When you’re pregnant, late-night hunger pangs might have you reaching into the cabinet like never before. Perhaps morning sickness has your stomach rolling, and you might consider sipping on some ginger tea to ease nausea. While you are trying to satiate your cravings while meeting your nutritional needs — or are simply hoping to enjoy a cup of your favorite herbal tea — it’s important to know what plants are safe and which herbs to avoid during pregnancy.
One of the most nerve-wracking parts of pregnancy, though, is the fear of what is safe or unsafe to eat. The list of things to avoid can feel downright overwhelming. And when it comes to herbal teas and medicinal plants, the information can be particularly confusing. Salads are healthy, right? Herbs are just harmless supplements found in nature? It turns out, the answer is a bit more complicated. There are thousands of herbs and plants that offer health benefits for humans, but sadly there is not much research on botanicals and their effects on a fetus or pregnant person and most herbal supplements are not regulated at all by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While most plants and herbs, collectively called “botanicals,” are safe to consume during pregnancy, we talked to a few experts to find out exactly which herbs safe for both mom and baby, and which to avoid.
Herbs to avoid during pregnancy
While most of us turn to the FDA for safety warnings about the food we consume and products we use, that does not work for herbs and organic supplements. “In general, herbs and supplements are not regulated by the FDA like prescription medications. Because of this, the ingredients and effects on our bodies are not fully researched and/or known,” cautions Dr. Kenosha Gleaton, a board-certified OB-GYN. An additional issue, she says, is that because these products are not regulated, it is impossible to know if the “safe” supplement you are taking is cross-contaminated with another supplement. The bottom line when it comes to which herbs are safe to take during pregnancy? Speak with your doctor before consuming any unregulated herbal supplement, as no list of herbs to avoid is exhaustive.
Avoid these lesser-known supplements, and always talk to your doctor before adding any supplement or herbs during pregnancy:
- Almond oil
- Cranberry capsules
- Blue cohosh
- Black cohosh
- Devil’s claw root
- Dong Quai
- Margosa oil
- St. John’s Wort
- Uva ursi
Herbs in tea to avoid during pregnancy
What about herbal teas? When you’re stressed or sore, curling up with a steaming mug of herbal tea feels divine. Most herb teas on the market are a blend of several herbs which can make picking one that you’re sure is safe even more stressful while pregnant. When scanning the labels, it’s important to read carefully, and it’s a good idea to check with your health care provider. They can often share a list of herbal teas that are safe to have during pregnancy. Some herbs are OK in smaller doses and only become toxic in large quantities, for example. With all of those important caveats, generally, Gleaton cautions patients to avoid these common herbal teas:
- Echinacea tea is commonly used to support immune health, but this herb has been linked to cleft lips, trisomy 18 (a genetic disorder), and hypoplastic left heart syndrome.
- Hibiscus tea
- Licorice is a popular flavor and additive to many foods. High doses can increase your odds of preterm birth and early-onset preeclampsia.
- Raspberry leaf tea or capsules are often taken while trying to conceive, but it’s best to stop once pregnant. Raspberry can be linked to hypoglycemia and a higher incidence of cesarean delivery versus pregnant people who did not use it. On the flip side, some people use it to induce labor once full-term since it can soften the cervix.
- Chamomile tea is not a great choice for pregnant people. While there are few things more calming than a mug of Sleepy Time Tea, it’s best to steer clear. It’s linked to fetal tachycardia, preterm delivery, and low birth weight, says Gleaton.
What herbs are safe during pregnancy?
Don’t despair, says Gleaton. There are many teas that are safe during pregnancy. There are even some, she says, that can provide relief from common pregnancy symptoms. “Peppermint leaf and ginger root have been shown to alleviate morning sickness and nausea,” but, she adds, this is an important conversation to have with your own health provider. Some herbs and herbal teas will have different potential risks and benefits based on your personal situation.
Plants to avoid during pregnancy
Generally speaking, most plants are safe for consumption during pregnancy, says Gleaton. “Culinary herbs such as basil, parsley, sage, and ginger are safe to consume while pregnant as long as they are in their original form and not in pill form.”
There are some caveats, though. Nutritionist and dietician Colleen Wysocki-Woods has built her career around helping people eat healthy foods in a safe way — whether that be due to allergies, pregnancy, or food intolerances. “When it comes to plants like fruits and vegetables, these are safe and recommended for a healthy pregnancy.” She does offer some tips to avoid dangerous cross-contamination issues:
- Wash, wash, wash. Even for fruits and veggies with a rind, it is essential to wash them well. A knife can transfer bacteria to the edible portion of the fruit or vegetable. Cantaloupe and lettuce have recently been linked to several food-related disease outbreaks.
- Sprouts should be cooked thoroughly. The way sprouts are grown, in hot and humid environments, creates the perfect condition for the growth of bacteria. “Rinsing and even lightly cooking sprouts will not remove Listeria, Salmonella, or E. coli from the sprouts.” This is true for store-bought and home-grown sprouts.
- Raw wheat flour and other plant-based flours must be heated to the correct temperature. While they are not dangerous alone, preparation is key. Raw food powders must be heated to at least 158°F to be safe for pregnant people.
While deciding what to eat during pregnancy can be stressful, especially amid what can feel like ever-changing information, avoiding these common herbs and preparing your food safely can help keep you and your baby safe. Enjoy that salad with peace of mind — as long as you scrubbed it first.
Dr. Kenosha Gleaton, board-certified OB-GYN for Natalist
Colleen Wysocki-Woods, MS, RDN and founder of ZEST Nutrition