Updated January 23, 2019.
Looking for natural relief from common pregnancy discomforts? There are lots of drug-free ways to treat some of the less pleasant aspects of pregnancy. Here are some natural remedies that are safe and effective, along with some to avoid. Be sure to check in with your prenatal provider before you begin any new treatment.
Note: Many herbs are not safe during pregnancy — and many that are presumed to be safe have not been thoroughly tested. In addition, herbal supplements aren’t subjected to the same FDA evaluation process as other medications, so the quantity and quality of products may be inconsistent. If you’re considering a natural remedy that’s not on this list, err on the side of caution and avoid it until you can discuss with your provider.
The Cause: Increased blood volume and a growing uterus put extra stress on your veins, which can lead to varicose veins — swollen blood vessels that bulge toward the surface of the skin. They’re most common in the legs, where they often appear as blue or purple twisted lines but they can also develop in the vulva. Hemorrhoids, another common pregnancy discomfort, are actually varicose veins in the rectum.
- Witch hazel can be applied topically to reduce inflammation and swelling and is safe to use during pregnancy. If you’re treating varicose veins on your vulva, saturate a maxi pad with witch hazel and wear it at night.
- Anthocyanins, the antioxidant in berries that give them their bright color, can improve blood vessel function and decrease blood pressure. Add blueberries or strawberries to salads, yogurt, and oatmeal, or toss a cup of frozen berries into your morning smoothie.
- Bilberry, a berry related to blueberries and cranberries, is also rich in anthocyanins and has been shown to reduce hemorrhoid symptoms. Take 120 to 240 mg twice daily of a 25 percent anthocyanin extract.
- Raw garlic and onions may enhance vein function while foods rich in vitamin E, such as sunflower seeds, almonds, wheat germ, and dark leafy greens, may improve circulation. If you opt for a vitamin E supplement, the recommended dosage for pregnant women is 22.5 IU daily. Worth noting: There is no advantage in taking a larger dose, and there can be significant risks to taking too much vitamin E.
- Horse chestnut seed extract strengthens blood vessels and may reduce pain and swelling related to poor blood flow. Take 300 mg twice a day of a tablet that contains 50 mg aescin per dose. Limited studies suggest that horse chestnut seed extract is safe for use in pregnancy, but let your provider know before you try it.
- Wear compression stockings for varicose veins in the legs or a compression groin band for vulvar varicosities.
A Word of Caution: Aloe vera is sometimes recommended for varicose veins. The topical form should be safe, but the oral form, which has been linked to uterine contractions, should not be used in pregnancy.
The Cause: Increased levels of progesterone cause the muscles in your gastrointestinal tract to relax, which slows down the exit of food. In addition, iron supplements, commonly prescribed to ward off anemia, can exacerbate constipation.
Increasing fiber intake and drinking plenty of water throughout the day can relieve constipation. Fiber binds to water and swells, forming a gel that helps move stool through your GI tract.
Some ways to increase your fiber intake:
- Mix 1 to 2 tablespoons of chia seeds into almond butter, yogurt, smoothies, or breakfast cereal. Chia seeds also contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for fetal neurological development.
- Sprinkle oat bran or wheat bran in cereal or yogurt, or incorporate it into a smoothie.
- Magnesium is a natural laxative. Dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains are good sources.
- Some people report that papaya has a laxative effect. Be sure to not overdo it, because too much may cause stomach upset and diarrhea.
- Exercise helps stimulate your bowels. If you have a low-risk pregnancy, incorporate moderate-intensity activities like brisk walking, yoga, and swimming into your routine.
- If your prenatal vitamins contain iron, talk to your provider about switching to an iron-free version.
- Talk to your provider about over-the-counter stool softeners or fiber supplements like psyllium, found in products like Metamucil.
A Word of Caution: Ground flaxseeds are an excellent source of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. However, flaxseed appears to mimic estrogen in certain contexts, which may make it unsafe for use in pregnancy. Although more clinical studies are needed, avoid flaxseeds during pregnancy.
Cold and Flu
The Cause: Pregnancy suppresses your immune system and can make you more susceptible to colds and flus — and make them last longer.
- Take 1 to 3 teaspoons of honey every 3 hours to soothe coughing. You can also add honey and a few squeezes of lemon juice to hot water.
- Do salt water gargles every 2 hours to ease a sore throat.
- Try our sore throat tea.
- Chamomile can help with fever and aches and also aid in sleeping. Echinacea appears to stimulate the immune system, so it’s best to drink echinacea tea when you first start to feel sick. Do not use echinacea for prolonged periods. In large quantities, chamomile and echinacea tea are both thought to provoke contractions, but they’re safe in small quantities, such as a cup of tea a few times a week.
- Apply Vicks VapoRub to your chest, back, and the outside of your throat before bed to ease nasal congestion and coughing.
- Marshmallow tea coats the throat. Marshmallow leaf may also contain chemicals that reduce coughing.
A Word of Caution: Avoid Airborne, Emergen-C, and other dietary supplements used to prevent colds or reduce symptoms. If you’re already taking a prenatal vitamin, these supplements, which contain large quantities of vitamin C, zinc, and more, may put you over the recommended daily dosage of vitamins and minerals.
Supplements to Avoid
Many herbs aren’t safe for use in pregnancy, so this is an incomplete list. Talk to your provider before using herbal remedies and avoid certain herbs altogether if you’re not certain of their safety.
- Red raspberry leaf. Thought to tone the muscles of your uterus, providers sometimes recommend drinking red raspberry leaf tea to stimulate labor or to reduce the length of labor. In the first 39 weeks of pregnancy, it can cause preterm labor and miscarriage.
- Black cohosh and blue cohosh. Similarly, these herbs cause uterine contractions and cause preterm labor. Blue cohosh is also associated with birth defects. Avoid these herbs throughout your pregnancy.
- Licorice. Licorice contains glycyrrhizin, a chemical that increases the risk of preterm delivery.
- Goldenseal. Sometimes used to treat colds and vaginal infections, goldenseal is contraindicated in pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Berberine, a chemical found in goldenseal, can increase levels of bilirubin in newborns, causing jaundice or kernicterus, a serious neurological condition.
- Sage. Although it’s fine to consume most fresh or dried culinary herbs during pregnancy, sage is an exception, as it’s been linked to miscarriage. Minimize how much you cook with sage and don’t drink sage tea. Sage may also reduce your milk supply, so avoid consuming sage while breastfeeding.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
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