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WARNING: Herbs and Pregnancy / Breastfeeding

(posted by Lark)

We've talked a lot on CT about "always asking your doctor, no matter what you're taking -- herbs included ..."  Well, as luck (?) would have it, one of the first editing assignments I got  handed at my new job were two long, long list of contraindicated herbs -- one for pregnancy, one for breastfeeding. I was blown away by what damage you can do with "just" an over-the-counter herb. Something normally very safe and efficient, such as arnica, which is often used to control tissue trauma/bleeding, or aloe (often drunk in juice form) can turn very, very harmful in pregnancy or breastfeeding. And, the scary thing is, in this case, "asking your doctor"  may not do much good unless you're talking to very cautious allopath or a trained naturopathic physician or a professional herbalist, because conventional docs aren't trained in herbal toxicology. If they are of the sort that just assumes that an herb is "natural and therefore harmless," serious problems can result. Things that many of us don't even think of as herbs, per se, such as chicory and chamomile (often used for tea) can be abortifacients (things that induce spontaneous abortion). For many of these, it's only a specific part of the plant that's dangerous, but for a surprising number of them, *any* part of the plant has toxic, mutagenic, teratogenic, or abortifacient properties. This book says that it generally requires relatatively large amounts of plants that are uterine stimulants to cause serious problems in pregnancy (inducing labor, that sort of thing), but it's still something to be conscious of. (especially if your nighttime routine consists of a cup of chamomile tea .. )

There is also a reasonably long list of herbs that are unsafe during breastfeeding -- some that can disrupt the baby's normal organ development. Some, like basil plant, are genotoxins, and can cause developmental problems. And quite a few (such as caffeine and tea leaves) which are stimulants/irritants, and will definitely affect baby's behavior. Some plants diminish milk supply, and so are useful while weaning, but otherwise to be avoided. Some, like aloe, are laxatives, so again, drinking aloe juice (usually a very good thing) can cause problems while nursing.

The section of the herbal toxicology reference I was given (published by a relatively obscure press in Oregon) concludes by saying, "While the plants listed here are known to be problematic when nursing, many plants have not been adequately evaluated in this regard. Do not assume that all unlisted plants are safe to use while breast feeding."

So, I guess pregnancy is a really bad time to be wandering around the herbal supplement aisle at your local health food store . . . Like Pat B. said a few months back -- "natural" doesn't necessarily mean safe! Yikes! Nine months seems like a long, long time to worry about things like that -- I sympathize with you guys (uh--girls..), cuz once you eliminate the herbal meds, it seems like that doesn't leave much that IS guaranteed safe to take!


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