5 Herbs for Postpartum Health

New mothers have a lot on their plates. From sleep deprivation to breastfeeding challenges, recovering from a vaginal or cesarean birth and navigating the largest hormonal shift the body will ever experience- it can be intense. But here’s the thing, human beings have been using plants as medicine for thousands of years. These plants are here to help us out, and truly there’s no better time to reach out for a helping hand than after bringing a little person into the world. Herbs provide an opportunity for mothers to weave self care into daily living in a simple, sustainable and totally do-able way. It only takes minutes to prepare a cup of tea but the benefits are numerous. That being said, let’s dive into 5 of my most loved herbs for supporting postpartum health!

 

Red Raspberry Leaf, Rubus idaeus 

Surely lots of mamas have leftover raspberry leaf from pregnancy. It’s touted as the herb for promoting an easier labour. Raspberry leaf is rich in tannins and a constituent called fragarine which helps to tonify the uterus. In the postpartum period, the uterus goes from weighing around 1000 grams at the time of birth, to around 50 grams by the third week postpartum as it shrinks back down to pre-pregnancy size. This process is called involution. Those same compounds used to tone (ie tighten) the uterus for labour can be supportive for postpartum recovery. This astringent action can also be applied topically as a sitz bath to help reduce swelling in the vaginal tissues after birth. Raspberry leaf contains a variety of minerals including calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus which help the uterus to efficiently contract and relax. This makes it helpful not only for labour pains, but after pains. The leaves are also rich in vitamins C, E, A and B, making it a lovely herb for replenishing the body nutritionally. 

 

Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare

The aromatic seeds of fennel taste like licorice and serve as a warming carminative in the digestive tract, easing spasm and reducing gas and bloating. Digestive symptoms are very common postpartum. During the process of labour and birth, digestion is temporarily slowed and the bowels are flushed to allow for the passage of the baby. Pair this with the dramatic physical changes in the pelvis and the many emotions tied into even the thought of eliminating after giving birth and it makes sense that digestion can be a bit sluggish. Including digestive herbs can help to get things going again, especially ones like fennel which are antispasmodic and help to release tension. Fennel is also a well loved galactagogue- meaning that it increases breast milk production. I love including the crushed seeds in tea blends to support lactation.

 

Calendula officinalis

Calendula is a herb that every family needs to have on hand! These sunny blossoms are well loved for their ability to repair damaged tissue. Calendula can be prepared as a sitz bath postpartum to support the healing of perineal tears or made into a balm to soothe cracked nipples. It also helps to bring down inflammation and ward off infection. A study showed that calendula can significantly speed up the rate of healing on the wound from cesarean birth. The resins in calendula have antifungal activity which may help in treatment of thrush, although it’s worth noting that this action is only present in alcohol based extracts of the herb. As a lymphatic stimulant, calendula can help with clogged milk ducts and has even been used in the treatment of mastitis in dairy cattle. It’s an incredibly versatile herb and is very easy to grow for new gardeners, thriving even in pots with blooms that keep coming from early spring past the first frosts. I believe even having the flowers growing nearby can brighten your mood. If you don’t believe me, look up a picture! They’re like sunshine in a plant.

 

Tulsi, Ocimum sanctum

Also known as holy basil, this herb is treasured in Ayurvedic medicine. Tulsi has been referred to as “liquid yoga”. This is because the herb works as a potent nervine, promoting clarity of thought and relaxation. As an adaptogen, tulsi helps to regulate the body’s stress response by influencing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. In the postpartum period, the stress response can be kicked into overdrive. The birth of a baby is a huge adjustment and sleep deprivation takes its toll. It has been demonstrated that changes which occur to the HPA axis during pregnancy may cause dysregulation- which is possibly associated with perinatal mood disorders. Furthermore, studies have shown that tulsi has positive effects on memory and cognitive function, while reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Sipping on a warm mug of tulsi tea helps to foster an overall sense of wellbeing in new mothers.

Interestingly, there was a study showing that tulsi decreases male fertility temporarily- which is something to keep in mind for partners if/when it comes time to conceive another baby. It’s worth noting that there is a caution against the use of sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) during lactation. The volatile oils may have mutagenic effects due to a high content of a compound called estragole. In Shiela Humphrey’s book, The Nursing Mother’s Herbal, she categorizes tulsi as a B for safety during lactation- meaning that it may be appropriate for self use but caution is advised around proper dosing. If drinking tulsi tea in moderation, especially if blended with other herbs, it’s unlikely for there to be a concern with toxicity.

 

Milk Thistle, Silybum marinanum

A liver herb may not initially seem like a top choice for a list of postpartum herbs but bear with me here. Often I see herbs suggested to “balance the hormones” postpartum. The body is doing this already! The best thing we can do to support hormonal health is to support liver health. For hormones to be eliminated from the body, the liver must first break them down into a water soluble form. An antioxidant called glutathione is essential for this process. Milk thistle has been shown to increase glutathione production in the liver. This finding supports the traditional use of the seeds for liver congestion. A less commonly known action of milk thistle is that it helps to boost breast milk production. It’s a very safe herb generally speaking, although gastrointestinal symptoms have been reported and it may increase the metabolism of certain medications. In order for the herb to have any effect, the seeds must be crushed.

 

In conclusion…

As always if choosing to work with herbs during lactation- please check with your primary care provider that they are appropriate for use. I have provided all my sources below for further reading if you feel inclined. Although I reference herbs which may help with milk supply and clogged ducts, herbs should be a last resort when it comes to lactation complications. A lactation consultant can help to identify potential underlying issues in the baby’s latch and feeding patterns. The herbs are there as an extra layer of support, but are far from the whole solution. Cautions aside, herbs help to carve the space for self care when it can feel like there is no time to do so. One of the greatest gifts a mother can give to both herself and her baby is learning that her needs are important right from the start. As the saying goes- you can’t pour from an empty cup.

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References:

Ahmed, M., Ahamed, R. N., Aladakatti, R. H., & Ghosesawar, M. G. (2002). REVERSIBLE ANTI-FERTILITY EFFECT OF BENZENE EXTRACT OF OCIMUM SANCTUM LEAVES ON SPERM PARAMETERS AND FRUCTOSE CONTENT IN RATS. Journal of Basic and Clinical Physiology and Pharmacology, 13(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.1515/jbcpp.2002.13.1.51

Ask the Scientists. (2019, January 30). Liver Detoxification Pathways. https://askthescientists.com/qa/liver-detoxification-pathways/

Basil use while Breastfeeding. (2020, August 14). Drugs.Com. https://www.drugs.com/breastfeeding/basil.html

Cohen, M. M. (2014). Tulsi – Ocimum sanctum: A herb for all reasons. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, 5(4), 251. https://doi.org/10.4103/0975-9476.146554

Engels, G., & Brinckmann, J. (2013). Holy Basil. HerbalGram, 98. http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue98/hg98herbpro-holybasil.html?ts=1612417509&signature=6b90a6a9c05e62a8b885d896b8659745

Foeniculum vulgare (Fennel). (2011, October 21). The Naturopathic Herbalist. https://thenaturopathicherbalist.com/herbs/d-f/foeniculum-vulgare-fennel/

Glynn, L. M., Davis, E. P., & Sandman, C. A. (2013). New insights into the role of perinatal HPA-axis dysregulation in postpartum depression. Neuropeptides, 47(6), 363–370. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.npep.2013.10.007

Humphrey, S. (2003). The Nursing Mother’s Herbal (1st ed.). FAIRVIEW PRESS.

Jahdi, F., Khabbaz, A. H., Kashian, M., Taghizadeh, M., & Haghani, H. (2018). 

The impact of calendula ointment on cesarean wound healing: A randomized controlled clinical trial. Journal of family medicine and primary care, 7(5), 893–897. https://doi.org/10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_121_17

Marciano, M. (2018, November 12). Calendula officinalis. The Naturopathic Herbalist. https://thenaturopathicherbalist.com/2014/01/04/calendula-officinalis/

Romm, A. (2017). Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health (2nd ed.). Churchill Livingstone.

Romm, A. (2020, June 16). Herbs for an Easier Labor. Aviva Romm MD. https://avivaromm.com/herbs-easier-labor/

Silybum marianum. (2011, October 25). The Naturopathic Herbalist. https://thenaturopathicherbalist.com/herbs/r-s/silybum-marianum/

Tilgner, S., R.N., F. D. N. D., Bergner, P., Graham, D., Fiore, L., Fratz, D. M., Sanford, T., & N.D., S. T. (n.d.). Herbal ABC’s The Foundation of Herbal Medicine (1st ed.). Wise Acres LLC.

Treating mastitis without antibiotics. (n.d.). McGill. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from https://eap.mcgill.ca/agrobio/ab370-11e.htm

Wood, M. (2008). The Earthwise Herbal, Volume I: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants (Illustrated ed.). North Atlantic Books.

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