It’s time for the pill to move over: how contraceptives are going au naturel

Whilst out for drinks with a friend recently the conversation drifted, as it often does these days, to the topic of contraception. I was lamenting the effects the pill was having on my mind and body – making me prone to negative thought spirals and my body puffier than a Rice Krispy – when my friend told me she’d come off it a few months ago.

‘I couldn’t deal with it anymore,’ she mused, attempting to stab an ice cube with her straw. ‘That’s why we’ve started using the withdrawal method instead.’

After recovering from choking on my Negroni, I was able to get it together enough to ask her if a) she was mad and b) what made her decide to do it.

Much like me, she had spent years grappling with the not-so-great side effects of taking oral contraception and, unenthused by the other options available from her GP, had turned to a natural form instead and this seems to be a growing trend amongst, not just my own friends but British women in general.

Whilst the withdrawal method remains hugely unappealing (unless you’re willing to play pregnancy roulette, that is) evidence suggests that interest in non-hormonal options is slowly increasing.

A 2015 survey by the United Nations found that over 10% of European women in relationships choose to use natural methods – the highest in the world – whilst a National Statistics survey on the NHS Sexual and Reproductive Health services found that oral contraceptive users have fallen by around 5% in the last ten years, with a steady 1% of UK women opting for non-hormonal options.

Though this may seem relatively insignificant, when combined with the rise of the fertility tracking app, it’s obvious that a trend is beginning to emerge.

Easily the most popular is Natural Cycles. Syncing the app with a thermometer, users track and record their body temperature to two decimal places which the app then uses to work out when they’re ovulating throughout the month.

A spike in progesterone after an egg is released causes the body temperature to rise, offering a clear indication of when the body is most fertile. Data appears in calendars and graphs, labeling fertile days as red and non-fertile days as green.

Developed by Swedish particle physicist Dr. Elina Berglund and her husband Raoul Scherwitzl out of their own dissatisfaction with the contraceptive market, it’s a technologically souped-up version of the rhythm method – a trick used by women to prevent pregnancy for centuries. 

Sure, this might seem somewhat regressive – in fact, it brings to mind a night two years ago spent laughing with a close friend at the suggestion by her local church, ahead of her impending wedding, that she uses her body temperature rather than conventional contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancy – but the proof is in the pudding.

It recently became the first and only natural contraceptive to be certified for prescription by the NHS and has seen its downloads increase from 5,000 to 125,000 in the year since its launch.

A 2,500% surge in downloads is certainly not to be sniffed at – even by skeptics such as myself. It’s also much slicker and more precise than other natural methods out there (fancy analysing your vaginal discharge, anyone? Thought not).

For many women, the main draw is the knowledge that it’s more effective than the pill and doesn’t come with any side effects. Friends of mine have been flocking to it in droves, with one, Eve, describing it as ‘absolutely fantastic.’ ‘The best thing is how it helps you understand what is actually happening inside your body, every month – which is something I was surprised as a 29-year old to know so little about. It really demystified a world that I’d probably spent the last 10 years – often unnecessarily – freaking out about.’

Gaining a better understanding of their bodies is one of the benefits that many have listed – a great education after years of being disconnected from this aspect of their health.

A resident doctor for the West Sussex Trust pins it down to the wellness trend: ‘With the movement towards a healthier, ‘clean living’ lifestyle it’s not surprising that women want to connect with themselves more and are attracted to the idea of not pumping their bodies with artificial hormones.’

But is it just too good to be true? For some, unfortunately, it is. Women with several sexual partners are advised to steer clear and it obviously doesn’t do anything to protect against STIs, making it – and all forms of natural contraception – a bad choice for single people.

The fact remains that long-acting reversible contraception (otherwise known as LARCs) are the most effective way to prevent pregnancy, with the copper coil being over 99% effective.

But for those who’ve suffered from years of mood swings, bloating and unpredictable skin, going back to basics seems to be a winner.

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