Botanical medicine has a strong and deep history, particularly when it comes to the treatment of issues commonly encountered by women during their reproductive cycle. Pregnancy is no exception to this; in fact, the minor complaints of pregnancy are well supported by gentle herbs. In my practice, often I see my patients' interest in herbs and other natural remedies soar when they become pregnant because they want their babies to be optimally healthy, with as little toxic exposure as possible. In a time when almost 33% of all births in the United States end in Cesarean section, according to the CDC, many in my practice want to avoid unnecessary surgical and medical intervention. They see herbal medicine as part of a larger program to buffer against some of the problems that can lead to that outcome.
Use of herbs in pregnancy is commonplace in the United States. In one study, up to 45% of women report using herbs during pregnancy. Botanicals can lessen the need for pharmaceutical medication, although certainly they do not replace the need for medical attention, when certain signs and symptoms arise. Although many herbs are contraindicated during pregnancy, a good number are also deemed safe, unlike medications that fall into the FDA's pregnancy category C: unsafe for use during pregnancy. For the obvious ethical reasons that would prevent human studies, research on herbs for use during pregnancy is limited; the same goes for most pharmaceuticals.
It's a good rule of thumb to avoid herbals during the first trimester, but be sure to consult with your naturopath, herbalist, midwife or integrative doctor when using any herbal intervention during pregnancy. Here are the top three concerns I see among pregnant women in my practice and herbal treatments for each:
1. Morning sickness. It's a rare pregnant woman who isn't familiar with the nausea that comes during pregnancy, particularly during the first trimester, and for some into the third trimester. I always tell my patients this is a good sign: there's less likelihood of miscarriage or stillbirth when nausea and vomiting are present. Ginger is the most well-studied herb for pregnancy; a recent systematic review found it safe and effective for pregnancy-induced nausea and vomiting. It's also one of the tastier herbs and can be taken as tea, natural soda, candy, capsules and even cookies.
2. Insomnia. Many women will have restless sleep throughout pregnancy, but odds of that increase tremendously during the third trimester. Sleepless pregnancies put future moms at risk for longer deliveries, c-sections and post-partum depression. One of my great goals, always, is to get my pregnant patients sleeping. Exercise, massage and acupuncture are first-line therapies but herbs, in limited quantities, can be helpful as well. Valerian, an herb used for centuries to reduce tension and anxiety, is effective for use during pregnancy. It has been shown it to be safe for use by pregnant women.
3. Prolonged labor. The herb red raspberry is fantastic before and during pregnancy, and even after. Taken as a tea through the last three months of pregnancy, red raspberry leaf tea is a uterine tonic, which means it strengthens and tones the uterus for the business of carrying and baby and for labor. One study showed that it shortened the second stage of labor and decreased the need for forceps use. For its fantastic uterine strengthening benefits, we sometimes we add another herb called partridgeberry to a tea of red raspberry.
Women have all different experiences of pregnancy. Some love it and feel the best they've ever felt, others not so much. Wherever they fall on the spectrum, my patients really benefit from the appropriate use of herbs to help them on the nine-month journey. Botanical medicine is a grounding, stabilizing force during pregnancy, much like the earth from which it comes.