For some reason, my interests in herbs and my interest in birth rarely overlap. I don’t typically have doula clients who really want to work with herbs, and my herbal clients aren’t pregnant. So it was a rare and great pleasure to be able to bring the two together and teach a class yesterday on preconception care at Herbstalk, Somerville’s homegrown herbalism festival, and I mentioned to the students that I would share my notes here.
When we set aside time to work on our bodies, health, relationships, physical space, and our selves to prepare for a pregnancy, we’re engaged in a process of conscious conception. I owe the term to Jeanine Parvati Baker, who saw Fertility Awareness as more than just gathering data about our bodies, but as a means to deeply connect with our bodies, our fertility, and our creativity. We can use herbal medicine in different ways during this special time, whether to tone the uterus and/or clear uterine stagnation, to support the liver and balance hormones, to nourish the nervous system, to heighten our fertility, or to bring aphrodisiac herbs into our lives for some relaxing stimulation. Below are some of my favorite herbs in these categories.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is an aromatic bitter, gently stimulating to the nervous system while also a nervine, and increasing circulation to the uterus and pelvic region. It has been used traditionally to bring on menstruation. Matthew Wood calls it “restorative to the injured female nature,” in either women or men. He also notes its stimulatory effects on pituitary hormones LH and FSH, in insufficiency of the corpus luteum with anemia, and in treating hyperandrogenism. It’s also used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for moxibustion, including to turn breech babies. It’s a dream herb, perfect for sleep pillows. Note the leaves’ silver undersides, indicating its use as a female ally. Try an infused oil for an abdominal massage.
- Red Raspberry Leaf (Rubus idaeus) is a wonderful tonic for the uterus and is nourishing for both men and women. In TCM, it’s considered a men’s sexual tonic. In tonifying the uterus, RRL promotes regular menstruation, especially where there is pain and cramping, and supports healthy labor and smooth, productive contractions. It’s also a common remedy for nausea in pregnancy. It contains high levels of vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, iron, Vitamins A and B complex, and minerals such as phosphorus and potassium. I like to prepare it as a nourishing infusion, where a large amount of herb steeps overnight, and will often add a pinch of peppermint.nRosemary Gladstar combines it with peppermint, nettle, lemon balm, chamomile, oatstraw and motherwort for a tea to treat the nervous system. Jeanine Parvati used RRL as a fertility herb, and for hormone disregulation with menopause combined it with sarsaparilla, blue vervain, and licorice. Ayurvedic practitioners David Frawley and Vasant Lad recommend RRL as a stronger uterine tonic, it can be combined with shatavari 1:3.
- Vitex (Vitex agnus castus) is pungent, warm, diffusive, and stimulating, and normalizing for the reproductive system. Matthew Wood writes that vitex is for people in need of change, who are nervous, even hysterical. They may have difficulty falling asleep. He also notes its use for cystic breast growth, breast inflammation, or tenderness, uterine fibroids, PMS with painful breasts, ovarian cysts, and lack of menstruation. Rosemary Gladstar uses vitex to treat painful and irregular menses, infertility, PMS, and menopausal problems. Aviva Romm notes that vitex is used where there is emotional lability associated with PMS, especially when there is cycle irregularity. It’s wonderful for cycle irregularity, and when coming off The Pill. Vitex is most effective for hormonal balancing when taken over a long period, up to a year or longer, though I’ve heard good herbalists recommend taking a break every 4-5 cycles or so.
- Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum) & Blessed Thistle (Cnicus benedictus) are both wonderful liver herbs. Milk thistle is appropriate where the liver has been damaged. It’s sweet and moistening, so great for dry constitutions. Blessed thistle, or holy thistle, has a strong affinity for the liver and aids the liver in processing hormones from the body, especially androgens. It has an intensely bitter, pungent flavor. Matthew Wood recommends it for women with difficulties processing androgens, and suggests it for PCOS, PMS, and acne. Both increase breast milk production.
- Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) is an Ayurvedic herb traditionally used as a men’s sexual health tonic (the name means “the smell of a horse”), as well as a general tonic, to balance the endocrine system and support thyroid function, and to gently treat the nervous system. Ashwaganda is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, nervine, a galactogogue, helps with anxiety, fatigue, HPA disregulation, and has an amphoteric effect on the nervous system. It works on the HPA/HPO axis, balancing hormone release and supporting overall endocrine function. It is warming, bitter, sweet, and astringent. It’s a great herb for women whose cycles are disregulated where she experiences stress, for couples experience stress around trying to conceive, and where hypothyroidism is a contributing factor to cycle problems. As a general tonic, it can be prepared in the evening boiled with milk, adding honey or blackstrap molasses. It can be taken as a tincture, as a powder mixed with warm milk, as a decoction, as a paste or medicated ghee, or as a medicated oil. In a fertility formula, I like to combine it with shatavari, licorice, and ginger as a tea.
- Dong Quai (Angelic sinensis) is used in TCM as a female reproductive tonic and menstrual regulator, especially for women with fatigue and low vitality, and contains B12 and folic acid. It’s especially appropriate for women with dark, sluggish, clotty menstrual flow. It’s contraindicated for women with heavy bleeding or those using anticoagulants, and some herbalists recommend avoiding dong quai in the days leading up to menstruation.
- Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) is another Ayurvedic herb. Ahere ashwaganda is thought of as a male reproductive tonic, shatavari is a powerful female sexual tonifier. It means “she who possesses the capacity to have 100 husbands.” It’s used as a nutritive tonic, a fertility tonic, a sexual tonic and aphrodisiac, as a treatment for sexual debility, and as a galactogue. It builds milk, supports semen production, and is a demulcent for the mucous membranes. It has alterative properties so cleanses blood, and nourishes female reproductive organs. It’s a menstrual cycle regulator and an estrogen modulator. Very safe, shatavari has no known contraindications. We use the root, and it can be prepared as a tincture, a tea, or decocted in milk with ghee and honey.
Milky Oats (Avena sativa) is a wonderful restorative tonic with lots of vitamins and minerals, vitamin E, zinc, iron, and calcium. It’s sweet and moistening (so great for cool-cold, dry, thin people). In addition to a nutritive tonic for the nervous system, it’s used to treat pelvic pain, PMS with headaches, emotional instability, and general weakness. I like to do milky oats as another nourishing infusion, or to combine it with other herbs for the nervous system, for sleep, or for fertility.
Aphrodisiacs are the herbs that move our blood, dilate our blood vessels, that are relaxing while also stimulating. This includes chocolate, ginger, peppers, cinnamon, vanilla. I like to also think of aphrodisiacs as engaging all the senses, so consider essential oils of neroli, jasmine, sandalwood and vanilla.
- Damiana (Turnera diffusa) is stimulating and energizing, it’s been used in Mexico as an aphrodisiac for years. For those who use alcohol-based tinctures, you can do some creative things with damiana. Instead of making a straight-up tincture in vodka, tincture damiana in brandy with cinnamon and vanilla to create a liqueur that you can drink with a partner. That way, you’re bringing ritual and intention into your sexuality, which we want to be fun and sensual. I would not use this while pregnant or breastfeeding.