TAKE HERBS DURING PREGNANCY?
by Linda White , MD
Contributed by Marty Meyer at
Mothering is profound and mundane, rapturous and maddening. You alternately
dance and tear out your hair. Boundaries dissolve. You are no longer an
individual even after the birth. When you're pregnant - more than any other
time - how you treat your body, mind and soul matters. Because we care about our
health, many of us wish to treat unpleasant side effects of pregnancy such as
morning sickness with gentle herbal remedies. Yet, the question arises: Should
you take herbs when you're pregnant? Sharol Tilgner, a naturopathic doctor in
Creswell, Ore., prefers to err on the side of caution. Her attitude is that
during the first three months, a critical and vulnerable time for the baby's
organ development, a woman should avoid all medicines including medicinal herbs
unless advised otherwise by a health professional.
However, some herbs are part of the foods we eat daily, says Rosemary
Gladstar, author of Herbal Healing for Women (Simon & Schuster) and a
teacher at Sage Mountain, a center for herb education in East Barre, Vt. The
herbs traditionally used by pregnant women for centuries are food herbs, She
states, Four herbs are particularly recommended by experienced herbalists and
have been used safely by pregnant women for centuries. Rich in vitamins and
minerals, red raspberry leaf, nettles, alfalfa and dandelion act as system
supporting tonics for overall health of the expectant mother. Please
note, however, that you should always check with your doctor before taking any
herb while you're pregnant.
Pregnancy herbs are meant to be used whole, either eaten as a vegetable or
taken as a tea or tincture, Gladstar stresses. She recommends pregnant women not
use botanicals that concentrate isolated chemical constituents unless prescribed
by a health practitioner.
Red raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus), termed
the best all round herb for a healthy pregnancy by Catherine Hunziker, an
herbalism instructor at the Rocky Mountain School of Botanical Medicine in
Boulder, Colo., is a nourishing, building herb with an affinity for the
reproductive system. In moderate dosages, Gladstar adds, red raspberry is
a tonic that's been safely used by women for centuries. Rich in calcium,
magnesium, iron, phosphorus, potassium and vitamins B, C, and E, raspberry also
contains the alkaloid fragarine, the constituent that contributes to the
plant's potency as a pregnancy tonic.
Taken in tea or capsule form, red raspberry increases fertility in men and
women (especially when combined with red clover), tonifies the uterus, eases
morning sickness and assists in plentiful milk production, according to Susun
Weed, an herbalist from Woodstock, N.Y., and the author of Wise Woman Herbal for
the Childbearing Years (Ash Tree).
If you have a history of miscarriage, delay using raspberry until after the
first trimester, Hunziker cautions. After this time, Tilgner says you can drink
two cups of tea a day every other day. To make a tea, add between one teaspoon
to two tablespoons of the dried leaf per cup of boiling water. Steep 10 to 20
minutes. You can alternate taking red raspberry with other nutritive herbs such
Nettles, rich in biochealated iron,
calcium, protein and other nutrients, are virtually a pregnancy tonic by
themselves, says Gladstar. Drinking a nettle infusion before and throughout
pregnancy nourishes and strengthens the kidneys, increases fertility in men and
women, nourishes the mother and fetus (by virtue of its high calcium content),
diminishes leg craps and childbirth pain, prevents hemorrhage after birth,
reduces hemorrhoids, and increases the amount of mother's milk.
Although nettles taken as a tonic are considered safe in pregnancy,
concentrated extracts of stinging nettles (such as used to treat hay fever) can
act as an abortifacient.
According to Gladstar, alfalfa is loaded
with vitamins A, D, E, and K; eight digestive enzymes; and numerous trace
minerals. Colorado herbalist Kathryn Cox, who specializes in women's formulas,
recommends alfalfa in late pregnancy because the vitamin K it supplies promotes
proper blood clotting, thereby reducing the risk of postpartum hemorrhage.
The fourth tonic herb commonly used by pregnant women is dandelion. Both the leaf and root provide many essential
nutrients: vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, potassium and numerous trace
elements. The root helps boost liver function, allowing that organ to detoxify
the blood. The leaf is a mild diuretic much loved for its help in alleviating
water retention during pregnancy.
Morning sickness afflicts millions of pregnant women. Fortunately, several
natural remedies offer relief. First, eat small frequent meals and sip warm
liquids. Foods rich in vitamin B6 (Whole grains, meats, blackstrap molasses)
help alleviate nausea of all types. Because morning sickness is often worse when
your stomach is empty, especially upon rising in the morning, keep snacks on
Ginger is one of the best
antinauseants available, says Weed. In one clinical trial of pregnant women
with severe nausea and vomiting, 250mg of powdered ginger root taken four times
a day significantly reduced their discomfort (European Journal of Obstetrics,
Gynecology & Reproductive Biology, 1990, vol.38). A scientific review of the
use of ginger as an antinausea remedy concluded it's safe during pregnancy
provided normal doses are consumed (HerbalGram, 1996, Vol 38).
What form of ginger should you take? Choose from fresh, dried, powdered, tea
or crystallized ginger. To make ginger tea, Gladstar says to grate one to two
teaspoon of fresh root into a cup of water, simmer for a few minutes, then add
honey and lemon to taste.
An herbal blend of meadowsweet, spearmint, ginger and chamomile could be just your cup
of tea, recommends Mindy Green of Herb Research Foundation. However if you're
allergic to ragweed, you may also be allergic to chamomile. Aromatherapy, the
therapeutic use of essential oils from plants, can also ease morning sickness.
During pregnancy, your sense of smell is heightened. Foul smells may sicken
you, but pleasant aromas such as oil of lavender, ginger, sandalwood or
chamomile may alleviate nausea. Green, who's also the coauthor of
Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art (Crossing Press), reminds you
not to apply undiluted essential oils to your skin or take them internally.
The safest essential oils to use during pregnancy are those from flowers,
she notes. Diffuse the aromas of these oils into the air to benefit from their
For heartburn, common in pregnancy, chew or make a tea of seeds of herbs such
as fennel, anise or dill, suggests Gladstar.
Sleeplessness generally strikes during the third trimester when a belly full
of revolving elbows and knees interferes with comfortable repose. Cox says herbs
high in calcium soothe the nerves, promote restful sleep and ease muscle cramps.
Her favorites for pregnant women are scullcap and oats (Oatmeal, oatstraw, or oatseed).
A warm bath might help you sleep. Gladstar recommends adding a cloth bag full
of chamomile and lavender blossoms to the bathwater. Or, put aromatherapy to
work for you by mixing a drop or two of essential oils of neroli,
ylang ylang, lavender, rose, or jasmine,
which help calm the nervous system.
Stretch Marks &
According to Green, massaging a pregnant belly and breasts with diluted
aromatherapy oils can help the skin expand and thus prevent stretch marks.
Topical use of essential oils mixed into carrier oils are generally safe for
healthy pregnant women after the first trimester, she says. Her recipe is 15
drops lavender oil, five drops neroli oil, two drops rose oil and 800iu of vitamin
E in four ounces of a carrier oil such as almond oil. Cox uses comfrey, calendula, mallow and raspberry in
olive oil or a beeswax salve.
Gladstar's belly oils calls for 1/2 cup cocoa butter, 1/2 cup coconut oil,
20,000iu vitamin E oil, 2 teaspoons of grated beeswax, 1 teaspoon of lanolin,
and 1/4 cup apricot, almond or grape seed oil. Melt the ingredients together and
rub this emollient oil over your belly and breasts two to three times a day.
Caused by excess pressure on the vessels around the rectum, hemorrhoids
(enlarged and painful blood vessels) are the bane of pregnancy. However, you can
ease the pain by using nontoxic salves containing herbal comfrey and st.
John's Wort, says Gladstar, especially when the salve is cooled in
the refrigerator beforehand. (Cold temperatures constrict swollen veins.) Apply
the cool salve two to three times a day.
Cox recommends a sitz bath of comfrey, yarrow, uva-ursi and sea salt for hemorrhoids. The blended
dried herbs can be put inside a muslin bag and infused into warm water. She also
uses a balm of comfrey root, calendula, yarrow and plantain mixed into olive oil and
beeswax. Use this formula for a healing sitz bath after the birth; these same
herbs soothe tears and sore pelvic muscles.
Experts agree pregnant women shouldn't take
herbs with strong medicinal or potentially toxic effects. Some herbs listed
below can treat complications of pregnancy. For instance, cohosh
(contraindicated in pregnancy) may be recommended during the last weeks of
pregnancy to stimulate contractions. As with any herbal remedy, consult with a
licensed practitioner. Herbs to avoid during pregnancy.
- Herbs that stimulate uterine contractions:
Birthwort, blue cohosh, cinchona, ergot, goldenseal and gotu kola.
- Herbs that stimulate menstrual flow: agave,
angelica, black cohosh, chicory, feverfew, hyssop, horehound, lovage, milk
thistle, mistletoe, motherwort, mugwort, osha, pennyroyal, poke root,
pulsatilla, rue, sumac, tansy, thuja, watercress, wormwood and yarrow.
- Herbs high in volatile oils: osha,
eucalyptus, nutmeg, yerba mansa, basil, catnip, lemon balm, marjoram,
oregano, peppermint, pennyroyal, rosemary, true sage and thyme. Using herbs
to flavor food generally doesn't pose a risk. The concern lies with high
doses in women susceptible to miscarriage.
- Plants high in alkaloids: barberry, blood
root, goldenseal, coffee and mandrake
- Herbs that affect hormones: hops, licorice,
motherwort, dong quai and wild yam
- Harsh laxatives: senna, rhubarb, casara
sagrada, purging buchthorn, aloe, and yellow dock (in large amounts)
- Strong diuretics: uva-ursi and juniper
Linda White, M.D., is a freelance writer, the survivor of two blessedly
uneventful pregnancies, and the author of "The Grandparent Book", an
update on child rearing.