Warning: Before taking any herbs while pregnant or breastfeeding, first check with your doctor or midwife.
Double-blind studies have proved herbs really do help during pregnancy. Herbs offer vitamins and minerals in their natural form, so serve as a nutritional tonic. But some have specific actions – to help relieve morning sickness, for instance, to help increase milk flow in nursing mothers, or to prepare the uterus for delivery.
Alfalfa (medicago sativa), for example, provides calcium, carotenes, iron, and vitamins C and K. And as the latter plays a major role in blood-clotting, a diet rich in Vitamin K may help lower the risk of post-partum haemorrhaging.
Oatstraw (avena sativa) is known to support conception and nourish the body during pregnancy. It's rich in vitamins A, B complex and C, as well as calcium and magnesium.
"Magnesium is used in the production of energy and cardiovascular activity, and it helps relax and dilate muscles and blood vessels," says medical herbalist Karina Hilterman of Lavender Hill Herbals. "It's also considered an anti-stress mineral."
Herbs for pregnancy
Of all the herbs used by pregnant mums, raspberry leaf (rubus idaeus) is the most well-known. "Raspberry leaf can be most beneficial in obstetric care," says medical herbalist and Artemis founder Sandra Clair. "In the Swiss clinic where I worked, it was routinely prescribed to support a viable pregnancy."
Raspberry leaf is not only rich in vitamins and minerals, says Sandra, but it also contains flavonoids, gallotannins and ellagitannins, which tone the pelvic muscles and the uterus itself.
She quotes a study of 108 women at Westmead Hospital in Sydney, where midwives looked at its use during pregnancy, and whether it did shorten labour without side-effects. Treatment began as early as eight weeks' gestation, but most started at 30 to 34 weeks.
The study found that raspberry leaf did not shorten labour, but those who had consumed it were less likely to need labour induced, a caesarean section or forceps delivery than those in the control group.
A follow-up double-blind study of 192 women – who took raspberry leaf from 32 weeks – confirmed there were no adverse effects. The second stage of labour was, however, shortened by an average of 9.6 minutes and a lower rate of forceps delivery was also noted in the raspberry leaf group.
Paula Ryan, midwife clinical manager at Auckland's Birthcare, adds: "I would recommend it only from 36 weeks, as it can irritate the uterus. But it can be used earlier if the woman has already had lots of babies and the uterus is not well toned. Start with a mug of raspberry leaf tea a day, then up the dose. You do have to be careful though – it depends on your individual medical history."
Herbs may be natural, but not all are safe during pregnancy. "Liquorice (glycyrrhiza glabra) is one example," says Dr Aviva Romm, a US-based physician, midwife and herbalist. "Used for a sore throat, for no longer than a week, it is entirely safe." But patients with hypertension should avoid it, and even eating sweets containing liquorice extract has been associated with pre-term birth.
Many herbs are abortifacients or emmenagogues (which promote menstrual bleeding), or have steroids that can affect a baby's development. It goes without saying that such herbs should be avoided. They include angelica, anise seed, black or blue cohosh, comfrey, dill, dong quai, elder, feverfew, goldenseal, goji berries, motherwort, mugwort, pennyroyal, rue, tansy, wormwood and yarrow.
The only essential oils considered safe for use are rose and lavender.
If taken at all during pregnancy, herbs should be consumed in small quantities. Dr Romm says spearmint, chamomile, lemon balm, nettle or rosehip tea can be safely used. "When we're pregnant and breastfeeding we get the same run-of-the-mill illnesses – colds, indigestion, headaches, say. Many of these can be addressed safely with mild herbs such as echinacea, ginger, or chamomile respectively."
To ease nausea, Karina Hilterman suggests ginger tea made from the root ginger. Dandelion leaves in a smoothie can also help. "The nausea is due to hormonal fluctuations and the liver isn't processing them properly. Dandelion leaves can help with this. And as they're high in potassium they help keep blood pressure down."
Magnesium can help with restless leg syndrome and cramps, hence the use of oatstraw, says Karina. "Use a tablespoon of oatstraw to a cup of water. Bring it to the boil with the lid on and simmer for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat, leave to cool, then strain. It's delicious, with a nutty taste. You can drink half a cup twice a day – it makes a really good mineral tonic."
Herbs for breastfeeding
A number of herbs are credited as being galactagogues, in that they can improve the production of breast milk. These include fennel, fenugreek (trigonella foenum-graecum), goat's rue (galega officinalis), holy thistle (cnicus benedictus) and nettles (urtica dioica).
But some herbs can affect supply, including sage, yarrow and cranesbill. "Avoid sage," says Karina. "One of its actions is antihidrotic, which means anti-water, so it dries things up."
Peppermint should also be used sparingly when breastfeeding. "You can use it for nausea while pregnant, but for the first six months it's best to avoid it. Avoid garlic too because that can give the baby colic."
"And unless you've eaten a lot of spicy foods, avoid them during pregnancy and after," says Karina. "You should eat what sounds like invalid food – nothing too strong, especially when nursing." (Although eating vegetables such as pungent brassicas can have the effect of introducing your child to those flavours before they start solids!)
Herbs after birth
Where colic is a problem, herbs such as fennel, dill and ginger can help reduce spasms in the baby's gut and restore smooth peristalsis action.
"Fennel seeds are an ingredient in gripe water, which is used to relieve colic in babies," says Karina. "Some formulations use dill seed, bicarbonate of soda and ginger."
Newborns have delicate skin, and for skin conditions such as nappy rash or eczema, calendula oil, or rose or lavender essential oils can be used. But make sure they are essential oils, rather than fragrance oils or any artificial fragrance, which can cause contact dermatitis.
"Lavender oil can be very calming for newborns," says Karina. "A bath with a strong decoction of oatstraw and lavender oil can be very soothing," says Karina.