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Truth About Herbal Remedies

Herbal Medicine During Pregnancy: Safe or Not?
Herbal Medicine During Pregnancy: Safe or Not?

Herbal remedies, commonly packaged as teas, tablets, and extracts, are often touted as treatments for a wide variety of medical conditions, including colds, allergies, and depression. Some products even promise to quell morning sickness and other pregnancy discomforts. Unfortunately, many of these claims are made without verifying if the ingredients are safe for you or your baby.

Unlike prescription and over-the-counter medications, herbal remedies are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means the manufacturers of these products don't have to submit studies to the FDA about the safety and effectiveness of the products before putting them on the market. As a result, the ingredients in herbal supplements are not monitored and can vary from one batch to the next. Often, you may get very little of the herb you're buying, and other times too much. Occasionally, herbal products have even been found to contain contaminants such as lead, prescription drugs, and other substances that can pose serious health risks. Unfortunately, the FDA can only remove an herbal supplement from the market once it's proven unsafe.

The truth is, scientists have not thoroughly studied the safety of using herbal products in pregnancy. In fact, some smaller studies have shown that a number of these products can stimulate uterine contractions, which may increase the risk of miscarriage or preterm labor.

Some of the most questionable herbs include:

  • Black Cohosh (used to treat menstrual cramps)
  • Feverfew (used to prevent and treat migraine headaches and asthma)
  • Dong Quai (used to treat constipation and menstrual cramps)
  • Pennyroyal and Rosemary (used for digestive problems)
  • Juniper (used for heartburn)
  • Thuja (used to treat respiratory infections)
  • Blue Cohosh may also be especially dangerous, as a few reports have shown this herb can cause heart attacks and strokes in babies whose mothers used the herb near term.

Herbs for Pregnancy Discomforts

There are also herbal remedies specifically targeted to pregnant women. Indeed, there are a number of herbal teas that promise relief from morning sickness. These include ginger, chamomile, peppermint, and raspberry teas. Of these herbs, ginger is the only one that has been studied in pregnant women. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), ginger can in fact help relieve pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting. Unfortunately, less is known about the safety of chamomile, peppermint, and raspberry teas.

In general, many experts do believe that chamomile (usually consumed in teas) is safe in pregnancy. However, women who are allergic to plants in the aster family (including ragweed and daisies) should avoid chamomile because of the possibility of dangerous reactions, such as breathing difficulties. Peppermint tea (made from peppermint leaves) is also considered safe, but consume it in small amounts. Large amounts of peppermint- and raspberry-leaf tea are suspected of causing uterine contractions in mothers-to-be.

If your morning sickness is severe, speak to your doctor. She can provide tips for easing a queasy stomach, such as snacking on dry crackers and eating frequent small meals. There are also medications that can safely treat severe pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting.

Constipation can be another common problem in pregnancy, but beware of certain herbs used as laxatives, including goldenseal and senna. These herbs can trigger uterine contractions, possibly increasing the risk of preterm labor. Instead, ask your doctor about dietary changes that can ease constipation. Eating foods higher in fiber, drinking more water, and exercising (with your doctor's approval) often help.

Some herbal products, according to studies, do ease a number of chronic conditions. For instance, the herb St. John's wort can alleviate symptoms of depression or anxiety. Many doctors believe St. John's wort raises the levels of serotonin and other feel-good chemicals in the brain, lifting the mood and relaxation level of the user.

However, studies also show that St. John's wort can raise health risks in pregnant women, such as uterine contractions and miscarriage. This herb can also interfere with other medications you may be taking, increasing the effectiveness of some drugs and reducing it in others. Until more is known about the safety of St. John's wort in pregnancy, women should avoid it. If you suffer from depression, talk to your doctor, who can recommend the safest prescription drug treatment or refer you for counseling.

Women who suffer from frequent migraines often take the herb feverfew, which appears to reduce the frequency and severity of their headaches. However, pregnant women should avoid this particular herb, as it can cause menstrual bleeding and miscarriage.

So while it's fine to sip the occasional cup of herbal tea, be careful about what you consume in pregnancy, and check with your doctor before taking any herbal product. If you're concerned about a health problem, speak with your doctor immediately. He or she can recommend the safest treatments for you and your baby.

Though the medical rationale is unclear, many experts believe some herbal products may temporarily reduce fertility in both men and women, so it's best that you and your partner avoid them if you're trying to conceive. These include St. John's wort (used for depression, anxiety, and sleep problems), echinacea (used to ward off and treat colds), and ginkgo (used for premenstrual syndrome, allergies, and sleep problems).

If you're planning to breastfeed, you should continue to avoid herbal remedies, since these substances can pass to your baby through breast milk. New moms should especially avoid fenugreek, an herb traditionally used to increase a nursing mother's milk supply, since there are no studies to prove this herb is safe for your baby. Fenugreek, which is used for digestive discomforts, should also be avoided in pregnancy, as it can cause uterine contractions.

For more information on this topic, visit marchofdimes.com. The March of Dimes is a national health agency whose mission is to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects and prematurity.

 

Dr. Richard Schwarz, obstetrical consultant to the March of Dimes, is past president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and vice chairman for Clinical Services, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Maimonides Medical Center as well as emeritus distinguished service professor of obstetrics and gynecology, SUNY Downstate Medical Center, both in Brooklyn.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2006.

Updated February 2010

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professional, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.