occasion and they’re the best one we’ve tried so far.
As my period had always been very uncomfortable to say the least (though I’ve managed to improve it a great deal thanks to all that I’ve learned and, once again to Alisa Vitti and cycle syncing!) I was not prepared to even consider an IUD, nor did I want to undergo any kind of medical procedure. My Sweetie wasn’t so keen on the idea of a vasectomy either. Spermicides and other chemical solutions, to me, weren’t a much better or safer option than the pill, nor were they a vegan one.
I had heard of the Rhythm Method and other highly risky calendar-based solutions so when I first read about FAM (Fertility Awareness Methods) I was highly skeptical. But they kept popping up as a science-backed solution that offered highly reliable contraception without any of the harmful effects… So I kept on reading. And the more I read, the more sense it made. Because the idea is not to “guess” when one is fertile or not: it is about observing and being on the lookout for a number of very clear symptoms that indicate when ovulation has come and gone. I checked everywhere that I could and always found the same exact confirmation: a woman is only fertile around the “ovulation window”, which only lasts about 6 days per cycle.
Needless to say that I was sold! I started to observe my cycles based on all that I had learned to see if it checked out and, very soon, I started to see the patterns I was looking for. And after a few months of observation (because we are overly cautious!) we went ahead and gave up using condoms when we knew we were “safe”. That was over two years ago and I am happy to report that we still don’t have any babies!
So how does it work exactly?
As I do not want to be held responsible should anything go wrong for you, I would like to stress that I am not an expert myself and that I will not disclose everything about the method here. If you are interested in trying this for yourself, I strongly suggest you read the books and manuals I will reference below very thoroughly. As is the case with every single contraception method (yes, even the pill), there is a risk of pregnancy if the instructions are not followed to the letter or if your interpretation is flawed. My advice: never get too confident! Just like you are no longer safe if you forget to take the pill even once, it is possible to make a mistake with natural birth control if you are not vigilant enough.
With this out of the way, here is how I’ve chosen to monitor my own fertility. I chose the Sympto Thermal Method, which is based on the observation of the current cycle. It is never about predicting ovulation based off what you’ve observed the previous month. This is why it is so important to be consistent and to continue monitoring all the symptoms month after month after month. Do not ever be tempted to guesstimate or to count the days.
The idea is to determine exactly where you are at in your cycle and to be able to know this at any given time. A woman’s natural cycle has four distinct phases:
1 – The Menstrual Phase (your period)
2 – The Follicular Phase (before ovulation)
3 – The Ovulatory Phase (ovulation)
4 – The Luteal Phase (between the end of ovulation and the beginning of the next cycle, which corresponds to the next period)
Your cycle can vary overall, and each of these phases may not last the exact same number of days each month, but the longest phase also happens to be the one during which we are absolutely infertile: the luteal phase. During ovulation, the risk of pregnancy is at the highest. During the menstrual and the follicular phase, a risk may exist depending on how close to ovulation you are: if your follicular phase is particularly short (as is sometimes my case), don’t chance it and consider yourself fertile! Because even if a woman is only technically fertile during ovulation, sperms have the ability to survive in a woman’s body (depending on the conditions) for up to five days.
So… how do you do it?
The pioneers of the method relied on a thermometer, a pencil and a pad to keep track of everything and compile the data in the form of charts. Fortunately for us, we no longer have to do this as there are some really good apps that can keep track of everything for us. All you have to do is put the information of what you have observed into the app (or in my case, apps – did I mention I am overly cautious?) each and every day and it will do all the hard work for you. Which does not mean that you should know how it works of course!
Several “symptoms” need to be observed. The fluctuations in Basal Body Temperature (or BBT), the different types of secretions (or cervical fluid) and the position of the cervix (although this is not an obligation as it can fluctuate quite a bit). And if you start to track your cycles seriously, you will even notice other symptoms, particularly in terms of mood or energy levels that you will learn to recognize.
So the only tools you should really need are your phone and a BBT Thermometer such as this one.
I like this particular model because it has a memory function, which means I don’t have to jump on my phone first thing in the morning!
During the first few months, I also used to use a small device called Ovatel which helps to determine when ovulation has occurred using saliva. While it did work, I found that using it added an extra step to my morning routine and it just became redundant after a while, so I stopped using it.
So which apps are the best?
The first app I used was Sympto’s simply because I had learned so much from their free manual (referenced at the end of the article). But over the months I continued to look at the other options from this list of reliable fertility apps.
My absolute favourite to date is Lily.
I love it because it is so streamlined and clear, and because it features a section that gives you all the information about its calculations so you get to know why the app considers you fertile or not on a given day, even in the free version. I did however recently decide to purchase the premium version. Not so much because I thought the added features were must-haves, but because I was made aware of the fact that the creators of the app are struggling to make ends meet because too few users decided to get the full version (partly because the free app is already so useful!). So I went ahead and decided to show my support!
I also use Sympto.
It is less beautiful and a little more clunky but it works well and doesn’t give you a false sense of security: if the app is not sure, you are considered fertile! There is also a free version but it is not forever: after a while, you are supposed to pay for some symptothermal training and the website really tries to push you to go for it. But if you don’t try to change devices, you should be fine…
I have continued to use Glow, but I think I will give it up soon. *Edit: I have stopped using this app
While the interface is pretty nice and seems rather accurate most of the time, it hasn’t always been reliable and, because it uses a proprietary algorithm (unlike the first two which strictly use the symptothermal rules), it is difficult to fully trust it. Plus, I am not at all fond of their latest update.
Alisa Vitti’s MyFlo also makes the list.
It is not, strictly speaking, a fertility app but I like that it gives a few interesting cycle syncing pointers. Honestly, if you have the book you probably don’t really need to spend your money on this app though as the information it contains is somewhat limited and I haven’t seen any updates made to it for quite some time.
What are some reliable references to get started?
The list I am giving here is by no means exhaustive, but these are some of the best references I’ve come across. The references are presented in no particular order.
Natural Womanhood is a pretty comprehensive website that sums up the most crucial points about the method. I think it can be interesting as an introduction to the concept, to know if it’s right for you.
Sympto’s Manual can be downloaded directly from their site. Don’t be fooled by they unappealing website: this e-book is very comprehensive and will tell you everything you need to know about the method and how to get started using their app. This is the reason why it’s particularly interesting to start charting using Sympto, because it will allow you to get acquainted with your cycle without playing a guessing game. Then, if you don’t particularly like their app, you can always switch to a nicer one once you master the principles of charting.
Woman Code, as I already mentioned before, is a gold mine of information that will help you recognise your cycle’s phases based on other symptoms. You will learn that every phase is very different and comes with a set of patterns that should dictate what you eat, the type of activities you do and even the sports you practice at different times in your cycle for optimal hormonal health! It’s simply mind-blowing.
Taking Charge of Your Fertility is a book that I have not yet had the privilege to read. It’s definitely at the top of my list though, as I’ve heard so many good things about it!
Shannon, from The Glowing Fridge has recently started to specialise in hormone healing and just launched an e-book that’s also on my list of must-reads! She publishes delicious phase-friendly recipes that are all 100% vegan and has also written articles about why ditching the pill is so important.
If you enjoy videos better, Victoria from Femme Head has got your back. She is lovely to listen to and quite knowledgeable on the topic of FAM and sustainable menstruation.
Lisa, from the podcast FertilityFriday is a certified Fertility Awareness Educator, a Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioner, and she has been using Fertility Awareness as her primary method of birth control for over 15 years!
Well, that was a long, long article! I hope it made you curious about this completely vegan, natural, sustainable and non-invasive form of birth control!