Pregnancy is a time of dramatic transitions. Body systems that once sustained a single human now support two. Organs, blood vessels, body chemistry, and even the solid supporting structures of a woman's body all go through changes; in the meantime, the fetus's body grows from a tiny bundle of cells to a full-sized baby.

It's no wonder that women feel the desire for remedies to help with these transitions. Since ancient times, women have tried herbs and other natural treatments to ease discomfort or assist with pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. However, pregnancy is also a circumstance when the potential risk of any treatment rises dramatically. Seemingly benign medications—even natural ones—have been found to cause birth defects or increase the risk of complications. Some traditional remedies, such as blue cohosh for labor stimulation, must be discarded for safety reasons.

Thorough study is needed before any treatment can be considered absolutely safe in pregnancy—and in many cases this research may never been done due to insurmountable ethical consideration regarding the safety of the fetus. It's important to talk with your doctor before deciding to use any treatment, whether it is natural or conventional.

Many natural treatments have shown promise for conditions related to pregnancy. In this section, we discuss those with the most scientific support. However, treatments for nausea and vomiting of pregnancy and preeclampsia are not discussed here; instead, they are addressed in separate articles. Breastfeeding support also has an article of its own.

Note: The safety of the following treatments has not been confirmed, except for nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, for which appropriate dosages for pregnancy have been established. For more information on potentially harmful natural treatments, see Herbs and Supplements to Avoid During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding.

Varicose Veins

Increased pressure from the expanding abdomen and other factors can lead to pooling of fluid in the legs, a condition called venous insufficiency (closely related to varicose veins).

Venous insufficiency/varicose veins occur outside pregnancy as well, and a wide variety of natural treatments have shown promise in their treatment, including buckwheat, butcher’s broom, citrus bioflavonoids, gotu kola, horse chestnut, oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs), and red vine leaf. These are discussed in the Venous Insufficiency article.

Only one natural treatment, oxerutins, has been studied in a double-blind trial enrolling pregnantwomen with venous insufficiency.1 In this study of 69 women, researchers found oxerutins more effective than placebo.

For more information, see the full Oxerutin article.

Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids are actually varicose veins in or around the anus. Oxerutins and citrus bioflavonoidshave been studied for hemorrhoids during pregnancy.12,13

A double-blind study enrolling 97 pregnant women found oxerutins (1,000 mg daily) significantly better than placebo at reducing the pain, bleeding, and inflammation of hemorrhoids.13 Evidence for citrus bioflavonoids is limited to one open trial.12 Other natural treatments for varicose veins are often recommended for hemorrhoids as well, although research on their use for this condition in pregnancy is lacking.

For more information, see the article on Hemorrhoids.

Anemia

Anemia is common during pregnancy, usually due to deficiency in iron. However, iron supplements can be hard on the stomach, thereby aggravating morning sickness. One study found evidence that a fairly low supplemental dose of iron—20 mg daily—is very nearly as effective for treating anemia of pregnancy as 40 mg or even 80 mg daily, and is less likely to cause gastrointestinal side effects.112 (Interestingly, 20 mg daily is lower than the amount contained in standard prenatal vitamins.)

Pregnant women who are not anemic should not take more than the recommended daily allowance of iron in pregnancy, as excess iron intake may be harmful both for pregnant women and their unborn children.14-16

Interestingly, one study suggests that iron plus folateis more effective for the treatment of iron-deficiency anemia in pregnancy than iron alone, even in women who do not appear to be folate-deficient.17

Prevention of Neural Tube Defects and Other Birth Defects

Folatesupplements can help prevent a serious and common type of birth defect known as neural tube defects (NTDs).18-20 Folate, or folate plus multivitamin/multimineral supplements, may help prevent other birth defects as well, including cleft palate and anomalies of the heart and urinary tract.108A systematic review of five trials involving 6,105 women reinforced the evidence that folate supplementation can prevent NTDs in both women who have had a baby with an NTD and those who did not.124 Participants took daily doses between 360 mcg to 4 mg with or without additional supplements. There was not enough information, though, to say whether folate can reduce the risk of developing other conditions, like cleft lip or cleft palate.

One preliminary study of 859 babies suggests that zincmay help prevent NTDs as well, but evidence so far is weak.22