By Ashley Litecky Elenbaas, MSC., RH(AHG)
Photo by Alena Getman
With an increasing number of women turning to natural and complementary medicines during pregnancy there is a great opportunity for further education surrounding the use of herbal medicines in the US. The results of a multi-national study in 2012 showed that 28.5% of women used herbal medicines to help treat pregnancy related conditions. The countries with the highest percentage of herbal use were Russia (69%), Women from Eastern Europe (51.8%) and Australia (43.8%).
Women in this study recorded that their reasons for using herbal medicine were not just limited to symptom relief (nausea, urinary tract infections, constipation, cold/flu) but also for health promotion and preparation for birth.
Both folk and medical herbalists agree that using certain herbs during pregnancy can support the health of the mother and child in both the short and long term. Below is a short list of five safe and supportive herbs for a healthy pregnancy from some of the country’s top herbalists who specialize in Women’s Health.
Each of the herbs below are safe and effective for women pre-conception and have many health benefits in pregnancy.
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Nettle Leaf (Urtica dioica) – Wise women herbalist, Susun Weed recommends that women of all ages and stages drink an infusion of Nettle leaf three to four times a week. Nettles is an incredible tonic and is reputed to have more chlorophyll than any other herb. Since chlorophyll is only one molecule way from the iron carrying hemoglobin, a pregnant woman can use this additional iron to produce the extra bloods she will need to support her growing baby. Nettles also contains and abundance of vitamins A, C, D, and K, calcium, potassium, phosphorous, iron, and sulphur.
Pregnant women can especially benefit from nettles due to its many positive plant actions. Nettles is a kidney tonic and diuretic which can help with edema and also supports the kidneys since a pregnant woman must process one and a half times her normal blood supply through her kidneys during pregnancy. Nettles can help ease leg cramps and spasms due to its high magnesium content and due to its high calcium content it can diminish pain during and after childbirth. It is a wonderful source of Vitamin K which can help prevent hemorrhage after birth and its mild astringency can help reduce the likelihood of hemorrhoids and improves venous resilience. Drinking a nettles infusion after childbirth is also a wonderful way to increase the richness and amount of breast milk.
To prepare a nettles infusion Susun recommends adding ½ cup of dried organic nettle leaf to a glass quart jar. Fill the jar with not water, cap, and let it steep overnight (or between 4-8 hours). When ready the infusion will be a dark green color approaching black. Then strain the herbs and drink one quart daily. The taste of a nettles infusion is deep and rich. You may also notice that your energy levels improve along with your complexion, skin, hair, and nails.
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Red Raspberry Leaves (Rubus ideaus) - Medical doctor and midwife, Aviva Romm, MD highly recommends red raspberry leaf to support uterine tone and an easier labor. Red raspberry is another mineral rich tonic and has been used traditionally to support healthy pregnancy and to tone the uterus, preparing her body for birth. Some studies have shown that it can expedite labor and even reduce common complications that can lead to medical interventions.
Red raspberry leaves contain an alkaloid called fragrine which gives tone to the muscles of the pelvic region, including the uterus itself. This is helpful in preventing miscarriages and hemorrhage and can help prepare the muscle tone of the uterus for birth. Red raspberry leaves also contain a rich concentration of vitamin C, the presence of vitamin E, and an easily bioavailable form of calcium and iron all of which are good for the baby and mother. Drinking red raspberry leaf tea can also ease morning sickness, nausea, and stomach distress throughout pregnancy. The toning quality of this herb along with its high mineral content makes it a great post-partum herb as it can support the repositioning and toning of the uterus and the production of rich and healthy breast milk.
To prepare red raspberry as a tea Aviva recommends adding a few other herbs to brighten the flavor of an otherwise very plain tasting herb. Add 2 tbsp of organic red raspberry leaf, 2 tsp organic spearmint leaf, and 2 tsp organic rose hips. Steep in 8 oz of hot water for 20 minutes, strain and drink 1-2 cups daily. If you tend to run on the dry side (dry skin, hair, nails, constipation tendencies) I would recommend adding 2 tsp of milky oatstraw to this formula.
Photo by Treasach Capnerhurst
Milky Oat Tops (Avena sativa) – Beloved herbalist and grandmother of the American herbal movement, Rosemary Gladstar recommends milky oat tops as an important part of the pre-natal diet. Oatstraw and milky oat tops contain vitamins A, C, E, & B and the minerals calcium, zinc, iron, and magnesium.
Oats, milky oat tops, and oatstraw all act upon the nervous system as a nourishing tonic and has a normalizing effect on the entire physiology. This is especially important during pregnancy when there are big changes going on in a woman’s body, relationships, and her life. The relaxing, moistening, and nourishing qualities of oatstraw ease emotions like fear, anxiety, and can help with nervous stress, exhaustion, and insomnia. Rosemary recommends that women take oatstraw or oat grain baths during pregnancy or to make oat milk from soaking raw oats as a soothing and healing facial.
In her book Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, Rosemary recommends that women drink a pregnancy tonic tea that contains the following herbs: 1 part green oat tops (milky oats), 1 part lemon balm leaf, 1 part nettle leaf, and 1 part raspberry leaf. To brew, add 6 tablespoons of the blend into a glass quart jar, pour hot water over the herbs, filling the jar. Let steep 30-45 min. Then strain and drink 2-4 cups daily.
As a first time pregnant mama myself I am so grateful for the plants, my female herbal elders, and all of the support they have provided for me during my pregnancy. Before we conceived I was taking a daily infusion of nettles and red raspberry leaf and I truly believe these plants helped prepare my body for pregnancy. If you are wishing to conceive or are already carrying a child I highly recommend utilizing the many herbal and natural child birthing resources that are out there.
My favorite books pre-conception for women’s health are Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year, by Susun Weed, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, by Toni Weschler and Bountiful, Beautiful, Blissful: Experience the Natural Power of Pregnancy and Birth by Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa. Once I became pregnant I have loved reading the stories in Ina May Gaskin’s book, “Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, the weekly updates and meditations in Sacred Pregnancy by Anni Daulter, and the herbal wisdom in The Natural Pregnancy Book by Aviva Romm.
Deborah A Kennedy, Angela Lupattelli, Gideon Koren and Hedvig Nordeng Herbal medicine use in pregnancy: results of a multinational study. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2013, 13:355
Herbal Allies for Pregnancy Problems, By Susun Weed, http://www.susunweed.com/Article_Pregnancy_Problems.htm
5 Safe Herbs for a More Comfortable Pregnancy and Better Birth, By Aviva Romm
Rosemary Gladstar's Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide