While most pregnant women know they have to be careful not to take many medications without consulting a doctor first, herbal supplements may seem harmless: after all, they’re just little ol’ herbs, right? Not necessarily. “A woman needs to be careful about taking herbal supplements pregnancy,” says Jenny Jaque, MD, an OB/GYN at the online health magazine Health Goes Female. “Regardless of them being ‘natural,’ some herbal supplements can lead to harmful effects on the pregnancy and growing fetus.”
So what could go wrong? A ton: miscarriage, premature labor, uterine contractions and possibly birth defects on the fetus. “Also, certain supplements can cross react with medications you could be taking, leading to unexpected harmful side effects,” Dr. Jaque adds.
Part of the problem is that unlike “traditional” medications, herbal supplements aren’t as rigorously regulated by the FDA as traditional drugs, so the effects on a large population are largely unknown. “Herbal supplements do not go through the intense research and evaluation of the FDA and therefore the strength and outcome of the products cannot be verified or validated,” says Jessica Shepherd, MD, an OB/GYN and owner of Her View Point, an online community for women.
Another issue is that “most conventional obstetricians have little knowledge of herbal medicine,” says Patrick Fratellone, MD, an herbalist and doctor of integrative medicine. “There is a lack of training in obstetrics for the use of botanicals.”
All that said, though, herbs can be fine and even beneficial during pregnancy, provided you take them under the supervision of a physician — ideally one with knowledge of herbs.
“Herbs have been used in the treatment of problems arising during pregnancy and childbirth since Ancient times,” points out Dr. Fratellone. “There is evidence in epidemiology studies done in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States that as many as 45 percent of women use herbs during pregnancy. In more rural parts of the world and in different cultures herbs are always used.”
While you should always check with your doctor first, here are a few herbs generally known to be safe that can alleviate a range of pregnancy woes according to Shepherd:
- High in iron and useful for toning the uterus, decreasing nausea, increasing milk production and decreasing labor pains.
2. Peppermint Leaf
- Relieves nausea and gas.
3. Ginger Root
- Relieves nausea and vomiting.
4. Slippery Elm Bark
- Relieves nausea, heartburn and vaginal irritations.
5. Oats and Oats Straw
- High in calcium and magnesium. Useful for relieving restlessness, anxiety and skin irritation.
6. Lemon Balm
- Relieves irritability, insomnia and anxiety.
Here are some herbs that are likely unsafe to take during pregnancy according to Shepherd:
1. Saw Palmetto
- Some people use saw palmetto for colds and coughs, sore throat, asthma, and migraine headaches. It is also used as a diuretic, sedative, and aphrodisiac. Yet when used orally, it can trigger hormonal activity that could interfere with a pregnancy.
- Used for the common cold and other upper respiratory tract infections, as well as stuffy nose and hay fever. Some people use goldenseal for digestive disorders including stomach pain and swelling and intestinal gas. Yet when used orally, it may stimulate uterine contractions — not good if you’re pregnant.
3. Dong Quai
- Used for menstrual cramps, premenstrual syndrome and menopausal symptoms when used orally. This, too, may stimulate uterine contractions.
- Used for weight loss and to enhance athletic performance. It is also used for allergies and hay fever, nasal congestion, and respiratory tract conditions such as asthma and bronchitis. Only since ephedra may affect blood sugar levels, it’s unsafe during pregnancy.
- Used as an aphrodisiac, but can be toxic to a fetus.
6. Pay D’ Arco
- Used to treat a wide range of infections including cold and flu. But since side effects can include anemia, nausea, diarrhea, and dizziness, it is not recommended during pregnancy.
7. Passion Flower
- Used to treat insomnia, gastrointestinal upset related to anxiety or nervousness. Side effects include an increase in the amount of time blood needs to clot, leading to increased bleeding that can be dangerous during pregnancy.
8. Black Cohosh
- Used as a remedy for night sweats, vaginal dryness, and to induce labor as a uterine stimulant. So unless you’re ready to give birth steer clear!
Did you take any herbs during pregnancy?