Sage Advice

In some parts of the world herbs provide the only available medicine, and folk healers continue to prepare remedies that are rooted in centuries-old traditions. Many modern-day medicines like aspirin, which is derived from willow bark, are a synthetic duplicate of a naturally found substance. Instead of reaching for a chemical cocktail, some women are replacing chemical cocktails with Mother Natureís offerings. No prescription necessary, thank you very much. But can you take them while pregnant? How can you be sure youíre getting a quality product?

Exercise caution if you plan to supplement with herbal remedies. "Many herbs are unsafe during pregnancy, and just as a woman should consult her doctor before using drugs during pregnancy, so should she consult a naturopathic doctor, herbalist or pharmacist before using herbs," says Karen Barnes, a licensed naturopathic doctor in Burlington, Ontario. "Only a trained professional can ensure the best grade herbs and correct dosage." She also advises against self-diagnosis. Even though herbal products are available without a prescription, they pose a deadly risk if used inappropriately or in excess.

What Helps Ė What Can Hurt

"Culinary herbs such as basil, cinnamon, sage, and rosemary should be used sparingly in foods and not taken as teas," Barnes says. These herbs can stimulate the uterus and cause early labor or miscarriage if consumed in large doses. Teas can be especially dangerous because each cup is so different. The temperature of the water, the amount of tea leaves, and the length of time the brew steeps varies potency dramatically.

However, mint, ginger and red raspberry leaf teas are considered safe during pregnancy, says Peggy Vincent, retired midwife and author of Baby Catcher (due to be released Motherís Day 2002). "For some women, ginger is the only thing that will work for nausea." Mint is best in tea or candies, while ginger can be consumed as tea, candy or capsule. Pregnant women have excessive salivation (which contributes to nausea), and the astringent pickled ginger puckers up a woman's salivary glands. "Ginger has the strongest flavor but is the most effective Ė- pickled ginger works the best," she says.

Laxative herbs such as senna and osha stimulate uterine muscle and may cause miscarriage. Alkaloids or essential oils (barberry, bloodroot, and goldenseal) should be avoided because they affect mom and babyís bowel functions. Abortifacients or emmenagogues (blue and black cohosh, vervain, juniper berries) are used to bring on a period or cause abortion and should be avoided at all costs during early pregnancy. However, if you are overdue your midwife may prescribe blue or black cohosh to start labor.

"Many new mothers struggle with giving newborns an herbal remedy -- how do you get it into their system?" says Barnes. Breastfed babies can be given herbs and vitamins (with the notable exception of vitamin D, which is not passed through breastmilk) through their motherís milk," says Barnes. Bottle fed babies can take herbs directly or mixed with honey. However, remember to give children under a year old only pasteurized honey or honey that has been boiled for five minutes to prevent infant botulism.

Barnes recommends a number of herbs to overcome breastfeeding challenges. "Garlic, dill, fenugreek, anise seed, peppermint, and fennel seed may be taken by the mother and will pass through breastmilk to ease gas and colic." Babies also love the taste of garlic, and a mom who is struggling with a lazy baby may consider eating garlic to improve the taste of her breastmilk.

For sore, dry, and cracked nipples, Barnes prescribes comfrey or calendula. "Comfrey is easy to grow, and steeping the leaf briefly in water and then applying the whole leaf directly to sore nipples works beautifully. The ointment or salve sinks partially into the skin and excess can be wiped off prior to nursing," she says. "Generally, creams and ointments are safe for topical use while nursing, but there is always the potential for an allergic reaction."

Fighting the Flu

Your mother and grandmother knew what they were doing when they made you drink lots of liquids, get plenty of rest, and eat chicken soup. Your mucous membranes, the first defense system against respiratory illnesses, work better when moist. The steaming chicken soup helps the nasal congestion, while the garlic contains antibiotic properties.

Echinacea, originally one of the most widely used medicinal plants of the Central Plains Indians, is used to fight influenza. The American Botanical Council declares it safe during pregnancy and nursing and says it has no known drug interactions. However, goldenseal root, which is often paired with Echinacea, should be avoided during pregnancy and lactation because of it could stimulate the uterus and begin labor.

Echinacea is a large sugar molecule that is too large to cross into the breastmilk, and has been studied in depth in many countries. German research confirms Echinaceaís usefulness in strengthening the body's immune system as well as in preventing and treating colds and flu. Itís considered safe for babies, children and adults, even when taken in high therapeutic doses. However, no herb should be given to a baby without first consulting a pharmacist or naturopathic doctor.

Ear Aches

When your baby cries from an earache or colic, nothing else in the world matters -- itís enough to send parents scrambling for anything to ease the suffering. During the day when babies sit upright, the pressure in the eustachian tubes drains off, but when they lie down, it builds up and drives them -- and parents -- crazy. Propping the child upright for sleep can get parents through the night if a trip to the ER is too daunting to consider.

Kelly Chobotiuk, mother and owner of Herbs for Hurts, offers simple advice in the form of her Boo Boo Bears. Natural heating packs with gentle herbs ease sinus and ear pain because the warmth brings circulation to the surface and helps sinus mucus move. "The aroma of the herbs helps the child relax," says Chobotiuk. A doctor may also suggest a hair dryer to create warmth. Many colicky babies enjoy having their hair blown with a dryer while their parents enjoy a rare moment of quite.

Educate Yourself

Donna Wright, mother of one child in Cookeville, TN, worried about the safety of herbal remedies after reading information from a web site." I spoke with our pediatrician and asked a lot of questions about the risks," she says. "He didnít have a lot of experience (with herbal remedies) but was open to discussing alternatives to antibiotics."

"The Internet is not policed by scientists, educators, or even trustworthy editors," says Dr. Robert M Jacobson, MD, Interim Chair, Department of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Mayo Clinic. "While some web sites have been established by responsible companies that stick to proven facts, others are temporary soapboxes from which people spout opinion and hearsay." He urges parents to balance what they read on the Internet with information from a doctor, government organization, or well-documented scientific studies. "A drug company may offer a very different picture than an advocate group, and claims may be backed up with sketchy scientific statistics."

"Parents need to educate themselves," says Mara Williams, mother of two children in Ontario, Canada. "A doctor may not know whether or not a herb is safe or useful because he hasnít used it. But a midwife, pharmacist or naturopathic doctor may have information that can help you make the right decision."

"Herbs are not regulated in North America and should be used with caution," says Dr. Gail Goodman-Snitkoff, an associate professor at Albany (N.Y.) College of Pharmacy. "The amount of herbs in one brand may not be the same as in another. Generally the more expensive brands, or those bought at health food stores, are more likely to be a standardized, higher-quality product." Some experts advise buying herbal remedies from German companies since Germany imposes more regulations than most countries.

"Herbs collected near roadsides may contain dangerous contaminates such as heavy metals, which cross the placenta and breastmilk and can be harmful to the fetus," says Goodman-Snitkoff. "Some herbs also contain natural pesticides and antibacterial properties which may cross the placenta."