Pregnancy is a wondrous event. The magical experience of growing a child inside the womb inspires many women to think about optimal health, both for themselves and for their developing child. In their zeal to have the best possible pregnancy, many women turn to natural remedies to treat the conditions that often accompany pregnancy: varicose veins, hemorrhoids, fluid retention, fatigue and morning sickness, to name a few.

When it comes to pregnancy and the use of herbs, however, health professionals are extremely cautious. Ed Hofmann-Smith, ND, a practicing partner at the Natural Child Birth and Family Clinic in Portland, Oregon, reminds his patients that herbs are powerful medicines. "Unless there is a strong clinical reason for their use," he says, "I advise that herbs be avoided entirely during pregnancy." Any use, he adds, should involve supervision by a qualified health care professional.

Nevertheless, some herbs can provide just the right touch for moms-to-be. "In many cases, you've got to take something, and the question is what's the safest thing to take for what you've got?" says James A. Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy (St. Martin's, 1998) and Dr. Duke's Essential Herbs (Rodale, 2000). "In my family, I always want to look at the herbal options and the pharmaceutical options, to compare them and look at the side effects. In many cases herbs can be safer." Still, Duke urges, women should take herbs only in regulated amounts and for specific conditions, based on each woman's individual needs and unique body chemistry.

Several tried-and-true herbs have helped generations of women endure pregnancy's discomforts. While the following guide includes herbs generally considered safe, no herb or medication should be used during pregnancy or while breast-feeding without the specific guidance of a qualified health care professional. And remember: All things in moderation. One or two cups of herbal tea may be just what your expecting body needs, but drinking 12 cups a day of almost anything could be a recipe for trouble.

Stimulate Circulation
Impaired blood circulation during pregnancy can lead to uncomfortable varicose veins and hemorrhoids, a common complaint among expectant mothers. Some gentle herbs may provide relief, including bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and garlic (Allium sativum). "I always feel safe with herbs that are foods, such as bilberry and garlic," says Duke, "because they've been used for thousands of years successfully."

During World War II, pilots discovered marked improvement in their night vision after a steady diet of jam made from bilberries. Research has shown that the pilots weren't imagining things. The active constituents in bilberry, which include tannins, oligomeric proanthocyanins, fruit acids, flavonoids, carotene and vitamins B1 and C, do help eyes adjust to darkness by increasing blood flow to the retina. But the herb's effects go beyond the eyes. During pregnancy, bilberry's ability to aid blood circulation may help relieve varicose veins and hemorrhoids; it may also promote tissue healing once the baby's been delivered.

Garlic is an all-star herb for improving circulation during pregnancy. To reap garlic's benefits, stir chopped cloves into a soup or stew, or make a weak tea solution by steeping one peeled clove in hot water for one to two minutes. Remove the clove before drinking, and sip this tea no more than once or twice a day.

While not considered herbs, bioflavonoids—the pigments in fruits and vegetables—help build strong capillaries, also reducing the risk of hemorrhoids and varicose veins. Bioflavonoids also are found in many prenatal multivitamins.

Reduce Swelling
Edema, or fluid retention, is a common complaint of expectant women, especially during the latter stages of pregnancy. Most often affecting the lower legs, ankles, and feet, this swelling can make walking and everyday tasks uncomfortable. Mention of the therapeutic benefits of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) dates back to literature compiled by Arab doctors in the 11th century and to 13th-century Wales, where it was listed in an herbal primer prepared by physicians. "It's certainly a known diuretic," says Duke, adding that it helps to relieve edema and constipation. And unlike conventional diuretics that can deplete the body of potassium, dandelion leaves have high concentrations of this important mineral.

Curb Nausea
As any woman who's experienced morning sickness can attest, this signature type of nausea is hardly limited to the early hours of the day. In fact, many women experience morning sickness throughout the day and night. Although peppermint (Mentha piperita) is a common and time-honored nausea relief aid, its high levels of essential oils can cause heartburn, making it less desirable during pregnancy. Enterically coated capsules will minimize this effect. Relief also can be derived from peppermint's less volatile relative, spearmint (Mentha spicata), best taken as a tea.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) has traditionally been used by pregnant women, and now research supports the anecdotal evidence of its benefits. Researchers recently showed ginger to be effective in treating morning sickness (Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2001, vol. 97, no. 4). In the study, conducted in Thailand—the world capital of ginger consumption—pregnant women suffering from nausea consumed either placebo or 250 mg of ginger (cut fresh and dried) four times a day. After four days, 88 percent of the women taking ginger reported improvement. "I've even recommended this for my [pregnant] niece," says Duke. "It's a food. Still, I recommend some caution, because in huge doses even foods can be a problem." Very high doses of ginger have been reported to stimulate the uterus, so it's wise for pregnant women to keep intake at no more than 2 grams a day—a safe and still effective dose.

Support The Uterus
Raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus) has long been used during pregnancy to tone and strengthen uterine muscles. "For centuries, women prone to miscarriage have been urged to drink raspberry leaf tea throughout their pregnancy to help them carry the baby to term," says Duke.

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is another herb helpful in preparing the uterus for labor. "It's a tonic herb, and it's very rich in iron, choline, and boron, which are useful in many conditions," says Duke. However, in the Natural Therapeutics Pocket Guide (Lexi-Comp, 2000), stinging nettle is cited as contraindicated during pregnancy due to uterine stimulating properties. In the Physicians' Desk Reference for Herbal Medicine (Medical Economics Co., 2000-2001), however, there is no mention of contraindication during pregnancy. Work with your health care practitioner to determine if stinging nettle is appropriate for you.

Become The Expert
Pregnancy can be a time of joy and great discovery—and occasional discomfort. But each pregnancy is unique, and your personal medical history will determine how herbal remedies affect you and your growing child.

To find out what's best for you, take stock of your symptoms, read up on herbs, talk with a knowledgeable health care provider and trust your instincts. It's not too early to begin caring for your unborn baby.

Lucy Lennox is a writer specializing in herbs, health and natural lifestyles.