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Today is part two of our series on herbs for pregnancy and today I want to cover some herbs that can be brought into the second and third trimesters for various discomforts of pregnancy. We will explore herbs for supporting healthy blood pressure, blood sugar balance, and herbs for preparing for birth itself.
Since we are moving onto using herbs beyond nutritive tonics, I just want to briefly touch on safety again in that none of these herbs are recommended to be used as a stand alone approach. In some cases, when these conditions show up in pregnancy, they are an indicator of an underlying problem that may not be anywhere near a pathological stage at this point, but this potential condition is revealed in pregnancy none-the-less. Whether that's poor blood vessel tone, glucose intolerance, poor hormone metabolism, or blood pressure instability, just to name a few. Because pregnancy is increasing the stress on your body, any underlying health conditions that you may not have been aware of, may show up and it may even be the first time you were made aware that something isn't quite right. This means that pregnancy can be a great time to be aware and in tune with your body, really noticing and observing what is happening, you can get a lot of insight into how to support your specific needs during and after your pregnancy.
Another important aspect of herbal medicine to know is that not all herbs work for all people for the same condition, this is because the root of the problem is not the same for you as it was for your friend or co-worker who may have had the same symptom or complaint. So if you are not sure how to select the correct herb or herb formula for yourself, find an experienced herbalist to help you understand how to properly incorporate herbs.
Also note, nothing in this post has been approved or evaluated by the FDA and is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or condition and should only be used under the supervision of your medical care provider.
Flavors & Temperatures of Herbs
Before I get to the herbs themselves, I want to start with another little mini herb lesson about flavor and temperature of herbs because this concept applies to the herbs we are discussing today. This concept of flavors and temperatures is from the more ancient traditions of Chinese and Ayurvedic and is also used in many of the eclectic styles of herbalism today.
Here, I am going to talk about 5 flavors:
Then we can also add an additional category of temperatures, and again we have five and those are: hot, warm, cold, cool and neutral.
Herbs that are pungent and spicy tend to get fluids and blood circulation moving faster, so we might use these herbs to increase flow of fluids, increase the response of tissues or increase circulation. Bitter herbs tend to be cooling and relaxing, for example, you probably prefer to eat fresh salads in the summer more than the winter because these plant foods have some cooling effects. Sweet herbs often help with building energy and are nourishing while salty herbs build strength and provide lots of minerals, and sour herbs often help to restrain and consolidate, so they can help with fluid loss or fluid going to the wrong place, like too much swelling.
These kinds of classifications are important because it helps you target the right herb for your condition and your specific body type at the time. For example, two people can have headaches, but one person may need warm and sour, astringing herbs while another person may need cold and bitter herbs for their headaches. The best combination for you will depend on the cause of your complaint and the internal state of your body's systems, whether it's a headache, constipation, a rash or tying to get labor started.
With the right combination of flavors and temperatures, we can relax or tighten tissues, slow or speed up your body's response to environmental factors, increase or decrease fluid movement, adjust fluid balance of different tissues, and so on. The key to really making herbs work for you is to match the qualities of the herb with your constitutional type, the state of the condition you are trying to work with, all while keeping in mind the external factors that may be aggravating the condition, like stress, diet, sleep, even weather can play a role in the expression of your symptoms.
So as we talk about herbs for some of the conditions in this article, keep in mind the flavor of these herbs, the temperature of these herbs, and how those might relate to how you are feeling. Remember, this article is far from a course in herbalism, which takes months, if not years to even begin to understand, but I think we all need to have some basic skills to help ourselves and our families, or even to ensure your herbalist is applying the right strategies for your formulations. So I hope these mini lessons are useful and empowering for you to feel a little more comfortable with nature’s plant medicine. But, if this is not something you are familiar with at all, or if you are struggling with more severe conditions, please seek the help of a qualified herbalist and now you can ask them the right questions about the flavor and temperature of your formulas or herbs they recommend and understand if they make sense for you.
Herbs for blood sugar balance
I'm intentionally starting with this topic because this is a difficult area of pregnancy to traverse. What do I mean when I talk about blood sugar balance? For most women this will come up when they get tested for gestational diabetes in the later stages of pregnancy. Now I'm not going to talk about gestational diabetes specifically or the testing for it, because that's a whole other article. So to stay on the topic of herbs, all I'm going to say about that specifically is that having healthy blood sugar levels and insulin responses is a much bigger issue than simply a test for gestational diabetes and doing the glucose challenge tests. I also want to be clear that if you have pre-existing diabetes, gestational diabetes, or insulin resistance, these herbs are not a replacement for metformin, insulin, or any medication you might be using for these conditions, so if that's you, you need to be working with your care provider or a specialist to incorporate these herbal approaches with your medications so they can help you monitor any shifting in your blood sugar levels.
Glucose and blood sugar levels are important every day of our lives - pregnant, not pregnant, breast feeding, not breastfeeding - and we need sugar to live, in moderate doses, but most of us are eating more sugar in one year than our ancestors ate in their lifetime. It is not normal for our body to be exposed to the levels of sugar that we eat today, so I want you to be thinking about that throughout your pregnancy and beyond, not just when you're getting ready to go for your glucose challenge.
Diet is the first component in addressing blood sugar management, which again, is a topic for another article, but if you want to read about it more now, I would encourage you to get Lily Nichols' books Real Food for Gestational Diabetes - which is a great book for everyone, not just those who have been given a diagnosis of gestational diabetes, or her second book, Real Food for Pregnancy.
The foundation for using herbs for healthy blood sugar is simply through the nourishing infusions I talked about in part 1 of the herbal series that came out a couple weeks ago. This is through using herbs like nettle, alfalfa, oatstraw and even dandelion leaves and goji berries. These herbs are nourishing because they are mineral rich and these minerals are critical for the release and sensitivity of insulin that binds to glucose and helps it enter your cells.
In pregnancy, this becomes especially tricky because so many things are in a state of flux all the time in your body in regard to your hormones, your fluid balance, your metabolism, even your blood volume. All of those shifts impact your need for glucose and it impacts your ability to manage that glucose.
So we have the nourishing herbs to provide those important minerals that work together to support your insulin response to the glucose in your system.
An important thing to know is that these nourishing herbs don't work like an insulin injection, so if you take insulin, essentially it binds to your glucose and carries it into the cells to be utilized or stored. In other words, these herbs won't crash your blood sugar levels, they just feed your body the nutrients it needs to support a healthy and appropriate insulin response.
If you need more blood sugar support, for example if you feel like you have blood sugar crashes, or you have trouble staying asleep at night, which can be a result of blood sugar imbalances, it's not the only cause, but it is a common contributor, I have a couple more herbs you can add into that mix.
So the first herb I am going to discuss for blood sugar health is cinnamon bark, which is a warming and pungent herb, and we know that as things get warmer, they speed up. So if you tend to run warm already, you are always moving at high speed, then this might not be the right herb for you, in which case the next herb I will talk about for blood sugar may be a better fit. Cinnamon bark can just be the cinnamon you get at the store, and note that I am specifying the bark here because this is a different herb than the cinnamon twigs that are used primarily in Chinese medicine, which has to be used very carefully in pregnancy. You won't find cinnamon twig at your local grocery store, but if you order herbs from an herbal distributor, be sure to order cinnamon bark, not cinnamon twig. You can use cinnamon bark as a tea by simmering it on your stovetop for 15 minutes if you have the sticks or you can use it in your foods if you have cinnamon powder.
The next herb I want to talk about for blood sugar balance is chia seeds. These are more neutral and sweet, so it is more appropriate for those who tend to run warm, especially if you also feel like you get dry symptoms easily, dry skin, dry mouth, dry hair, dry type of constipation, this is a great herb for that as well as to help stabilize blood sugar. So when you use chia seeds, you want to take them soaked and there are a couple really easy ways to do that. One is to add a few tablespoons of chia seeds into coconut milk or coconut crème and let it sit in the fridge over night to thicken it up into a pudding. You can also add a few tablespoons into an herbal tea like a raspberry or lemon tea and let it sit overnight. As the chia seeds soak, they will thicken the tea, you might have seen these bottled juices in the health food section of your grocery store, but this a much cheaper way to make the same thing and with a lot less sugar, which is part of the point with blood sugar balancing.
Herbs for high blood pressure or hypertension
Next I want to talk about herbs for another common pregnancy condition, and that is high blood pressure or hypertension, and what hopefully doesn't become pre-eclampsia because you have nipped it in the bud. This is another condition that can be serious in pregnancy so please don't try to simply use herbs in place of seeing your care provider. That is not the answer to this problem, the answer is to incorporate the herbs safely and in conjunction with care from your provider. If you don't find your provider is interested in helping to support your approach, in many cases, you can change providers or, if that's not an option, you can find an additional care provider who maybe won't be attending your birth, but can help you manage your blood pressure safely.
Some of the herbs I like to use for high blood pressure are passionflower, skullcap, hops and linden flower. You can use any combination of these using the simple infusion method that I introduced in the first part of this herbal series. Add 1 part of each of the herbs in a heat proof container, cover them with double the amount of water and let it steep for 4 or more hours, then strain and drink at room temperature.
These are all bitter, slightly cooling herbs that work to basically relax the sympathetic nervous system response, so they deal with stress, whether that stress is mental or emotional stress or physical stress from pregnancy or a combination of both, which is most often the case. Helping to return the sympathetic, or the fight-or-flight response, toward a better balance with the parasympathetic, or rest-and-digest state will help lessen the tension of your blood vessels and thereby lower your blood pressure.
Again, if you are struggling with high blood pressure or hypertension that you are having a hard time getting under control, make sure you are also being monitored by your healthcare provider and not only trying herbs as it can be an early sign of pre-eclampsia, which is a serious condition for both you and your baby.
Herbs for cervical dilation and labor induction
Now I want to talk about herbs for inducing labor, which is one of the things I get asked about the most of course! If you have been listening to this podcast, you might remember that I devoted an entire article to waiting for labor to get started, strategies in pregnancy to encourage timely labor, and my thoughts on the need for inductions.
To build on those suggestions, which are the first place to start, so be sure read that article so you can try to avoid having to use induction techniques in the first place, but to build on those suggestions, we will talk about a few commonly mentioned herbal labor preparation techniques that you have probably heard of before, butmaybe don’t know if, how or why they work.
I will start with dates, which are commonly recommended for cervical dilation. Dates are sweet and warm, they are nutritionally dense, with high levels of potassium, magnesium, selenium, copper, and moderate levels of magnesium, calcium, and iron. The sweet date fruit may help with cervical dilation through their role as a nourishing tonic. But, not everyone likes dates because they are pretty sweet, so if you have been following the guidelines of the waiting for baby article and drinking the nourishing infusion from part 1 of this herbal series, you probably won't need to eat dates because you already have those nutrients. If you want to use dates to try to promote cervical dilation, it may take up to 6-7 dates per day day. You can eat them straight, you can soak them overnight or you can mix them into things like salad or Greek yogurt to cut the sweetness factor.
Next up is castor oil. The castor bean that the oil is from is bitter and cooling. Castor oil is only considered safe in pregnancy near the end of pregnancy as it often has uncomfortable and strong laxative effects and may carry a slight risk for miscarriage in early pregnancy. There is some research to show that castor oil may help to improve the sensitivity of your oxytocin receptors to the hormone oxytocin, one of the hormones of labor, but the evidence for effectiveness is not strong, especially considering the side effects of being a strong and uncomfortable laxative. Though castor oil is not an induction method I recommend for my clients or students, if you are considering it, it is generally recommended for those who tend to have a history or pattern of poor breakdown of hormones in general - those who experience difficult periods, lots of PMS, acne, breast pain with their periods, or other hormonal dysfunction signs that tend to indicate poor hormone metabolism. If you already tend toward being cold natured, feeling cold frequently, or you have a tendency toward loose stool already, this may not be a good choice for you.
The last herb in the category of labor induction is evening primrose oil, which is usually sought out for cervical dilation. Evening primrose is sweet and neutral, it's a rich source of omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids. In many cases, evening primrose oil is safe to use, but like most other herbs, evening primrose oil has mixed results. I think this happens because for some people, it can aggravate an already out-of-balance omega 3:6 ratio. Most people get plenty of, in fact even too many, omega-6 fatty acids in their diet, while being deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish, eggs, grassfed butter, walnuts, flax and chia seeds. All fatty acids, including Omega-3's, especially DHA & EPA are extremely important to the integrity of your amniotic sac, plus we know that babies need a lot of DHA at the end of the third trimester that is important for brain development and may have some role to play in initiating labor. So generally, rather than evening primrose oil, I find myself recommending a good quality fish oil instead or more servings of fish rather than evening primrose oil.
First we talked about the flavors and temperature of herbs - pungent, bitter, salty, sweet and sour, and hot, warm, cold, cool and neutral. Then we covered herbs to support healthy blood sugar balance - cinnamon bark or chia seed depending on your need for warm and pungent or neutral and sweet herbs. Then we discussed herbs for high blood pressure or hypertension, this was an infusion of the cool and bitter, relaxing herbs of skullcap, passionflower, hops and linden flower in any combination. And finally we talked about herbs for inducing labor, the pros and cons and who these might work or not work for, including dates, castor oil and evening primrose oil.
This is really only a tiny glimpse into herbs for pregnancy and if this is something you are interested in learning more about, I would love to have you join us in the Natural Birth Compass Program, our online childbirth course. In that course, you also get access to our live birth coaching calls where we can talk more in depth about herbal medicine for pregnancy or birth preparation in a private and individualized space so we can help you with the herbs you need, safely. Visit the course page at naturalbirthcompass.com/course to get the full details about that program or contact me at info @ naturalbirthcompass.com if you have questions.
Until next time, I wish you a wonderful journey to birth!
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