The ritual of making and drinking tea has been practiced for thousands of years, and for good reason. Tea contains polyphenols to protect your heart, antioxidants that may lower your risk of cancer and other nutrients that boost your immune system. When you're expecting, the benefits get even better. A comforting cup may ease morning sickness, and even make for a shorter labor. But while many teas are safe for pregnancy, some are potentially dangerous for moms-to-be and should be avoided. Read on for more.
“Herbal teas can help hydrate the body when women don't want to drink plain water," says Amelia Hirota, D.Ac., an herbalist and acupuncturist at Phoenix Fertility Center in East Greenwich, R.I. Plus, some provide important pregnancy nutrients, including calcium, magnesium and iron.
Rooibos tea, in particular, is a good one to try because of its antioxidant properties; it's also caffeine-free. Other herbal teas may help alleviate morning sickness (ginger and mint), prevent insomnia (chamomile) and promote more effective contractions during labor (red raspberry leaf). "Many midwives believe that drinking red raspberry leaf tea during pregnancy tones the uterine muscle, which may help make contractions more efficient," says Hirota.
Nettle leaf (also known as stinging nettles) is an herb commonly found in pregnancy teas and recommended by many herbalists and midwives. "It's a fabulous source of vitamins and minerals, including iron, vitamins A, C and K, and potassium," says Hirota. However, make sure any nettle tea you drink uses dried leaves, not root (the label should list nettle leaf), and don't drink too much, especially in the first trimester, because of its stimulating effect on the uterus. However, the tea is safe for pregnancy throughout the second and third trimesters, Hirota says. You can steep your own by adding an ounce of dried nettle leaf to a quart of boiling water.
An important thing to note: herbal supplements and teas aren't regulated by the FDA. While there are few studies on the benefits and risks of drinking herbal tea during pregnancy, some medical experts suggest limiting your intake unless they're teas from well-known brands or are milder teas like peppermint or ginger.
Some herbal teas are unsafe when you're expecting; these include PMS, diet, cleansing and detoxification teas, as well as those with the herbs black cohosh, blue cohosh, dong quai and others.. Also avoid herbal laxatives, so read tea labels carefully. "In high doses, some naturally occurring substances, such as cascara sagrada or senna, can cause changes in electrolytes," says Laurie Green, M.D., an obstetrician in San Francisco. Electrolytes, which include chloride, sodium and potassium, are required for normal cell and organ functioning. These herbal laxatives can promote diuresis (increased urination) or diarrhea, both of which can cause dehydration, says Green. Such varieties are best avoided until after you deliver and finish breastfeeding; even then, use caution.
No matter which tea you choose, don’t overindulge. A 2012 study suggests that high consumption of tea (more than three cups per day) may interfere with the absorption of folic acid, that essential nutrient for preventing neural tube defects like spina bifida. "If you limit your intake to two to three cups per day, there's no evidence of any harm coming from that," says David Elmer, M.D., an Ob-Gyn at Nantucket Cottage Hospital in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Overall, as with anything else in pregnancy, it's best to practice moderation.
Unlike herbal teas, which contain only about 0.4 milligrams of caffeine per cup, non-herbal teas (black, green and oolong) contain about 40 to 50 milligrams per cup. Sip four or five cups throughout the day, and you've gotten about 200 milligrams of caffeine. A study from Kaiser Permanente's Northern California Division of Research found that pregnant women who consumed more than 200 milligrams of caffeine daily had double the risk of miscarriage compared with those who avoided the stimulant. However, a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health found no association between intakes of up to 350 milligrams of caffeine and miscarriage.
Without a definitive answer on the effects of caffeine while expecting, most experts agree it's best to use caution and limit intake to less than 200 milligrams a day. "Caffeine in any form is too stimulating during pregnancy," says Hirota. "It also increases the load on the liver, which is already busy processing pregnancy hormones." Even so, drinking tea during pregnancy tends to be better than coffee, so you can indulge a little bit more.
Also keep in mind that iced tea may be a better bet, as larger servings often come with less caffeine than their hot counterparts – a Snapple lemon tea has 62 milligrams of caffeine in a 16-ounce serving, and 20 ounces of Lipton lemon iced tea has just 35 milligrams.
Caffeine is the first substance released into the water during steeping (this occurs within the first 25 seconds). To decaffeinate your favorite tea, steep the leaves or bag for 30 seconds, dump the water, then refill your cup with hot water and steep again. Most of the caffeine will be removed.