Over the summer I had someone contact me about mounting a Cotton flower. She had purchased some botanicals from me and she was a cotton farmer – she wanted cotton represented in her collection. That was all good, except I’m in Pennsylvania, not exactly known as the cotton capital of the US. My search for cotton lead me down the most fascinating rabbit hole: cotton has been used as a method of birth control both for men and women.
Although there are many species of cotton the one most commonly procured and cultivated for purposes of fertility management belong to the species known as Levant Cotton (Gossypium herbaceum) from which cottonseed oil is derived. Surprisingly omitted from the herbals from antiquity (the exception being the use of soaked cotton pessaries used to deliver other herbal applications which was mentioned in Egyptian texts) the use of cotton as a method of b irth control becomes widespread in the 20th century.
In her 1931 herbal, Mrs. M Grieve plainly states that cotton is:
mainly used as an abortifacient in place of ergot, being not so powerful but safer; it was used largely in this way by the slaves in the south. It not only increases the contractions of the uterus in labour, but also is useful in the treatment of metrorrhagia, specially when dependent on fibroids; useful also as an ecbolic; of value in sexual lassitude. A preparation of cotton seed increases milk of nursing mothers (Grieve, 1931).
She also included a recipe for use:
Boil 4 OZ. of the inner bar of the root in 1 quart of water down to 1 pint: dose, 1 full wineglass (4 oz.) every thirty minutes. Fluid extract, U.S.D., 1 to 2 drachms. Gossipium, 1 to 5 grains. Solid extract, 15 to 20 grains. Liquid extract of cotton root bark, B.P.C., 1/2 to 1 fluid drachm. Tinc. Gossipii, B.P.C., 1/2 to 1 fluid drachm. Decoction of cotton root bark, B.P.C., 1/2 to 2 fluid ounces (as an emmenagogue or to check haemorrhages).
Her inclusion of Cotton as a replacement to ergot is interesting as ergot was over-prescribed as a pregnancy drug until 1822 when the medical community realized it was resulting in too many deaths (Mann, 2000). For her to include it, 100 years later, as an alternative to ergot shows that this remedy had been circulating around for some time.
In 1950 it “was noticed that fecundity was much lower in the Habeth province of China, where cotton seed oil was the main dietary fat (Tsui, et. al., 1983). Animal trials were conducted in 1971 and showed conclusive proof that the major constituent of cotton, gossypol, was the cause of this infertility (Mann 2000). In 1972 human trials began. A sample of 10,000 healthy males were:
initially given a daily dose of 20 mg of Gossypol formate or Gossypol acetate orally for 2 months until azoospermia or extreme oligospermia was induced. A subsequent monthly maintenance dose of 150 to 220 mg kept the sperm
count below 4 million/ml in 98-99 % of the men (Tsui, et. al., 1983)
Among the first 4,000 men treated over periods ranging from 6 months to 4 years, the estimated efficacy of this regimen was 99.9% and there was a compelete recovery of acceptable sperm counts 3 months after the last dose of Gossypol (Mann 2000)
However, later analysis has shown that Gossypol was found to produce “chronic or permanent infertility in 25 to 50% of the trial participants” (Gardner, 2013). There is also the side effect of hypokalemia (low potassium) which occurred in 10% of the participants. It was not able to be overcome by taking oral potassium supplements with the Gossypol (Morris, 1986). As a result, this research has not been explored since the 1980s.
Towards the end of the 20th century ethno-botanical studies of various cultures revealed the continued use of Cotton for reproductive purposes. A study of herbal remedies of the North American west revealed that a:
popular abortifacient used by Mexican-Americans was a concoction of Gossypium (Cotton), in which 2 to 4 ounces of bark of the root were boiled in a quart of water for one half hour and the entire concoction drunk first thing in the morning (Artschwager, 1996)
However, it should be noted that Gossypol’s effect on the female reproductive system has been much less conclusive than the clear studies done on men. Separate animal studies have shown both embyrotoxic effects and have shown no such effects. In some cases, administering the dosage between 0-8 days of conception prevented implantation of the fetus in rabbits. In others, no effects were noted at dosages 5 – 30 times the clinical levels (Gardner, 2013). More conclusive research needs to be completed.