As many people are becoming aware and questioning the safety of synthetic and prescription drugs, the interest in alternative medicine or more “natural” remedies is rising. For many, this looks like turning to herbs or herbal infused products. Herbs are powerful and have been used for centuries. They’ve been a mainstay in folk medicine, and many cultures around the world continue to use them.
How do we know what's safe for pregnancy?
Botanical medicine is not included in the training of physicians and pharmacists. Furthermore, the risk of using herbs during pregnancy has not been scientifically evaluated, mostly due to the ethical considerations of clinical investigation on humans during pregnancy. Therefore, most of what is considered safe to use during pregnancy is based off of historical, empirical, and observational evidence. Although most herbs have a high safety profile, especially if used in modest amounts and in simple home remedies, lack of proof of harm does not always equate to safety, especially for women who are pregnant. During pregnancy, you should always discuss the use of herbs with an experienced herbalist, midwife, or physician trained in the use of botanicals.
As you do your research on herbs, you may find that some herbs have been identified as generally safe, while another source may put that same herb as unsafe. For instance, in China dong quai is prescribed as a blood tonic for pregnant women, however, Western scientific research on this same herb concludes it to be unsafe during pregnancy. Additionally, the safety of herbal use during pregnancy can also depend on the dosage and form in which it is taken. Fresh parsley as a garnish on food is generally safe for pregnant women, however parsley in an herbal supplement form has been deemed as contraindicated.
Pregnancy is not a time to test any herbs that you have had no experience with and that are not considered safe via clinical trials. A very judicious approach to using herbs during pregnancy is: avoid them during the first trimester (unless medically indicated), and then afterwards, using herbs that are scientifically proven as safe or historically known to be safe during pregnancy. Here are a few other things to take into consideration before turning to herbs:
If you are taking any medications, make sure you research if there are any contraindications between the herb and your medication. Some combinations of herbs and pharmaceuticals can be dangerous or cause undesirable side effects.
Be aware of source and quality. If you’re interested in taking herbs in supplemental form via pill, capsule, or tincture, do your research about the manufacturer. If buying herbs in bulk, check that they were grown organically. Be aware that the word “natural” is not synonymous with safe; many botanical products can contain other pharmacological substances.
When considering the use of herbs, they are best used in smaller doses and with gentler herbs as a preventative measure or for use before a symptom becomes advanced.
During pregnancy, the body goes through many physiological and metabolic changes, which may influence the impact of an herb in the body. For instance, licorice may be considered safe if used short-term during mid-pregnancy, yet long-term use of the herb has been associated with preterm birth.
Herbs are potent plants, and some have the ability to affect hormones, stimulate the uterus, or promote menstruation (known as emmenagogues). For these reasons, some herbs should be completely avoided during pregnancy, including:
During pregnancy, herbs should be used as gentle forms of nourishment, or as general health promoting tonics. There are many herbs that can provide additional vitamins and minerals to your diet, and also act as gentle aids in strengthening the digestive system, nervous system, liver, womb, and urogenital tract. Because they are naturally biochelated, their high vitamin/mineral content is easily assimilated. In most cases, smaller doses are best, and in general, herbs that are considered food or tonic herbs are safe to use during pregnancy. For example, dandelion, raspberry leaf, oat straw, and chamomile.
Always ask a qualified herbalist or health professional when introducing herbs during your pregnancy.
The following list of herbs have been deemed safe to use during pregnancy. Many of the following comes from one of my favorite go-to herbal books, Maria Gladstar’s Herbal Healing for Women.
Red Raspberry leaf (rubus idaeus and related species) - perhaps considered the herb for pregnancy, this is safe to use throughout all nine months; nourishes uterine muscles, high in iron, can help increase milk flow, restore the system after childbirth.
Chamomile flowers (matricaria chamomilla/matricaria recutita) - gentle, relaxing tea; can be combined with ginger for digestive disorders or morning sickness.
Ginger Root (zingiber officinale) - excellent for morning sickness and digestive problems.
Excellent nutritive aids:
Dandelion greens and root (taraxacum officinale) - potent source of vitamins and minerals; mild diuretic and can help eliminate excess water from the system; the root is primarily for digestive disturbances and for cleansing/toning the liver.
Nettle leaf (urtica dioica) - rich in vitamins and minerals, including calcium and iron. Can be good for energy for those who have chronic fatigue due to low iron.
Alfalfa - contains many nutrients and trace minerals, including Vitamin K, which is necessary for blood clotting. Many midwives advise this herb to help prevent hemorrhaging, decrease postpartum bleeding, and to increase breastmilk.
For soothing the nervous system, uterus, liver, and more:
Black Haw (viburnum prunifolium) - can help relieve leg cramps, calm uterine muscles.
Blessed Thistle (cnicus benedictus) - liver tonic, stimulates blood flow/enriches flow of mother’s milk.
Cramp Bark (viburnum opulus) - recommended by herbalists as preventative for miscarriage due to stress and anxiety; antispasmodic (relieves muscle cramps).
Lady’s Mantle leaves (alchemilla vulgaris) - tones the uterus, can help with morning sickness, and may help in preventing hemorrhaging during childbirth.
Lemon Balm leaves (melissa officinalis) - can help calm and relax the system, and digestive. Can be combined with nettle for those dealing with allergies during pregnancy.
Oat straw stalk and unripe fruit (avena sativa) - helps soothe the nervous system, can be a safe remedy for yeast infections during pregnancy.
Squaw vine (mitchella repens) - traditionally used by Native American women; often combined with red raspberry for toning the uterus.