I have a secret.
As a registered dietitian, I have put in years of study, certification, and continuing education into my private practice as well as my formulation of FullWell Prenatal. And, while much of my work involves addressing nutrition with real, whole foods and appropriate supplementation, I also have a background in herbalism. I believe that the benefits of medical plants are both endless and fascinating (not to mention, science-backed), and that many women who are trying to conceive, are pregnant, or breastfeeding stand to gain a lot by implementing them into their routines.
For the best outcomes, herbs should be selected and utilized with intention.
This means doing the same intensive research for the herbs you consume that you do for the food you eat and supplements you take. For many of us, the only time herbs cross our minds is when we are perusing the tea aisle in the grocery store or sprinkling a dried powder into a recipe. In these situations, the importance of herbs lies with sneaky marketing (e.g. teas of questionable quality promising to change your life) or simply with their flavor. Herbal health benefits often take a back seat. However, I often recommend many types of herbal concoctions to help relieve specific pregnancy-related symptoms and even improve some longer standing conditions.
Herbalists think about medicinal herbs in terms of “action formulas”.
An action formula is an intentional utilization of an herb or combination of herbs that balances traditional herbal energetics with clinical actions. The goal is to create a formula tailored to your constitution that also takes on whatever condition you’d like to address.
A lot of marketing for herbal products tends to push what some might refer to as a “kitchen sink” formula that throws together a bunch of “good for [insert condition here]” herbs to sell as a cure all. There are two big issues with this.
- Everything that you are putting into your body should be intentionally consumed based on your own personal needs. And just like vitamins and minerals, the amount and form of the herb matters. Sometimes, an herb is listed on a label, perhaps as part of a “proprietary blend”, but there isn’t enough of it included to have any action at all. At best, this means that blend could be ineffective, a waste of time and money. At worst, that blend could be harmful. Which leads me to #2.
- Blends of random herbs may contain some ingredients that will help you and your symptoms. They may also contain herbs that interact poorly with other things you are consuming, or, worst case scenario, are unsafe for certain stages of pregnancy.
Remember to keep your healthcare provider(s) in the loop.
There are only really a few major missteps you can make in regards to herbs: 1) taking something new without doing your research (which I know you won’t do!), and/or 2) omitting your herb usage with your healthcare provider. Does your provider double as a passionate, well-versed herbalist the way I do? Probably not. But they do need to know everything you are consuming - from food and traditional supplements to medications and herbal supplements - in order to be able to monitor how these things nourish you and interact with each other.
In fact, one of the biggest issues with herbal medicine is simply the fact that it is thought of completely separately from other, more traditional forms of health care. Many women don’t tell their doctors that they are using herbs. Conversations with your provider should be candid. When in doubt on whether or not something is safe or effective, always ask questions before using herbal teas, infusions, or tinctures. If your provider offers a blanket dismissal of all herbal products, then consider consulting with another provider trained in herbalism. There is usually no reason to avoid them entirely.
Wait. What is the difference between teas, infusions, and tinctures?
These words are sometimes muddled interchangeably in marketing, but think of the differences here in terms of herbal concentration:
Small amounts of herb(s) steep in water in open air, usually for short amounts of time (~5 minutes).
Large amounts of herb(s) steep in hot or cold water in an air-tight container for hours or overnight, for a more concentrated solution.
An ultra-concentrated herbal extract, diluted before consumption.
Which herbs are safe and/or beneficial during pregnancy?
There are a whole host of approved herbs that can help ward off side effects and symptoms at every stage of pregnancy. Here are the nine herbs to know:
Chamomile is commonly used in hydrating, calming teas that can help naturally enhance sleep. It is also great for easing digestion, relieving headaches and muscle cramps, and improving the appetite. It is packed with powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, and contains significant amounts of calcium and magnesium. For a soothing tea, cover and steep in hot water for five minutes. It can be sipped in the evening to help you sleep, or sipped during the day as a general tonic.
Dandelion Root and Leaves
Dandelion leaves and roots contain a whole host of vitamins and minerals, including potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamins A, C, D and B, and most notably, iron. This iron tonic from Aviva Romm, MD, is one of my go-tos in my private practice for my clients who are iron deficient and/or bordering on anemia. (Check out my latest article on lab work for iron levels here.) Additionally, dandelion has been said to support digestive health, easing nausea early on in pregnancy and the constipation or indigestion that some women experience throughout pregnancy. It is also commonly believed that it can improve lactation after pregnancy as well. Dandelion root can be taken as an infusion or a tincture, while the leaves can be sautéed with lemon and garlic for a savory side dish.
If you're worried about catching a cold or coming down with the flu during your pregnancy, echinacea is here to help support your immune system. It can be extremely helpful to take echinacea preventatively. Over the counter echinacea products can be found at your local pharmacy and in immune-boosting teas at your grocery store. There have been a number of studies that look at using echinacea during pregnancy, and it has been shown to be safe through all trimesters.
Ginger is one of my absolute top morning sickness-saviors from personal experience: throughout my own pregnancy, it was not uncommon to find me gnawing on hunks of raw ginger to keep my nausea at bay. I highly recommend organic ginger products for any pregnant women experiencing morning sickness, and have a quick recipe for a fresh, delicious ginger juice that doubles as an awesome anti-inflammatory posted on my personal instagram.
Oat straw comes from the stems and leaves of the same plant as oats that we eat for breakfast. It’s a deeply nourishing herb and one of the best herbs for nervous system support, helping to promote relaxed nerves and muscle functioning. Just a cup of an oat straw infusion contains ample amounts of calcium, magnesium, and silica, a trace mineral that promotes collagen production. Oat straw is utilized to help lower stress and ease depression, healing those experiencing burnout, trauma, irritability, and high anxiety. Try making it as an infusion, adding it to a smoothie, or using both oatmeal and oat straw to make a soothing herbal bath. It’s an excellent emollient that helps moisten inflamed skin, and can even be used on diaper rash for baby postpartum.
Red Raspberry Leaf
Red raspberry leaf ramps up your B vitamin and vitamin C intake, and also packs high amounts of magnesium and potassium, which can help you fight fatigue. While some studies show these leaves can ease symptoms of PMS, for pregnant women in their second and third trimesters, a compound found in red raspberry leaves can tone and tighten pelvic muscles and the walls of the uterus, making delivery easier. This isn’t an old wives tale: one study showed that those who drank red raspberry leaf tea in the last stage of pregnancy had a shorter first stage of labor. There is sometimes a fear of red raspberry leaf due to it’s affinity to the uterus, however, this nutritive herb is very safe.
Spearmint contains chemical compounds that combat free radicals and slow the process of oxidation. It has also been studied for its positive effect on polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that affects women of reproductive age that can lead to infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods. In regulating menstrual cycles, spearmint is thought to stimulate the release of eggs, signaling a fertility component. Spearmint tea is also a great way to improve digestion.
Stinging Nettle, one of my personal favorites, is a nutritional powerhouse. The tea is made from the leaves and roots of the stinging nettle plant and is rich in vitamins A, D, E, and K, high in calcium, iron, and magnesium, and helps fight anxiety and depression, which can be helpful postpartum. It’s also a natural antihistamine, so it can be used for allergy relief. Dried nettles can be steeped on their own for five to twenty minutes with water that has reached a rolling boil. You can also steep it at room temperature overnight for a strong tonic. Fresh nettles are great for infusions, but are unique in that they can be used as superfood medicine, cooked like you would any other green. Stir it into soups or broths, scramble it into eggs, or bake it into savory dishes with other tender herbs. My personal favorite involves blending it raw with olive oil, garlic, parmesan, and pine nuts to make a nettle pesto! Just note that if you are working with fresh nettles, you will need to wear gloves until they are cooked or dried because this herb has a stinging property that is harmless, but unpleasant on bare skin. Don’t worry: blanching, cooking and drying all nullify this property!
Yellow dock is an abundant wild weed and one of the best herbs for the digestive system and liver. It’s great for relieving constipation and helps stimulate the liver to make iron more available throughout the body. The root is typically used as an herbal remedy and has a somewhat bitter taste, so it’s best consumed as an infusion or syrup with other more flavorful herbs.
Based on the above, I have a few recommendations for products and recipes specific to wherever you are in your pregnancy.
If you’re trying to conceive:
Weaning yourself off of caffeine and the daily treat of coffee or stimulant-heavy tea can be tough. Not everyone needs to completely cut out caffeine when trying to conceive, pregnant, or breastfeeding, but most at least find they need to decrease it to some degree to feel their best. Utilizing what you now know about dandelion root in this coffee stand-in recipe can help you keep your morning ritual while easing your body into its new caffeine-free regimen.
If you’re pregnant:
Mountain Rose makes a fantastic loose leaf Organic Fecundi Tea with organic spearmint, lemon balm, nettle leaf, dandelion leaf, red raspberry leaf, oat straw, alfalfa, ginger, and lemon peel. That’s a lot of bang for your buck in a single product, but they are also a great source of consumer information, so I recommend checking out their blog if you’re interested in trying to create your own action formulas using their products.
If you’re breastfeeding:
Remember that recipes aren’t just for creating foods and beverages. Homemade personal care products like this organic nipple cream can come in handy and have the added benefit of safety since you hand-selected the ingredients. Just like with your nutrition, making personal care products yourself allows you to rest assured knowing exactly what went into them. Exercising control over your health is empowering! Taking a deeper look into concocting your own, homemade personal care products is a great way to eliminate hormone disrupting chemicals from your daily routine and reduce oxidative stress no matter what stage of your pregnancy journey you are on. Pro tip: make products during your 3rd trimester to have for postpartum. If stored properly, they can last for months.
For your partner:
I love covering herbs for my FullWell mamas, so consider this the first of many articles to come on this topic, because I truly only scratched the surface. Consuming medicinal herbs that are personalized to your needs along with your prenatal vitamin puts you on the path to a healthy pregnancy journey and smoother recovery.
- John, Lisha J. Shantakumari, Nisha. “Herbal Medicines Use During Pregnancy: A Review from the Middle East.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. July 2015. Accessed May 25, 2021. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26366255/.
- Ferlemi, Anastasia-Varvara. Lamari, Fotini N. “Berry Leaves: An Alternative Source of Bioactive Natural Products of Nutritional and Medicinal Value.” US National Library of Medicine. Published June 2016. Accessed May 25, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4931538/.
- “Raspberry leaf and its effect on labour: safety and efficacy.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Published Sept 1999. Accessed May 25, 2021. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10754818/.
- Gruber, Christian W. O’Brien, Margaret. “Uterotonic Plants and their Bioactive Constituents.” US National Library of Medicine. Published Sept 2011. Accessed May 25, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3407953/.