Pregnancy and Herbs: What Helps and What Harms

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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.

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) has neither dramatic healing properties nor outstanding taste, but it does contain proteins, vitamins K1 and C, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and chlorophyll. Traditional herbalists believe that it helps prevent anemia and other mineral and vitamin deficiencies.
Alfalfa is safe to take in moderation throughout pregnancy. Nourishment Tea  provides an easy and tasty way to take it, or sprinkle alfalfa sprouts on sandwiches and ­salads. Moderate use of alfalfa hasn’t produced side effects.

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) also contains many important vitamins and minerals. Cooked young nettle shoots contain as much carotene and vitamin C as spinach. As a regular addition to the diet of pregnant women, traditionalists believe, it prevents anemia.
Fresh nettles may be boiled or steamed (handle uncooked fresh nettle leaves with gloves–they pack a painful sting) and served as a side dish; freeze-dried powdered nettles in capsules are available at health-food stores. A nettle tea made from dried leaves also is tasty.

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita, formerly M. chamomilla or Chamomilla recutita) is one of my favorite herbs to take during pregnancy. In Europe, it is used to quell nausea, ease digestion, relieve heartburn, reduce insomnia, and promote gentle relaxation. A cup of chamomile tea, slightly sweetened with honey, tastes exquisite. I sip it during the day as a tonic and before bed to induce peaceful sleep. Women who have had a miscarriage or spotting during their pregnancy should drink no more than a cup of the tea per day because chamomile is a mild emmenagogue. As mentioned above, some people are allergic to cham­o­mile. Hold a small amount of cham­o­mile tea in your mouth for a few seconds, then spit it out. If your mouth itches or otherwise feels strange, do not use this herb.

Dandelion root and leaves (Taraxacum officinale) have been used traditionally to alleviate nausea, relieve a sour stomach, and gently promote bowel movements. I take 20 to 40 drops of dandelion tincture up to four times a day during early pregnancy to quell morning sickness. Dandelion greens are considered to be highly nutritious; I like to add chopped fresh spring or autumn greens to a salad or sauté them with garlic and add a dash of lemon and tamari sauce. Nausea may also be treated by sipping a cup of tea throughout the day or by taking up to four capsules of powdered ginger daily.

Tougher problems

Pregnancy demands a lot of energy; stress, fatigue, and a “run-down” feeling are common among expectant mothers. Traditionally, the lovely, ­fragrant purple flowers of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) have been used in a tea or added to a bath to promote sleep, reduce anxiety, and lift depression. I either add a pinch of the dried blossoms to chamomile tea or shake a few drops of lavender oil into my bath. Lavender also makes a calming addition to massage oil.
External applications of St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum) are great for treating sore back muscles–a common complaint of pregnant women. Put a small amount of the dark oil on your fingertips and massage gently into the affected area, or ask your partner for assistance. To prepare the oil, place 1 cup of freshly cut or 2 cups dried, crushed St.-John’s-wort flowers in a lidded jar, cover them with 2 cups of olive oil, and cap. Set the jar in the sun or other warm place. Shake it once a day. After two to three weeks, strain the oil into a dark bottle, cap, and store in a cool place until you need it.
When you’re feeling fine, preg­nancy can be a time of great joy and energy. Safely using herbs to help overcome minor discomforts can sustain the good feelings so that you can enjoy being pregnant, nine months in a row.

Aviva Romm is a certified professional midwife and practicing herbalist in Atlanta, Georgia. The mother of four children, she is also the author of Natural Healing for ­Babies and Children (The Crossing Press, 1996) and a comprehensive guide, The Natural Pregnancy Book (also from The Crossing Press).

Additional reading

Herb Research Foundation Information Packet: Pregnancy. Herb Research Foun­dation, 1007 Pearl St., Boulder, CO 80302.
Romm, Aviva Jill. The Natural Pregnancy Book. Freedom, California: The Crossing Press, in press.
Tyler, Varro E. Herbs of Choice: The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals. Binghamton, New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1994.
Weed, Susun. Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year. Woodstock, New York: Ash Tree, 1985.

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