This post is a departure from my typical history posts, but I have had people asking a lot of questions and what could be more important to our understanding of the practice of domestic medicine then having a thorough understanding of this physiology and how various agents interact with our reproductive cycle? Our modern advantage is having a more accurate view of how our bodies work than our ancestors had, as I have hopefully illustrated in previous posts.

This post is going to be about conception and the expulsion of the products of conception from the uterus which usually happens in one of two ways – abortion or labor.   I will try to keep this as brief as I can, while still getting across key points about moments when, historically, physicians felt using herbal adjuncts might be appropriate or when they are being used inappropriately.

I am assuming most of my readers are people who have already been introduced to the human reproductive system but if it’s been a long time since school, here’s a blog post to catch you up.  There’s one point I want to make because of the You Tube video at the end.  There is more recent data that leads researchers to believe that thickening cervical mucus is a long-term effect of levonorgestrel IUDs that does not occur with short term use. What this boils down to is that these types of emergency contraception are only useful if taken before ovulation.

Levonorgestrel (Plan B) is a type of hormone called a progestin. It binds to progesterone and androgen receptors and slows the release of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) from the hypothalamus which works to delay the release of an egg from the ovaries for up to 72 hours. It is unlikely to work if you have already ovulated for the month.[1]

Ulipristal acetate (Ella) is a progesterone receptor modulator. It inhibits ovulation and may have some impact on the rhythm of cilia movement in the fallopian tube which interferes with the movement of the oocyte (unfertilized egg) or zygote (fertilized egg) being carried by the cilia through the fallopian tubes to the uterus, but there is no indication that in has any effect on implantation.[2] It is not a prostaglandin.

I suppose I should start with talking about prostaglandins.  The human body produces many types of prostaglandins.  Many prostaglandins play a role in acute and chronic inflammation. The prostaglandin thromboxane contracts muscles in the walls of blood vessels and stimulates the formation of blood clots.  When the danger of bleeding out is past, prostacyclin (another prostaglandin) relaxes them. There are also natural and synthetic substances that interfere with the production of prostaglandins via various mechanisms.  For example, aspirin blocks the production of thromboxane and so can be used to prevent unwanted blood clotting in patients with heart disease

Prostaglandins are very active in a person who is in their menstruating years. Every month the epithelial mucosal membrane lining of the uterus remodels itself into what is called the decidua. The decidua contains glands, immune cells, blood, lymph vessels, and decidual stromal cells (DSCs) that support implantation and pregnancy. The decidua relies almost entirely on the body producing sustained levels of progesterone, to remain intact. When progesterone levels fall, this triggers an inflammatory cascade in the decidua that activates leukocytes that destroy the tissue to the point that shedding of the lining occurs. This is menstruation. Prostaglandins also trigger myometrial muscles to contract in a way that expels this shedding epithelial lining.

“PGF2 alpha vasoconstricts the endometrial vessels during menstruation and contracts the smooth muscle of the myometrium. PGE2 vasodilates the vessels of the endometrium, and PGI2 relaxes smooth muscle, vasodilates the vessels of the myometrium and inhibits thrombocyte aggregation.”[3]  

These prostaglandins are often what result in the discomforts of menstruation. PGF2 can enter the blood stream and cause other smooth muscles to contract.  This is what leads to gas, bloating and changes in bowel habits that happen during menstruation. Carminatives are herbs, such as mint and fennel are herbs that specifically relax contracted GI tissue and may be useful here.

The higher the level PGF2 α that you naturally produce, the more likely you are to have severe menstrual cramps. NSAIDs have been shown to reduce myometrial activity by inhibiting prostaglandin synthesis.[4] If you are one of my students you know that this is because they block the action of cyclooxygenase enzymes, and that there are herbal adjuncts that have similar effects on these enzymes. Humulene from Humulus lupulus strobiles (hops) is a highly effective Cox-2 inhibitor. In one DBRCT a hops extract demonstrated a similar effect as 400mg of ibuprofen along with Cox-1 sparing activity[5] which basically means it has a comparable anti-inflammatory effect without the side-effects.

Implantation of a zygote usually occurs 8-9 days after conception. The gestational sac will grow, the embryo will form, and the placenta will produce hormones including human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) which signals the ovaries to keep producing progesterone for at least the first 8-10 weeks of the pregnancy. This also triggers an immune process that keeps the body from rejecting the embryonic tissue.  If you read that an herbal preparation prevents implantation, it is most likely implying that it does something to block/inhibit the progesterone supply sustaining the decidua which makes the decidua uninhabitable for an embryo. There is no modern research which backs up these claims, reliably.

When the chromosomes in the sperm and egg do not line up properly to create a viable embryo, an anembryonic pregnancy (blighted ovum) occurs.  The gestational sac develops, and you will test positive on a pregnancy test.  The placenta may form in the sac, but without a viable embryo it cannot become established.  Somewhere between 8-12 weeks, the ‘luteo-placental shift’ occurs.  At this point an established placenta will produce progesterone. If this does not happen progesterone levels fall, and the gestational sac and other products of conception will (usually) eventually be shed with the lining.  

Some researchers believe that as many as 50% of conceptions end this way. A more conservative estimate is 38-40%. Most spontaneous abortions occur in the first trimester. If it were not for our advanced modern day pregnancy tests, these anembryonic pregnancies would just be thought to be delayed menstruation.  This happened so often in the past that physicians thought that some patients only menstruated every few months. Many did not themselves to be pregnant until the quickening, when they felt the fetus move in the womb.

This is also why many modern herbalists think they have been successful with their herbal interventions. They see them “work” about half the time when in fact it’s actually just the body expelling a blighted ovum.

There is no modern need to fuss around with herbal interventions. Chemical abortion (using mifepristone and misoprostol) is safe and effective over 95% of the time. The pills can be ordered online at plancpills.org or aidaccess.org

There are still some things you need to know about that. In the first trimester of pregnancy (up to 77 days) chemical abortions can be done by administering mifepristone (formally RU-486) which is a progesterone antagonist that blocks progesterone produced by the ovaries from being able to sustain the lining of the uterus followed by misoprostal (Cytotec) which is a prostaglandin that signals the uterus to begin contracting and leads to the subsequent shedding of the lining.  

You must take both pills. Studies show that mifepristone by itself is less likely to be effective and there is an increased risk of incomplete abortion. When taking both pills fails, it is likely because the conception date was wrong, and the pregnancy has progressed past the luteo-placental shift. At this point a mechanical abortion is necessary.

As the embryo progresses, fetal tissue and the placenta produce prostaglandins which stimulate the uterus to develop more receptor sites for oxytocin.  This is important to understand. The further along the pregnancy the more sensitive the uterus is to oxytocin.  Oxytocin is a hormone that causes uterine muscles to contract and also increases production of prostaglandins that cause contractions. 

Giving someone an oxytocic agent early in pregnancy is unlikely to be an effective means of aborting an embryo. It’s not likely to produce strong enough contractions which would increase the risk of an incomplete abortion.   This requires further medical care and could result in the necessity of surgical management with dilation and curettage. Complications of incomplete abortion, may include sepsis due to the retention of products of conception, hemorrhagic shock from loss of blood, uterine rupture, or cervical shock from cervical stimulation by products of conception stuck in the cervix.

All the new receptors mentioned above contribute to the much stronger myometrial contractions necessary for childbirth but so do rising oxytocin levels. Illnesses that result in decreased blood volume such as dehydration, food poisoning, or a virus that causes diarrhea may artificially elevate the concentration of oxytocin in the blood, and this can trigger stronger contractions and pre-term labor. Diuretics could theoretically have this effect, also.

Purgatives and emetics that midwives suggest for starting a post-term labor, such as drinking castor oil, work in part this way by reducing your blood volume and in part because spasmodic peristalsis in the GI tract is triggered by prostaglandins that contract smooth muscle in the intestines. Those prostaglandins can in turn get into your blood stream and may trigger contractions in your uterus. The thing is they don’t always work and it’s a miserable way to begin labor even if they do.

Normally, oxytocin is released in bursts during labor and then relaxin, a hormone produced in the decidua and placenta during pregnancy, suppresses uterine contractions in between oxytocin bursts and relaxes pelvic connective tissue.  This is what accounts for the break between contractions in labor.

Having these extra receptors and more oxytocin still does not ensure progression. Part of the way you can tell labor is imminent is that prostaglandins cause changes in the cervix prior to active labor.  It softens, effaces, and dilates. It is not uncommon for a woman to be 2-3 cm dilated for the last month or so of pregnancy.

If the cervix isn’t soft enough to dilate, labor might fail to progress, resulting in the need for a c-section.  This is why they don’t just shoot you with Pitocin to start labor. In my history post you will see that this is something that physicians have known since Hippocrates wrote On Diseases of Women. Many agents that were thought to hasten labor were applied as suppositories near or in the mouth of the cervix. Just because something was used this way does not mean that they work as abortificients earlier in a pregnancy.

Today when they induce labor in the hospital, they first apply cervix ripeners such as dinoprostone or misoprostol (Cytotec) to the cervix to soften the collagenase present and allow it to dilate. Sometimes the vasodilation of the endometrium vessels will trigger contractions in a full-term pregnancy, but not always.  If necessary, they follow-up with Pitocin (synthetic oxytocin), because at this point all those oxytocin receptors are present.

I want to end this by briefly talking about how stress affects menstruation and labor.  Stress and/or fear stimulate the release of adrenalin and adrenocorticotropic hormones which will in term inhibit the amount of oxytocin released by the body and consequently the contraction of the uterus by the myometrial muscles.[6] This can cause delayed menstruation, post-term pregnancy, or stall the progression of labor.  

There are herbal remedies that midwives have used for centuries to poke a post-term pregnancy or to jumpstart a stalled labor. Some are simply smooth muscle relaxants that act as calcium channel blockers in the smooth muscle of the myometrium. Even a warm hot water bottle might help relax tense muscles.

Agents that reduce the levels of adrenalin and noradrenalin via stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system allow muscles to relax and normal oxytocin production to occur. Some herbal preparations that are “oxytocic” are simply cholinergic herbs that that mimic the action of acetylcholine (ACh) directly stimulating cholinergic receptors [nicotinic and muscarinic] which in turn stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system or indirect acting parasympathomimetic nervines that promote the release of ACh or are acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. I would place hydroethanolic extracts of wormwood/mugwort, lemon balm, and angelica which act as mild nicotinic receptor agonists in this group.[7] Chamomile also has this effect There’s even a tiny bit of actual human trial clinical data to support the use of chamomile here.[11]  

Other agents may mimic oxytocin in the body in its capacity to stimulate the release of prostaglandins.  The allocryptopine in Eschscholzia californica (California poppy) is a known oxytocic which is why the herb is contraindicated in pregnancy [8] as is the alkaloid stachydrine in Leonurus cardiaca (motherwort).[9] Based on the success of preliminary research, Chinese physicians have experimented with successfully using a combination of motherwort and Pitocin to better control post-partum hemorrhage.[10]

It’s honestly kind of outside of the scope of domestic medicine which is more empiric in nature for me to be talking about this.   It takes a lot of training to have a handle on why we think certain herbs work the way they do and even then, some of it is just theory. 

The point to really take away from this is that just because something might help with a later period, or a stalled labor doesn’t mean it is an abortificient. None of the mechanisms listed above are likely to start labor-quality contractions until later in pregnancy when sufficient oxytocin receptors are present.

This information might be useful for the person who’s experiencing a delayed menstrual cycle due to midterm stress, or some of the doulas and midwives out there, but it is being used irresponsibly when these herbs are being mentioned as agents that will cause an herbal abortion.

I have had many, many women ask me to help them because they were past their due date and worried about being forced to induce.  It’s an unfortunate side effect of too much medical intervention in labor and delivery. I want to address that here and we will move on to the history of early interventions in the next posts.

I have seen too many overdue women take preparations, against my advice, which are quite possibly toxic to both them or their unborn child in the large doses they consume, and they didn’t work at all. I have seen modern midwives recommend things that would have prompted my great-grandmother to take them by the scruff of their ear and put them back to work washing the laundry after births, until they learned some prudence.

It’s really not as easy to evict the fetus as the Internet would have you believe. The only method I would be willing to say I would suggest as consistently starting post-term labor that is safe for both mother and child is a process involving a relaxing beverage (chamomile tea), application of semen (which contains prostaglandin PGE2) to the cervix, stimulating oxytocin naturally (massages are nice), and then walking. It usually takes about three cycles, and even if it does not work it is a much more pleasant way to spend time than with severe cramps and diarrhea.


[1] Endler, M., R. H. W. Li, and K. Gemzell Danielsson. ‘Effect of Levonorgestrel Emergency Contraception on Implantation and Fertility: A Review’. Contraception 109 (1 May 2022): 8–18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.contraception.2022.01.006.
[2] Li, Hang Wun Raymond, Michele Resche-Rigon, Indrani C. Bagchi, Kristina Gemzell-Danielsson, and Anna Glasier. ‘Does Ulipristal Acetate Emergency Contraception (Ella®) Interfere with Implantation?’ Contraception 100, no. 5 (1 November 2019): 386–90. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.contraception.2019.07.140.+
[3]Jensen DV, Andersen KB, Wagner G. Prostaglandins in the menstrual cycle of women. A review. Dan Med Bull. 1987 Jun;34(3):178-82. PMID: 3297513.
[4]. Zahradnik HP, Hanjalic-Beck A, Groth K. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and hormonal contraceptives for pain relief from dysmenorrhea: a review. Contraception. 2010;81(3):185-196. doi:10.1016/j.contraception.2009.09.014
[5] Lemay M, Murray MA, Davies A, Roh-Schmidt H, Randolph RK. In vitro and ex vivo cyclooxygenase inhibition by a hops extract. Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition 2004; 13(Suppl): S110
[6] Nabb, Mary T. Mc, Linda Kimber, Anne Haines, and Christine McCourt. ‘Does Regular Massage from Late Pregnancy to Birth Decrease Maternal Pain Perception during Labour and Birth?–A Feasibility Study to Investigate a Programme of Massage, Controlled Breathing and Visualization, from 36 Weeks of Pregnancy until Birth’. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice 12, no. 3 (August 2006): 222–31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2005.12.006.
[7] Perry, Nicolette, Gudrun Court, Natalie Bidet, Jenny Court, and Elaine Perry. “European Herbs with Cholinergic Activities: Potential in Dementia Therapy.” International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 11, no. 12 (December 1996): 1063–69.
[8] Abascal, K., & Yarnell, E. (2004). Nervine Herbs for Treating Anxiety. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 10(6), 309–315.
[9] Chen ZS, Chen CX, Kwan CY. Leonurine, an alkaloid isolated from Leonurus artemesia induces contraction in mouse uterine smooth but relaxation in vascular smooth muscle of rat portal vein. Biomed Res 2000;11:209–12.
[10] Liu, Wei, Shihong Ma, Wenjing Pan, and Wenhua Tan. ‘Combination of Motherwort Injection and Oxytocin for the Prevention of Postpartum Hemorrhage after Cesarean Section’. The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine, 28 September 2015, 1–4. https://doi.org/10.3109/14767058.2015.1090425.

I brought up something in the last post that I decided to write about before moving on to the topic of herbal abortion, later this week. I am hoping to illustrate how very important it is to understand the context of a word or phrase. I feel kind of responsible for catching you up to speed because I am citing these old manuscripts and providing links where you can access them for free, so I want to be sure you understand what you are reading.

For decades now half-ass historians and have been sharing misinformation. That’s the name I use for people who begin their biomedical research papers about herbalism with some really shoddy “history” which was probably yanked off another poorly researched paper without the author ever reading the original primary source.

In the Herbal Community™, you are more likely to come across a person who has read, or at least skimmed through a couple of the giant Materia medica tomes but never bothered to actually delve into the medical theory behind them.

They know that the herbals use phrases like herbs that “procure the courses”, or the “suffocation of the Mother”, but they have no idea what that really means. They are probably more dangerous than the people up above. There are a couple of well-known herbalists out there who like to name drop historical authors but whenever I try to engage them in the topic, it becomes abundantly clear they haven’t read much of the author’s work.

Not too long ago, I was asked to participate in a project and was asked to help go through a lot of old medical papers written about herbal adjuncts to sort the “this is okay” from the “this is nonsense,” which surprised me given the lack of letters behind my name.  Many papers were tossed aside because they incorrectly cited historical documents or misstated the context of a term.  I have an example of a paper we threw out that misstates the meaning of this term.

According to Culpeper, the carrot root and seed work similarly to promote menstrual flow (“women’s courses”) and can beused to treat “the rising of the mother”, which may refer to menstrual obstructions.

No, it absolutely does not.  If this were someone who didn’t have access to information that was behind paywalls 15 years ago, I would cut them some slack, but I can show you a paper published in 1948 by John Hopkins that explained the use of the term very well. The information was there if the author had bothered to look.   The author is just making up context to fit his hypothesis, because he assumes no one will fact check him.  This happens all the time.

The “rising of the mother”, according to Abdiah Cole’s translation of the works of the physician Lazare Rivière, is a ” disease is called by diverse names amongst our Authors. Passio Hysterica, Suffocatio, Praefocatio, and Strangulatus vteri, Caducus matricis, &c. In English the Mother, or the Suffocation of the Mother, because most commonly it takes them with choaking in the throat.”

Early modern physicians attributed the cause of this disease to the “Rising of the Mother “wherby it is somtimes drawn vpwards or sidewards aboue his natural seate, compressing the neighbour parts, & so consequently one another. It may be said to be morbus in situ, in respect of the compression it selfe, causing suffocatiōn and difficultie of breathing.”1

Mother or Matrix were terms for the womb, not a woman, and they literally thought the uterus rose up in the woman and compressed the diaphragm causing a woman to be unable to breath and palpitations of the heart, because the organs were being squeezed. Physicians believed this for a very long time. It was later called “Fits of the Mother” or hysteria. If you read Shakespeare, in King Lear, you will see where he says,

“0, how this mother swells up toward my heart!
Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow,
Thy element’s below.

King Lear Act 2, Scene 4

This has been interpreted as an extension of Lear feeling emasculated at being betrayed by his daughters and having a hysterical fit like a woman would, but it seems to indicate to me that this was not a condition that was exclusive to women.

What is utterly baffling to me is that this is so well known amongst historians that you can find the correct information about this phrase on a homework help website for high schoolers called Shmoop, but our esteemed PhD type up there still chooses to embellish because he knows readers don’t think critically. They don’t fact check primary sources and they don’t ask questions like “What is the context, here?”

Because he is capable of reading words, he’s not wrong that many of the herbs thought to “provoke the courses” were also suggested for this condition. He just didn’t understand what that class of herbs was meant to do. It should make more sense to you after having read my last post. Early modern physicians believed the “rising of the Mother” to result from the same types of obstructed humours that delayed menstruation and suggested herb remedies that removed these obstructions for both conditions. Here is an example.

An Approved Remedy for the Fits of the Mother, and for the Vapors

Take Roots of round and long Birth-wort, Piony, and lesser Valerian, of each two ounces, Castor one ounce, Tops of dried Wormwood, Mugwort, Fetherfew, Tansie, Elder, and Camomil Flowers, of each a handful; having bruised and cut them all together infuse them in two quarts of rectified Spirit of Wine; then distill them according to Art, and keep the Spirit for Use.

This Spirit is very effectual to open the Obstructions of the Matrix, and to suppress the Vapors and Fits that arise from it; you may take of it from one to two or three drams at a time, in some distilled Waters; it may also be put into the Nostrils, applied to the Temples, or upon the Navil.

George Hartman 1683

Here you see another term used frequently which is “The Vapors.” Early modern practitioners attributed symptoms such as lightheadedness or fainting, cognitive impairment and mood swings associated with PMS, to fumes that rise from the womb and overcome the mind.

This receipt or something very nearly like it appears in books written by physicians and our manuscript receipt books during the early modern era. Unfortunately, our 19th century “experts” whose works are pretty much copies of these early manuscripts seemed to think the only thing that could obstruct the matrix is an embryo.

This receipt is the reason for warnings about some of these herbs being abortifacients. Apply a little common sense here. If physicians thought these herbs would cause an herbal abortion, they certainly would not be recommending them as remedies for lightheadedness or fainting, which are common in pregnancy.

My interpretation of “rising of the mother” is some sort of anxiety attack that involves breathing difficulties as a choking feeling is mentioned as the differential, but I want to caution you against making reductionistic comparisons like that. It’s been done so much that some people will tell you a consumption is always tuberculosis and dropsie is always pitting edema, neither of which is true.

I hope this blog helps you to understand the context of some of the common terms you might see if you start reading old herbals, but more importantly it drives home how important it is to that you do. It changes everything.


[i] Rivière, Lazare. The Practice of Physick in Seventeen Several Books Wherein Is Plainly Set Forth the Nature, Cause, Differences, and Several Sorts of Signs…Translated by Cole, Abdiah, Culpeper, Nicholas, and Rowland, William. London, England: Printed by Peter Cole … and are to be sold at his shop, 1655. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A57358.0001.001.
[ii] Hartman, G. (George). The True Preserver and Restorer of Health Being a Choice Collection of Select and Experienced Remedies for All Distempers Incident to Men, Women, and Children…London, England: Printed by T.B. for the author, 1683. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A42984.0001.001.

The latest push by the powers that be to restrict women’s access to reproductive healthcare has led to a lot of a renewed interest in herbal alternatives to birth control and abortion.  This is problematic on a lot of levels because there has been a great deal of misinformation that has gone unchecked for a very long time in the Herbal Community™, while historians thrashed a lot of this out after that ridiculous book was published in the 1990’s. 

I have decided that in the interest of sorting that all out, I am going to share with you what I have learned from my family, by attending clients as a doula, studying the history of reproductive medicine with people who understood it, and studying historical texts.

I am going to start by discussing a particular class of herbs that early modern medical practitioners believed to be emmenagogues.  You might see their actions described in early modern manuscripts as “Provoking the Courses” or as being used for delayed menses. This is not a euphemism.

I was once very confused about this issue myself because I would reference the old herbals, but I didn’t really understand the theory behind the list of uses. They didn’t jive at all with my family knowledge of midwifery herbs either, but I repeated them to be safe. Then I went to college and repeated that phrase a couple of times before a professor asked me the simple question, “What is the context, here?” and expected a thorough answer.

I started looking into why various plant preparations were thought to have this effect. After reading a lot of nonsense written in modern herbals, I finally found a woman who could explain it all to me. Mrs. Jane Sharpe, a published 17th century midwife tells us “The usual cause of obstruction of the courses is thick slimy humours; or from thick gross melancholly blood.”[1]  

French physician Lazare Rivière’s definition of the stopped terms as translated by English physician Abdiah Cole.

“THe Terms are said to be stopped, when in a Woman ripe of Age, which gives not suck, and is not with Child, there is a seldom, smal, or no evacuation of blood by the Womb, which used to be everyz month. The cause of this stoppage is either in the Womb, or in its Vessels, or in the blood whichz comes, or ought to come that way.”[1]

The Practice of Physick in Seventeen Several Books (1655)

Edited to clarify because people asked, this means someone who is not breastfeeding or with child and not having their menstrual cycle regularly.  

Sharp blamed the accumulation of obstructive humors on poor diet, infirmity, or weakness. She also believed obstructed humours kept the afterbirth or a stillbirth from passing from the body. This is an especially important point, because a lot of historians who did not understand this erroneously wrote about herbs that expelled the dead fetus as abortifacients.

Humoral practitioners believed that if these humours were expelled, the courses, fetus, or afterbirth, would follow naturally. It was also widely believed that regulating a woman’s cycle this way would “cleanse” the womb and make her more likely to conceive. The following is from a translation of a book said to have been originally written sometime in the early 14th century, but it’s attributed to Aristotle.

This bloud is bred in womens bodyes, of superfluitie of moysture, and féeblenesse of heate… If it be expulsed & put out in due manner, it cleanseth and caseth all the body, and the Mother disposeth and maketh able to conceiue.[2] 

Aristotle?

Consequently, we see a lot of herbs said to “provoke the courses” that are included in fertility remedies which confuses people, until they understand the history. The class of herbs credited with “Provoking the Courses” had nothing to do with abortion, nor was it hidden knowledge. All sorts of early modern physicians wrote about it as a whacky medicinal theory.

Herbs that were thought to clear obstructive humours tended to be hot and thinning. The theory persisted for centuries. In the 1700’s physician William Salmon wrote “The much use hereof [of wormwood] brings down the Courses in Women and keeps them in due order.”[3]

The less clinical experience an author had, the more herbs they seemed to think would work this way. (This holds true modernly, as well.)  In Parkinson’s herbal he mentioned well over 200 herbs which he thought would provoke women’s courses, while Gerard seemed to keep it to around 100.  Salmon who was generally more sensible because he saw a lot of patients and was more of an empiricist (someone whose practice was based on experience and not theory), spoke of fewer.  

The list included many culinary herbs like hyssop, thyme, marjoram, oregano, and basil as well as nervines like motherwort, lemon balm, catnip, that we normally think of as being safe. This is what leads to all the dire warnings about culinary herbs causing miscarriages (can I mention how problematic that term is) though it’s based on a completely obsolete medical theory.

The other day we were talking about this on my socials and one of my friends told the story that her mother wouldn’t let her eat basil while she was pregnant because it would make her placenta detach. Since my fourth child might have been one-fourth pesto at birth due to me craving it during pregnancy, I had a good laugh about that.

I find Parkinson’s herbal to be particularly annoying in this respect. Parkinson was primarily a botanist who spent more time socializing with royalty than he did working in an apothecary and had extraordinarily little practical experience of the things he copied from older sources. He seemed to believe that every herb that could help people to “break winde” would also provoke the courses. Of course, most of the herbals written for the next few hundred years copied him, so this information was passed along too much.

If we look for common sense, it is there. Obviously, a menstruating person who is not having a regular menstrual cycle is far less likely to conceive and modernly we know that things like stress, anemia, and general malnutrition can delay menstruation. We also know that there are herbal interventions that can help with these conditions.

I am going to be generous and point out that medical theory at this point was based on trial and observation and that it’s possible that an herbal preparation that relieves gas, or water retention, associated with PMS and menstruation might have appeared to them to have this effect.

Also, around 38-40% of modern pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion usually due to an anembryonic pregnancy. I can only imagine how high this number was in the past. I am sure there was a great deal of correlation without causation going on.

I am not saying that no herbs have this effect, we will get to that in future posts. I am saying that people have been guilty of far too much reductionism and too frequently they translated any phrase that had anything to do with stimulating menstruation to using the herb as an abortifacient. Most of them didn’t seem to have even inkling of understanding of nuances of reproductive health and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of them were men.

I cannot tell you what game of telephone they were playing in the 1970’s when they chose which herbs to talk about as emmenagogues. It has never made any sense to me. It says the same thing in Parkinson’s herbal about lavender and lemon balm as it does pennyroyal and mugwort. I can tell you that’s it’s unfortunate because poor translation is how knowledge became lost. I have had to go through them on a case-by-case basis and figure it all out.

For this post I decided to single out a plant that everyone likes to talk about using for herbal birth control, Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) as an example. So first I want to talk about what was said about Daucus historically.

Dioscorides advised decocting the seeds in wine. He suggested drinking this to “set the menses going” or giving it to people who pass water painfully and with difficulty, for edema, for pleurisy, and as an aid to conception. He also wrote that the root aids expulsion of fetuses when used as a pessary. This is important but we will get to it in a future post.[4]

Galen wrote that the roots are “diuretic and, if one uses them to excess, they are moderately unwholesome…Some call the wild carrot daukos; while more diuretic it is actually more poisonous and needs protracted boiling if one intends to eat it.[5]  I haven’t seen anything about the seeds in his writing but there is also not an English translation of some of his books and my Latin is not what it should be.

Ibn. Sīnā wrote about carrot seeds saying, “Oral intake or suppository of carrot specially of the wild variety increases the discharge of menstruation and urine.”[6]

The female physicians who wrote the Trotula mention wild carrot seed as an ingredient in a few compound medicines including Theriac and Trifera Magna which was a fertility remedy. They would put it into wine that had been decocted with mugwort for “disorder of the womb” caused by too much cold. The seeds themselves were not included in any of the formulas for “paucity of the menses.”[7]

I have a receipt for a syrup of carrots that came from the al-Andalus cookbook that says the syrup is beneficial for the “lack of urine,” increasing desire, dissolving phlegm, and warming the kidneys and other parts of the body. I am going to attach receipt down below for downloading just for fun.

I am going to skip ahead a bit now, but you will see that thinking about this plant didn’t change much through the centuries. Gerard wrote “The seed of this wild Carrot, and likewise the root is hot and drie in the second degree, and doth withal open obstructions…it breaketh and disolueth winde.”[8] He believed that it provoked the expulsion of urine, kidney stones, and stillbirths. He also wrote that it helped conception by bringing down the desired sickness so here again you see that idea that if a woman is menstruating regularly, they are more likely to conceive.

Parkinson shared a long list of uses for Daucus[9] including using it as the principal medicine to help the strangurie which was a condition whose symptoms included frequent painful urination and could be equated to a urinary tract infection. Diffuse griping pains, torments, and wounds in the bowels and so here we see the idea that it had carminative actions. He said it was used in poultices to relieve tumors and swellings and mixed into honey to help with old coughs. Most importantly he gave us a reason that the seeds were thought to provoke the courses saying they digest humours by “exhaling them through the pores.” Parkinson at least thought we were using carrot seed as a diaphoretic to purge bad humours.

He didn’t say anything about conception. If you are one of those people who is going to try to tell me that this this was forbidden knowledge and something that wasn’t written about, I am going to stop you right there by saying that Parkinson did write about herbs he believed “hindreth conception.” It’s a topic in the index of his herbal. Daucus just wasn’t one of them.

Mrs. Sharp also didn’t mention Daucus specifically but there is one entry in her book that includes carrot seeds in a busy formula which included steel shavings and was said to “provoke the Termes.” This formula was probably a means of addressing types of anemia that were called “the green sickness” or chlorosis. Before you scoff remember that there are iron shavings in Wheaties.

Lest we give dear Mrs. Sharp too much credit for being progressive, she didn’t know that’s what she was addressing.  According to Mrs. Sharp the Green sickness was most likely to afflict “maids of ripe years when they are in love and desirous to keep company with a man” and she considered marriage to be the “Sovereign Cure” for this condition but used her steel powder as a backup.

Culpeper believed there was little difference between the seeds of garden carrots and wild carrots but did express a slight preference for all wild plants. Culpeper’s book on midwifery which was published posthumously mentions using carrot seed as a diuretic for a condition called “Dropsie of the Womb.” All types of fluid accumulation were called dropsies at this time. He also mentioned carrot seed for addressing the dropsie that accompanied the green sickness.[10]

Salmon simply wrote “the Seed opens and expells Wind, provokes Urine, helps Fits of the Mother.”  Eventually I will write a post about that last condition because it’s probably not what you think it is, either. Mother doesn’t mean mother.

I feel like that’s an adequate representation of this particular plant’s history and it looks like this is one of those in that class of plants, thought to expel ill-humours and bodily fluids. You can also see that the “long history of being a contraceptive” is seriously in question at this point. 

I am perfectly aware of the “study” that floats around herbal circles. All 13 women in the study were using fertility awareness, barrier/withdrawal, and QAL seeds for birth control. Three of them conceived. That’s a 77% effectiveness rate.

The problem is there is no control in that study. I have been using fertility awareness and barrier/withdrawal as my only forms of birth control for 17 years now without getting pregnant, so I know that done well it could account for the success rate of that study. Until I see a study that shows that QAL seed is effective without the other two methods of birth control, I won’t be recommending it to anyone.

I feel like this is another one of those things that I write that’s going to set some people off. I don’t really care though. I have two daughters in their twenties, and I love them and a lot of their friends too much to sit on my hands while some nitwit is telling them that carrot seeds, rutin from lemons, or dill will keep an embryo from implanting. The timeframe during which people can legally address unwanted pregnancies in this state is too short for that nonsense.

There is no modern need to fuss around with unreliable or dangerous herbal interventions. Chemical abortion (using mifepristone and misoprostol) is safe and effective over 95% of the time. The pills can be ordered online at plancpills.org or aidaccess.org


[1] Sharp, Jane. The Midwives Book, or, The Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered.: Directing Childbearing Women How to Behave Themselves in Their Conception, Breeding, Bearing, and Nursing of Children in Six Books, viz. … / By Mrs. Jane Sharp Practitioner in the Art of Midwifry above Thirty Years. Vol. 2011 April (TCP phase 2), 1671. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A93039.0001.001.
[2] Bartholomaeus, Anglicus. De Proprietatibus Rerum. Edited by Batman, Stephen. 2003rd-01 (EEBO-TCP Phase 1). ed., 1582. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A05237.0001.001. Book IV. I could find a dozen of these.  I just like this one because the translation includes the original Latin.
[3] Salmon, William. Doron Medicum, or, A Supplement to the New London Dispensatory in III Books: 2012 November (TCP phase 2). London, England: Printed for T. Dawks, T. Bassett, J. Wright and R. Chiswell, 1683. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A60600.0001.001. pp 440.
[4] Dioscorides Pedanius. De Materia Medica. Translated by Beck, Lily. 2005 Translation. Altertumswissenschaftliche Texte Und Studien, Bd. 38. Hildesheim ; New York: Olms-Weidmann, ca. 65. pp 204.
[5] Galen. Galen: On the Properties of Foodstuffs. Translated by Owen Powell. 2003 Translation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 160AD.
[6] Sīnā, Ibn. Canon of Medicine  Book II: Materia Medica. 1998 Translation. Vol. 2. 5 vols. New Delhi, India: Department of Islamic Studies, 1025. pp 142.
[7] Green, Monica, trans. Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. 2001 Translation. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1100.
[8] Gerard, John. The Herbal Or General History of Plants. Edited by Johnson, Thomas. 1975 Reprint. New York, NY: Dover Publication, 1633.
[9] Parkinson, John. Theatrum Botanicum. London, England: The Cotes, 1640.
[10] Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives: Or a Guide for Women.  The Second Part. London, England: George Sawbridge, at the Sign of the Bible on Ludgate-Hill., 1676. pp 39 & 101.