Dr. Gregory Popcak
While a majority of people may be drawn to Natural Family Planning out of religious conviction many people who use various forms of NFP throughout the world come to it for reasons that have nothing to do with religion. That shouldn’t be too big a surprise. Why wouldn’t people be interested in a safe, effective, environmentally friendly method of conceiving and avoiding pregnancy that has health and relationship benefits associated with it? Even so, for those who are less familiar with some of the natural reasons some people are deciding to use NFP, it can be helpful to gain a broader perspective on NFP’s appeal.
Dissatisfaction with Hormonal Contraceptives
About 70% of women in their reproductive years use the pill but despite its popularity, many women, secular and otherwise, are discovering NFP after having had negative experiences with hormonal birth control. According to research published in 2010 in the Journal of Family Practice, 57% of women are unhappy with the pill due to side effects that include depression and other mood changes, nausea, decreased libido, or in rare instances, blood clots or stroke. Failure rate is another complaint many couples cite for their dissatisfaction with the Pill. According to the FDA, with typical use, the pill has a failure rate of 8.7% which is considerably higher than the rate of conception with NFP used by a married couple.
Depression and Condoms
As crazy as it sounds, condom use may be linked to an increase in depression in women. Only about 1-5% of semen is comprised of sperm. The remaining 95%+ of human semen is comprised of 50 different compounds, many of which are mood enhancers–both anti-depressants and anti-anxiety agents– as well as chemicals that facilitate the physiological process of bonding that occurs in lovers’ brains. These chemicals include, but are by no means limited to, cortisol (known to increase affection), estrone (which elevates mood), prolactin (a natural antidepressant), oxytocin (also elevates mood and facilitates bonding), thyrotropin-releasing hormone (another antidepressant), melatonin (a sleep-inducing agent) and even serotonin (perhaps the most well-known antidepressant neurotransmitter).
This would all be interesting theory, but according to a 2010 article in Scientific American summarizing ten years of research by evolutionary psychologists into the biochemical effects of semen in the vagina, there is considerable evidence that women who have unprotected sex (though not necessarily with the same partner–researchers were not concerned with fidelity) were less likely to become depressed in the first place than women who used condoms. Additional research shows that if a woman becomes depressed, she is significantly less likely to become suicidal than condom-users. The bottom line for NFP practitioners is that by avoiding condoms, not only are they decreasing a woman’s risk of depression, they are increasing the likelihood that the woman will be more stress-resistant than women who’s partners use condoms.
As I alluded to above, surprisingly, the psychobiological effect of semen in the vagina is a relatively new field of inquiry that has really only gotten underway in the last 10 years. In my book, Holy Sex!, I summarize some of that research as it relates to marital stability and satisfaction. We now know that when the woman’s body absorbs semen, not only does she get the benefit of the mood enhancers described above, it also stimulates a bonding process in her brain. Every person (male and female) has structures in the brain that are responsible for promoting bonding, that sense of connectedness between one person and another.
Chemicals in semen stimulate these bonding structures in the brain, causing lovers’ brain’s (this process occurs for both men and women but how it works in men is less well understood) to literally think of each other as an actual part of him or herself. For instance, if you and your partner break up, the same pain centers in the brain light us as if you broke your arm or some other body part. When St Paul told Christians that sex makes two people one flesh, he was not just speaking metaphysically. In a very real way, the chemicals shared between lovers during unprotected, vaginal intercourse cause the bonding structures in the lovers’ brains to experience each other as one body. The more the brain is exposed to these bonding chemicals, the harder and more traumatic separation and loss will be. Of course, sex is not the only activity that triggers the bonding reflect between lovers. Other forms of physical affection produce oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone” that facilitates bonding at every stage of human development, but sex appears to be an especially powerful catalyst for bonding that makes real changes in the lover’s brains and makes it harder for each to imagine being without the other–on both a physiological and a conscious level.
A more well-known, not specifically religious benefit of NFP is greater health awareness for the woman. By charting fertility signs, a woman (and her husband) are more likely to catch any developing problems early, affording prompt and more effective medical intervention when necessary. I cannot tell you the number of stories I have collected over the years of NFP couples catching some problem so early that doctors were amazed but thrilled to have the opportunity to treat the disorder, whether a hormonal issue, infection, cancer, or other diseases with a much greater rate of success than they would have otherwise had. NFP is not just open to life. It saves lives.
NFP is Good For the Environment
Here is an inconvenient truth, hormonal contraceptives are destroying the environment. Over a half dozen studies in the US, UK and Europe have fingered the chemicals in hormonal contraceptives as the cause of the increasing incidence of Intersex Disorder in fish swimming near water treatment plants. Intersex disorder results when male fish start producing eggs. The cause is the increased presence of human reproductive hormones in the rivers and lakes near water treatment facilities (water treatment can not eliminate human reproductive hormones).
The problem does not end with fish. According to a study by the British Environmental Agency (the UK’s EPA), the presence of human reproductive hormones in tap water may be directly responsible for the 30% decrease in the sperm count among British males in the last 10 years. It has also been theorized that the increased presence of human reproductive hormones in the water supply may be responsible for the earlier and earlier onset of menarche in young women. Of course there are many other non-religious reasons someone might wish to use NFP, common ones (such as psychological and relationship benefits) that I don’t have the space to address in this article. But my hope in raising some of these lesser known benefits of NFP is to help people understand that using NFP isn’t just good. It really is good for you.
To discover more about the numerous benefits of NFP, check out Holy Sex! A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving and see what a game-changer NFP can be for your marriage.