Editor’s Note: The following article comes as a response to several pregnancy Research Corner questions. It comes from Jan’s book "The Natural Way to Better Pregnancy". There are certain references throughout the article to other chapters of the book. We have left these in for those of you who own or want to buy the book. For ordering details, see Jan’s web site on her author page.
Part 1 of this series explored holistic treatment and remedies for conditions of the digestive and urinary systems during pregnancy. This installment of the examines natural treatments and remedies for conditions of the cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, nervous and respiratory systems.
CONDITIONS OF THE CARDIO-VASCULAR SYSTEM
These are much more frightening than they need to be, as they are usually a symptom of stress or anxiety rather than a heart condition. So the best way to treat them is by attending to stress. However, a few extra remedies include:
- Reflexology, which can be included in an overall calming foot massage. Reflexology area for treatment of palpitations: On the soles of the feet.
- Lime Flowers and Zizyphus are two useful and safe herbs to take, though Zizyphus is a warming herb and is better avoided if you feel too hot.
- Essential oils such as Lavender, Lemon Balm, Neroli, Ylang Ylang, Peppermint and Rosemary may be helpful. Peppermint and Rosemary should be used with caution (not in excessive amounts and not long term).
- Specifically helpful herbs are Motherwort and Hawthorn but both of these need to be used with caution in pregnancy and under professional supervision.
Hypertension, Toxaemia, and Pre-eclampsia
Hypertension (raised blood pressure) can take two forms during pregnancy. Chronic hypertension is a commonly experienced slight rise which occurs in pregnancy because of the extra demands on your metabolism, increased blood volume, and stress on the kidneys. This should not harm you or your baby, but needs to be watched carefully.
Gestational hypertension, or a steady rise in blood pressure after week 25, may be due to poor nutrition, especially a lack of protein (vegetarians beware), which is commonly thought to be the main cause of toxaemia and pre-eclampsia. It can also mean that the placenta or kidneys are not functioning as well as they could. This condition has also been linked to high levels of toxic metals such as copper or lead, which of course can occur when the levels of essential minerals, especially zinc, are low. Toxaemia is more common in first pregnancies, and may not recur in subsequent pregnancies.
If your blood pressure does increase, it's important to start treating it quickly so it doesn't progress to toxaemia or pre-eclampsia. Toxaemia means literally poisoning of the blood, so it's extra important to keep your kidneys healthy, especially as they also have a role in hypertension.
Pre-eclampsia is initially diagnosed by a steep rise in blood pressure, uric acid in the blood, a low urine output, fluid retention (oedema) and sudden weight gain. Singly, these symptoms may not be a cause for serious concern, but together they indicate pre-eclampsia. They may be accompanied by a general itchiness, and progress to a situation where protein appears in the urine. At this point there is a high risk of premature labour because of placental insufficiency, and the blood flow to the foetus is severely reduced, leading to a lack of oxygen.
Further symptoms, such as severe headaches, visual disturbances, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain, mean that there is a threat of the condition progressing to eclampsia, which is characterised by fits and even coma. At the appearance of this second level of symptoms, or if the threat to the child becomes too severe, induction or a Caesarean section is performed.
If your nutrition is good, your protein levels sufficient, your kidneys well supported, and especially if you have no personal or family history of hypertension, the chances are very good that you will not experience these problems. If you do, however, here are some remedies for the early stages. (Once it has progressed beyond these first stages more aggressive therapy and medical supervision is required.)
- First, rest.
- Avoid stimulants like cola drinks, coffee, teas and spicy foods.
- Exercise (see Chapter 9). Yoga is particularly helpful, but aerobic exercise is excellent if it has been a regular part of your routine throughout pregnancy.
- Allow yourself a healthy weight gain--certainly don't diet! But, on the other hand, make sure you aren't eating fatty and sugary foods.
- Eat calcium- and protein-rich foods, keep the ratio of protein to carbohydrate as we've suggested in the 'zone' diet in Chapter 3, and sparingly add salt (sea, rock or Celtic) to taste. To make sure that your salt requirements are not due to a depraved sense of taste, regularly use the zinc taste test to ascertain your zinc levels.
- Drink Nettle, Dandelion, and Lime Flowers teas regularly. Hops can also be helpful but only in the last trimester.
- Make sure you get adequate levels of vitamin E (for circulation), Max EPA (fish oils), vitamin B6, magnesium, calcium, potassium and zinc.
- If you feel that you have neglected your sources of calcium, magnesium and potassium, and need a quick boost, use the celloids (or tissue salts) calcium phosphate, magnesium phosphate and potassium chloride, which are the most easily assimilated forms of these minerals. Potassium-rich foods include bananas, dandelion leaves, chicory, mint and potato peel. It's important to keep your potassium-sodium ratio high, which is why you need to go easy on the salt (without restricting it altogether, if you feel a genuine need for it). Raw beetroot juice is also very helpful for this.
- Essential fatty acids (from Evening Primrose, deep-sea fish or Flaxseed oils), have been successfully used in the treatment of pre-eclampsia.
- Another nutrient which has been shown to be helpful is the amino acid L-Arginine (but don't use this if herpes is a problem).
- Herbs can help to keep your stress levels down. Try Lemon Balm, Cramp Bark and Green Oats.
- Garlic should be a regular part of your diet and supplement regimen. Onions, parsley and cucumber are excellent foods. Cucumbers, especially the yellow, over-ripe variety, are extremely effective in reducing blood pressure. You'll need a whole cucumber each day, or half a cup of juice, which may be easier to consume. They also relieve constipation and strengthen the kidneys.
- Hawthorn herb is specifically recommended for high blood pressure and is extremely effective. Its use in pregnancy should be supervised and, although there is no documented proof of problems, it should be avoided if possible in the first trimester, and used with caution in the second. Zizyphus is another helpful herb which is safe in pregnancy.
- Reflexology has been shown in some studies to be very effective in controlling blood pressure and treating toxaemia.
- Aromatherapy (with Lavender) can also help.
These can be treated in a similar way to haemorrhoids, with an additional recommendation to put the legs up (against a wall when lying on your back) and not to stand up for too long. Inverted yoga poses (with guidance from a teacher) and plenty of exercise are beneficial, and you may like to use support hose.
Vitamin E, garlic, onions and ginger (small doses only) all help your circulation, and bioflavonoids (especially Rutin), Oats and Buckwheat are important for capillary strength. Buckwheat and Elder Leaves are good sources of Rutin, but don't take Rutin as a separate (high dose) tablet in the first trimester as it may cause miscarriage. Nettle tea and Lecithin help to keep elasticity in the veins. Bilberry, Ginkgo and Hawthorn are not only high in bioflavonoids, but also support healthy circulation. (Ginkgo and Hawthorn should be taken in small doses only, under supervision.) Compresses can also be helpful (see 'Constipation and haemorrhoids' earlier in this chapter).
If you are taking the recommended level of folic acid (400 mcg), and monitoring your iron levels, you should be able to sail through pregnancy with no anaemia. Foods rich in folic acid include dandelion leaves, parsley, watercress, dark green leafy vegetables and whole grains, so make sure you have plenty of these (but parsley should not be eaten in excess, so don't have a large serving of tabouli every day!). Please remember to take folic acid in balance with the rest of the B complex vitamins.
Ferritin levels (ascertained by a simple blood test) will let you know if you need more iron. Once again, we remind you to take only organic forms of iron, and only if in proven need (though you do need to check regularly). The celloid (or tissue salt) ferrum phosphate is a form of iron which is easily assimilated. You may need to increase your intake of lean beef, but parsley is also a good source of iron, as is seaweed, and so are the herbs Nettle and Dandelion Root. Vitamin C must be present to aid absorption (remember, coffee and tea will inhibit it).
Gum disease (gingivitis) can be a sign of vitamin C and bioflavonoid deficiency, so make sure you're getting plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Your gums will also benefit from eating crunchy and fibrous foods, so eat raw vegetables when you can.
An effective mouthwash can be made from Calendula, Echinacea, St John's Wort, Myrrh and Sage in warm water, or a few drops of essential oil of Fennel, Lavender and Myrrh. Do not swallow the mouthwash; spit it out.
Clean your teeth extra well, and massage the gums.
CONDITIONS OF THE MUSCULO-SKELETAL SYSTEM
Lower back ache is common in pregnancy, as the increasing size of your baby changes your posture and centre of gravity, and as the ligaments and joints relax, due to hormonal output. If the kidneys are under stress, this may also contribute to backache (so pay attention to "Preventative Kidney Support" earlier in this article). Exercise, especially yoga, and stretching exercises can also relieve muscle spasm and contraction, and nutrition will also have an essential role to play. The following hints will do a lot to prevent or alleviate pain.
- Keep your lower back supported. Never cross your legs when sitting. Try not to stand (or sit) for long periods.
- Make sure you're getting adequate calcium, magnesium and protein.
- Get adequate exercise, and plenty of stretching. The pelvic tilt is particularly helpful--sit between your feet, or alternatively, sit on your heels. Keep your knees together. Lean back onto your hands, tightening your buttock muscles and keeping your arms straight. Tuck in your pelvis so that your pubic bone lifts up in front. Hold for a few seconds and release. Repeat several times.
- Swap massages with a friend, or treat yourself to a professional session, regularly.
- If massage isn't sufficient, try osteopathic treatment. (This is quite safe even in late pregnancy, in the hands of a professional.)
- You may like to use a herbal liniment, such as Wintergreen oil or Tiger Balm.
- Essential oils can also be used in massage--try Lavender, Mandarin or Chamomile.
- Sleep with pillows in strategic spots (under your knees, belly and supporting your back). Make sure your mattress is supportive and firm. If not, put a board under it.
- Don't wear high heels. Try not to reach above your head.
- Take great care, if you must lift anything at all heavy, to bend your knees, not your back. Also heed this advice when bending down for any reason.
- Your posture should be such that your lower back is as straight as possible--pull your bottom in under your tummy as much as you can. To learn more about posture consult an Alexander or Feldenkrais Technique practitioner (see Contacts and Resources).
- Try Epsom salts baths or heat in any form (a hot water bottle is ideal).
- If there is any nerve irritation (sciatica etc.) St John's Wort will help to reduce the pain in the nerve endings. The oil from St John's Wort or from Comfrey can be an excellent aid to massage, to relieve pain.
- Orgasm is great for any pelvic congestion--one of the more pleasurable remedies! Make sure you've discussed with your partner which positions for intercourse put least strain on your back and tummy.
- The homoeopathic remedy Pulsatilla may help, as may Arnica, Hypericum, Rhus Tox or Bryonia.
- Try to avoid taking pain relievers, as even over the counter drugs can have adverse side effects (see Chapter 5).
- Acupuncture can quite miraculously relieve pain, but see a professional.
A helpful acupressure point to relieve backache is as follows:
- Small Intestine 3: Press on the end of the fold of the little finger nearest the hand when your hand is closed like a fist. Rub clockwise.
There may be a combination of factors predisposing you to leg cramps in pregnancy, especially in the last trimester. The main cause is an imbalance of calcium and magnesium (too little). Your calcium and magnesium reserves take a beating in the second trimester, when your baby's bones are forming. In a few women, a lack of sodium (salt) can be a factor, which is why we say use salt 'to taste'. Pressure from the enlarged uterus on the nerves supporting the legs and slower circulation may also be partly to blame.
- Keep your calcium and magnesium supplement at the recommended dosage, and eat lots of dark green vegetables, grains and seeds.
- Keep taking your B-complex vitamins, potassium and vitamin E for good circulation.
- Follow a regular, appropriate exercise routine, flex your calf muscles daily (see below) and do some regular foot circles (see 'Fluid retention' earlier in this chapter).
- Raise the bottom of your bed; put your feet up regularly.
- Reduce the phosphorus in your diet (less meat, fewer dairy products and no soft drinks).
- Be sure you're still getting plenty of protein. Fish, nuts, soy and other legumes are good phosphorus-free sources.
- Try support hose.
- Avoid heavy lifting, pointing your toes, and quick movements.
- Take the celloids (or tissue salts) calcium and magnesium phosphate (3 tablets) before going to bed. These are the most easily assimilated and fast acting forms of these minerals.
- If pain in the leg does not respond to these remedies, or subside naturally, you should see a doctor to explore the possibility of a venous thrombosis (blood clot) in the leg, to which you are more susceptible during pregnancy.
- Flex your foot upwards towards the knee, and press your heel firmly into the floor, on a hard surface.
- Stand on a cold surface.
- Massage the leg (towards the heart).
- Apply hot wet towels to the calf muscle.
- Use the essential oil Lavender for faster recovery. After cramping you can be left with sore muscles and repeating cramps for quite a while.
- Sip tea or fluid extract (a few drops in water) of Cramp Bark, Black Haw, Skullcap or Valerian, every 10-20 minutes, until you recover.
- If leg cramps are due to a cramped nerve, try osteopathy or St John's Wort oil in a massage.
- For better circulation, try Ginkgo herb or Ginger tea (neither to excess).
A helpful acupressure point to relieve leg cramps is as follows:
- Bladder 57: In the centre of the back of the leg, at the base of the calf muscle.
CONDITIONS OF THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
It's quite normal to feel a bit more tired than usual during pregnancy, and you should make every attempt to accommodate this in your daily life by resting more and cutting back on commitments where possible. Good nutrition is essential for high energy levels, and particular attention must be given to monitoring your iron stores (see Chapters 4 and 11, and 'Anaemia' earlier in this chapter). Other possible causes of fatigue include:
- Low blood sugar--eat little and often, avoid foods containing sugar.
- Low thyroid function--if you suspect this (typical signs are low body temperature, excessive weight gain and fatigue, dry or thickened skin, hair loss, aching muscles, hoarse voice, pins and needles in the hands, constipation), then include kelp, potassium and L-tyrosine in your supplements.
- Low adrenal function, which can be the result of stress. See Chapter 10 for tips on stress control, and use Withania herb as a tonic. This herb, sometimes called Indian Ginseng, has the supportive and rejuvenating qualities of Ginseng, but is not overly stimulating, and has a calming action, assisting sound sleep.
- Anxiety, or nervous tension, can contribute to fatigue. As well as our suggestions on stress control in Chapter 10, try Green Oats (as a herb), Oat Straw tea or rolled oats for breakfast--a wonderful nerve "tonic."
Fainting and Dizzy Spells
Dizziness is a common complaint of pregnancy, fainting less normal, but both have a common cause in lowered blood pressure and lack of circulation to the head. These occur because blood tends to pool in the legs and feet and also the expanding uterus increases the demand for blood. In the first trimester these effects are compounded by the rapidly expanding circulatory system's demand for extra blood, and in the second and third trimesters by the pressure of the foetus on maternal blood vessels. Higher levels of progesterone also dilate the blood vessels, leading to lower blood pressure. Avoid standing up too quickly, as this can cause dizziness if blood pressure is low.
You may also feel dizzy as a result of low blood sugar levels, or if you are too hot (body heat is increased in pregnancy due to the high levels of progesterone).
- Don't stand for too long.
- Get up slowly and gradually, especially out of a bath (which should not be too hot--high temperatures can harm your baby).
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Eat little and often, especially almonds and other nuts, but not sugary foods.
- Keep up your intake of vitamin E to help circulation and decrease the need for oxygen.
- Take Ginkgo herb to improve cerebral circulation.
- Keep cool -- seek fresh air, and wear loose clothing.
- CURE. If you feel light headed or feel you might faint, lie down and put your feet up above your head (against a wall) or sit and place your head between your knees (if you can reach them!). Alternatively, kneel on one knee and lean forward. If fainting occurs frequently, seek medical advice.
This condition is often alleviated with adequate supplementation of folic acid and the B-complex vitamins. It can also be associated with allergic response (see Chapter 8). If this is particularly a night-time experience, it suggests an allergy to dust-mites, or something in your bedroom. Good results have been achieved by ensuring that all electric gadgets in the bedroom are unplugged (so there is no electro-magnetic pollution). Other people have had relief by using homoeopathic Coffea (caffeine), and it's very important not to indulge in coffee or other stimulants.
CONDITIONS OF THE RESPIRATORY SYSTEM
You can feel short of breath as your uterus expands and places increasing pressure on your diaphragm. This can be a particular problem when lying down, and you may prefer to sleep on your side, or even propped up on some pillows. It's also important to stay calm (see Chapter 10 for stress control). Yoga can help, and osteopathy or postural techniques such as Alexander or Feldenkrais may help to alleviate the pressure.
Breathing techniques such as those taught in Yoga or antenatal classes can be useful. High levels of progesterone influence your breathing and it automatically becomes deeper--Mother Nature is really quite extraordinarily clever!
It's a good idea to practise deep breathing, which is also very calming. Place your hand on your belly (or over your belly in the later stages of pregnancy). Practise breathing by imagining your lungs as two balloons, filling and emptying. Your hand (and diaphragm area) should rise as your lungs fill and drop as they empty. It's remarkable how many people try to breathe in by contracting their diaphragm... very counterproductive!
Acupuncture can also be useful, or you can try pressure on Pericardium 6, the same point we recommended in Chapter 10 (but not to be used in the fourth month of pregnancy).
If breathlessness is severe, and/or accompanied by a bluish tinge around the lips or finger tips, and/or chest pain or rapid pulse, the time has come for an immediate trip to the hospital.
Part 3 of this series covers natural treatments and remedies for conditions of the skin, endocrine system, immune system and reproductive system during pregnancy.