Pregnancy and Herbs: What Helps and What Harms

Some herbs are mild enough to use during pregnancy while others should be avoided altogether. Here is an overview of helpful plants as well as those to be avoided.

| March/April 1997

Make a Nourishing Tea 

For some women, pregnancy can be a time of wondrous health. Their skin glows, their hair shines, their energy levels double. But such positive attributes can be accompanied by constipation, sore muscles, nausea, and fatigue, all of which can make an expectant mother feel decidedly uncomfortable.
Through the centuries, pregnant women of many cultures have turned to herbs to alleviate discomfort. Scientific research has shown that some of these remedies are safe for pregnant women to use under certain conditions. Other herbal remedies should be avoided. Learning which is which is easy—just read on—as is learning to prepare the safe ones. You may find that even something as simple as a daily ritual of drinking a nourishing herbal tea can keep you feeling well and become a time of affirmation about the baby to be.

Using herbs wisely

The fetus continues to develop throughout pregnancy, but the first trimester (three months) is especially important, as this is the time when all of its features, limbs, nerves, brain, and other organs are taking shape. It also is a highly sensitive time, as the fetus is susceptible to developmental abnormalities caused by harmful medications, environmental pollutants, and infections.
Although herbs are “natural”, not all herbs are safe to take during pregnancy. Many contain constituents that can cause miscarriage or premature birth, injure the fetus, or jeopardize the mother’s health (see the list below). Few clinical studies have measured the effects of various herbs on pregnant women or fetuses. Therefore, using herbs requires a cautious approach.
First, no two people are exactly alike, and you cannot know the exact effect an herb will have on your body. Even when using the “tried and true” herbs discussed below, it’s best to begin with a small quantity, gradually increasing dosage if appropriate and if no adverse effects occur. Chamomile, for example, a member of the aster family, is ordinarily considered one of the safest of herbs, but an individual allergic to ragweed (a member of the same family) may also have a reaction to chamomile.
Second, it is important to follow dosage guidelines for each herb. Digestion slows during pregnancy so substances tend to remain in the digestive tract longer, and their effects may be heightened and longer-lasting. The idea that more of a medication, ­including herbs, is better can be a dangerous fallacy, especially during pregnancy. The lowest effective dose is usually the best.
I recommend using herbs during pregnancy only to nourish and gently soothe your body. If you are ill and wish to use herbs therapeutically, it is essential to consult your health-care provider, who can tailor treatment to your needs without risking harm to your fetus.
Finally, I suggest that you talk with your health-care provider before taking any herb to make sure that your discomfort isn’t a sign of a serious problem.

Avoid these herbs:

Soothe and nourish

Beginning early in your pregnancy and continuing throughout, drinking teas made from herbs that are known to be gentle and safe can relieve morn­­ing sickness and sore muscles. Others have therapeutic qualities but are primarily used for their nutritional value: these may be used to supplement the diet.

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