Pregnancy and Adaptogens

*To avoid reading all of this unusually long post, scroll to the bottom of the page for my recommendations!

I first became interested in adaptogens a few years ago, while attending a functional medicine conference in New York, and I’ve dabbled with the use of various herbs (rhodiola, ashwagandha, etc.) since then. Though admittedly, it wasn’t until the Moon Juice craze that my curiosity and urge to participate in this health trend fully surfaced. (#basic)

Adaptogens, however, are anything but a trend and have played a leading role in herbal medicine practices for centuries. Merriam-Webster defines adaptogen as: a nontoxic substance and especially a plant extract that is held to increase the body’s ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or restore normal physiological functioning. Essentially, adaptogens work to normalize or appropriately balance the complicated web of hormones our bodies produce. Many people take adaptogens to normalize reproductive hormones, to enhance fertility, to cope with stress and balance cortisol, and to balance blood sugar levels.

I had just invested in my beautifully packaged Moon Dusts around the time I became pregnant, and while several adaptogens are promoted for optimizing fertility, there was very little conclusive information that I could find about the safety of these concoctions during pregnancy. Thus, out of my own desire for information on this topic, I did a deep dive into all things herbal medicine and pregnancy, and instead of keeping this information to myself, I thought it may be of interest to all of you.

*As a disclaimer, I am not an expert in herbal medicine. The following is merely my personal interpretation of the information I discovered and should not replace a physician’s recommendation.

learn the dos and don'ts of adaptogens in pregnancy // feastofgreen.com
Photo by Josh Bean

For the most part, opinions on the safety of adaptogens during pregnancy seemed to fall in line with where one stood on the spectrum of “alternative” to conventional medicine, from a liberal promotion of usage to a strong recommendation for avoidance. The reason for this hodge-podge of information is that there is little to no scientific research on this specific topic. (However, the same can be said of many conventional medications during pregnancy.)

Ultimately, the person I found to be the most expert, balanced, and trustworthy was Aviva Romm, a Yale trained MD and herbal medicine practitioner who specializes in fertility and prenatal care. Aviva does recommend adaptogens for women who are not pregnant, but she recommends against their use during pregnancy (excluding exceptional situations), especially during the first trimester. (Her blog and podcast reveal a handful of horrifying anecdotes that quickly led me to believe that the risks of these herbs outweigh any potential benefits during this delicate time.)     

My basic understanding of why adaptogens may be problematic during pregnancy is this: Adaptogens work to moderate and balance hormones, but in pregnancy, hormones are completely crazy – with good reason, and taking something with the aim of normalizing hormones may result in negative effects to the fetus.

A good example of this phenomenon is cortisol during pregnancy. Cortisol is widely recognized as the “stress hormone”, and although high levels of stress, (especially during the first trimester), are associated with poor pregnancy outcomes, cortisol levels naturally rise during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy and surge in the late weeks before delivery. These high levels of cortisol play an important role in the baby’s brain and lung development and may also have benefits for moms after birth, with research demonstrating higher sympathy to infant cries and, (albeit strangely), an increased liking for their baby’s smell. It’s possible that taking an adaptogen, which works to moderate cortisol, could have a negative effect on healthy pregnancy physiology.

Similarly, both estrogen and progesterone levels rise in pregnancy, and it’s possible that adaptogens that work to balance reproductive hormones may impact this natural and beneficial process.

The general take-aways from my research were these:

  • There is little to no research on the use of herbal medicines in pregnancy. (The same is true for conventional medications.)  
  • Avoid adaptogens in pregnancy.
  • Avoid the use of any herbal supplement (unless absolutely necessary and cleared by your MD), particularly during the first trimester of pregnancy.
  • If interested in using herbal remedies during pregnancy, seek out an experienced functional medicine MD to work with.   
learn the dos and don'ts of adaptogens in pregnancy // feastofgreen.com
Photo by Olivia Snow

The good news is that, as hormones return to pre-pregnancy levels within a few days after birth, many adaptogens are thought to be safe and beneficial for breastfeeding. (More on that once I’ve done my research!) Also, there are several “natural” remedies that can be utilized during pregnancy with little to no risk. Here are a few ideas:

  • Take prenatal vitamins. (This one’s obvious… I like the Thorne and Vitamin Code Raw prenatals.)
  • Practice aromatherapy with essential oils via a diffuser. (I’m a big fan of the Young Living and DoTerra brands.)
  • Drink mineral-rich bone broth and use collagen peptides in your smoothies or hot cereals. (I like the Vital Protein brand, which can also be found at Whole Foods or Amazon.)
  • Eat plenty of fresh or dried herbs and mushrooms in their whole food state. (It’s the concentrated nutrients and lack of supplement regulation that makes these potentially dangerous in supplement form.)
  • Buy the highest quality organic foods you can afford, (at least avoid the dirty dozen), and eat at restaurants that value good farming practices.
  • Take omega 3 supplements. (I worked for a physician who had the Carlson brand verified for label accuracy and lack of toxins, so that is the brand I feel comfortable using.)
  • Take probiotics or eat foods that naturally contain them. Both digestive and vaginal probiotics may be beneficial. With a vaginal birth, your baby will be “colonized” by your flora, so now is the time to get things in order! (I like the Jarrow brand but don’t have particularly good reasoning for that recommendation.)  
  • Make sure your prenatal vitamin contains folate vs. folic acid, particularly if you have the MTHFR mutation, as I do, or take an additional folate supplement.  
  • Take Vitamin D3 supplements, in addition to what your prenatal contains, and have your vitamin D level tested. (Here’s some info.)
  • Start a meditation practice, as stress reduction has lots of potential benefits for your baby. (Headspace makes this easy.)
  • Your body’s demands for healthy fats increase in pregnancy, so experiment with adding coconut oil and grass-fed ghee to your diet.  
  • Use ginger root or products made with real ginger to manage pregnancy nausea.
  • Use pure cranberry juice for natural prevention from UTIs, which pregnant women are at increased risk for. (For me, the most tolerable way to drink this is to put a splash in sparkling water.)   
  • Lastly, my girl Aviva feels comfortable and recommends the use of chamomile, red raspberry leaf, and echinacea after the first trimester of pregnancy. (Her full chart of dos and don’ts are linked below)   

Here are a few resources I found helpful:  

  • Website: A more complete list of Aviva Romm’s recommendations can be found here.
  • Book: How to Conceive Naturally and Have a Healthy Pregnancy After 30. (This wonderful book was recommended by my physician. The dietary advice is particularly helpful.)  
  • Book: Better Baby (Interestingly this is written by Dave Asprey – the founder of the Bulletproof movement – and his wife, who is an MD. If Bulletproof is too extreme for your liking, rest assured that this book has a more moderate approach and plenty of good science-backed recommendations.)
  • Book: Natural Pregnancy (Aviva one last time! This is her incredibly comprehensive and wonderful book.)
  • Book: Gentle Babies (This book is a guide for using essential oils in pregnancy, postpartum, and on your infant and children.)  

Thanks for taking the time to read this post! Please share any comments or questions below. If you found this helpful, please share with friends who may also be looking for guidance.

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Adaptogens & Pregnancy // feastofgreen.com

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