Chinese herbs, plants and botanicals have been used to support women's health and healing for ages, especially during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. Traditional Chinese herbs have been used during the gestation period to relieve symptoms, promote health and provide support for both the mother and the fetus. While natural medicinals such as Chinese herbs are considered less toxic and safer than many pharmaceuticals, not all herbs are recommended during pregnancy because of the potential side effects and possible harm to the fetus. Unlike prescription drugs, Chinese herbals are frequently excluded when communicating with health-care professionals.
According to the Merck Manual, medications, supplements and herbs consumed by pregnant women cross the placenta and reach the fetus. The method of transport occurs via the same route as oxygen and other nutrients, which are transferred from the mother to support the baby’s growth and development. Regardless of the type of Chinese herb or food, all substances reach the placenta in a similar manner. The body does not have a mechanism able to separate the needed items from the harmful substances a mother consumes. And, like balance in nature, there are good and bad elements. Consequently, not all Chinese herbs are recommended during pregnancy.
Function of Chinese Herbs
Traditional Chinese medicine is a method of natural healing, which is the oldest and most commonly used medical practice in the world, dating back to at least 2500 BC. Traditional Chinese medicine focuses on the concept of balance between the body and the environment. Each of the organ systems within the body is linked to a natural element, including earth, fire, metal or water. During pregnancy, there is a disruption in blood flow, organ function and total body energy, which results in a shift of these natural elements. Therefore, the goal of Chinese medicine during pregnancy is to restore optimal balance within a woman’s body.
Herbs to Avoid
Various Chinese herbs can be dangerous if used during pregnancy, posing serious risks to pregnant women and their babies. According to Diane Born and Mary Lee Barron in “Herb Use in Pregnancy,” examples of potentially harmful herbs which function as oxytocic and uterine stimulants include: black or blue cohosh, dong quai, ephedra, feverfew, chaste tree, and golden seal. Early contractions in the uterus can trigger miscarriage or premature labor. Furthermore, chamomile acts as an antispasmodic agent, comfrey can cause liver toxicity, and zinc has been linked to prematurity and stillborn births.
Aside from the adverse effects listed above, Chinese herbs are known to perpetuate unwarranted effects in some individuals. The most common side effects from herbal use include headache, rash, indigestion, nausea, vomiting or allergic reaction to the plant. Whereas a specific Chinese herb may have been well-tolerated prior to conception, due to the number of physiological changes that occur in a woman’s body during pregnancy, that herb may cause undesirable consequences..
Some Chinese herbs may help to ease complications and support health during pregnancy. While the risk of most herbs is not scientifically known, a few have been termed safe and effective for use during gestation. According to Born and Barron, herbs typically used during pregnancy include cranberry to treat a urinary tract infection; dandelion for constipation, field greens to aid with anemia, red raspberry leaves to induce labor; and ginger, peppermint or cinnamon to ease morning sickness.
Chinese herbs offer a safe alternative to potentially harmful pharmaceuticals during pregnancy. According to Lone Holst et al. in "The Use and the User of Herbal Remedies During Pregnancy," 57.8 percent of participants reported using herbal remedies during their pregnancy. In addition, Holst documented that more than 75 percentof these women did not tell their health care professional about the use of such herbs. Traditional Chinese herbs appear to be used by a majority of pregnant women; however, this practice is not fully accepted by modern Western medicine.
- Merck: Drug Use During Pregnancy
- “International Journal of Childbirth Education;” Herbs and Natural Therapies for Pregnancy, Birth and Breastfeeding; Donna Walls; June 2009.
- "Medical Clinics of North America;” Traditional Chinese Medicine; Gary Nestler; January 2002.
- “Am J of Mater & Child Nurs;” Herb Use in Pregnancy; Born & Barron; June 2005.
- “J Altern Complement Med;” The Use and User of Herbal Remedies During Pregnancy; Lone Holst et al.; November 2009.