The University Record, April 5, 1999

Pregnant women should avoid unsafe herbs

From Medical Center Public Relations

Pregnant women should not equate natural herbal remedies with healthy prenatal care. Herbal supplements and medicines abound on the shelves of today's supermarkets and health food stores, but women who are pregnant should think twice before adding a natural ingredient to their diet.

"Pregnancy is a time when we need to pay particular attention to a healthy lifestyle and healthy eating habits. Remember that anything you eat or drink crosses the placenta and affects the baby," says Sandra Lynne, a certified nurse midwife with the Health System. "As a general rule, herbs that we cook with are safe. Manufactured prepared herbal teas are safe. Herbal remedies that you may find in the health food store could be unsafe.

"We just don't know the strength that we're getting because they're not tested or standardized in this country, so it's important not to ingest (herbal remedies) during pregnancy."

Nearly $4 billion in herbal remedies are sold annually in the United States. Unlike drugs that are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), herbal remedies are not monitored as an industry.

"I have great respect for herbal medicine. It works in a lot of people a lot of the time," Lynne says. "But we really need more studies. We need more research so that we know what's safe and what's not safe in pregnancy."

During the first three months of pregnancy, the baby's major organs develop rapidly. Food and liquids ingested by the mother pass through the placenta to the baby. Physicians recommend that preganant women not take any medications during their first trimester. Lynne extends that precaution to herbal remedies.

"Many people think, 'Well, this is just like a vitamin--it's over-the-counter, it must be safe. I don't need to talk to my midwife about that.' But we really need to know everything our patients are taking, including herbal medicines," she says.

Pre-packaged herbal teas are considered safe for pregnant women, as the amount of herb is small and poses no risk to the baby. Lynne cautions against making your own herbal tea, however, because it's difficult to determine just how much of the herb is being used. "If you make your own teas, they could be quite a bit stronger and have adverse effects on a pregnant woman and her baby," she says.

Lynne suggests pregnant women interested in herbal remedies talk with their health care provider and consult guides to herbal supplements.

Herbs to avoid during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy include:

  • Ginger in large amounts. While small doses of ginger may be used to quell queasy stomachs and morning sickness, large amounts should be avoided. A typical dose of ginger in Chinese medicine is 9 grams--an unsafe amount for pregnant women.

  • St. John's Wort. An increasingly popular remedy for depression, it has not undergone enough testing to determine its safety during pregnancy.

  • Echinacea. The herb is used commonly to ward off colds and flu. Like St. John's Wort, however, echinacea has not been tested enough to be used safely during pregnancy.

  • Ephedra and kava root. Both are stimulants that can increase the heart rate and cause shortness of breath. Ephedrine, deprived from ephedra, is sometimes used in cold remedies.