Pregnant and lactating women are no strangers to pain, but the usual conventional pain medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen come with risks to the developing baby. The good news is that some pain-relieving herbal medicines have a long history of safe use in pregnant and lactating women. Listed below are six herbs for pain relief in pregnancy and lactation.
The safety of the following herbs depends on using appropriate doses for appropriate time frames, especially during pregnancy. Always consult with a qualified healthcare provider for individualized advice.
Turmeric Root (Curcuma longa)
Turmeric contains the potent anti-inflammatory molecule curcumin, which has been measured against conventional medications in randomized controlled trials for joint pain. Turmeric’s pain-relieving strength is comparable to many commonly prescribed NSAIDs. This is usually the first herb that I think of for pain relief during breastfeeding.
Side benefits of turmeric include more energy, better digestion, and antiviral activity. It is suggested that it may help in pregnancy-related conditions like pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, fetal growth restriction, preterm birth, and exposure to toxins. As with all of these herbs, speaking with a doctor versed in botanical medicine is important for individualized advice with regards to dosing and timing, especially during pregnancy when doses should reflect amounts in food instead of the high doses found in some supplements. To receive the most benefit from turmeric, it should be taken with a small amount of black pepper, or piperine (derived from black pepper), which improves its absorption.
Ginger Root (Zingiber officinale)
Ginger is another potent herbal anti-inflammatory and is my favorite herbal pain reliever to use during pregnancy because of the extensive safety studies done on this herb. Research has shown it to be effective for relieving joint and postpartum pain. It may be effective for neuropathic pain. Ginger is also well known as an anti-nausea treatment, immune tonic, cold & flu treatment, and digestive herb. New research shows that ginger is good for treating seasonal allergies.
Note: People with sensitive stomachs don’t always tolerate ginger. This goes for babies, too. Introduce it slowly if breastfeeding or you have a sensitive stomach. However, ginger is a common remedy for infant colic and increasing lactation. It is safe for babies to consume in a remedy or breast milk.
Rose Hips (Rosa canina)
Rose hips are the beautiful red fruit that roses produce after their petals fall. They are best known as a great source of vitamins and minerals and they feature strongly in many immune fortifying herbal formulas. However, rose hips also have a history of use for treating the pain and inflammation of osteoarthritis and low back pain. In my experience, rose hips are most often taken as a powder or capsule. The presumed safety of rose hips during pregnancy and lactation is based on traditional use because they receive little research attention.
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
St. John’s wort is a great herb for nerve pain. This herb is also anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and mood-lifting, and it supports liver health. Some sources recommend avoiding St. John’s Wort during the first trimester, but others consider it likely safe. As with all these herbs, a discussion with a physician with expertise in botanical medicine is warranted. It’s important to note that St. John’s wort interacts with many medications so caution and expertise are required when combining this herb with other drugs. St. John’s wort can be infused in oil to use externally for pain or can be taken internally in capsule, tea, tincture, homeopathic, or glycerite forms.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon balm helps to soothe spasm, reduce inflammation, and treat pain. It is especially good for cramping pain or pain that is worsened by anxiety or stress. Lemon balm tea is traditionally used for labor after pains and to treat infant colic. It also works well in a tincture or glycerite. As with many herbs, the presumed safety of lemon balm is because of traditional use. Be sure to consult with a qualified professional for guidance.
Arnica is helpful for joint pain, muscle pain, inflammation, and soft tissue injuries when used externally. This herb should not be taken internally unless it is in a highly diluted homeopathic form. For more information about how to use arnica for topical pain relief, see Arnica Oil For Topical Pain Relief – Dr. Geen Mom.
Important Safety Notes Re: Herbs For Pain Relief In Pregnancy & Lactation
The safety profiles of herbs used for pain relief in pregnancy and lactation depend on using appropriate doses for an appropriate time frame. Consult a health professional with expertise in herbal medicine to find the right dose for you, especially if you’re attempting to manage chronic pain in pregnancy or if you are in your first trimester of pregnancy.
Turmeric, St. John’s wort, and ginger all have the potential to thin blood. Use caution with these herbs near the end of pregnancy to avoid heavy bleeding during labor and delivery. In my practice, I usually have women stop taking most of the above herbs for pain relief at 36 or 37 weeks. Speak with your doctor or midwife for guidance.
Herbal medicine offers safe and effective pain relieving alternatives to conventional medications when used in appropriate doses. Turmeric, ginger, St. John’s wort, lemon balm, rose hips, and arnica are all pain-relieving herbs that have a history of safe use in pregnant and breastfeeding women, however safety studies for some of these herbs have not yet been done. As always, check in with a health professional for individualized advice about the risks and benefits.
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