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Herbs & Nutrition
Herbalism is based on relationship - relationship between plant and human, plant and planet, human and planet. Using herbs in the healing process means taking part in an ecological cycle. ~Wendell Berry
Prefer to listen? Find the accompanying podcast episode on the Unschooled Homebirth podcast, Episode 17, wherever you get your podcasts!
Herbal medicine has been used to support women in pregnancy for centuries, as prenatal nutrition, pregnancy tonics and to manage any number of pregnancy related condition as well as those not related to pregnancy but lacking other treament options during gestation. Today we are diving into the first of a multi-part series on herbs and how to corporate herbs in to your pregnancy.
Disclaimer & Safety of Herbal Medicine in Pregnancy
There can be a lot to say about safety when it comes to herbal medicine in general and even more so in regard to pregnancy. Some people will go look up information about the herbs I will share with you and they will read in numerous places that it's contraindicated in pregnancy for one reason or another. Though you do need to use caution, if you only rely on what is published on the internet by "experts" or what comes from those who have no training in herbal medicine, you will never have the pleasure of enjoying the benefit of nature's gifts during your pregnancy because every herb you read about will have some negative reference in regard to pregnancy. That is in part because of lack of research and in part because of concern over sharing information publicly and openly that might be misunderstood or abused. For example, when I open a textbook on botanical medicine for women's health by a well known alternative medicine expert, the list of herbs contraindicated in pregnancy pretty much rules out herbal medicine at all, but the reason it's written like that is most likely because her publisher and attorney required her to do so. Unfortunately, this makes these books nearly worthless and perpetuates the misinformation about the safety and benefits of many herbs in pregnancy.
In short, use this information with caution, consult with your doctor or prenatal care provider before using any herbs, especially if you have concerns or unique health conditions, and find a skilled herbalist who understands how to apply herbs in pregnancy if you want further information.
And also, none of the information in this post has been approved by the FDA and is not intentended to prevent, treat or cure any disease or condition and is not meant to replace the advice of your care provider.
How herbs fit into pregnancy and birth
Herbal medicine can be used as a source of nourishment for the dense nutrient and vitamin content, in fact many herbs are also considered wild foods in some cultures and these wild food counterparts contain much higher levels of nutrition than the average domesticated agricultural plant foods we eat today.
Many herbalists today will only use herbs very strictly and if absolutely indicated in pregnancy, and while it is prudent to use herbs with caution, there are also nourishing herbs that can add significant improvement to your wellbeing in pregnancy, to the health of all your body's tissues, your blood, even your mind, all of which can improve your experience in pregnancy and potentially your birth outcome and postpartum experience.
When needed, herbs can also provide support for pregnancy related discomforts or support for non-pregnancy related discomforts for which other treatments are not recommended or just undesired in pregnancy. These can range from insomnia, digestive upsets like nausea or constipation, poor blood vessel tone that can lead to things like hemorrhoids and varicosities, even some cases of bacterial infections like Group B Strep, urinary tract infections, and vaginosis can be supported with herbs either synergistically with prescription medications or as a stand alone in some cases.
How to source herbs
Before we get to the herbs themselves, I want to give you some tips on how to source your herbs in case this is new to you. As I am here talking about herbs, what are you picturing? A bottle of capsules? A tincture? A tea?
Herbs come in many forms, as I mentioned above what some people call herbs, other people call food. Some of the herbs I will discuss will be best in tea form, some in tincture form, some you might be able to find fresh in your yard or a wild area and you can take them fresh when you find them. When purchasing your herbs, I do recommend buying them from a reputable company who works directly with the herbs rather than a distributor like Amazon or a supplement shop. This will ensure you are getting the correct herbs, you can find out if they are tested for heavy metals, pesticides, microbials and for authenticity. These are not safeguards third party sellers like Amazon can provide.
Understanding herbal medicine
We are almost to the herbs themselves! But I just want to go over a mini-lesson in herbal medicine before we get there. When it comes to herbs, we group them into categories in different ways depending on the tradition of herbalism you follow. A more modern approach is to categorize them by their chemical compounds and their anticipated physiologic actions or the effect they are expected to have on the body based on their active constituents. Though this seems like a clear way to understand herbs, in my experience and opinion, and the experience and opinions of other herbalists I follow, there is a lot of important subtle actions and effects of herbs the only occur after they are ingested that aren't accounted for when categorized by active constituents.
Methods of categorizing herbs used by eclectic herbalist are based on the actions of the herbs in the body, so an herb is a diaphoretic if it makes you sweat, it is an emmenagogue if it helps regulate your menstrual cycle, a galactagogue if it helps increase milk supply, and so on. These categorizations are based on experiences from years of use of herbs and less on any chemical properties, although those may be incorporated in today's ecclectic herbalism schools as well.
Then we have herbal traditions of different ancient cultures that have persisted to today, such as Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Native American herbalism, and so on. Often these traditions categorize herbs by flavor, temperature and strength and they use a combination of herbs to create a formulation tailored toward the individual patient. Often these traditional herbal approaches are actually very sophisticated involving a long history of experience and an intimate understanding of the relationship between humans and nature, including the plants, animals, insects, water, air and all the elements we rely on as human beings.
Though my official, recognized training with herbs is in Chinese herbalism when I went to school for Chinese medicine and acupuncture, today I will focus primarily on Western herbs because they are generally more familiar and easy to find and Chinese herbalism is a form of herbal art that I can't do justice to in this post because it would take hours of explaining the concepts behind the human-nature relationships before we could even start talking about herbs. And, I want to share some herbs that you can find locally because part of what brings me so much joy in using plant medicine is being able to connect to the plant through the land we share, through seeing it grow, knowing the environment, and having a greater connection with the gifts of plant medicine.
Herbs that most people can take throughout pregnancy
Now we can start learning about some herbs! Herbs that most women can take in pregnancy without concern are those with nourishing properties, what we often call tonics. On a chemical basis, these are often high in minerals, but generally are lower in the compounds that would be considered "medicinal". These are highly beneficial in pregnancy because they are dense nutritionally, so often they are taken as a food or as an infused tea. To make a basic infusion, you simply take the herb or herbal formula you are infusing, place them into a heat tolerant jar, mug or bowl and let them steep for anywhere from 10 minutes to 12 hours, depending on the herbs and the intended use.
Alfalfa, oatstraw and nettle are herbs that are commonly used as an herbal infusion for their rich stores of minerals including potassium, magnesium, calcium and iron. These are herbs you would generally source as dried herbs and put them into your heat tolerant container, cover them with double the amount of water, so your water level is twice as high as your herb level, and let it steep for 8-12 hours. I often have clients make it before bed so it is steeped and ready to go when they wake up the next day. Then you will strain the liquid and sip it as a tea. You can warm it back up on the stove top or add more hot water, if you prefer to drink it warm.
If you have been prescribed blood thinners by your care provider, then you need to speak with them before using nutritive herbs because most of these herbs contain vitamin K, which increases your platelets ability to coagulate. For this reason, many women who are not on blood thinners and do not have any blood clotting concern will increase their intake of these herbs to support their body's ability to moderate their postpartum bleeding, but if you have a known clotting disorder, you may need to use caution with these herbs. At a food grade level of intake, it is unlikely you will get too much vitamin K from these herbs, but just be sure to talk to your provider and a skilled herbalist before you incorporate herbs into your prenatal routine.
Another herb you can add to this mix is dandelion leaf. If you are lucky enough to have this wonderful herb growing in your yard or local area, and you know it's clean - not sprayed with pesticides or near heavy exhaust, then you can pick it fresh and infuse it into your tea for lots of mineral content. You can also use a few of the fresh leaves in your salad, mixed with other sautéed greens, or added to soups. Dandelion is actually a really amazing plant because it sends its root so deep into the ground, it can reach mineral stores in the soil that few other plants can reach, which is why it is such a nutritive herb and very undervalued in the lawnscape.
Red raspberry leaf is an herb women often ask about as it is probably one of the most well-known prenatal herbs and often recommended to increase the efficiency of labor and uterine contractions. One of the common questions about it is at what stage in pregnancy is it safe to take red raspberry and will it cause a miscarriage or pre-term labor. The chemical constituents in red raspberry do act on the uterus as well as many other smooth muscle tissues of the body, but the effect is not one of inducing contraction of the uterine muscle. Red raspberry leaf actually acts as a tonic to the uterine muscle, probably in part due to being a rich source of manganese and vitamin C, which both strengthen the collagen protein bonds of connective tissue and smooth muscle, such as those of the uterus. This means when labor is initiated, the uterus has a greater potential for strong and efficient contractions.
Another nourishing herb I often recommend to my clients throughout their pregnancy is goji berries. These little dried berries are rich in amino acids and minerals like copper, chromium, selenium & iron, and even have some essential fatty acids. They are one of the foods I find can sometimes help with nausea in pregnancy because the combination of nutrients can balance blood sugars without introducing too much sugar since these berries are relatively low in sugars. Do eat them in moderation though they still contribute to sugars in your diet. You can eat the dried berries straight, add them to trail mix, hot cereals or salads, or you can soak them in yogurt or coconut milk overnight. You can also simply make them into a tea, either simmering them on the stovetop for 5-10 minutes on low, or steeping them in hot water for a few hours. One note of caution for goji berry, though reports of allergies to goji berries is extremely low, it is in the nightshade family, so if you have allergies to other nightshade plants - like tomatoes, do talk to your care provider first and introduce these berries slowly.
Calendula is a wonderful pregnancy herb that can be used in so many ways. It can be used topically to support elasticity of your skin, or after baby comes you can make a diaper oil or salve that is both soothing and antimicrobial. Calendula is also full of nutrients and you can enjoy in different ways - it can be made into a tea, added to soups or salads as a fun and nutritious edible flower. One of the most treasured benefits of calendula is in its ability to promote collagen formation, this is why many women find it a welcome herb, both topically and internally to lessen stretch marks. I have an article about how to make a simple calendula oil you can find here. Calendula is also known as Pot Marigold, but be careful not to confuse it with the plant known as simply Marigold. Marigold and calendula are not the same plant and marigold has toxic compounds and is not recommended as an herbal medicine, especially in pregnancy. Also note that calendula is in the same family as daisy, so if you have a daisy allergy, consult with your care provider before introducing calendula topically or internally and use caution.
Though nausea is probably the top complaint I hear in early pregnancy, one of the other common discomforts that is reported from my clients early in their pregnancy is insomnia or difficulty sleeping, despite the extreme fatigue that comes with the first trimester. I have a few herbs that I recommend to help with that that can be used as standalone herbs or combined into a tea formulation. The herbs in this formulation include chamomile, linden flower, skullcap and oatstraw with a pinch of lavender flowers if you like them. This formula is best taken as an infusion from dry herbs, you can make by using 1 tablespoon of chamomile, 1 tablespoon of linden flowers, 2 tablespoons of skullcap, 2 tablespoons of oatstraw and a pinch of lavender flowers if you like. Steep the dried herbs in 3 cups of just boiled water for 3-4 hours and drink 1 cup at room temperature or warmer 1-2 hours before bed, early enough so the extra fluids don't introduce extra trips to the bathroom overnight. A special note about this formulation, chamomile is another herb from the daisy family, so if you have an allergy to other flowers in the daisy family, consult with your care provider and use caution. You can simply omit the chamomile from this formula and make it with the remaining herbs if you cannot drink chamomile tea.
I have talked about herbal safety and sourcing, why to use herbs in pregnancy. Then we covered some nourishing and tonic herbs, a couple of my favorite all purpose herbs - goji berry and calendula, and herbs for pregnancy related sleep disturbance.
In a follow up post, I will cover herbs that support the second half of pregnancy, labor and birth and herbs for postpartum. If you have any specific herbs you would like to hear about, let me know at email@example.com or reach out to me on Facebook or instagram @naturalbirthcompass.
Find some of my favorite herbal tea recipes for pregnancy in my free guide to DIY Herbal Teas for Pregnancy. Get your free copy by clicking here!
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