This natural “birth control” is an option we couldn’t even conceive of—but it works
Have you ever forgotten to take your pill and subsequently freaked out? Have you ever thought about your IUD too much and realized you have a foreign object inside of you pumping you with hormones? Have you ever second-guessed using the most common birth control methods because of the short and long-term impacts or side effects? Welp, you’re not the only one. With so much new research being done around women’s healthcare, we, as women, have started to realize that the status quo may just not be good enough for us. We’re asking ourselves: “Is this the best we can do?” And that’s exactly what Elina Berglund, Nobel Prize-winning particle physicist and founder of Natural Cycles, did when looking for a more natural birth control method.
Natural Cycles, originally founded in Switzerland and now headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden, is a hormone-free alternative to birth control and is one of the fastest-growing startups in Europe. Today, it’s even made its way across the pond where you can see ads for it plastered all around New York City!
The idea was first conceived when Elina, and her husband, Raoul, who is also a physicist, started to think about making a family: “I knew that I wanted to get pregnant in a year or two and had therefore stopped using hormonal birth control to give my body a chance to get back to normal first. In my search for a natural birth control method, I discovered that the body temperature changes throughout the menstrual cycle – something that is well-known and well-researched. I started analyzing my own temperature, applying my statistical knowledge from particle physics to detect ovulation, and map out my fertile days.”
Using her own fertility data, along with the techniques she learned through her Nobel Prize-winning project (more on that below!), Elina created an algorithm to analyze temperature readings—taking factors like sperm survival, temperature fluctuations, variations in cycle length, ovulation day, and the length of the follicular and luteal phase into account to identify fertile and non-fertile days. This signature algorithm was then turned into an app, at Raoul’s suggestion, and that’s how Natural Cycles was born.
“We are pioneering an era in which women are more aware and in control of their bodies than ever before. We want to empower women to take control of their fertility – whether that’s to prevent or plan a pregnancy.”
We got the chance to chat with Elina about her background and how she’s taking charge on the path to improving women’s health.
The Void: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are? We’d love to know more about the Nobel Prize, too!
Elina: I am a particle synthesis from the beginning. I was working at the laboratory when we were looking for the Higgs Boson particle, which we discovered in 2012. That’s what led to that Nobel Prize in physics; our experiment was mentioned in the Nobel Prize. It was an amazing result. That was really cool!
That summer in 2012, when we discovered the Higgs particle, that was also when Natural Cycles came about—because discovery like that doesn’t come around too often. The experiment was shutting down for about two years, so I started wondering, if I wouldn't do particular physics what would I do? I had started to measure my temperature a few months earlier to track my own fertility (because me and my husband needed a hormone-free, effective birth control method for ourselves), but we didn't find such a product on the market. That’s when I started to see the temperature changes throughout the menstrual cycle… it was a “wow” moment for me. That’s when I realized that I could use that knowledge to see when I was fertile, and I could also use it as a birth control method.
So, I started to create a first version of an algorithm to use myself, and then during the summer it was my husband that suggested that maybe we should try to make this algorithm into an app. He figured all women and couples could benefit from this innovation and I thought that it was a good idea!
The Void: So, in simpler terms, how does it all work?
Elina: Basically, a woman measures her temperature in the morning when she wakes up and then puts it into the app and the algorithm runs in the background. If she is fertile that day, or if there is any chance she could be fertile, it will show red and she should use protection if she wants to avoid pregnancy. If it shows green, she’s not fertile and does not have to use protection that day.
For someone that is looking to get pregnant, it’s slightly different. There are two modes in the app. If you are using the app to get pregnant, you get a red scale. The darkest red day is the most fertile (peak fertility), then you have lighter and lighter red. There is also green when there is no fertility at all.
The Void: What makes Natural Cycles unique and why do you think it’s a good option for women?
Elina: One thing is the algorithm in itself, it really takes away the guesswork. It takes statistical scrutiny into account, it learns from previous cycles and takes all that data into account to really make it effective as time goes on. It is also really easy to use because you don’t have to read a book or signal that might be misinterpreted. It takes away the human error from the whole thing.
We have done at least four clinical cycles that show that Natural Cycles is an effective option, too. It is 93% effective under typical use and 98% under perfect use. With those studies, that is one part of why we have become the first and only app to be cleared by the FDA as a birth control method.
The Void: Do you think women, particularly in the US, are aware of their options? Or do you think something like Natural Cycles can help educate women on their options?
Elina: That is something I learn more and more. When it comes to birth control and women’s health in general, there really is an educational gap. We try to talk about birth control in general, not just our own product, because we think there should be more information about birth control and also how a woman’s body works. What’s clear is there is no one size fits all method when it comes to birth control methods. This method might work better for different women at different times in their lives, so we really want to help expand the options available for women.
The Void: How does this differ from some of the other methods we have heard of?
Elina: There is no other digital product or cycle-tracking product that is actually learned to be used as a birth control, and also no others are scientifically backed. Women have used similar methods like the rhythm method for a really long time, but those have proven to not be very effective because when you ovulate can be a guessing game. We are trying to get accuracy involved; taking this old method and making it modern and effecting by applying the algorithm.
The Void: With anything new to the market, what are the risks here? You must have seen some failures?
Elina: No birth control method is 100% effective. The hard part of working with birth control is you always have a pregnancy rate. That is why we say we are 93% effective under typical use, which is more effective than the condom alone. But less effective than the IUD, which is in your body and you can completely forget about it.
The most common reason for unplanned pregnancy with Natural Cycles is that you get a red day and you risk it anyway. We still believe the most important thing here is to increase contraceptive options. We’ve also found that women feel empowered by actually understanding their bodies and knowing what’s going on inside. That is also an important benefit of what we offer.
The Void: What is the importance of women being in control of their bodies in this way?
Elina: This is the main feedback we get from our users. For instance, they feel very relieved to really understand when they have PMS and to have a heads up when the menstruation is coming and when they might not feel as good as usual. It is also quite common for women to have to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (roughly 10%), which means you might not ovulate as regularly and as often as you might think, which could be difficult if you’re trying to get pregnant. Lastly, if you do get pregnant, planned or not planned, you see it very quickly in the data with Natural Cycle.
The Void: In short, why is Natural Cycles important?
Elina: There are a lot of women out there that actually don't use any birth control method at all because they have tried several different methods and haven't found something that works for them. It is important that those women can also have an effective method of birth control as an alternative if they don't want to use hormonal birth control or an IUD.
Make sure to visit natural cycles for more information!