Herbs for a Healthy Pregnancy (Part 1: Nourishment)
My pregnancy changed me in ways that I never expected. I hit the sixth week on Thanksgiving Day and naturally, on that day of days when serious feasting - pregnant or not - is more socially acceptable than any other day of the year, the ‘morning’ (aka round-the-clock) sickness hit me like a brick wall of wet diapers (excuse the metaphor if you're currently pregnant and sensitive to smells). Never had the turkey-cranberry combination sounded so vile. Never had I not wanted to eat mashed potatoes and stuffing so intensely that I went to the trouble of hiding said foodstuffs in the dark crevices of the fridge just so I wouldn’t have to acknowledge them. Never had I been so pregnant or so sick.
First trimester, I transformed from stickler and self-professed food snob of the Weston A. Price Foundation variety (hand over the liver and onions, please, and don’t you give me a grain that ain’t soaked) to a girl who woke up at 3 AM to demand her husband get her an Arby’s roast beef sandwich and then fell back asleep while reading the menu in horror that she would eat such a thing, a girl who dreamed of sushi and red wine like some dream of world peace, a girl who veered across four lanes of rush hour traffic to a Taco Bell drive thru in a panic that they wouldn't have the choco-taco that she had the last time she ate there in 1997 (they didn't). Embarrassing, but true as pumpkin pie.
And that was just the beginning. My first trimester - like so many - was a blur of nausea and feeling hungover without having had anything to drink, bad smells and bright lights, clutching my yet nonexistent belly and wondering if the piece of blue cheese I’d accidentally consumed earlier had already permanently maimed my baby or whether the poor little munchkin was instead feeling rather rough after the morning’s third miserable dry heaving session.
I knew that I needed nutrients that went above and beyond whatever trace amounts of calcium might be present in the quart of strawberry ice cream I’d had for second dinner. I just didn’t know how I was going to get nutrition down that was, well, real. Nutrition that didn’t come in a reassuringly packaged prenatal pill or look like a fortified gummy bear. Enter nourishing herbal infusions.
For 9 months and 2 weeks, I was the rapidly expanding pregnant lady carrying around mysterious mason jars full of formidable dark-colored liquids (now, a year later, I'm the mom carrying these same mason jars around and sharing the contents with her 7-month-old). Infusing nettles, oatstraw, red clover, comfrey, and linden during my pregnancy allowed me to cope with the 'ugh' of all three trimesters with resilience, energy, and minerals - no excuse for a less-than-ideal diet, of course, but first trimester fast food cravings were a reckoning force I would have never believed in had I not lived through them. I generally infused one of these herbs every day, rotating through these five and drinking a full quart daily as religiously as I tracked my baby's size according to fruits, from bitty blueberry to whopping watermelon and beyond.
Knowing what I know about these herbs, that they are some of the highest sources on earth of trace minerals, rich in protein, and gently immune-stimulating yet totally safe during pregnancy, I felt confident that I was getting so much nutrition from these that I made a personal decision to decide to pass on the (often difficult to absorb) prenatal vitamins. That's how much I trust the power of these traditionally nourishing super-herbs.
A note on folate: you can't get too far into a pregnancy without hearing about folate or folic acid from at least a dozen sources. Folate comes from the latin root that also begins the word 'foliage': folate in its most usable form comes from leaves! The leaves that I used to make my daily nourishing herbal infusion provided me with plenty of folate that I knew was as close to the original source as possible.
Often compared to the oh-so-trendy ‘green drinks’ but very different: nettles infusion is deeply nourishing and instantly assimilated and usable by the body because it is pre-digested by the drying and steeping process. Even in that highly sensitive and weirdly put-off state of first trimester, I was able to sip on cold (or even iced, for a real treat) nettle infusion, which felt like drinking in the goodness of the earth itself.
Susun Weed writes on nettles (Urtica dioica) in her classic book Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year:
“Urtica is one of the finest nourishing tonics known. It is reputed to have more chlorophyll than any other herb. The list of vitamins and minerals in this herb includes nearly every one known to be necessary for human health and growth.
Vitamins A, C, D and K, calcium, potassium, phosphorous, iron and sulphur are particularly abundant in nettles. The infusion is a dark green colour approaching black. The taste is deep and rich. If you are blessed with a nettle patch near you, use the fresh plant as pot herb in the spring.
The benefits of drinking nettle infusion before and throughout pregnancy include:
- Aiding the kidneys. Nettle infusion were instrumental in rebuilding the kidneys of a woman who was told she would have to be put on a dialysis machine. Since the kidneys must cleanse 150 percent of the normal blood supply for most of the pregnancy, nettle's ability to nourish and strengthen them is of major importance. Any accumulation of minerals in the kidneys, such as gravel or stones is gently loosened, dissolved and eliminated by the consistent use of nettle infusions.
- Increasing fertility in women and men.
- Nourishing mother and fetus.
- Easing leg cramps and other spasms.
- Diminishing pain during and after birth. The high calcium content, which is readily assimilated, helps diminish muscle pains in the uterus, in the legs and elsewhere.
- Preventing haemorrhage after birth. Nettle is a superb source of vitamin K, and increased available haemoglobin, both of which decrease the likelihood of postpartum haemorrhage. Fresh Nettle Juice, in teaspoon doses, slows postpartum bleeding.
- Reducing haemorrhoids. Nettle's mild astringency and general nourishing action tightens and strengthens blood vessels, helps maintain arterial elasticity and improves venous resilience.
- Increasing the richness and amount of breast milk.
- Nettle infusions supply calcium and phosphorous, vitamin A and the vital vitamin D, in a readily assimilable form."
In my experience, I noticed my lackluster energy spike on the days when I drank nettles. But not in a caffeine-buzz kind of a way, in a much more even keel sort of way that feels as good as it sounds. Nettles certainly contributed to my pregnancy glow, encouraging the growth and healthy sheen of hair, skin, nails, and teeth. The muscle spasms and leg cramps I started to get in my first and second trimester (you don't know what a charley horse is until those killer middle of the night wake up calls in between pee sessions) disappeared when I drank my nettles, probably because of its ability to ease cramps. And perhaps most importantly, nettles is an incredible blood builder and oxygen-rich tonic, preparing the body for birth and its potential trauma in a significant way.
This was by far my favorite nourishing herbal infusion to drink during pregnancy. It’s bland-tasting, totally unoffensive to my picky nose, and even a little sweet and milky tasting due to its oaty nature. Oatstraw infusion is a powerful nervine; it has the ability to just take the edge off so that, no matter where you are in your pregnancy or what bizarre food pair cravings are plaguing your dreams, everything is just a bit more manageable.
During my first trimester, I learned the happy news that oatstraw not only promotes a calm nervous system and peaceful adrenals, which my racing about-to-be-a-first-time-mom-brain appreciated, but it is THE world's highest source of magnesium. You'll find oatstraw in just about every pregnancy tea out there, and standing alone as a strong, long-steeped infusion, oatstraw is not only delicious but replenishing and moistening to the entire body, which can be so easily depleted and made brittle by the fact that it is, in fact, busy growing an entirely new life.
As everyone who's ever been pregnant knows, getting back to sleep after the fourth potty of the night or after tossing and turning for hours trying to carve out a place for that new blossoming belly to rest is key to survival. The magnesium and calcium that oatstraw is so rich in are allies in achieving that restful, restorative sleep that your pregnant body desires.
Susun Weed writes about oatstraw:
"A cup of oatstraw infusion contains more than 300 milligrams of calcium plus generous amounts of many other minerals. Its steroidal saponins nourish the pancreas and liver, improving digestion and stabilizing moods.
Oatstraw infusion is another favorite of those who want to feel less anxious... The taste of oatstraw is softer and more mellow; you will enjoy it warm with a little honey. It is especially useful for those whose anxiety is combined with excessive nervous energy.
It restores nervous system integrity, emotional flexibility, and sexual flow. Oats and oatstraw are exceptionally good at nourishing heart health and moderating cholesterol. Oatstraw infusion (not tea, not tincture, not capsules) provides lots of protein, all macro- and trace-mineral in high amounts, and very high amounts of B vitamins - excepting vitamin B12.
Oatstraw infusion builds deep energy for the next day, especially when you have been riding an emotional roller coaster. Oatstraw nourishes the nerves, easing anxiety and improving our ability to live with uncertainty."
The varicose veins and other varicosities that often come up as an unexpected side effect of pregnancy often benefit from drinking oatstraw, which is used to strengthen the capillaries. Drinking oatstraw provides us with dietary and crude fiber, vitamins, A, B complex, C, and E, chromium, and a soothing mucilage with promotes a healthy digestive transit time and a moist, contented gastrointestinal system.
Between the strawberry ice cream nights and the mornings spent eating crackers and pickle juice, I didn't feel much like I was getting my optimum nutrition from my food during my pregnancy, at least not like I had planned to. One way I compensated for this inability to eat a perfect diet (and, let's face it, all of our diets, no matter how 'clean, are somewhat imperfect) is making sure I was getting some mineral-rich vinegar in me each day, whether cooking with it (in greens, soups, sautees etc...), mixing it with olive oil for a marinade or salad dressing, or stirring it with a little water, juice, or infusion and taking as a hearty shot.
From the Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year, we learn that:
"Most wild greens are exceptionally rich in calcium and the factors need for calcium absorption and use. Lamb's Quarters, Mallow, Galinsoga, Shepherd's purse, Knotweed, Bidens, Amaranth
and Dandelion leaves all supply more calcium per 100 grams than does milk."
When we take wild green herbs and steep them in vinegar for several weeks, these nutrients assimilate into the acid base, creating an easy way to get the goodness and minerals of the herbs without much effort and with lots of taste. Susun Weed also adds:
"Bones soaked in apple cider vinegar release their calcium into the acidic vinegar. A tablespoon of this vinegar in a glass of warm water supplies needed calcium and is good for morning sickness too."
I found this to be true; one of the few things that helped my morning sickness (along with a few drops of ginger extract) was a tonifying vinegar (or fire cider) and water shot. The benefits of herbal vinegars also include their ability to balance out the pH of the body, their helpfulness with digestive difficulties (which can be especially wonky during pregnancy), and their friendliness to the health of the gut.
Stay tuned for Part 2 in this series of Herbs for a Healthy Pregnancy, which will focus on herbs in specific scenarios in pregnancy.