Playing it Safe: Herbal Teas and SupplementsPregnant? Careful What You Sip On
Mother Nature is a wise woman, and her herbs and plants can alleviate plenty of ailments. However, when you're pregnant, you need to be extra careful about what supplements you take and what herbal drinks you consume. Herbal supplements that were perfectly safe for you before pregnancy might cause pregnancy complications or harm your baby. Herbs are all-natural, but natural is not synonymous with safe, especially when you're "with child."
This list refers to medicinal and not culinary uses of herbs. Keep in mind that even herbs that are on the "avoid" list are safe to eat in food, because of the small amount you consume, even if you eat it in several meals a week.
Unlike over-the-counter and prescription medications, herbal supplements aren't subject to the same evaluation process and government regulations. Because of this, the efficacy, strength and quality of a supplement can vary significantly between brands, and consumers can't always be certain they can trust what's written on a label.
The trouble with herbs and supplements, according to a National Institutes of Health spokesperson, is that they haven't been studied at the level that pharmaceutical drugs have--especially in pregnant and lactating women--and there is no comprehensive source on the efficacy and safety of herbs during pregnancy.
Here's a list of herbs you should avoid and herbs that are safe when you're expecting. The off-limits list is rather lengthy, but there are plenty of natural ways to alleviate your pregnancy symptoms, from ginger to tame nausea to peppermint to help with gas. Always consult your health-care provider before you begin taking any supplement, herbal or otherwise.
Herbal Supplements to Avoid
This list refers to medicinal (not culinary) uses of herbs. Cooking with these herbs** and spices is perfectly safe because they're used in such small amounts, even when eaten several times per week. Likewise, applying these herbs topically, such as in lotions or soaps, is also safe. These herbs should not be ingested in the form of teas or supplements because they either lack research to prove they are safe during pregnancy, or they can induce uterine contractions, stimulate menstrual flow, and affect hormones, according to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database.
** These herbs are safe to eat and use in cooking.
***While the inner bark of the slippery elm can help relieve nausea, vomiting and vaginal irritations, the outer bark of the same tree contains chemicals that could cause a miscarriage. It's better to avoid all slippery elm products, just in case some outer bark contaminated the supplements.
The following herbs have been deemed "safe" and/or "possibly safe" by the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database and/or the Canadian Journal of Clinical Pharmacology (winter 2008 issue). As with any supplement, consult your health-care provider before you begin taking any herb listed below.
Safe and possibly safe to use during pregnancy
Cranberries-in unsweetened juice or fruit form--are used to promote urinary health and help ward off urinary tract infections, a common ailment during pregnancy.
Ubiquitous and pungent herb, garlic is safe to use as a seasoning during pregnancy. Some studies have suggested that garlic could help prevent or lessen symptoms of pre-eclampsia, but there is not enough evidence to verify those findings.
Many women find that ginger relieves nausea and vomiting. Available in root, tea or candy form, use fresh, organic ginger when possible.
Oats or Oat Straw:
Oats are high in calcium and magnesium; they are used to soothe itchy or dry skin when applied to the skin topically. Oats are also high in fiber, which is a good reason to add them to your diet.
This herb, often used in tea form, can help relieve nausea and morning sickness or gas.
Psyllium (blond and black):
With high levels of soluble dietary fiber, psyllium is a key ingredient in many bulk laxatives. Psyllium supplements (such as Metamucil) are often used to alleviate constipation, a common pregnancy ailment.
Red Raspberry Leaf:
Found in many "pregnancy teas," red raspberry leaf is full of iron, and it aids in milk production, easing nausea, and lessening labor pains. Teas containing red raspberry leaf often boast that they promote uterine health during pregnancy because the herb helps to tone the uterus.
Some health-care professionals recommend only using it after the first trimester, so be sure to consult your doctor or midwife before you take red raspberry leaf in tea or supplement form. Raspberry leaf is commonly used by midwives to facilitate delivery. (Do NOT attempt to induce delivery this way; consult your health-care professional.)
An herbal tea primer
The word "tea" is used to describe many beverages made from dried plants and herbs diffused in hot or cold water. There are two varieties: herbal and nonherbal (traditional teas).
Nonherbal teas are made from the leaves of the tea plant, which contain varying amounts of caffeine. Black is the most common variety of tea, with such flavors as Earl Gray, English breakfast, and Pekoe. The tea leaves are allowed to ferment before drying, giving them a darker, more intense taste. Green tea is made from dried leaves and have less caffeine than black teas. Oolong teas are a mix of black and green tea leaves.
Herbal teas are made from the roots, berries, leaves, and/or seeds of plants, not from actual tea leaves. Most are free of caffeine, and many are used as medicinal remedies.
Sources: The American Pregnancy Association, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, and Herbal Remedies for Dummies, the Canadian Journal of Clinical Pharmacology (winter 2008 issue)
This article was reviewed by BabyFit's Becky Hand, a licensed & registered dietitian.
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