Herbalism, Breaking Up with Birth Control, and Revolutionizing your Menstrual Cycles
Jordan Rome is the Editor-In-Chief of Gaia Goddess who enjoys her carefree life without a zip code. She loves to create worlds that challenge limited perspectives through performance, words, and visual arts!
Herbalism, Breaking Up with Birth Control, and Revolutionizing your Menstrual Cycles
For International Women's Month, we decided to take the time out and speak with Nicole, founder of Learn Body Literacy, a resource hub for menstrual cycles, fertility, and reproductive health. In addition to empowering women to have better relationships with their overall reproductive health, Nicole is a co-founder of Polycultured, an online herbal apothecary and resource for those interested in farming and permaculture, where the medicines are harvested and sourced from her farm in Portugal. In this interview, Nicole spills precious gems from breaking up with birth control to the ins-and-outs of herbalism and how it can support your overall well-being. Let's dive in!
Q: Can you explain what herbalism is and why someone would benefit from working with herbs?
Herbalism is the practice of taking raw materials from the Earth, such as plants or mushrooms, and extracting the medicine from the raw materials or plants. It's all about how you transfer the constituents and make them available for use by the body. We use herbalism in topical ways or internally- ingesting herbs through tinctures or long-brewed teas. It's all about connecting with and creating a relationship with the Earth and Earth medicine. The plants and mushrooms preceded us and are older than human beings. They had evolutionary time to learn how to survive and combat viruses and bacteria. So earth medicine and plants are some of the finest chemists because they've had millions of years of evolution to create antibacterial and antiviral functions. They are our allies! It is wide-ranging why someone would want to use herbs - from an infection or chronic issues like chronic pain that isn't addressed by Western modalities or treatments. Most herbalism goes back to antiquity or Indigenous, traditional ways of making medicine. A lot of times, they were using them for ailments or longevity and preventative help, which was more integrated into society, and this was passed down. Also, acute, chronic, or just general wellness and improve the overall health of your body. It's wide-ranging and a vast discipline with different voices, perspectives, and plants. It exists all over the world, just in different ways.
People aren't starting from a neutral in some ways; they're starting from a negative space, so they're dealing with pretty complex issues that are a mixture of environmental and social forces, and may require serious medical intervention. Herbalism would have been a tremendous preventive, but now they must address it differently. Pharmaceutical drugs are more pointed, as they can target more specific parts of the body, but that's also a disadvantage because each constituent is just one thing. Each pharmaceutical will do one thing, and then you must take another one to counteract or deal with another issue. In contrast, with herbs, there's a higher overall safety profile. This is an advantage because it is more chemically complex and has a broader spectrum.
There is talk about your "position" holistic vs. pharmaceutical, but I've seen people use both simultaneously, or wean themselves off pharma and use herbs. There may be reasons why people use pharmaceuticals, and there will always be people who have a need for them. It's important for me to show that herbalism has a place in their life whether they decide to use it or not and teach medical doctors that it's nothing to be scared of but instead educated about because it can improve the quality of life for the patients they treat. We're up against a lot, so herbalism can't be used in a vacuum, and there's space for everyone's modalities to be important, or these things can work in tandem, depending how each person wants to engage with these complexities.
Q: How has herbalism shaped your practice and studies around women's reproductive health and vice versa?
In other places in the world, China, India, and even Eastern Europe are more open to exploring how plant medicine is involved. It's more integrated. Herbalism has become highly integrated into my work with reproductive health, and this is because the American gynecology system is very resistant to this type of intervention and is much more focused on the first line of treatment being drugs and the second line being surgeries and an obstetrician's concentration is surgical.
Because I'm trying to work with people outside of that system because these other types of treatments, such as herbalism, aren't accepted, herbalism informs my work. Most of the different hormonal issues that people have that end up being reproductive health issues, if they are left untreated, they're usually treatable and preventable and have to do with very simple things that can be decoded by the person learning to read their body. The system of charting that I teach and the types of herbalism that I engage in are a hormonal/reproductive health-related guide to each individual's treatment plan. I can use the charts and symptoms to decode what's going on hormonally in the whole cycle. A gynecologist may take a patient's blood and check their hormone levels, but that only looks at one day of their cycle, but the cycle fluctuates greatly in terms of the blood or serum level of hormones in the blood on different cycle days. So it's crucial people start looking at the cycle as a whole rhythm, being able to look at everyone's individual symptoms and medical history and putting it all together allows you to use specific herbs and treatments for that person's issues. It's not a one-size-fits-all like birth control. I've learned through herbalism that people are whole people, not just with some extra parts, but being able to see the whole person, what they've been through, their environment, and their background- the herbs can be used to address these very different things. Each is unique because it discusses what's happening with the whole person, not just the uterus or the ovaries.
Q: What is FAM, or body literacy, and how did you start tracking your cycle?
Body literacy means reading and understanding the language of your body. It was a concept that came out of the concept of health literacy, and menstrual health activists developed it in the early 2000s to describe how the menstrual cycle is a vital sign. Just like your respiration, or body temperature, your menstrual cycle is another way to decode the health and longevity of your body and to understand what is normal or healthy for you versus when something feels off or wrong.
FAM, the fertility awareness method, determines the small window in which the person is fertile in their menstrual cycle. Unfortunately, most people have never learned this. So the foundation of fertility awareness-based methods is body literacy. The method is about understanding when you're fertile because people have been taught you can get pregnant any day of your cycle. Still, it's a small fertile window each cycle, which are the days leading up to ovulation and ovulation itself, so it's about six days of the menstrual cycle when someone is fertile. And most people have never learned that.
FAM has you observe your three fertility signs daily and then chart that on a graph, so by analyzing, you can understand and see when you become fertile and when you stop being fertile. Being more body literate can help you through your entire life, when you first hit puberty, your adult years, so that you can understand your fertility and hormonal health. Then it will help you later on when you reach perimenopause and eventually approach menopause as you make another life transition towards the end of your reproductive years, which is like a return to childhood. Your hormonal levels go back to your child hormonal levels and it's all full circle. Body literacy is about understanding the whole life cycle and how your body will change throughout that life cycle. FAM is a method with rules and a scientific basis highlighting when fertility begins and ends, a methodology you must learn and practice. Body literacy is full body awareness and a basic understanding of how your body functions… ideally coming to a place where the whole society becomes body literate.
Q: Why is it so important that women have access to this knowledge? With the rise of social media and trends, is this passing of information merely trendy?
It creates a lot more in-depth awareness and resistance to patriarchy just by being able to control the fertility cycle more. It allows for a deeper knowledge of bodily and spiritual awareness. It's empowering! It doesn't allow for an outside force to shut down our agency. The menstrual cycle is more than just making a pregnancy happen. It's about making hormones that are good for you. Estrogen and progesterone are produced in your ovaries every cycle. Each cycle you make is a deposit into your long-term health, giving you strong bones and cardiovascular system.
In contrast, an unposted side effect of long-term use is that you will have more issues when you reach menopause because you missed cycles of making those hormones. Body literacy is also so helpful because it takes power away from legislation. If you take birth control away tomorrow, it may cause calamity in many people's lives. Still, for me, it will be just another day because I'm living with a deeper knowledge of how my body is functioning. Just knowing the basics of what your baby making fluid is, girls and younger people would be able to better have control over their fertility just by looking down at themselves instead of thinking of themselves in a stigmatized way where they don't want to look at their fluids, inspect their menses, or engage with their body. It opens up so much empowerment and understanding and provides essential information about fertility. To me, it's part of the resistance and intertwined with reproductive justice.
Q: What are the biggest misconceptions you've seen around information about charting your cycle?
Some of the things that people are sharing become dangerous when there's sort of a kernel of truth. They may look at blogs and stuff from FAM resources, and they may want to put things in their own words, so definitions get changed, or different parts of the menstrual cycle are unclear.
There's also the assault from biotechnology and venture capitalists, who are bio-tracking and telling women in return for their menstrual data, we'll tell women about the phases of their menstrual cycle and help them design their diet and workout plan. This seems excellent, but on the back end, they're taking people's data. The government and the state can use it! So, by giving up our data to these predatory websites that act like they are about body literacy, you have another huge problem of a lot of misinformation flying around. Women are still not autonomous; these people are nefarious, and their goal is the exact opposite. There are a lot of barriers that prevent this information from being released properly. We must get serious about data privacy because digital data is mostly used to criminalize and convict those who can become pregnant. It's about seeing the data as valuable!
Q: What advice would you give someone just starting with the ins and outs of body literacy, cycle awareness, etc? Are there specific programs you'd recommend or tools?
I created a charting journal and a graph representing FAM, and you can use it to track your menstrual cycle and practice the fertility awareness method. You can take your data completely offline and not create a digital trail while still being able to use it to be empowered. The second option is using an encrypted app, and I recommend people use an encrypted app or that do not own or sell their data. The app- read your body, available on IOs and android, it's encrypted, or you can download the data to your device. It's made by a collective of people who practice fertility awareness. The second one is based in Berlin, Germany, called DRIP, and it's also encrypted. These are the only two that are encrypted. Most are quite predatory. Again, it's important we see our data as valuable- it's something that people want to make money from. These are the venture capitalists associated with apps like PayPal who have no interest in furthering body literacy.
Q: What makes your work radical or revolutionary?
Of course, Body literacy is revolutionary because it brings the power back into our bodies, not just in a particular way, but in a collective way. When we're able to work together and share things that work for us and figure out these various and mysterious reproductive issues that are plaguing us and making us sick all the time, and just trying to work through that in a way where we're much more in control is revolutionary. The power is the life force, which is the ability to create and destroy. The ability to have the choice and not be criminalized. Even having to conceal it socially is a part of how they control our bodies. I've been a protestor, and activist, I've built gardens, and I have slept on Wall Street. However, I still feel this work of being able to understand the nature of the body and the power of the menstrual cycle is the most radical and revolutionary thing I've ever done. It has affected more lives than any of the other things combined, and that's how I know it's right. It's the right path and needs to be done.
Q: What are your hopes for the future?
For the work to grow authentically, it needs more voices, so I've been building in coalition with Black midwives and educating them about the body literacy and fertility awareness side. They've been teaching me about midwifery and traditional midwifery. And I find it to be the future! Teaching teachers is the way to move all this forward, and that's my goal, and the movement of people who are in a kinship is definitely growing, so that's very exciting!