For many of my friends – and probably yours, too – the past few years have seen them shun hormonal birth control.
From a dislike and distrust of the pill (a recent survey found that 45% of women said they had experienced anxiety while on the pill, and a study of the effects of the much-talked-about male pill was recently abandoned by researchers after some of the male subjects reported feeling "down"), to an increased awareness of what we put in our bodies (see the rise of "clean eating"), people are searching for an alternative.
For many, this has meant getting the non-hormonal copper coil; for others, this has meant employing the (wildly un)trustworthy pull-out method. What you probably have heard of, but not looked into, is the contraception method of choice of our mothers’ era: the rhythm method.
The rhythm method, disappointingly, is less about sexing away to sick beats and more to do with planning your sex life around the days when you are ovulating. On average, it’s considered to be 80-87% effective, which obviously isn’t ideal, although it is certainly better than nothing.
Now, there’s a more scientific way to apply the rhythm method to your sex life and it’s thanks to the first government-approved contraception app, Natural Cycles, cofounded by Dr. Elina Berglund Scherwitzl.
The app is proven to be more effective than the pill and works by testing your temperature and (if you choose) your luteinising hormone levels (luteinising hormone is released by the pituitary gland and, in women, is closely associated with the reproductive cycle). Good temperature? Congrats, you get a green day – go and have sex. Red day? Shut. It. Down. Or get yourself a condom.
Dr. Berglund, previously of CERN, where she worked on the Higgs boson (no sweat), originally developed the app for her own needs. “I’ve been looking for an effective natural contraceptive since I was like, 15,” she tells us. “When I found that your temperature fluctuates when you ovulate, it was really a revelation to me. I love data and data analysis so it was actually a lot of fun to dig into this field and understand how the body works.”
As mentioned, the app works by taking your temperature. You do need a thermometer and it needs to be a proper thermometer – a two decimal one – you can’t just nick your mum's cheapo one from the odds and ends drawer. When you wake up, before you sit up, you’ll need to take a reading in order to get your “basal temperature”. In the first part of your menstrual cycle, your body temperature is a little lower, then, once ovulation has occurred, your temperature rises due to the increase of progesterone hormone levels. So the app analyses the data you put in, and figures out whether or not it’s safe for you to have unprotected sex.* As the app gets to know your body better, the more green days you will get.
The study used to gauge the app’s effectiveness was one of the largest contraception studies ever undertaken. Dr. Berglund and her team looked at 4,054 women using the app and found it to have a Pearl Index of 7. For those unsure, the Pearl Index is roughly how many women out of 100 using any one method of birth control will get pregnant in a year. Typical use of the pill results in a Pearl Index of 9. “The pill is not as effective as everyone thinks,” Dr. Berglund warns. “It’s because women forget to take it or they take it at different times – and that’s not something you’re always aware of.”
The response to Natural Cycles has been overwhelmingly positive so far. Rather than giving me edited reactions, Dr. Berglund directs me to the App Store for, as she puts it, "unfiltered reviews", so confident is she of its success. One of the main points that comes up over and over again in these responses is how users enjoyed learning about their bodies – a refreshing sentiment after last year's somewhat worrying (and relatable) study showing that half of women don't know where their vagina is.
“I mean it’s something I really enjoyed learning when I developed it but I thought that was just because I was a scientist and geeky!” Dr. Berglund says. “But I quickly realised that actually all women really like to understand what’s going on in there and understanding their body in a whole different way.”
When we met Dr. Berglund she had been speaking on a panel at London's Women of the World Festival about how tech is changing the future for women and how just 14.4% of employees in the STEM industries (science, technology, engineering and maths) are currently women. Dr. Berglund reckons her experience of being female has helped her get ahead.
“It took many years before I realised, ‘Oh I’m sitting in a room with 40 men and I’m the only woman.’ It didn’t cross my mind and that’s good because it is scary if you think about it. But it can be beneficial because you’re different and you have a different point of view than the average person [also in the room].” Perhaps it’s for this reason that she says getting investment for her app has been no trouble at all – she found a solution to a problem that the men weren’t even thinking about.
While Natural Cycles is in its infancy, the potential implications are almost unimaginable. Just think, in developing countries, where women struggle to get access to contraception, what it might do for women’s rights. For continents like Africa, where smartphone usage has doubled in the past two years, and countries like India, where the number of smartphone users will surpass the US this year, the possibilities are endless.
The Natural Cycles team still needs to work on a larger plan to expand to developing countries. “Unfortunately it’s not as easy as just putting it there and it will just ‘go’ on its own,” Dr. Berglund says, although she does have a few ideas about how to kick things off. “We will have to partner with an NGO, some education will need to be involved… One way of doing it is that a woman in the Western world could pay for a woman in the developing world, or 10 women!” she smiles. “I think that would be amazing for the community. I’d love to do that.”
*Obviously the app doesn’t protect against STIs so if you are planning on having unprotected sex, make sure you and your partner have been checked.