There you are, surfing the Web instead of building that IKEA shelving unit for the nursery. You’re scrolling through what you think is a pretty cool lifestyle blog, enjoying the author’s fun little tips and musings. Eventually she starts to sing the praises of a particular line of essential oils, and after a couple of clicks, you realize she doesn’t only use them, she actually sells them as well. Then the thought starts to surface: Maybe this aromatherapy starter kit is something you really could use—after all, your pregnant self is feeling pretty exhausted and nauseated these days. And didn’t your yoga instructor recommend something about essential oils too?
We don’t blame you for thinking about giving essential oils for pregnancy a try. But before you take out your credit card, do some research. While aromatherapy can, in some cases, be helpful, the science is mixed, the quality of products varies greatly and certain oils are potentially harmful for pregnant women. For the safest, most effective essential oil experience, read on.
What Are Essential Oils?
The term “essential oil” is actually derived from “quintessential oil,” which, in turn, comes from Aristotle’s notion that while fire, air, earth and water make up natural materials, it’s the fifth element, aka quintessence, that gives a certain material its “life force.”
Of course, now we know that essential oils—which are sourced from plants, flowers and seeds—are in fact made up of a combination of chemicals and can be isolated via distillation or a mechanical process. Thanks to their volatile compounds, essential oils are fragrant and therefore used in aromatherapy, which can be thought of as “plant medicine,” says Amy Galper, executive director and founder of the New York Institute of Aromatherapy in New York City. “Aromatherapy understands that our sense of smell is deeply connected to the overall health and wellness of our whole being.”
How Do Essential Oils for Pregnancy Work?
Essential oils for pregnancy or any other situation aren’t meant to be ingested. Rather, they’re inhaled or diluted into a solution and used topically, whether it’s a spot treatment or bath soak. “When used as a topical application, massage oils or other skin-care products are absorbed through the skin. When used through inhalation, the molecules move from the nose or mouth to the lungs, brain and other parts of the body,” explains Nita Landry, MD, an ob-gyn who is a recurring cohost on the syndicated show The Doctors.
Once inside the nasal cavity, the molecules send chemical messages to the part of the brain that affects emotions. “When we experience a scent, it triggers all sorts of responses in our body that affect our well-being,” Galper says. “That's why smelling something delicious can make us hungry or smelling something sexy can get us in the mood. When we’re feeling ill or uncomfortable, our stress response is triggered, and aroma can be a profound tool to help rewire the way we respond to stress.”
Since many medications are off-limits when you’re expecting, using certain essential oils during pregnancy can be a great alternative for treating illness and uncomfortable symptoms, and that’s exactly why they’re becoming more popular with pregnant women. “Essential oils are natural remedies with very few side effects,” says Lakeisha W. Richardson, MD, an ob-gyn at Delta Regional Hospital in Greenville, Mississippi. “More and more patients are trying to use alternative ways to handle illnesses due to the large side-effect profile of most medications.” (Richardson’s favorite essential oil is lavender, which she uses to fall asleep, in case you’re wondering.)
Are Essential Oils Safe for Pregnancy?
It depends on whom you ask. Many doctors won’t recommend aromatherapy because of the lack of randomized controlled studies proving it’s an effective treatment during pregnancy for illness or discomfort. “The use of essential oils for pregnancy is controversial, and the amount of research we have on the subject is limited,” Landry says.
Making matters worse, depending on what the product claims to do, it may not even be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and so the strength and composition can vary greatly. Landry also points out that essential oils can interact with conventional drugs. In addition, as the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists notes in its Pregnancy Guidelines, “essential oils by their very nature, being organic substances, will cross the placental barrier and have the potential to affect the fetus.”
That said, it’s not at all wise to use essential oils from a random blog or other lifestyle “expert.” Instead, ask your doctor if essential oils for pregnancy are right for you and, if so, if she has any recommendations for high-quality oils. In addition, essential oils for pregnancy are best used under the guidance of a qualified expert, whether it’s a physician, midwife or someone your health provider recommends.
Essential oils to avoid during pregnancy
Even if you’ve zeroed in on a set of essential oils you can trust, you should still proceed cautiously if you’re using them when pregnant. If you’re allergic to certain ingredients, for instance, you shouldn’t use them in aromatherapy either, Galper says.
In addition, many essential oils are specifically harmful during pregnancy, either because they can cause complications (for instance, they might promote uterine contractions) or because experts are just not sure about how they’d affect the pregnant mom or fetus. These include fennel, clary sage, marjoram, tarragon, caraway, cinnamon, thuja, mugwort, birch, wintergreen, basil (estragole CT), camphor, hyssop, aniseed, sage, tansy, wormwood, parsley seed or leaf, and pennyroyal.
The Best Essential Oils for Pregnancy
With good essential oils and expert guidance, you may find that aromatherapy can make you feel a lot better. Galper makes the following recommendations for her patients, but again, check with your health provider before trying them on yourself.
• To relieve nausea: Lavender, chamomile, peppermint, ginger. Sniff them directly from the bottle, or sniff a cotton ball or tissue treated with a drop or two. “They ease belly upset and are good essential oils for morning sickness,” Galper says.
• To soothe muscle aches: Lavender, ylang-ylang, ginger, chamomile, frankincense. Add a total of 12 drops of essential oil to 2 tablespoons of a base oil, like jojoba or almond oil, Galper advises.
• To treat hemorrhoids: Tea tree, cypress, geranium, lavender. “These can soothe the swelling and irritation,” Galper says. Blend together all three essential oils (for a total of 8 drops altogether) and add the mix to 2 tablespoons of aloe vera gel; apply the concoction directly onto the affected area with a cotton ball or tissue.
• To improve sleep: Lavender, ylang-ylang, mandarin, frankincense. “Add a total of 12 drops of essential oil to 2 tablespoons of distilled water in a spray-mist bottle, and mist pillows before bed,” she says.
Published November 2017