Herbal Allies for Pregnant Women
By Susun Weed
Pregnancy is a special time, one that brings joys and pains. Many minor but distressing health complaints can accompany pregnancy, such as morning sickness, varicose veins, skin discoloration, hemorrhoids, constipation, folic acid anemia, iron deficiency anemia, muscle/leg cramps, backache, heartburn, fatigue and mood changes, bladder infections and high blood pressure.
What can the expectant mother use that is safe for her unborn child as well as herself?
Most women would agree that drugs are to be avoided during pregnancy. Many over the counter remedies, especially antihistamines, acne medicines and laxatives, have been shown to cause birth defects in animals or humans. Antibiotics may cause fetal abnormalities and sulfur drugs can cause neo-natal jaundice. Tranquilizers and painkillers can cause birth defects and addict the fetus. Antacids can cause muscle problems in the baby and edema in the mother. (In addition, they mess up a woman's calcium metabolism; see discussion, following.)
And it is well accepted that the drug-like actions of alcohol, tobacco and coffee are best avoided both before conception, during pregnancy and while lactating.
Few women understand that vitamin and mineral supplements are more drug-like than food-like. Though they are widely recommended even by orthodox physicians, supplements are problematic for pregnant women and ought to be avoided.
A study of 23,000 pregnant women reported in The New England Journal of Medicine (1995) found 4.8 times more birth defects among the children of women who consumed 10,000 IU or more of vitamin A in supplemental form. And if that isn't enough to make you hesitate before reaching for the pills, consider this: the amount of iron in four prenatal-formula tablets can kill a child under the age of three.
In addition to drugs and supplements, many common herbal remedies, including goldenseal and flax seed are best avoided during the weeks of gestation. See below for herbs that may be problematic during pregnancy.
Herbal remedies tested by time
Nevertheless, there are many simple, safe home and herbal remedies available to ease the discomforts of pregnancy. The remedies of wise women or "old wives" have persisted for centuries, passed from woman to woman. They are not strict protocols designed to work with the greatest possible number of women. Rather, they are part of the ever-changing wisdom ways of women, meant to be applied to the unique individual in unique and ever-changing ways.
Although they have not been subjected to double blind studies, they are not superstition and dumb custom, but the results of millions of careful observations over thousands of generations. These remedies are the gifts of our foremothers. They are gifts from women who were deeply intuitive, immersed in day-to-day practice, and in tune with women's needs -- emotional and spiritual, as well as physical.
Wise women believe that most of the problems of pregnancy can be prevented by attention to nutrition. Morning sickness and mood swings are connected to low blood sugar; backaches and severe labor pains often result from insufficient calcium; and varicose veins, hemorrhoids, constipation, skin discolorations and anemia are also related to lack of specific nutrients.
Excellent nutrition for pregnant women includes not just vital foodstuffs and nourishing herbal infusions, but also pure water and air, abundant light, loving and respectful relationships, beauty and harmony in daily life and joyous thoughts.
All nutrients are needed in abundance during pregnancy, as the gestating woman forms two extra pounds of uterine muscle; the nerves, bones, organs, muscles, glands and skin of the baby; several pounds of amniotic fluid; the placenta; and a great increase in blood volume. In addition, extra kidney and liver cells are created to process the waste of two beings instead of one.
Wild and organically grown foods are the best source of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients needed during pregnancy. All the better if the expectant mother can get out and gather her own herbs: stretching, bending, breathing, moving, touching the earth, taking time to talk with the plants and to open herself to their spiritual world.
Red Raspberry (Rubus ideaus and other species)
For centuries, herbalists have relied on the leaves of red raspberry to nourish pregnant women and relieve difficulties during pregnancy and birth. Scientific herbalists are baffled by these claims, as they find no chemical constituents in raspberry leaves that are capable of inducing these purported effects. Nonetheless, "if pregnant women believe that it provides relief from various unpleasant effects associated with their condition, no harm is done," says Varro Tyler in The Honest Herbal.
Most of the benefits associated with regular use of raspberry throughout pregnancy can be traced to its astringent, strengthening and nourishing powers. Raspberry leaves contain tannins and fragrine, which give tone to the muscles of the pelvic region, including the uterus. They also contain nourishing vitamins and minerals. Of special note are the concentrations of vitamins A, C, E and B, plus generous amounts of easily assimilated calcium, iron, phosphorous and potassium salts.
A strong infusion of dried raspberry leaves increases fertility, tones the uterus, aids in easy birthing, helps prevent miscarriage, alleviates morning sickness, reduces muscle and leg cramps and backache and counters fatigue.
Put one ounce of the dried raspberry leaves in a one-quart jar; fill it to the top with boiling water and cap tightly.
After steeping for at least four hours, strain the leaves out of the infusion.
Drink the liquid hot or cold, with honey or any way you like it.
Capsules, tinctures and teas of raspberry are not as effective.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Some people dislike nettle because of its strong sting, but it is an herb with myriad benefits for the expectant mother. A strong infusion (prepared by brewing one ounce of dried nettle leaves in a quart of boiling water for at least four hours) helps prevent varicose veins and hemorrhoids, eases leg cramps and backache, reduces the incidence of hemorrhage after birth and increases the richness of breast milk.
Every cup of nettle infusion supplies amazing amounts of energy as well as huge amounts of calcium, magnesium and vitamins A, D, C, B and K. It prevents folic acid anemia and iron deficiency anemia and is also a digestive aid, a strengthener to the lungs, an ally of the kidneys and a restorative to the hair and skin.
Capsules, tinctures and teas of nettle are not as effective.
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)
As a keeper of dairy animals, I was introduced to this herb as an ally to keep my goats' fertility high and their milk production generous. It took only a little imagination for me to begin to use it for women, too. Red clover blossoms are best taken as a strong infusion (one ounce of dried blossoms brewed overnight in a quart of boiling water). The tincture is a sedative; pills and capsules have very little effect.
To date, I know of dozens of women who, unable to conceive, have found success after drinking up to a quart of red clover infusion every day for at least six weeks. The generous amounts of minerals, proteins, antioxidants and phytoestrogens in red clover restore health to the entire reproductive system. It's great for men, too. Most notable are the amounts of vitamin E and the presence of selenium and zinc. Red clover has 10 times more plant hormones than soy.
Don't stop drinking red clover infusion once you get pregnant. The infusion prevents and eases the constipation so common during pregnancy. It also strengthens the liver and improves appetite, especially when morning sickness is a problem. And it relieves anxiety.
And keep on drinking red clover once your child is born. There is no more valuable herb to keep breast milk rich and the breasts healthy then red clover. In fact, it is the world's most respected anti-cancer herb, acting not only to eliminate cancer but to stop its occurrence as well.
Seaweeds (including kelp, nori, dulse, kombu, and wakame)
One of the best green allies for women in their fertile years is seaweed, both for its mineral richness and for the special substances it contains which directly counter birth defects. Algin or alginic acid, found in many seaweeds, absorbs radioactive neucleotides and heavy metals. When eaten by the prospective mother and father, seaweed protects them from cancer and protects the fetus from faulty genes. Seaweeds also protect the fetus and parents from the harmful effects of chemicals and carcinogens.
Seaweed is one of the most nutritious plants known. Earl Mindell, in his book Vitamin Bible, notes that kelp contains vitamins A, B, C and E as well as choline, carotenes and 23 minerals including calcium, selenium, iron, magnesium and zinc. He recommends it especially for nourishing the brain, spinal cord and nerves of the fetus. Eating seaweeds regularly improves the fertility and the health of the pregnant woman, too, strengthening her digestive system, increasing her overall energy and helping to prevent constipation, muscle cramps, backaches, anemias, hemorrhoids and depression. For healthy skin, hair and bones, there is no better food or herb than seaweed.
Capsules, tablets and powdered seaweeds are not as effective as eating seaweed as a vegetable several times a week. In addition to buying seaweed at your health food store, you can harvest it yourself. There are no poisonous seaweeds. For more information on harvesting and using seaweeds, consult the Lewallens' Sea Vegetable Gourmet Cookbook.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis)
This common weed of suburban lawns is one of the best liver tonics known. All parts of the dandelion are medicinal: the roots, leaves, and flowers are brewed into tinctures, medicinal vinegars, cordials, wines and bitter infusions.
If you dig your own, use them to make a mineral-rich vinegar: Fill a jar with cut dandelion, then fill the jar to the top with pasteurized apple cider vinegar. Cover with a piece of plastic wrap held on with a rubber band. Label with the date; it's ready to use in six weeks. Try it as a salad dressing or a condiment for beans. Some women like to drink it first thing in the morning: one to two tablespoons in a glass of water.
Nourishing the liver is critical during pregnancy. Lack of strong liver functioning is implicated in morning sickness, hemorrhoids, constipation, heartburn, indigestion, lack of energy, headaches and mood swings. If using the tincture, try a dose of 10-20 drops in a small glass of water just before meals.
Fennel Seed (Foeniculum vulgare)
Anise Seed (Pimpinella anisum)
Dill Seed (Anethum graveolens)
Caraway Seed (Carum carvi)
Coriander Seed (Coriandrum sativum)
The aromatic seeds of members of the "carrot family" of plants are used around the world to ease indigestion, freshen breath and increase milk supply. As the medicinal value is found in a volatile oil, the seeds are quickly and easily brewed: add a heaping tablespoonful to a mug and fill it with water just off the boil, letting it steep for two to five minutes. A spoonful of honey is a delightful addition.
For a somewhat more complicated brew, midwife Elizabeth Davis (in her book Heart and Hands) relates this old wives' remedy to increase milk supply: Boil 1/2 cup pearled barley in 3 cups water for 25 minutes. Strain and refrigerate. Heat (but do not boil) 1 cup of barley water and pour it over 1 teaspoon fennel seeds. Steep no longer than 30 minutes.
And how delightful that the ease imparted by the brew influences the infant through the breast milk, relieving colic, turning fretfulness into slumber and countering teething pain. For best results, drink your brew (hot or cold) while nursing your baby. Herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy advises mothers of infants and young children to always carry some aromatic seeds in their pocket for the children to chew should they be car-sick or become argumentative.
Ginger (Zingiber officinalis)
When it comes to quelling nausea or morning sickness (motion sickness, too), there is no better herb than ginger root. Whether you use it fresh or dried, a little ginger goes a long way toward warming the belly and relieving queasy feelings. Some books mistakenly list ginger as an herb that can cause a miscarriage. This misinformation no doubt got started by a hopeful woman who had noticed that drinking ginger tea made her menses flow more easily. But midwives agree that ginger is safe, even in early pregnancy.
In addition to quelling morning sickness, ginger helps prevent constipation of pregnancy, keeps the pelvic muscles warmed and toned, relieves intestinal cramping and gas (in infants, too), increases digestive force by encouraging the secretion of digestive enzymes, lowers blood pressure and restores vitality.
Of course calcium is a mineral, not an herb, but it is so important during pregnancy that it deserves our attention. Lack of adequate calcium during pregnancy can cause muscle cramps, backache, high blood pressure, intense labor pains, severe afterbirth pains, loss of teeth and pre-eclampsia. Lack of calcium also contributes to feeble fetal heart action, a difficult birth and "cranky" babies with easily irritated nervous and digestive systems. For optimum health of mother and child, eat plenty of foods rich in calcium and other minerals.
The calcium found in foods and herbs is metabolized by the body far more effectively than the calcium in pills. Calcium in plants is found in the form of minerals salts, which are naturally chelated. In addition, the varied forms of these salts aids in assimilation. And of course no plant contains only one mineral. The multitude of mineral salts found in herbs and foods act synergistically with the calcium salts, improving utilization by all the body's tissues.
In general, to improve calcium assimilation, consume it with acidic foods (antacids interfere with calcium absorption), plenty of vitamin D (which can be produced by sitting in the sun for 15 to 20 minutes), magnesium and daily exercise. Stress, use of antacids, consumption of coffee, use of steroids, drinking fluoridated water and too much phosphorous in the diet also interfere with calcium assimilation.
Getting 1500 to 2000 milligrams of nourishing calcium salts every day is not hard with the help of Wise Woman ways.
Many wild greens are exceptionally rich in calcium and other mineral salts. The leaves of lamb's quarters, mallow, galinsoga, shepherd's purse, knotweed, bidens, amaranth or dandelion, when cooked until tender, supply more calcium per half-cup serving than a half-cup of milk.
Herbal teas and tinctures contain little or no calcium salts. For mineral richness, make herbal infusions by steeping one ounce of dried herb (such as raspberry, nettle or red clover) overnight in a quart of boiling water. Or make mineral-rich vinegars by steeping fresh herbs in apple cider vinegar for six weeks. The long steeping of the water infusion releases minerals; the acid of the vinegar does, too. A cup of herbal infusion can have 150-300 milligrams of calcium salts. A tablespoon of medicinal herbal vinegar can contain 75-150 milligrams of calcium salts.
Cultivated greens are good sources of calcium, better if they are cooked thoroughly and best if they are organic. Kale, collards, mustard greens, oriental greens, broccoli de rape, turnip greens, even cabbage supply 100-250 milligrams of calcium salts per half-cup serving.
Fresh dairy products are the best place to get mineral salts, especially calcium, but there is controversy about the assimilability of calcium from pasteurized milk. Fortunately, raw milk cheeses are now easily available; look for them as a reliable source of nutrients.
When milk is made into yogurt, it becomes superbly digestible and the calcium content increases by 50 percent (up to 450 milligrams of calcium in just one cup). A daily cup of plain yogurt not only prevents pregnancy problems, it also counteracts vaginal and bladder infections. Women who eat yogurt regularly are far less likely to be diagnosed with cancer as well. When buying yogurt, I look for plain yogurt that contains only milk and culture. I absolutely avoid dried milk powder, skim milk powder, pectin and other thickeners.
Other great-tasting sources of calcium include goat milk and goat cheese, canned fish eaten with the bones such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel and tahini (ground sesame seeds).
There are roughly 200 milligrams of calcium in two ounces of nuts (excluding peanuts), one ounce of dried seaweed, two ounces of carob powder, one ounce of cheese, half a cup of cooked greens, half a cup of milk, three eggs, four ounces of fish or one tablespoon of molasses.
Many fruits are rich in calcium (though not as rich as the above foods). Dried dates, figs raisins, prunes, papaya and elderberries are the best.
Avoid foods high in oxalic acid such as spinach, swiss chard, beet greens, rhubarb and brewer's yeast. They interfere with your ability to absorb calcium.
Do not use bone meal or oyster shell tablets as sources of supplemental calcium. They have been found to be high in lead, mercury, cadmium and other toxic metals, which can cause birth defects in your child.
Herbs Women May Wish to Avoid During Pregnancy and While Lactating
Agave and Yucca (Agave species): contain large quantities of irritating saponins
Aloes (Aloe species): purging cathartic
Birthroot (Trillium species): contains oxytocin
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa): may irritate the uterus
Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides): contains oxytocin
Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica, Rhamnus frangula): purging cathartic
Cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana): purging cathartic
Castor oil (Ricinus communis): purging cathartic
Comfrey (Symphytum uplandica): alkaloids in roots are dangerous to the liver; leaves are safe to use
Cotton root bark (Gossypium harbaceum): contains oxytocin
Dong quai (Angelica sinensis): contains coumarins which may irritate uterus and liver
Ephedra (all species): increases blood pressure; may cause heart palpitations, insomnia, headaches
Evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis): used by midwives to initiate labor
Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium): may cause headaches, irritability, insomnia
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis): contains irritating alkaloids which stress liver and kidneys
Juniper berries (Juniperus communis): very harsh on the kidneys
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra): increases blood pressure; large doses can cause heart failure, headache, lethargy, water retention, and excessive excretion of potassium
Ma-huang (another name for ephedra)
Mistletoe (Viscum album): large doses can have detrimental effects on the heart
Mistletoe, American (Phoradendron flavescens): raises blood pressure, causes uterine contractions
Rue (Ruta graveolens): contains essential oils that can damage the kidneys and liver
Senna (Cassia senna): potent purging cathartic
Thuja (Thuja occidentalis): contains essential oils that can damage the kidneys and liver
Turkey rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): purgative; may cause uterine contractions
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium): essential oils can adversely affect brain
Women Who Miscarry Easily May Also Want to Avoid These Herbs
Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale): also known as saffron; large doses can cause miscarriage
Basil (Basilicum species): see mints
Bearberry (Berberis vulgaris): bark contains similar alkaloids to goldenseal; berries and leaves ok
Catnip (Nepeta cataria): see mints
Flax seeds (Linum usitatissimum): large doses may stimulate uterine contractions
Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium): contains essential oils that can damage liver and kidneys
Ground ivy (Hedeoma hederacea): see mints
Mints - such as basil, catnip, rosemary, thyme, savory, peppermint, oregano, ground ivy, sage, and spearmint - contain essential oils that, used internally (or extracted into a tincture) may harm the kidneys and liver; the infusion, taken in large enough quantity, may stimulate uterine contractions
Mugwort/Cronewort (Artemisia vulgaris): used to help bring on labor
Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans): a large dose of this spice contains the essential oils that could adversely affect the brain, liver, and kidneys
Oregano (Oreganum species ): see mints
Osha (Ligusticum porterii): may irritate the uterus
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum): a well-known, and quite effective, abortifacient
Poke root (Phytolacca americana): large dose (more than 4 drops) may stress kidneys
Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium or Hedeoma pulegiodes): essential oil may harm kidneys and liver; also see mints
Peppermint (Mentha piperita): see mints
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): see mints
Sage (Salvia officinalis): see mints
Savory (Satureja hortensis): see mints
Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum): essential oils, similar to those in wormwood, are easily extracted into tinctures and can adversely affect the brain
Spearmint (Mentha spicata): see mints
Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare): essential oils in tincture may damage kidneys and liver
Thyme (Thymus species): see mints
Copyright Susun Weed. For permission to reprint this article, .
Susun Weed has been living the simple life for more than 30 years as an herbalist, goat keeper, homesteader and feminist. See more about Susun.