Monday, December 12, 2011

Medical Mondays: Ancient Birth Control

Good Monday to you all. Today, Luanne Smith of Bards and Prophets has a fascinating question for her novel.

"My character (this is in a post-apocalyptic setting) needs to be able to prevent pregnancy without *ahem* abstaining. There was/is a ferula plant (Silphium) that was said to be used in ancient times as a contraceptive. Apparently plants in this group have high levels of estrogen-like properties in them.

What I need to know is how would a plant like this be prescribed? Assuming it was readily available, would it need to be ingested everyday like the pill? Also, what side effects might my character experience after taking something like that for an extended amount of time (besides pregnancy, of course)?"

I've always found the need to control fertility a fascinating historical (and contemporary) subject. I even did a research paper on historical methods of birth control in med school. (Stones as IUDs? Crocodile dung as a spermicide? That's just a tiny bit of what I'd found.)

Herbal medicine has long been used as a means of controlling fertility. In a futuristic scenario, it would be conceivable (*ha ha*) that women might have to turn back to nature for contraceptive means.

Silphium is actually a now-extinct plant that was used in ancient Egypt and Greece, amongst other places. In fact, the heart-shaped seed may be the origin of why the heart shape is associated with romance.
photo credit
Silphium probably belonged in the genus Ferula, many of which are called "giant fennel." Although in the same family as true fennel, Ferula isn't truly a fennel plant.

These plants grow in the arid climates of western Asia and the Mediterranean region. In ancient Greek texts, there is plentiful discussion of using the Silphium juice once monthly to both prevent conception and as an abortifacient as well. Silphium's popularity in the ancient world may have led to its extinction.

So which Ferula plant might be used in Luanne's story? Possibly a species called Ferula Asafoetida.
photo credit

Yes, you read that right. There is a "fetid" in that name. Some have called it "Devil's Dung." All parts of the plant have a pungent, fetid odor. However, the dried gum of the plant root, once cooked, has a more palatable onion/garlic flavor and it still used today in some kitchens around the world.

Medicinally, Asafoetida is a natural antiviral (it was studied as a treatment for H1N1 flu), aids digestion and reduces flatulence (maybe it should be marketed as Anti-Fetid?), as an asthma treatment, and an anti-seizure medicine.

Asafoetida is also a commonly known contraceptive and abortifaciant. However, I had some trouble finding out how it would be used as such. Silphium was taken once monthly. The juice of the plant (maybe half a teaspoonful) was enough to do the job. When thinking of how herbs are used medicinally, consider these methods:
  • Extract (herb soaked in alcohol, strong concentration of herb)
  • Tincture (herb soaked in alcohol, weaker concentration of herb)
  • Infusion (herb soaked in hot water)
  • Decoction (herb boiled in water)
  • Ingested directly. (In Luanne's case, the gum from the root of the plant was cooked and eaten with food. This is the most likely method used, but again, I'm just guessing.)
  • Applied topically (like in a poultice)
  • Boiled and steam inhaled
  • Burned and smoke inhaled
Since Asafoetida has been long used as a spice, likely there is no serious long term side effect from taking it continuously, but of course there aren't any studies on this.

One last thing. Ferula Asafoetida grows mainly in India, Afghanistan, and Iran. For contraceptive herbs native to North America, also consider:
  • Black Cohosh
  • Wild Carrot (related to Ferula)
  • Queen Anne's lace (also related to Ferula)
  • Smartweed (Polygonum Hydropiper)

Here are some references I used to research this question. Good luck, Luanne!

If you've got a fictional medical question, let me know! Post below or email me at
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Also, don't forget to stop by Laura Diamond's Mental Health Mondays and Sarah Fine's The Strangest Situation for great psychiatric and psychological viewpoints on all things literary. :)

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70 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

Very interesting! I can see why that would be fun to study!

Sarah said...

Totally fascinating, Lydia, as always.

BECKY said...

Lydia, your blog is always amazing. No matter what you write about, it's pure gold!

Vicki Rocho said...

Fascinating! I remember reading a book where the main character used an animal intestine like you would a condom. Kinda grossed me out. I like your approach better!

Emy Shin said...

This is so interesting. I love the tidbit about Silphium being the possible origin of heart being associated with romance. I desperately want to work that into a story now. :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Interesting! Shame they used Silphium to extinction.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Lots of interesting facts here. And I always love reading the herb names. Some are so interesting. Like Devil's Dung.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Since the novel is dystopian, the writer can always make up her own plant, and use what you mentioned here, Lydia, as a guide.

Cool post!

Ashley Elston said...

Great post, Lydia. Love Medical Mondays!

B.E. Sanderson said...

Great post, Lydia, and very informative. Thanks.

Yvonne Osborne said...

Fascinating discussion. Woman have long sought to control their own fertility and ancient herbal wisdom that allowed them to do that was never totally eradicated as the church intended. One of my characters in my own work-in-progress has to deal with just this subject. Nirvana's song, Pennyroyal Tea comes to mind. We cannot be stymied and controlled by men.

Old Kitty said...

Ooh how effective were these herbs? Fascinating stuff - thank you!! Take care
x

L. Diane Wolfe said...

One of my great-great grandmothers was visited by an Indian woman who took one look at her three young children and said "Too many, too fast." She mixed up a concoction and gave it to my great-great grandmother and she had no more children. Would love to know what that Indian woman gave her!

Jessica R. Patch said...

Fascinating! Research is one of the best parts of writing a novel. I hung on every word of this, not that I need it for a book. Just love this kind of stuff. :)

L.G.Smith said...

Thanks again for answering those questions for me. It is something I think women today may take for granted somewhat, but that wasn't always the case. I find it absolutely fascinating that a plant was used to extinction by women wanting to prevent pregnancy.

Connie Keller said...

I was familiar with asafoetida, but I had no idea that it could be used as an abortifaciant or as a contraceptive.

farawayeyes said...

Interesting question with an even more intersting remedy.

Kelly Andrews said...

Interesting! In Elizabeth Gaffney's novel Metropolis, the gang women used half a lemon as a cervical cap or diaphragm. They left the lemon in place for a week or so. I presume the citric acid is a spermicide, but I always wondered how well it would work.

But lemons might be readily available in a dystopia in a warm climate, especially if climate change is part of the story.

julie fedderson said...

I love this post!! Totally fascinating. I always heard about ancients using poultices of herbs as a sort of contraceptive sponge. Wonder if Elaine from Seinfeld knows about this.

Slamdunk said...

Informative Lydia--on a topic that I know nothing about.

I have a friend who translates obscure journals and publishes them as a part of her PhD work. She finds the oddest things written and forgotten.

Clarissa Draper said...

Perhaps if the birth control was so fetid, it just stopped the act of creating babies before it could turn into something. Fascinating!

Coleen Patrick said...

Super fascinating topic! Interesting that the items--ie croc dung, are not just spermicide but a deterrent on their own!!
:)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

wow, this was a super post, such fascinating information. I always wondered how the ancients sorted out which plants did what. Did shamans have intuition? Did they experiment on folks? Did they try plants out as food and discover side effects? All of this is so interesting.

Sarah Pearson said...

Half a teaspoon per month? I could see why that would be popular :-)

Anita said...

My husband and I are devout Catholics and use the sympto-thermal method of Natural Family Planning. No plants needed. 100% effective. And, yeah, I'm not a nut. I think all marrieds should use NFP. Once you study it, it makes so much sense. I think people don't talk about it, because the drug industry makes people like me seem like freaks. Totally not. Well, not about this subject, anyway. :)

LTM said...

O.M.G.--Lydia! I NEEDED your brain when I was working on my last MS. Argh. Oh, well. Too late. I just winged it and hoped for suspension of disbelief. Shakespeare used anachronisms, right? ;p I did find that bit about the stones, though. Ew.

Anyway, next time, I swear. Coming to you first. This is a great post, and thanks for the links! :o)

vbtremper said...

Fascinating stuff! Lots of possibilities for fiction. Good luck, Luanne!

-Vicki

David P. King said...

I have to click in on your Monday posts, because I never know what awesome medical topic is going to show up next. Fascinating post! :)

Nicole Zoltack said...

Oh, that's fascinating! I love learning something new.

L.C. Frost said...

I <3 Medical Mondays. Thanks for doing the research and always providing such interesting, informative topics, Lydia!

Little Ms. Fun said...

Oh, I love this topic! Very interesting how the heart shape seed could be rooted back to it's romance history. And crocodile dung? Really?!

Tiana Smith said...

Interesting. I always thought it was funny how some books just kinda gloss over the fact of birth control. But crocodile dung? Who thinks of this stuff?

J. A. Bennett said...

Wow! This is a very useful post for those of us who write outside of the modern day. Thanks for doing all the research it really helps!

Krispy said...

Crocodile dung??? I'm guessing the herbal way was more preferred. :P Thanks for the educational post, as usual!

mooderino said...

You'd think after all these years we would have better options by now.

Fascinating stuff. great post as usual.

mood
Moody Writing
@mooderino
The Funnily Enough

Angela Brown said...

It is amazing the things you learn about a topic you didn't realize could be so interesting.

Yep, I'm one of the ones with limited knowledge who just felt a new groove form in my brain.

Very WOW!

Karen Lange said...

Wow. I had no idea! Thanks for the info.

The Blogger Formerly Known As said...

Fascinating as always, Lydia. I’m trying to think if an ailment for one of my characters just so I can ask you a Medical Monday question. Unfortunately though, most of them are beyond help.

walk2write said...

Thanks for the interesting post and links to your research sources. Herb lore is one of my favorite subjects. I have used fennel essential oil for stomach upset (my own), and it works quite well. Just rub-a-dub it on the tummy, and there is instant relief. I don't have to worry about birth control anymore, but I'm wondering if it might have an adverse effect on someone else's pregnancy? The only oil that I know for sure is safe for pregnant women is lavender.

Ciara said...

I'd love to read that paper. :) This is fascinating. Great post!

Giles Hash said...

I always wondered how they prevented pregnancy in ancient civilizations. Great post! :D

Carrie Butler said...

I don't know how you do it, Lydia. Despite the over-most-of-our-heads subject matter, your posts are never dry. In fact, they're really interesting! Great job, as always. :)

Kelly Polark said...

So interesting!
I never even thought about the use of contraceptives in ancient times. Wild!

A Lady's Life said...

amazing .I know women used to perform abortions by sitting on a pot of hot water letting the steam with whatever was in the water into their system and then it happened
have no idea what this was all about.

Linda Gray said...

Well, good to know women have always figured out how to gain a little control over that old trope: biology is destiny. I love these Monday posts, Lydia. Thanks so much for sharing all this great info!

catherinemjohnson.wordpress.com said...

We do learn some interesting facts here, Lydia! Great post.

Southpaw said...

This was a way-cool post. Interesting and ewwww at the same time. :)

Nancy said...

Medical Mondays always leave me feeling like I am just a little bit smarter than I was before reading them. Thanks for sharing your brain.

Ghenet Myrthil said...

Interesting! I never would have thought birth control methods would have been used that long ago.

Walt Mussell said...

Always interesting when I visit here, though I never would have thought about this topic.

Shelley Munro said...

This post is so timely for me as I start to think about the plot for my next sci-fi book. Thanks!

Jennifer Hillier said...

So interesting! You do so much research, Lydia. Really love Mondays in here. :)

Madeleine said...

Fascinating! I once imagined writing a futuristic story involving infertility. I may yet write it now. Thanks :O)

Lynda R Young said...

Oh wow, this is a fabulous post, Lydia. Really fascinating. Great question, Luanne.

J.L. Campbell said...

Interesting stuff, Lydia. It's fascinating that nature provides so many natural remedies - many of which the ordinary man never thinks about.

Susan Fields said...

As soon as I read the title of this post, I knew it was going to be good one! Fascinating topic, and what a thorough answer. Thanks, Lydia!

Pop Champagne said...

cool I learned so much!! I didn't know there is actually seeds that looks like a heart, or used to. that's neat. I wonder how it got extinct :S would have been cool to see now

Rachna Chhabria said...

Interesting and informative post, Lydia. I learned lots :)

Suze said...

Ironic that the seed is heart-shaped? I

Carol Kilgore said...

I always love Medical Mondays. This one was exceptional. Stones? Oh well - whatever works!

Jemi Fraser said...

I had no idea!! Fascinating stuff :)

alexia said...

Rad! What a fascinating topic. Interesting, because Black Cohosh will actually induce labor. So, can prevent pregnancy up front, but bring birth on later.

Jillian said...

Fascinating topic and post. Thanks for the links as well.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Fascinating! This is why I love your medical Monday posts.

Fiona Claire said...

May I offer another perspective? Pennyroyal (which smells like mint and doesn’t taste too bad) was the traditional herb used to ‘induce menstruation’. The oil from the plant can be toxic (it is still used to repel fleas, flies, mosquitoes) and, for that reason, it was used sparingly and mixed with other herbs like catnip and hellebore. To be safe, you could give your character a tea made from those herbs, plus cypress, rue, sage and savory. She should drink a cup of it 3 x day for up to a week. I don’t know if all of those plants are indigenous to the US, but if they are not and if your novel is set in the future, surely someone could have found a way to sneak the plants into the country by then!

In a pinch, quinine can work (if your character drinks A LOT of tonic water), and if she has malaria, the quinine can cure her as well as abort the foetus. But the one sure-fire method was dilation and curettage (which even Hippocrates used). Just make sure the characters keep everything really clean and know that that method is awfully painful.

Leslie Rose said...

I think I'm rustle up some Queen Anne's Lace and drop it in my daughter's purse. Fascinating post.

Pk Hrezo said...

Wow... super fascinating stuff!! You're amazing, Lydia! :)

Munk said...

Tell LG to grow up and just ask the pharmacist. It's not so embarrassing if you call them prophylactics rather than rubbers.

L.G.Smith said...

@Munk - Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder. :PP

LisaAnn said...

WONDERFUL post! I've never really thought about all the different options for natural birth control... (Not that I feel like taking any...;))

I feel smarter every time I read these posts!

 
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