Esmee Henstra, 23, had suffered years of side effects from her birth control.
She took the pill for five years, but the hormones made her feel anxious and depressed.
Then she tried the copper coil, which is a small t-shaped copper and plastic intrauterine device inserted into the womb. She had “cramping like I’ve never experienced before. And I had shooting nerve pain down my legs,” Henstra recalled. “Sometimes my periods were like 18 days long.”
— Elizabeth. (@Elizabeth_Eboni) April 5, 2019
A year later she gave up the coil for a smartphone contraceptive app called Natural Cycles and she hasn’t looked back.
The app is a modern technological version of the rhythm method, which involves carefully tracking a woman’s fertility cycle. The app works by having users measure and input their basal body temperatures as soon as they wake up. It was created in 2014 by a married Swedish couple, Elina Berglund and Raoul Scherwitzl, who have used the app to conceive. The Natural Cycles website describes the app as an “intelligent, non-hormonal birth control app that learns your unique cycle and tells you when you can and can’t get pregnant.”
It’s empowering that I have this knowledge about how my body works.
The app is the first and only contraceptive app to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and is also approved in Europe. This means that in these countries, the app can be marketed and categorized as an effective method of contraception similar to condoms and other forms of hormonal birth control. Users in other countries, including Canada, are advised to use the app for fertility monitoring.
Approved by the FDA in August of 2018, the monthly and annual subscription-based app already boasts subscription revenue of about $1-million per month and the company has secured $30 million in venture capital funding, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The app costs users $11.99 CA monthly and $89.99 yearly.
Despite the app’s growth, some critics urge caution.
“It’s good, I like the idea … but it’s the least reliable method,” said Dr. Bernard Ogbiti, who works in the pharmaceutical industry and specializes in drug safety. He noted that unlike other types of birth control, human error could be more of a risk with the app.
However, Dr. Ogbiti said Natural Cycles may benefit those at risk of side effects from hormonal birth control, such as people with hormonal disorders, a family history of breast cancer and or vaginal infections.
A survey by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) found that the use of oral contraceptives in women over the age of 30 has dropped from 39 per cent in 2006 to 15.7 per cent in 2016. While many factors could have caused the sharp decline, the desire for a more natural birth control method, combined with the opportunity to better understand one’s fertility, has led many women to try the new app.
“It’s empowering that I have this knowledge about how my body works,” Henstra said, noting that her doctor didn’t believe the hormones were affecting her.
Dr. Christine Derzko, who is an associate professor in Obstetrics & Gynaecology at the University of Toronto, is encouraged that women are trying to better understand their cycles. Although her main concerns are whether the app properly takes into consideration the lifespan of sperm in the female genital tract during ovulation, she believes that when it comes to fertility, “the signals are there if you just ask … if you just look for them.”
For Hayley Acton, 21, her experience with Natural Cycles didn’t go quite as planned.
She was sick for two weeks, which affected her ability to track her temperature. A later-than-usual ovulation led to an unexpected pregnancy.
“People should really educate themselves,” she said, warning women to be thoroughly informed about how their cycles work before using the app.
While she would still recommend the app to other women, she said she decided to get an intrauterine device (IUD) following her abortion.
When asked by email for an interview, Natural Cycles declined comment.