Herbal Teas and Products

Herbs have been used for centuries to flavour our foods and to prevent or treat health problems. Most modern drugs came from plants. For example, the heart drug, digoxin, originally came from Foxglove leaves, and morphine, a drug that relieves pain, is made from the Poppy flower.

Can Herbs and Herbal Products be Harmful?

Yes!  Some herbs contain very strong, drug-like ingredients. A few can be poisonous and life-threatening. For example, Ma Huang, also known as ephedrine, which is claimed to be a weight-reducing aid, can cause death.

Health Canada has found herbal products that are contaminated with dangerous amounts of arsenic or mercury, or contain drugs such as steroids, hormones, diuretics and anti-inflammatories. For warnings about specific natural health products, search Health Canada for natural health products.

Another hazard is the risk of an allergic reaction. Herbal products can contain a variety of allergens such as pollen, mould and mould spores.

Are Herbs Safe to Use During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding?

Just as you are careful about using drugs while you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should be careful about using herbal products. Herbs can have drug-like effects and therefore can be dangerous for you and your unborn baby! For example some herbal products may:

  • stimulate the uterus or cause uterine contractions
  • produce toxic effects on the developing baby
  • cause birth defects
  • cause infant deaths
  • pass through breast milk and harm the baby.

At this time, there is not enough scientific information about the safety of various herbs and herbal products to recommend use during pregnancy and breastfeeding. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, always use these products with caution.

Some Common Herbs not Recommended During Pregnancy

This list includes just some of the herbs not recommended for use during pregnancy.

  • Aloe
  • Black and Blue Cohosh
  • Buckthorn Bark
  • Burdock
  • Cascara
  • Chamomile
  • Coltsfoot
  • Comfrey
  • Devil’s Claw
  • Dong Quai
  • Duck Roots
  • Ephedra
  • Fenugreek
  • Feverfew
  • Foxglove
  • Ginseng
  • Juniper Berries
  • Labrador Tea
  • Licorice root
  • Lobelia
  • Nettle
  • Pennyroyal
  • Peppermint
  • Sassafras
  • Senna Leaves
  • St. John’s Wort

Source: Medline Plus, Public Health Agency of Canada, 2008. Healthy Pregnancy: Caffeine and Pregnancy, Web MD.

Are Any Herbal Teas Safe to Use During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding?

Moms often switch from coffee to herbal teas in the belief that herbal teas or drinks will be safer. This is not necessarily so. Teas are often mixtures of herbs and unless you know that all the herbs in the tea are safe for pregnancy, you should avoid the product.

According to Health Canada, the herbal teas listed here are generally considered safe to drink during pregnancy and when breastfeeding if taken in moderation. A moderate amount would be no more than two to three cups (1 cup = 250 millilitres) of weak tea a day. It is also a good idea to choose different herbal teas. Don’t drink the same one every day.

If you suffer from nausea or vomiting during your pregnancy, try ginger tea! Ginger tea is safe to drink in moderation and may help you feel better.

Herbal teas generally considered safe if taken in moderation (two to three cups a day):

  • Citrus peel
  • Ginger
  • Lemon balm
  • Orange peel
  • Rose hip

Source: Public Health Agency of Canada, 2008. Healthy Pregnancy: Caffeine and Pregnancy.

Are Herbal Teas and Preparations Safe for Babies?

The safety of herbal teas and herbal preparations for babies is unknown. Because babies are small and are growing quickly, they are more vulnerable than adults to the toxic effects of herbal preparations, including herbal teas. There have been reports of severe illness and death in babies fed some types of herbal teas.

Health Canada, the Canadian Paediatric Society and Dietitians of Canada recommend that herbal teas or drinks should not be given to babies.

The Bottom Line

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, choose your herbal products carefully! Keep in mind that while the toxic effects are known for some herbs, the toxic effects of others are unknown. If in doubt, check with a pharmacist, physician or Registered Dietitian, or call MotherRisk at the Hospital for Sick Children at 416-813-6780 or 1-877-439-2744.