Are Herbs Safe for Pregnancy?
Unfortunately there isn’t a great deal of medical research on the safety and utility of herbs during pregnancy. However there is anecdotal, early empirical, and logical evidence to suggest that herbs can be extremely beneficial during those nine months.
Guiding principle for the use of herbs during pregnancy-
Avoid herbs known as abortifacients and emmenagogues. These are herbs that traditionally were used to induce abortion or bring on the menses.
Due to lack of research, most physicians will suggest completely avoiding all herb use during pregnancy. While this might be an appropriate approach in some cases, many have successfully used herbs during pregnancy to support their health. Not all herbs should be used as daily tonics. These herbs are taken briefly only when indicated for an individual. If you are supporting yourself with herbs or would like to during your pregnancy always be diligent about looking into what you’re taking. It’s best to consult with someone that is educated in herbal medicine and safety.
Supporting Yourself During Pregnancy
During pregnancy nutrients are required to create the cells needed to form two extra pounds of uterine muscle, the nerves, bones, organs, muscles, glands and skin of the fetus, several pounds of amniotic fluid, a placenta and a 50 percent increase in blood volume. In addition, extra kidney and liver cells are needed to process the waste of two beings instead of one. (11) This really puts into perspective just how important it is to have a healthy diet. Herbs not only can supply essential nutrients but they’ve also proven to be quite beneficial in treating common symptoms of pregnancy such as nausea, insomnia, swelling/edema, anemia, urinary tract infections and more. Here’s a few suggestions for common complaints.
Typically ginger (Zingiber officinalis) and peppermint (Mentha piperita) are recommended most frequently. Both can be very beneficial for some women, but exacerbate symptoms in others. Some have found raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus) to be comforting. It’s a nutritive herb with a affinity for the uterus, praised for toning the muscle. It’s slightly astringent quality also has a tonifying effect on the stomach lining which in some cases can help. Occasionally, nausea correlates with low blood sugar. I found the nutritive quality of raspberry leaf to be helpful in stabilizing blood sugar and energy levels even when having a hard time keeping things down. Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) is used similarly for nutrition, but it also contains inulin which is an insoluble fiber that feeds your microbiota, assisting in regulating blood sugar levels as well.
During periods of nausea or sickness try using an antispasmodic herb. I particularly like using wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) or black haw (Viburnum opulus) for this. Both have an affinity for the uterus. I felt they draw energy downward and support relaxation. Taking sips of either tea or tincture diluted in water can help relieve the muscle spasms, aches, and/or cramping associated with nausea.
Swelling & Edema-
When swelling and edema occur address vascular health. A diet vast in color and diversity is extremely important. Swelling occurs when proteins leak through the capillary beds. Foods and herbs such as rose (Rosa canina), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), violet (Viola odorata), calendula (Calendula officinalis), and berries of all kinds are particularly high in vitamin C and flavonoids, which will support healthy vein integrity. If swelling is present, start to support liver and lymphatic function. Herbs such as burdock root (Arctium lappa), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), milk thistle (Silybum marianum), and chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) support the liver. These herbs will help decongest, support digestion, and keep waste moving through the body. The use of lymphatics will assist in cleaning up any excess fluid that is hanging out where it shouldn’t be. Herbs useful for this purpose are cleavers (Galium aparine), violet (Viola odorata), and burdock (Arctium lappa).
Some find that supporting themselves with a nervine can be helpful for insomnia. Nervines commonly used include chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), lavender (Lavandula officinalis), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), milky oat or straw (Avena sativa), and linden (Tilia cordata). In most cases supporting the overall function of the liver can be helpful for individuals experiencing insomnia. Just like us the liver functions on a circadian rhythm. Liver enzymes that support metabolism and detoxification peak at certain hours of the day. It’s suggested that regulating the liver and supporting detoxification can balance the overall circadian rhythm and sleep cycle of a person.
Herbs are quite valuable postpartum. Breastfeeding requires a lot of nutrition so providing an optimal amount of trace elements and minerals in the diet is essential. Low milk supply is a common concern after pregnancy. Very often the problem stems from a nutrient deficiency, dehydration, or a dryness in constitution. Consider whether or not the mother is getting quality nutrition, if they’re drinking enough liquid, or if they’d benefit from a demulcent herb. A demulcent herb is an herb that contains mucilage, a constituent within a plant that soothes, moistens, and coats tissue. Think of it as lotion for your insides.
When a low supply is present, try making an overnight infusion or a medicinal bone broth. Both of these will deeply nourish the body, address dehydration, and either a demulcent herb in an infusion, or fat content in the bone broth will soothe any mucous membrane dryness.
- When making an infusion, put about 15-30 grams of herb in a quart mason jar, pour hot or cold water over the herb matter, let sit overnight, then strain and drink in the morning. If the taste is too strong add lemon or honey to taste, and/or dilute with water and drink throughout the day.
Some common herbs used in overnight infusions: Alfalfa leaf (Medicago sativa), chickweed (Stellaria media), raspberry (Rubus idaeus), nettle (Urtica dioica), marshmallow root (Althea officinalis) , rose hips (Rosa canina), hawthorn (Crataegus), violet (Viola odorata) burdock root, (Arctium lappa), fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgarism)
Medicinal Bone Broth-
- Decocting an herb is when we cook herbs in water or broth on simmer for at least 1 hour, but longer is optimal. Think about using herbs that take more heat and saturation to break down like seeds, roots, bark and berries.
Some common Herbs for medicinal bone broth:
Nettles (Urtica dioica), shiitake mushroom (Lentinula edodes), reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), hawthorn berry (Crataegus), burdock root (Arctium lappa), ginger root (Zingiber officinale), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), fennel Seed (Foeniculum vulgares), bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), turmeric root (Curcuma longa), astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)…
SIDE NOTE: Jim McDonald is an herbalist from Michigan that makes an incredible medicinal chicken bone broth! Check it out here- http://www.herbcraft.org/broth.html
Some exhaustion can be expected after having a baby. A few ways to cope are supporting yourself with adequate nutrition, sleeping when you can, and addressing insomnia if needed. Exhausted individuals often run to adaptogenic herbs to support themselves. Most adaptogens are stimulating, making people feel like they have more energy. However they do not provide free energy and over suggestion of adaptogens can lead some more vulnerable individuals to burn out. Adaptogenic herbs are said to increase the body’s natural resistance to stress, but this definition is quite vague when you consider just how different they can be in quality and action. Therefore, some adaptogens would be contraindicated for certain individuals. Be cautious if you want to support yourself with an adaptogenic herb postpartum. This is a time for rest and relaxation and move slowly through your transition. Adaptogens can be stimulating and can make mama start moving too fast too soon! Also, if breastfeeding, adaptogens can be quite stimulating to the baby. If you are using an adaptogen, be kind to yourself and pay close attention to any changes in your baby’s digestion and sleep cycles.
The immune system is extremely complex. Ideally, strong immunity should be a result of a diverse and colorful diet. Vitamin C and other flavonoids are important because enhance immune response. Although supplementing with vitamin C can be helpful, a whole foods source is recommended. This is because vitamin C works synergistically with flavonoids and other antioxidants required for absorption. Vitamin C is the body's main water soluble antioxidant. We only store it in small amounts, so it is a vitamin we need to replenish daily. It’s recommended a healthy person consume 100-400 mg/day to maintain adequate stores. If you’re someone under a lot of stress you’ll need more, this is because the presence of stress hormones such as adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol weaken immune function.
Vitamin D also plays an important role in our immunity as it modulates immune response to infection and controls systemic inflammation. Vitamin D2 and D3 are the two forms of vitamin D. Vitamin D2 is harder for our bodies to utilize but is present in sun exposed fungi and yeast. Vitamin D3 comes from the absorption of sunlight through the skin. To a lesser degree, it can also be sourced from animal products such as cod liver oil, oily fish, butter, cream, and egg yolks. Practitioners often recommend Vitamin D3 supplementation of 2,000- 5,000 IU per day, or if autoimmunity is present up to 10,000 IU/day.
Contrary to some belief, taking immunomodulating herbs like echinacea does not equate to strong immunity and depending on circumstances, can even exacerbate symptoms in more vulnerable individuals. Still the question arises, is echinacea safe during pregnancy and lactation? In Simon Mills and Kerry Bone’s book, The Essential Guide To Herbal Safety, they consider it a category A herb during pregnancy. This means a large number of women have taken it during pregnancy with no concern. However, it’s not an herb I would suggest taking as a daily tonic. Echinacea is an immunostimulant which means it stimulates the immune system. It is best to take echinacea at the onset or through an illness, then terminating use. More chronic immunity issues should be addressed on a case-by-case basis, but a couple herbs to support overall immunity are astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), elderberry (Sambucus nigra), calendula (Calendula officinalis), rose hips (Rosa canina), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), and Shiitake (Lentinula edodes). Think about using some of these in a medicinal bone broth, or mushroom broth!
Romm, Aviva. (2010) Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health. St. Louis, MO: Churchill Livingston.
*This article was previously published in the July/ August edition of Home Herbalist Magazine.
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