by Michael Tierra, L.Ac, OMD
Historically, women often have had to find their own ways to attend to the concerns and issues of the expectant mother. For over a thousand years, men dominated the professional class of healing in most societies, and women found little sympathy (as a result of the biblical tale of the Fall caused by Eve first partaking of the forbidden fruit). Without any imposed legal responsibility, men generally felt little consequence from sexual intercourse. This left the job of attending to the special needs of pregnancy to the ‘˜wise women,’ ‘˜old wives’ and midwives.
Despite this, during the Dark Ages, women who would assume the role of herbalist/helper/midwife to other women were condemned as witches and executed. Nevertheless, the valuable experiences and knowledge accumulated by those courageous women who carried forth the tradition have become a part of the herbal and practical lore of caring for the care of women both during and after pregnancy.
When a woman becomes pregnant, she it is common for her to experience and take on a healthy, vibrant aura ‘“ nature’s reward for fulfilling a biological destiny. It is a major physiological change that has a profound and lasting effect. The bond between a mother and child, born or unborn, is probably the deepest connection that can a human may achieve. Often, this connection is so powerful that men (i.e., the husband or father of the child) wishing to share in the excitement may to have to put forth an extra effort to feel included. I call that sense of alienation that some men can feel, especially after childbirth when they are no longer the primary focus of their mate’s attention, the “St Joseph Syndrome.”
(Why St. Joseph?” you may ask. In the Bible, St. Joseph, the husband of Mary and the father of Jesus, is hardly given any consideration except as guardian; even his physiological role is denied by the church with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.)
The first piece of advice I have is this: Enjoy your changes. Along with the new positive energy bestowed upon women during pregnancy is the responsible realization that all you think, do or eat will have an effect on your developing fetus. The first thing is to consider avoiding all those problematic habits and foods because their effect may no longer just be on your own life but the life of your unborn child.
Following are a few valuable dietary and herbal approaches that should prove useful to women both during and after childbirth.
Eating for Two
Although it is said that you are “eating for two,” this doesn’t mean that you double your normal caloric intake. The truth is you are only eating for about one and an eighth. This means that during the second and third trimesters, the baby should only necessitate an increase of approximately 300 calories per day.
The nutritional needs of the unborn child will be met by the best of all the foods and drinks you consume. If your nutrition is not sufficient or of the best quality, the first to suffer will be you, the mother-to-be. Pregnancy is definitely not a time to follow an extreme, rigid diet. An expectant mother often develops unusual food cravings, which are the body’s way of signaling a need for specific nutrients. One of the most useful foods to include during pregnancy are mineral-rich sea vegetables (edible seaweeds). Learn to include seaweeds such as nori (best known as the seaweed used to roll sushi ‘“ but avoid raw fish during pregnancy), kombu (kelp), and wakame added to soups and stews. One can make a tasty condiment with roast kombu.
The most important macronutrient is protein ‘“ especially first class protein derived from dairy, fish and meat. Second class protein derived from vegetal sources such as beans can serve the needs of some women but not all. Each of us has a unique biological genetic history that may not be changed during the course of a single lifetime. When we experience frequent hunger and sweet cravings this often signals a need for more protein. Protein is the building block of life and everything about pregnancy is building.
Variety Is Important
One should eat a wide variety of foods each day to ensure getting all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients needed for you and your baby. Have different meals with a varied assortment of fruits and vegetables daily. The colors of foods indicate different nutrients so that you can have fun choosing different colored foods for the different nutrients they provide. The cheapest and best quality protein are eggs; two (ideally soft boiled) eggs daily each morning is a good daily practice. Otherwise it also good to vary the proteins you eat by alternating meats, fish, poultry, pork, eggs, beans, and nuts in your diet. Cultivating a taste for organ meats such as liver or heart also helps to strengthen those organs. Finally, eat a variety of whole grains in various forms.
Following the Pyramid
Like the rest of the non-pregnant world, expecting mothers should look to the Food Guide Pyramid to determine what and how much to eat.
It is recommended that pregnant women consume a daily minimum of
- 9 servings of breads, cereals, grains, and/or pastas
- 4 servings of vegetables
- 3 servings of fruit
- 2-3 servings of low fat milk, cheese, and/or yogurt
- 2 servings (6 oz) of lean meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and/or nuts
Each food group provides different nutrients, so eating from all the food groups daily will help ensure a complete diet.
Fresh and Organic is Best
Select whole, organically grown and/or raised foods rather than processed foods when available. Prepackaged foods not only lack nutrients, but they are often laced unnecessarily with sugar, preservatives and additives which neither you nor your baby need.
Foods to Avoid
Although most foods are perfectly safe for expecting women, certain foods and substances can be harmful to a growing baby. Avoid the following during pregnancy because of possible fetal toxicity:
Sushi containing raw fish
Shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish (limit intake of other fish to no more than 12 ounces/week)
Raw or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs, fish, shellfish
Smoked seafood, cured ham
Soft cheeses such as Brie, blue, feta, goat cheeses
Hot dogs, sausages, other processed meats containing nitrates
Unpasteurized milk, juices
Think about Your Drink
During pregnancy, the amount of fluid in your body increases, as do your daily fluid needs. Your baby needs fluids as well. Aim for at least eight 8 oz. glasses of fluid per day. This includes water, low fat or fat free milk, 100% fruit and vegetable juices, decaffeinated coffee and tea, and soup. While juices are a nutritious alternative to soda, they still contain a large amount of sugar, so avoid consuming excessive amounts. Also, limit caffeinated beverages to no more than two per day.
Avoid Extreme Dieting
Women are often concerned about having difficulty losing the weight postpartum and consequently attempt to diet and restrict food intake. Pregnancy is not an appropriate time to diet. By possibly decreasing the amount of nutrients your baby receives such diets will affect the baby’s growth and development. Your growing baby needs to be nourished consistently throughout the day. Furthermore, most of the weight gained during pregnancy is not body fat. Following is an interesting breakdown of the additional weight distribution in your body:
- Baby 7-1/2 lbs
- Your breasts ‘” 2 lbs
- Your protein and fat stores ‘” 7 lbs
- Placenta ‘” 1-1/2 lbs
- Uterus ‘” 2 lbs
- Amniotic fluid ‘” 2 lbs
- Your blood ‘” 4 lbs
- Your body fluids ‘” 4 lbs
It has been proven that pregnant women have an increased need for folic acid, iron, and calcium. Therefore, it is recommended that expectant women take a prenatal vitamin to supplement a balanced diet. However, too much of certain vitamins and minerals can be harmful to your baby. Talk to your health care provider for the appropriate supplement and be wary of supplements that provide more than 100% of the daily value for any vitamin or mineral.
Morning Sickness and Nausea
During the initial stages of pregnancy, many women suffer from severe nausea, morning sickness and food aversion. This may be seen as a period of cleansing and detoxification that precedes building. For some it can be extremely difficult to assuage.
The simplest treatment is ginger and red raspberry leaf tea. Raspberry leaf may be regarded as the best and safest herb to use throughout all stages of pregnancy. Two to four slices of fresh ginger, steeped for 15 minutes in a covered cup of boiling hot water or hot raspberry leaf tea, often relieves morning sickness. (For more on red raspberry leaf and its usefulness during pregnancy, see below.)
Ayurveda views morning sickness as an aggravation of ‘˜pitta’ or the fire humour. There is an increase of digestive acids in the stomach, and an increased sense of smell, which both promote greater digestion and assimilation. Unfortunately, this increased sensitivity may also create the counter effect of (often extremely nauseating) aversion to certain foods and smells.
In addition to the raspberry leaf/ginger tea mentioned above, pregnant women can ward off morning sickness and nausea by consuming several small nutritious, protein-rich meals a day.
B vitamins (especially folic acid) are essential during pregnancy. Rather than taking a folic acid or other B vitamin pill supplement, try a daily teaspoon to a tablespoon of brewer’s or torula yeast in a little juice or water. Not only does it fulfill a nutritional demand of the body, but this simple remedy has brought total relief to many women from morning sickness.
Another good practice is to soak 10 raw almonds overnight. In the morning, peel off the brown outer skin and eat the nuts. This provides much needed protein and also helps to relieve nausea.
The Chinese herbal tradition recommends a tea of processed pinellia root, poria mushroom and fresh ginger as a treatment for morning sickness. Make sure you obtain any formulas containing pinellia from a trusted source and be sure that the root is properly processed to remove its natural toxicity.
The Ayurvedic herb called shatavari (Sanskrit for “100 husbands” because of its traditional use for strengthening a women’s reproductive capacity) is commonly used during pregnancy taken with calcium to prevent miscarriage.
To prevent miscarriage, Western herbalists will recommend a tea of false unicorn root, cramp bark, raspberry leaf and squaw vine. This is taken as a strong decoction, simmering an ounce of the herbal combination in a half quart of water over a low flame for 30 minutes. This is then strained and taken 1/2 to 1 cup three or four times a day.
Chinese herbalists use a special species of mistletoe (Viscum coloratum or Loranthus parasiticus) called sang ji sheng that grows on the mulberry trees to prevent miscarriage. It should be noted that other species of mistletoe should not be used for this purpose. It’s best that you make an appointment with a traditional Chinese medicine doctor to have a formula specially prescribed.
The Benefits of Red Raspberry Leaf During Pregnancy
Of all the herbs recommended for use to relieve all the discomforts associated with pregnancy and childbirth, the most enduring is red raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus).
Raspberry leaf tea has been used medicinally for centuries to assist a woman throughout all phases of pregnancy. It strengthens the uterus while softening the cervix for ease of childbirth. It contains flavonoids, tannins, gallic and ellagic acid and fragarin. The tannins make it useful to regulate bleeding and to strengthen tissue while fragarin is known to be mildly oxytocic, which means that in very large doses it helps induce labor. In lower doses, this is not a problem; in fact, the tannins are more likely to overpower any oxytocic effects of fragarin and actually prevent miscarriage.
Raspberry leaf has the following uses:
- Relieves symptoms of morning sickness especially when taken with ginger
- Relaxes the smooth muscles of the uterus when it is contracting (Burn and Withell, 1941)
Soothes and prevents bleeding gums which many pregnant women experience
- Assists with the birth of the baby and the placenta
- Calms cramping of the uterus
- Provides a rich source of iron, calcium, manganese and magnesium. The magnesium content is especially helpful in strengthening the uterine muscles.
- Raspberry leaf also contains vitamins B1, B3 and E, which are valuable in pregnancy
- Stops bleeding after childbirth
Outside of pregnancy, raspberry leaf is also used for the following:
- Treats diarrhea
- Regulates menses
- Relieves sore throat
- Reduces fevers
- Aids fertility
Raspberry leaf has been found to have potent antibiotic effects against infections and inflammations.
Many of the unsuccessful or mixed results using raspberry leaf is dosage related. Throughout the earlier stages of pregnancy, one should use a weaker dose. Steep a teaspoon to a tablespoon of the dried leaf in a cup of boiling water, then cover and allow it to sit until cool enough to drink.
The following is offered not as a recommendation but for historical reference and to illustrate that dose figures extremely importantly when using this (and any) herb.
Based on an article published in Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Home Remedies, to achieve the full benefit of raspberry leaf during childbirth, it should be made full strength: steep one ounce of dried raspberry leaves in a pint (2 cups) of boiling water, covered, for 30 minutes. This is then strained. If made well in advance, the tea can be frozen in ice cube trays and then sucked during the pangs of labor. In addition a pot of strong brew should be prepared in the same way and taken all at once as warm as possible. This is not to induce labor but to facilitate and ease its course and to prevent complications.
Pregnancy is a natural process of life and should present no serious complications in normal circumstances. However, it is important that it be competently supervised by a qualified health care practitioner and any supplements offered should be with their consent and on the spot guidance.
RM, CM BaHS(Nsg), GradDip EdMyra Parsonsa, (Childbirth), Midwife and Research Assistant, RN, CM Dip Remedial TherapyMichele Simpson
b and RN, CM Cert Antenatal EdTerri Pontona, Nursing Unit Manager, Raspberry leaf and its effect on labour: Safety and efficacy, Australian College of Midwives Incorporated Journal Volume 12, Issue 3, September 1999, Pages 20-25