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Is it safe to drink herbal teas while I'm pregnant?
Many pregnant women carefully avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and unnecessary medication but don't think twice about drinking cup after cup of herbal tea. If this sounds like you, think again: Herbal teas can be just as powerful as prescription drugs, and they may also have side effects.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate the safety and effectiveness of herbal products the way it does prescription drugs and even over-the-counter medicines. Most ingredients in herbal teas are safe taken in small amounts, but some are not. What's more, only a few of the herbs used in teas have been studied in pregnant women.
Since we don't know exactly how many teas affect pregnant women and their developing babies, it's best to check with your care provider before drinking any kind of tea during your pregnancy.
How can I tell which herbal teas are safe to drink during pregnancy?
Although no U.S. regulation specifically addresses herbal tea, most herbs the FDA considers safe for food use are presumed safe for tea as well. This may or may not be the case.
Teas made from herbs like peppermint and thyme may be safe to drink occasionally in small amounts while you're pregnant or nursing. But drinking excessive amounts of any tea can cause health problems for you and your developing baby. The herbs in teas are more concentrated than in food, so drinking them may be harmful even if eating them isn't.
There's not much research about the safety of herbal products, so if you choose to drink them, do so in moderation and talk with your doctor about it beforehand.
Which teas are not safe?
When taken in large or medicinal amounts, many herbs used in teas can be harmful. Some may even increase the odds of miscarriage, preterm labor, or low birth weight.
If you're pregnant or nursing, avoid the following herbs:
- Black cohosh
- Blue cohosh
- Dong quai
- Ephedra (called ma huang in traditional Chinese medicine and banned in the United States since 2004)
- European mistletoe
- Licorice root
- Nettle leaf (also called stinging nettle leaf)
- Passion flower
- Roman chamomile
- Saw palmetto
- Yerba mate
This is not a complete list, so always ask your doctor whether a particular herb is safe to consume during pregnancy. Note: You can still eat food containing some of these herbs, like rosemary and sage, because the amounts used in food are generally much smaller than those used in tea – and not as potent. (The brewing process for making tea concentrates the chemicals of the herbs.)
What about the herbal teas that are marketed to pregnant women?
The same cautions apply to teas made specifically for pregnant women and sold in supermarkets and health food stores. Although the makers of pregnancy teas promote their products as healthy for expectant moms, no clinical studies support these claims, and the safety of the ingredients is not regulated.
Pregnancy teas usually include ingredients such as alfalfa, fennel seed, lemongrass leaf, lemon verbena, nettle leaf, red raspberry leaf, rose hips, and strawberry leaf. Not all these are safe to take during pregnancy. For example, nettle leaf (also known as stinging nettle leaf) stimulates the uterus and can cause miscarriage. Some midwives use raspberry leaf (also known as red raspberry leaf) to aid delivery, but its effectiveness hasn't been proven. It should be used only in late pregnancy under the supervision of a healthcare professional.
Ginger is commonly used to ease morning sickness during pregnancy, and studies have shown it is safe and effective for this purpose. But there's also some evidence that it may negatively affect fetal sex hormones and increase the risk of vaginal bleeding during pregnancy. So before you drink ginger tea, discuss its benefits and risks with your healthcare provider.
How can I choose a safe herbal tea?
Check package labels and don't choose teas that contain unsafe or unfamiliar ingredients. Consider making your own herbal tea: Add honey, fruit juice, lemon rinds, cinnamon, or cloves to boiling water or decaffeinated black or green tea.
Even homemade teas are best in moderation because not enough is known about the effects of most herbs on pregnant and breastfeeding women.