Breast is Best… Unless It’s Not

Breast is best… We’ve all heard it a million times at this point, but what if the breast isn’t an option?

When I was pregnant with my son, I spent a lot of time imagining my easy transition into motherhood. I’d babywear, cosleep, and do all of the other things that modern, natural-minded moms are supposed to do. Breastfeeding wasn’t even a question… I took a class, read the books, and tossed every one of the 17 million formula coupons that arrived in the mail during my third trimester, confident that breastfeeding would come completely naturally.

So imagine my surprise when it didn’t.

I’d read up about what to do if your baby had trouble latching, but my son had the opposite issue—he had a death grip latch. Anytime my breast got anywhere near his mouth he would immediately latch on with the suction of an industrial strength vacuum. He’d usually miss my nipple the few times, no matter how carefully I offered it, and I ended up with dark purple hickies covering my breasts. My nipples were so sore that my toes literally curled every time he actually found one. If he wasn’t latched properly I’d often leave him as he was just to avoid the pain of relatching, which I knew was just making matters worse. A lactation consultant was able to offer a little bit of advice, but mostly just told me to be thankful that his latch was strong and that the pain would subside “eventually.”

In spite of my intense discomfort (which is putting it really, really mildly), I persisted. Hoping to prolong the amount of time before my fertility returned I followed all the rules of LAM (the lactational amenorrhea method of birth control). When I started my period at eight weeks anyway, I started loosening up on the rules. I occasionally let my husband or mom give him a bottle of breastmilk without pumping. If he slept longer than six hours at night, I slept too. I figured that my milk was fairly well-established at that point, so I didn’t need to worry about supply as much as I had during those first eight weeks.

At each visit with his pediatrician, my son’s weight slid a little further down on the chart. Our doctor told us not to worry though, that losing a few percentage points wasn’t uncommon. Around four months I started to suspect that my milk supply was diminishing. The amount I pumped during each of my nightly pumping sessions decreased steadily until I was lucky to be getting a quarter ounce from each breast. Everything I read online told me that I should have faith in my body—that pumping wasn’t an accurate indicator of the amount of milk my baby was getting, that breastfed babies were just fussier than formula fed ones, that my son’s frustration while trying to feed was normal.

I started crying to my husband at night, telling him in whispers that I was afraid there was something really wrong with our son… He’d stopped smiling and babbling. He was less active. He cried constantly. But everyone kept telling me that he was fine, he was fine, he was fine.

Well, as it turns out, he wasn’t fine—he was slowly starving to death.

At our six month appointment our pediatrician told us that he’d actually lost weight over the past two month. Not just percentage points on the chart… He had actually lost weight.

She recommended metabolic testing to see if he was having some sort of problem processing the nutrition he was getting, but I knew better… He wasn’t getting any nutrition. Despite everything and everyone that had told me otherwise, deep down I knew I wasn’t producing enough milk. I just trusted them more than I trusted myself—lesson learned.

In spite of all that, I tried for another seven months to get my milk back… I took herbs, pumped constantly (lucky to get a few drops during each session), held my son skin to skin whenever possible, and kept trying to put him on the breast everyday, even though it usually ended in tears of frustration for both of us. In retrospect I feel like I missed out on all the joy I should’ve felt during my first year of motherhood because I was so obsessed with my inability to feed my son in the way I had been told was best.

When my daughter was born I swore I would do everything in my power to keep my milk supply up (but also that I wouldn’t prolong our misery or let her starve if I couldn’t). I refused to give her even one bottle. I put her on the breast every two to three hours during the day and never let her go more than four hours at night without eating—even if that meant waking her up. I had a stock of lactation herbs on hand to take at the first sign of diminished supply. This time, I wouldn’t make the same mistakes I’d made with my son.

Despite all of that (and despite the fact that I had a much easier time feeding her than I’d had with my son) she slowly slid down the weight chart too, from the 66th percentile at birth to just below the 10th at four months. My pumping output began to diminish as well. I starting taking herbs to compensate, gradually increasing them until I was literally taking a handful of pills three times a day.

I had told myself that I wouldn’t stubbornly try to hold out with breastfeeding if things didn’t work out the second time around, but the disappointment was still crushing. Fortunately, I knew from experience that torturing myself and my daughter wasn’t going to help the situation and that getting her the nutrition she needed was priority number one. I started supplementing and continued to put her on the breast as long as I could.

In a way, having the same experience the second time around actually alleviated a lot of the guilt I felt around not being able to breastfeed my son for an extended period. For all the things I had told myself I did wrong the first time, the same thing happened even when I knew I had done all the things right. Apparently my body just has a four month limit on breastfeeding babies. After that, it’s time for those freeloaders to get a damn job and support themselves for a change.

I still believe that breastfeeding is best—if you can (and want to) do it. But there are so many different reasons that it doesn’t work… I know I was a total judgmental bitch about formula feeding before I found myself in the position to need to do it myself and I really hope that more women sharing stories about their problems breastfeeding will change the minds of others like (the old) me.

A big part of my problem with formula has always been (and still is) that most of it that you can buy in the US is absolute garbage. When I had to start supplementing with my son I did a lot of research and decided that a homemade formula was the way to go. With my daughter I’ve done a combination of homemade and a European brand called Hipp. While neither is perfect, I felt more comfortable with those options than anything I could find locally.

In my next post I’ll share the recipe I used for homemade formula, and the herbs I used to keep my supply up with my daughter. Until then, I’d love to hear your breastfeeding story! Did it come easy for you? Or did you have problems too? Let me know in the comments!



Ah, the joys of pregnancy…

As if our bellies weren’t feeling full enough, what with the whole baby-living-in-there-24/7 thing, constipation during pregnancy can make you feel truly awful. While constipation is one of the most common pregnancy symptoms that can hit during any trimester (and definitely one of the most annoying), it’s also one of the least discussed.

There are several reasons you’re likely to experience constipation at some point in your pregnancy. The first, and most obvious, is that carrying a baby around in an already crowded abdomen can put a lot of pressure on your intestines. As your organs start to shift around to accommodate your growing uterus, things tend to get squeezed which can slow down the movement of stool through the intestinal track.

To add insult to injury, high levels of progesterone that occur during pregnancy tend to relax smooth muscle—which just happens to be the kind of muscle responsible for moving food and waste through your digestive track. As the muscles relax, transit time slows, and things have a tendency to… well, back up.

Another common constipation culprit, both in pregnancy and at other times, is supplementing with elemental iron. This is the form of iron found in most prenatal vitamins and it can cause all sorts of digestive problems in women who are sensitive to it. I’ve written on the ways that prenatal vitamins containing this form of iron can contribute to morning sickness, but they can also slow bowel transit times and contribute to constipation.

Fortunately, there are several easy, natural ways to treat constipation during pregnancy.

Switch Prenatals

If you’re taking a prenatal vitamin that contains iron and are having trouble with constipation, consider switching supplements. Many women who have adequate iron stores going into pregnancy don’t need to supplement with higher levels and can get away with taking a high quality multivitamin along with extra B6, B12, and folate (this is the combo I take during pregnancy). If you’re concerned with anemia or your doctor has suggested taking additional iron, try a food-based prenatal that contains a form of iron that is more easily absorbed by your body and less likely to cause digestive problems.

Just be aware that not all so-called food-based supplements are created equal… Since the term “food-based” is unregulated when it comes to supplements, many brands just throw a couple of true food-based nutrients into their existing mix of synthetic vitamins, slap a new label on the bottle, and jack up the price accordingly. Two brands I trust are Innate Response and New Chapter.

Change Your Diet

In addition to switching your prenatal, be sure you’re you’re getting enough veggies and fruit which contain the fiber and water needed to keep you regular. If you’ve been following the traditional advice for lessening morning sickness in your first trimester (i.e. eat lots of starchy carbs all day long to keep your blood sugar steady and avoid upsetting your stomach), your diet is probably significantly contributing to your constipation. Click here to find out what you should be eating instead to really keep morning sickness at bay.

Drink More Water

Along those same lines, drinking enough water is also necessary to keep things moving in your digestive track. Be sure you’re drinking enough to keep from getting thirsty and if you’re experiencing constipation, try adding in a few extra glasses throughout the day. Walking more can also help with constipation, but be sure to increase your water intake even more as you increase your activity level.

Load Up On Probiotics

Probiotics can also help with constipation. Try adding some full-fat, unsweetened yogurt or kefir to your diet, or add in more fermented traditional foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kvass, or kombucha.

There’s been a lot of controversy lately over whether or not probiotic supplements can be trusted after one independent research study found that many brands contained ingredients not listed on the label and another found evidence of fungal contamination. Other studies have found that many supplements don’t contain the levels of bacteria they claim to. Since researchers aren’t naming the brands they tested, I can’t currently recommend any widely available supplements and I suggest getting your probiotics from food (kefir is my personal favorite).

There are a few brands of high-quality probiotics I trust that are available through licensed healthcare practitioners. Unfortunately, they all require continuous refrigeration, so shipping on these products can often be two to three times the cost of the product itself. If you can find a local practitioner that carries them though, I like probiotics from Innate Response, Klaire Labs, and Thorne Research.

Supplement With Magnesium

If your diet is up to par, you’re getting enough activity, and you know you’re drinking enough water to prevent getting dehydrated, you might want to try taking powdered magnesium citrate. Most pregnant women are deficient in this mineral and it’s my secret weapon for combatting all sorts of pregnancy symptoms, from morning sickness to insomnia, anxiety, nighttime leg cramps, and more.

To use magnesium citrate to treat constipation in pregnancy, start by taking a half teaspoon in warm water before bedtime and gradually increase your dose until you’re having normal bowel movements that are comfortably soft, but not loose. If you get to the point where you’re taking more than a teaspoon, you can divide your dose so you’re taking half in the morning and half at night. Magnesium can also help with insomnia though, so if you’re having trouble sleeping you might find that taking your entire dose at night helps.

Take magnesium at least two hours away from any calcium supplements or calcium rich foods (i.e. don’t take it with a glass of milk). And although magnesium is usually safe to take at normal dosages during pregnancy, be sure to check with your midwife or OB before adding this (or any) supplement to your daily regimen.

Finally, avoid taking stimulant laxatives during pregnancy, including herbal formulas or teas. Many herbal laxatives contains senna or cascara sagrada, both of which are unsafe to use during pregnancy.

Number five was a lifesaver for me!


Is There Lead Lurking in Your Organic Dark Chocolate?

I’ve got some really bad news for you.

Are you sitting down?

You know that super-healthy, organic dark chocolate you’ve been eating? The stuff that you’ve convinced yourself is practically like taking a really good tasting vitamin every night?

There’s a REALLY good chance it’s got high levels of lead and/or cadmium (another dangerous heavy metal) in it.

Yep, seriously.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but a new independent study that tested a really wide range of chocolate brands found that nearly every bar of dark chocolate sampled contained levels of lead and/or cadmium that are much higher than what’s considered safe—we’re talking high enough to warrant a warning label under current government rules.

This is especially worrisome for pregnant women since lead exposure during pregnancy can interfere with fetal brain development and may lead to slowed reflexes, lower IQ, developmental disorders, and other markers of impaired neurological development in babies and children exposed to lead in the womb. Additionally, exposure to cadmium has been linked to liver, kidney, and bone damage. Children and babies (including those in utero) are most susceptible to this type heavy metal poisoning and even low levels of exposure have been shown to cause irreversible damage.

Researchers aren’t yet sure what’s causing the contamination, but since the highest levels of lead and cadmium were primarily found in the chocolates with the highest percentage of cocoa, it’s likely that the heavy metals are somehow finding their way into cocoa beans during growing or processing. Because of that, while you’re pregnant (or trying to conceive) I’d recommend avoiding any brand of dark chocolate not mentioned as safe in the study, as well as cocoa powder, bittersweet chocolate, unsweetened chocolate, and cacao until more testing has been done to find and eliminate the source of contamination. I’d also avoid giving your kids any of these products or those that contain them.

Two brands of dark chocolate that were found to be safe in the study were Endangered Species Natural Dark Chocolate (72% cocoa) and Ghiradelli Intense Dark Midnight Reverie (86% Cacao). An insane number (including products made by Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Green and Black, Hershey’s, See’s, Theo, Mars, Lindt, Godiva, and even others made by Ghiradelli) contained unsafe levels of heavy metals. For a full list of tested brands and the type of contamination found, click here.

Is There LEAD Lurking in Your Organic Dark Chocolate?

Too Many Pills In Pregnancy

Last week, the New York Times posted a great blog on the recent upswing in the use of prescription and over the counter drugs during pregnancy… The bottom line? We have no idea how most of these drugs affect the fetus, since very few have been tested for use during pregnancy.

Natural doesn’t always mean safe either, but I firmly believe that traditional remedies that have been used for generations without harm are always a better alternative than untested pharmaceuticals.

Click here to read the full blog post on the New York Times website.


Swelling and Water Retention

I’d be willing to bet that every woman reading this has experienced bloating and water retention at one time or another. Although normal hormonal fluctuations can cause fluid retention at any time, there is no time when this is more obvious than in pregnancy. In fact fluid retention in the form of swollen ankles is probably one of the most well-known symptoms of later pregnancy.

Water retention occurs during pregnancy for a variety of reasons. The first, and the one you’re probably familiar with from your pre-pregnancy days, is fluctuating hormones. The surge in hormones you experience just prior to your period is actually your body getting ready for pregnancy. The rising levels of estrogen and progesterone that occur premenstrually trigger an increase in aldosterone – a hormone that encourages your kidneys to hold onto water.

If you don’t get pregnant during your cycle, these hormone levels drop, signaling the start of your menses and allowing your body to release its premenstrual water weight gain. When you do become pregnant, those hormones stay elevated and you continue to hold onto the fluids you’ve accumulated.

One of the reasons for this increase in fluid retention is that your blood volume increases dramatically during pregnancy. This increase in blood volume really steps up in the second and third trimester, which is why it’s likely that you’ll notice a big increase in swelling during that time. Since your blood is over 80% water by volume, it makes sense that your body would need to hold onto a lot of water in order to increase the production of blood.

Making swelling worse is the increased pressure your growing uterus puts on the blood vessels that carry blood to and from your legs. One of the reasons swelling is usually the most noticeable in the legs, especially during the third trimester, is that this pressure makes it harder for your body to move blood and lymph out of your legs. Gravity doesn’t help this process and if you spend long periods on your feet, you’ll probably notice the swelling gets even worse.

So what can you do to prevent or decrease swelling and fluid retention?

#1 – Drink More Water and Eat More High Water Content Foods
I know this is one of those tips that’s all over the internet, but in this case there’s a reason for it. If you limit your fluid intake, your body will freak out and think you’re in danger of becoming dehydrated. It will compensate by hoarding every ounce of fluid you do take in.

In addition to drinking more water, eating more high water content fruits and vegetables can do wonders for fluid retention. You know the old spa trick of adding cucumber slices to pitchers of water? Well, there’s a reason for it. Not only do many juicy fruits and veggies contain compounds that can act a diuretics, the water and electrolytes contained in them will convince your body that it’s in no danger of dehydration. In addition to cucumber, melons, citrus fruits, greens, and berries are all excellent choices.

#2 – Walk More
Another well-known tip that actually works is to increase exercise, especially walking. The main way your body gets rid of excess fluid left behind in the tissues is through the lymphatic system. Unlike your circulatory system, your lymphatic system doesn’t have it’s own pump. It relies on movement to help move lymph fluid around the body. One of the best ways to accomplish this is walking.

Every time you take a step, all throughout your body muscles contract and relax, and joints flex and extend. All this movement is perfect for helping your lymph system move fluids throughout your body. While standing still or sitting can make fluids pool in your legs and increase swelling, walking actually does the exact opposite. Try getting up and walking around frequently throughout the day to decrease swelling in your legs during late pregnancy.

#3 – Cut Out Sugar and Grains
When most people think of water retention, they don’t usually think of sugar, they think of another white powdered food additive – salt. But unless you have a salt sensitivity or your kidneys aren’t working efficiently due to disease, salt probably has less to do with your tendency to retain water than you think.

A much more likely culprit is sugar. The reason for this is two-fold. One, sugar creates inflammation in the body, causing the release of many anti-inflammatory compounds, including histamine. Among other things, histamine increases the permeability of blood vessels, primarily to allow white blood cells and fluids access to areas of injury (this is one of the reasons you experience swelling when you sprain your ankle or slam your finger in the car door). However in the case of systemic inflammation (like that caused by sugar), this leaking of fluids into the surrounding tissue does not serve a specific function and can increase swelling all over the body.

The second has to do with the way your body stores glucose, one of the building blocks of sugar. If your body has more glucose circulating than it can use at one time, it converts this sugar to glycogen to be stored in muscles and fat cells. In order for the glycogen to make it’s way into the cells, it must first attach itself to several molecules of water. So in order to store extra sugar, your body stores three to four times the amount of water along with it, leading to swelling and fluid retention.

Eating grain products has a similar effect. In addition to being some of the most highly allergenic and inflammation-causing foods we consume, grains (even those “healthy” whole grains we keep hearing so much about) break down into glucose, so they’re processed and stored in the same way as glucose – along with the extra water.

Now I’m not suggesting you go on Atkins while you’re pregnant… Or anytime for that matter. You should continue to eat good for you carbs like fruits and veggies, including starchy veggies like sweet potatoes. But eliminating the excess carbs in sugar and grain products will go a long way toward enhancing your overall health and eliminating fluid retention.

#4 – Epsom Salt Soak and Massage
After trying the things above, if you find you’re still having trouble with swelling, you may want to try an epsom salt foot soak. While plain epsom salt will work, you may want to consider a soak formulated specifically for pregnancy, like this one. The magnesium in epsom salt can sooth inflamed tissues (as well as prevent nighttime leg cramps common in the third trimester) and increase circulation. Most soaks that are formulated for pregnancy include additional herbs and / or essential oils that are known to reduce swelling.

After soaking your feet, massage them gently with oil to further increase circulation. Any high quality oil will work, but again, oils specifically formulated for use during pregnancy (like this one) will usually contain additional ingredients to improve circulation and reduce swelling.

Have you found any of these methods to be effective for reducing or eliminating swelling? In what other ways have you dealt with fluid retention during pregnancy?

Avoiding Swelling and Water Retention in Pregnancy

Natural Morning Sickness Remedies: Switching Prenatal Vitamins

Are your prenatal vitamins doing more harm than good?

One of the most common causes of nausea and vomiting in early pregnancy isn’t a result of morning sickness at all… Your symptoms may actually be caused by something you probably think are doing nothing but good things for you and your developing baby: your prenatal vitamins.

Many women (including yours truly) are sensitive to the elemental iron contained in most prenatal vitamins. But unless they’ve tried taking high dose iron supplements before getting pregnant, they may have no idea their vitamins are what’s making them sick.

I found out about my sensitivity the hard way in my early twenties… I started taking prenatals in an attempt to get my hair to grow faster and soon was puking every morning before heading out the door to work. It took me a few weeks to connect the two, but once I stopped the vitamins my stomach issues disappeared almost instantly. When I asked my doctor about the reaction she told me that iron sensitivities are extremely common and to look for an iron-free prenatal.

While it’s true that your need for iron increases as your blood volume increases during pregnancy, not all women need to supplement their diets with iron. Many women who enter pregnancy with adequate iron stores have no problem keeping up with this demand through their normal diets.

Additionally, your iron requirement really only increases when your body starts to step up red blood cell production, which doesn’t occur until sometime in the second trimester. In fact, your body’s need for iron actually decreases in the first trimester since you’re no longer losing blood through menstruation. Your body’s ability to absorb iron also increases the farther along you are in your pregnancy, correlating to your increased need for the mineral.

If you’re extremely sensitive to iron, talk to your practitioner about whether or not you really need to be supplementing it. If your red blood cell counts are in the normal range and you’re not having any symptoms of iron-deficient anemia (many of these symptoms can be confused with normal symptoms of pregnancy, such as fatigue, dizziness and headache, but others such as brittle nails, mouth sores, paleness and cold hands and feet should act as red flags), you may not need to take iron during your pregnancy. Increasing your intake of red meat or cooking in a cast iron pan may even be enough to keep your levels where they need to be. If this is the case for you, rather than a true prenatal I’d recommend a high quality food-based supplement combined with extra folate, B6 and B12 (this is the combination of supplements I’ve taken throughout my pregnancy).

If you do need to supplement with iron, wait until your morning sickness symptoms have begun to subside and then try a food-based prenatal that contains a form of iron that may be easier on your stomach. I’m completely unable to take elemental iron in any amount, but have no problem with moderate doses of iron found in food-based supplements. My favorite high quality food-based supplements are made by the brand Innate Response (available online or through health care practitioners), but I also recommend those made by New Chapter which can be easier to find locally and are carried in most natural food stores.

Are you sensitive to iron-containing supplements? What ways have you found to increase your iron intake that don’t irritate your stomach? Let me know in the comments below!

Natural Morning Sickness Remedies: DIY Acupuncture / Acupressure

As an acupuncturist, it probably comes as no surprise that I would recommend acupuncture as the perfect remedy for morning sickness. I’ve been using acupuncture to treat nausea and vomiting for years and there are many good points that can be used for that purpose.

One point that’s commonly recommended for morning sickness is called P6 (or Neiguan) and is located a couple of inches above the wrist on the inside of the arm. Many people even recommend Sea-Bands for morning sickness which are bands made to combat motion sickness and are designed to stimulate this point.

While P6 is a great all-purpose point for nausea, it’s not the best choice for morning sickness specifically. There is another point called KD27 (or Shufu) that is a much better (if lesser known) option. This is the point I credit with keeping me sane during my first trimester… While it didn’t completely eliminate my nausea, wearing tacks designed to constantly stimulate this point kept my discomfort to a minimum and relegated my morning sickness to the evening hours, allowing me to work comfortably all day. If I took the tacks off for too long, I’d be hit with all day queasiness that would make me want to curl up in bed all day and hide.

While I strongly recommend seeing an acupuncturist to locate this point properly (see to find a low-cost community acupuncture clinic near you), you can locate and stimulate these points on your own if that’s not a possibility.

How to locate KD27:
To locate the point, stand in front of a mirror and locate your clavicle (the horizontal bone that runs along the top of your chest and connects your breastplate to the top of your shoulders). Feel along the top of the clavicle toward the center of your chest until you feel the place where the clavicle meets the breastbone on each side. Now move your fingers down and slightly outward until you feel a slight indentation where the bottom of your clavicle meets the breastbone. Press around in this area until you find a a point that is more sensitive than the rest of this area. The sensitive point in this indentation is KD27.

How to stimulate Kd27:
There are several ways to stimulate this acupuncture point.

First, you can use basic acupressure techniques. When feeling nauseated, locate this point and use the tip of your index finger to rub it firmly, using a small circular motion. You can also press on the point, applying firm pressure for at least 30 to 45 seconds. Acupressure at this point may help relieve acute nausea, but will probably not do much to prevent feelings of morning sickness unless you are stimulating this point constantly throughout the day.

The next most effective technique is to apply seeds or beads that will keep constant pressure on the points. These seeds (commonly called “ear seeds” since they’re often used to stimulate points on the ear) are available through acupuncturists, or they can be ordered on Amazon. Traditionally the seeds used by acupuncturists are from the vaccaria plant and are attached to a paper or woven adhesive backing, similar to a band-aid. Some acupuncturists now use beads made of gold, silver, or even magnets instead of vaccaria seeds, although I prefer the traditional seeds myself. These seeds can be applied to KD27 and worn for extended periods, then replaced when the adhesive backing comes loose from the skin.

The third option, which is by far the most effective, is using tiny acupuncture tacks that pierce the skin and can also be worn long term. Similar to vaccaria seeds, the needles are attached to an adhesive backing and can be replaced when the adhesive starts to lose its stickiness. Although I highly recommend having tacks initially placed by an acupuncturist (you can replace them yourself after your initial treatment), they are also readily available on Amazon.

You may feel a small pinch when the tacks are first applied, but they are completely painless once in place. Although infection at the needling site is extremely uncommon (I’ve never seen an infection from acupuncture needles or tacks during my ten years in practice), the skin should be wiped clean with alcohol to remove bacteria before inserting the tacks.

Each of these methods can be used continuously until morning sickness begins to subside, usually around 12 to 14 weeks.

Have you tried using acupuncture or acupressure for morning sickness? Did it work? Let me know in the comments below!

Natural Morning Sickness Remedies: Magnesium

Magnesium is one of those minerals that can seemingly do no harm. Beloved by natural living enthusiasts everywhere, the lists of conditions it’s been credited with curing go on and on… Leg cramps, heart palpitations, insomnia, constipation, migraines, anxiety, even incontinence. And now we can add morning sickness to that list.

I’ve read several explanations regarding the mechanism by which magnesium lessens the symptoms of morning sickness, but frankly, none of them really stand up to close scrutiny. The most popular theory I’ve run across online credits magnesium’s ability to lower cortisol levels. While it’s true that magnesium supplementation has been shown to reduce levels of this hormone, cortisol production actually peaks later in pregnancy. That means that if cortisol was to blame for morning sickness, we’d be feeling nauseated later in pregnancy, not in the first trimester.

Regardless of how it works, I have found that using a magnesium supplement can reduce the symptoms of morning sickness. For me, it seemed to take away the feeling that my digestive tract was super-irritated which was one of the worst parts of morning sickness for me. It can also lessen nausea and aversions to foods and smells.

There are several ways to increase your intake of magnesium. The best is probably to up your intake of magnesium-rich foods such as nuts and seeds, spinach, and black beans. The magnesium found in foods is most readily absorbed by your body, so if you can tolerate eating foods that are high in magnesium, consider adding them to your daily diet. It’s likely however, that you may require additional supplementation if your morning sickness symptoms are severe.

While there are many forms of magnesium supplements available, I prefer powdered magnesium citrate, taken before bedtime. The most popular and widely available brand of magnesium citrate is probably Natural Calm, but independent testing of this supplement has shown it may contain unsafe levels of lead. Not the best thing to be ingesting while pregnant (or at any time for that matter). It’s entirely possible that the lead issue had been resolved, but just to be safe, I prefer Magnesium Serene (manufactured by Source Naturals and available in several flavors — I’m partial to the tangerine).

Start by taking a half teaspoon in warm water before bedtime and gradually increase your dose until you start to experience loose stools. Then back down a bit until you’re having normal bowel movements and stay at that dose. Take it at least two hours away from any calcium supplements you may be taking, or calcium rich foods (ie don’t take it with a glass of milk). And although magnesium is usually safe to take at normal dosages during pregnancy, be sure to check with your midwife or OB before adding this (or any) supplement to your daily regimen.

The last option is topical magnesium oil or gel. Topical magnesium is gaining in popularity, but may people find that it’s irritating to their skin. It has been purported that topical magnesium is better absorbed by the body and some people swear by it, but I have personally never had great results with it for morning sickness. I do recommend it for leg cramps that may occur later in pregnancy.

Have you used magnesium to combat morning sickness symptoms? What form have you found to work best for you? Let me know in the comments below!

Natural Morning Sickness Remedies: Herbal Teas

It’s no secret that I think much of the morning sickness advice dispensed online is terribly misguided. There are a few instances however, where conventional wisdom is actually spot on. For example, two of the most well-know remedies for morning sickness are, for many women, two of the most effective: ginger and peppermint. While both of these remedies can be taken in many forms, I usually recommend them to my patients in the form of herbal tea.

Ginger has long been recognized for its ability to quell nausea. In addition to morning sickness it’s been widely studied and proven useful for motion sickness, nausea resulting from chemotherapy treatment, food poisoning, and even the nausea can that sometimes accompany migraines.

The exact mechanism by which ginger reduces nausea is unknown, but it can be taken in many forms including fresh (you can find the root in the produce section at the grocery store), dried in capsules or as tea, crystallized, or as an ingredient in foods or drinks. Most ginger ales, famously given to sick kids with the stomach flu and as a staple on airplanes everywhere, contain much more sugar than ginger. In fact many brands don’t contain any actual ginger at all these days, having been replaced years ago with “natural” or artificial ginger flavoring.

A much better option is ginger tea, made with grated or sliced fresh ginger, or bought in bags as a tea that’s available online and at most health food stores. I find the warmth of the tea is soothing to many women experiencing nausea and drinking it in liquid form gets the ginger into your system to start relieving nausea quickly.

To make a tea from the fresh root, take several thin slices of ginger or about a tablespoon of freshly grated root and add to a cup of hot water. Let the tea steep for three to five minutes and add a squeeze of lemon if desired. You can also nibble on the slices or gratings themselves after the tea is gone.

Although I typically recommend limiting sugar, especially during the first trimester when it can aggravate morning sickness, crystallized ginger or natural ginger chews can easily be stored in your purse for times when nausea strikes and you’re out and about.

Another great morning sickness remedy is peppermint. Peppermint can be purchased fresh, dried or as a bagged tea, often found blended with other mints and herbs.

If using the fresh leaves, rub gently between your fingers to release the plant’s natural oils and then rip them into smaller pieces before adding a couple of tablespoons to a cup of hot water. Alternately, add about a tablespoon of the dried herb to hot water and let steep for three to five minutes before drinking.

Again, I recommend avoiding sugar during your pregnancy, but for emergencies natural mint candies can be a lifesaver when you’re out and about and don’t have another option. Just be sure to check the label and avoid anything that contains artificial sweeteners.

Try experimenting with both ginger and peppermint to see how you react to each. Some people find that one will sometimes bring on heartburn, but are ok with the other. I personally found that ginger relieved my nausea more quickly, but peppermint kept it at bay longer. Try them both to see what works for you!

Do you use ginger or peppermint to relieve your morning sickness? Which form works best for you? Let me know in the comments below!

Willetts K, Ekangaki A, Eden J. Effect of a ginger extract on pregnancy-induced nausea: a randomised controlled trial. Aust N Z J Obstet Gynaecol2003;43:139–144.

Vutyavanich T, Kraisarin T, Ruangsri R. Ginger for nausea and vomiting in pregnancy: randomized, double-masked, placebo-controlled trial. Obstet Gynaecol 97;2001:577–582.