Are herbs safe during pregnancy?
Pregnant women commonly experience minor symptoms such as nausea, colds, and insomnia for which natural remedies can actually be gentler and safer than pharmaceuticals – many of which lack proof of safety in pregnancy or are known to be harmful.
While there is limited scientific research on the safe use of most herbs in pregnancy, there is good evidence of safety for several.
Overall, most herbs that are traditionally used to support pregnancy are safe for use in moderation. There have been almost no reports of adverse outcomes in pregnant women, and when they have occurred, it has been from using herbs that are not considered safe in pregnancy, or from products that have been tainted with unsafe herbs or even pharmaceutical additives – which has mostly been a problem with imported products from China and India.
Using herbs during pregnancy
The safest approach is to avoid using herbs during the first trimester of pregnancy unless necessary (for example, ginger for treating morning sickness), to only use those herbs known to be safe in pregnancy, and to consult with an experienced midwife, herbalist, or MD on the safe use of herbs in pregnancy.
There are many herbs whose use in pregnancy is definitely not safe for baby. A basic list of these can be found in the Mothering article.
Beverage teas that are known to be safe in moderate amounts (e.g., red raspberry, spearmint, chamomile, lemon balm, nettles, rose hips), and ingestion of normal amounts of cooking spices are considered safe in pregnancy.
Herbs considered safe in pregnancy
These 5 herbs are known to be safe during pregnancy and can help with a variety of common discomforts and problems while helping prepare your body for a healthy birth.
Ginger (Zingiber officinalis) for morning sickness
I think I’d rather go through natural labor without an epidural faster than I’d repeat those horrible weeks of morning sickness I experienced! I remember getting home from a particularly eventful car ride through the mountains during the early part of one of my pregnancies, laying flat on the living room floor, and telling my husband to just let me die now. I am sure I was green.
Ginger is a spicy, aromatic herb with which many of you are familiar for cooking. Did you know it has been shown to be safe and effective in treating morning sickness?
There are several ways to use ginger in pregnancy. Tea and capsules are commonly recommended in books and other sources, but my experience is that drinking warm or even cool tea when you are already sick to your stomach is not fun, and may even make you hurl! Ditto on capsules sitting in your stomach and the water or juice you need to take to chase them. Try these ginger products instead:
- Ginger candies and crystallized ginger: Reed’s makes great ginger products. I learned to keep a small stash of ginger candies or pieces of crystallized ginger in my handbag at all times. It’s not 100% fool proof — sometimes that nausea can outsmart even ginger — but it really can cut the edge and ease your tummy. It can be nibbled in small amounts throughout the day; large quantities are not needed and in fact, up to 1 gm of what would be equal to the dried powder is the recommended daily dose.
- Ginger Ale: while drinking soda is not ideal in pregnancy, treating nausea trumps and ginger ale is a great way to get in some ginger. The carbonation also helps many pregnant women with nausea symptoms. You can make your own ginger ale by grating 1 tablespoon of fresh ginger root and squeezing the juice into some carbonated water (plain or lemon flavored), adding some honey, cane sugar, or maple syrup to sweeten it, or you can get a good quality ginger ale with real ginger. Reed’s makes a good one of those, too.
Note: persistent or repeated vomiting in pregnancy can be a medical problem. Consult your midwife or doctor if you experience anything beyond typical morning sickness symptoms.
Red raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus) for an easier labor
This herb is a mineral rich tonic, traditionally used to support a healthy pregnancy and tone the uterus to help a woman prepare for birth. Some studies have shown that it can help to expedite labor and reduce complications and interventions associated with birth.
Since it doesn’t have the most pleasant taste when taken as a tea by itself, I generally recommend mixing it with some spearmint and rose hips for a delicious tea that can be taken daily, 1-2 cups throughout the second and third trimesters. The recommended dose is from 1.5 – 5 gm daily in tea.
2 tbsp red raspberry leaf
2 tsp spearmint leaf
2 tsp rose hips
Mix together and place into a reusable tea bag. Steep in 8 oz of boiling water for 20 minutes, strain and drink 1-2 cups daily.
Echinacea (Echinacea spp) for colds
Pregnant women get colds just like everyone else, and because natural hormonal changes in pregnancy already make your nose feel stuffy and a big belly can make it feel harder to breathe, colds and coughs can be extra miserable.
Echinacea has been shown to reduce the length of colds and also prevent them from recurring. It can be used either during a cold or to prevent them. It does not actually help with cold symptoms, but our friend ginger does! Ginger can reduce chills, coughing, and aching muscles when taken as a hot tea using 1 tablespoon of fresh grated ginger per cup of boiling water, 1-3 cups daily.
Echinacea is best used in the form of a tincture, which does contain a small amount of alcohol, but this tiny amount is not considered dangerous when taken in the recommended dose of up to 5 ml of the tincture (about 1 measured teaspoon) up to twice daily. Capsules can also be used according to recommended package dosing for individual products, if you are uncomfortable with using a product containing alcohol during pregnancy.
Cranberry (Vaccinium Macrocarpon) for UTI prevention
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are very common during pregnancy. Medically they are treated with antibiotics the first time, and if a second infection occurs, the medical recommendation is to place pregnant women on antibiotics for the entire pregnancy to prevent further infections.
While cranberry should not be used to substitute for appropriate medical care, it has been shown in numerous studies to prevent UTIs. If you have a history of them, or have had one already during pregnancy, talk with your midwife or doctor about trying cranberry for prevention. While antibiotics are sometimes necessary, newer research is showing that exposure to antibiotics during pregnancy can have long-term consequences on our babies, including development of asthma and inflammatory bowel disease.
Cranberry can be used in the form of cranberry juice (even Ocean Spray has been shown to work, but I recommend less sugary types from the natural foods store or fresh juice made at home in a juicer using ½ cup of fresh frozen cranberries and 2 apples) or cranberry capsules dosed as recommended on the product.
Note: Untreated UTIs in pregnancy can cause serious problems; if you suspect you have one, consult your midwife or doctor.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) for better sleep
Pregnancy is often a time of disturbed sleep whether from vivid dreams, new concerns over becoming a mom, or the discomfort of your growing belly making it hard to find just the right position. One of my favorite herbs for gently and safely promoting relaxation and sleep is chamomile. It is soothing for your tummy and tastes delicious, too.
Chamomile can be taken up to several cupfuls daily if you are stressed, and taken before bed for sleep. I generally recommend 1-2 cups in the evening, but do not drink tea within an hour of going to sleep or you’ll surely be up to pee (though this happens in pregnancy anyway!). To make chamomile tea steep 1 large or 2 small tea bags in 8 oz of boiling water for up to 10 minutes, or better yet, purchase organic chamomile blossoms from a company like Mountain Rose Herbs online and brew yourself a small teapot full using 1 tablespoon of the herb per 8 oz of water.
Herbs can provide substantial relief for common complaints and concerns that arise during pregnancy and childbirth. Nonetheless, like any medicines, they should be used with caution. Many herbs that have not been evaluated may nonetheless offer simple, safe, gentle, and effective solutions for common problems of pregnancy, ranging from anemia to yeast infections.