Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for informational use only. I am not a licensed herbalist, merely an interested person who believes that everyone has the right to information about common herbs. I share my experiences and opinions within, however please consult with your prenatal care provider before ingesting anything you might have concerns about. (Originally composed December 2013.)
A friend and midwife recently shared with me a conversation she’d had with a fellow birthworker. She was asked, “Are you more about the mothers, or more about the babies?” and her response was, “I’m more interested in their relationship.” When I was contemplating what information I wanted to share about the commonly recommended herb for pregnancy, Red Raspberry Leaf, this conversation entered my consciousness. I realized that while all of the information I had learned about this herb (benefits, botany, etc.) is important, equally important was to task myself with encouraging a stronger and deeper relationship with the herb herself. I need to be a “doula” to the relationship between a pregnant woman and this plant, support and nurture it, not merely rattle off some facts about the plant’s scientific constituents and add another item to the long list of things a pregnant woman “should” do. I want what I share not to become a chore or task undone that creates guilt, but rather an invitation to create more intimacy between a birthing woman and the natural world.
In this post I will explore the benefits, possible contraindications, and a detailed and illustrated “how-to” of red raspberry leaf tea or brew preparation. All throughout I will weave in the thread of “relating” to the herb.
As with all relationships, some unhurried, open-hearted get-to-know you time is a great place to start. Here is a photo of the plant herself growing in my garden. Wild red raspberry, botanical name Rubus idaeus. After sitting next to her for a while, with permission, gently touch her feathery leaves, serrated edges, and the only mildly pokey thorns that run down her stem. (If you can’t find red raspberry growing wild in your area, try sitting with raspberry’s cousin, blackberry (another Rubus species),which is very common and has similar properties – except her thorns are pokey) .The leaves can be harvested whenever they are bright green and full of life. 1
Going through the process at least once of harvesting (only one third of the plant if wild), and then drying helps us not to take for granted the effort, energy, and love that brought perfectly packaged dried herb into our kitchens. I believe it’s worth it to seek out ethically wildcrafted red raspberry, as locally as possible.
Note: I’ve been sourcing most of my herbs and supplies from Mountain Rose Herbs for over a decade. As of this writing, the cost for bulk dried raspberry leaf, one pound, is $9. However, the herb originated in Albania- quite a journey. Other larger herb companies like Frontier, Starwest Botanicals, etc., also source similarly. Another great place to look is on hand-crafted sites like etsy.com – though more expensive ($20/lb or more), they are for the most part locally and lovingly wild crafted and stored well. And it’s still a deal if you consider that in a package of 20 tea bags (which costs around $5) the total quantity of red raspberry is probably less than a half an ounce!
For more information about harvesting, drying, and other herbal preparations, please consult some of the sources listed as references at the end of the article.
Once you are ready to prepare your tea or brew, spend some time handling and smelling the dried herb. Many herbalists subscribe to the theory of The Doctrine of Signatures. It’s the idea that plants, fruits, or nuts, have the shape of or remind us of the organ in the body that they benefit. For example, walnuts look like little brains, so they are helpful for brain function. To me, dried red raspberry looks and feels like the material a bird would use to build her nest, and a nest is a cozy home for an egg, just like the womb! Red raspberry has a history with herbalists and midwives of tonifying and nourishing the uterus (and other organs that live in the pelvis – good for men, too!). Specifically for pregnant women, she may help uterine contractions function more fully and effectively, which may in turn make labors “shorter.” Many women take red raspberry to promote fertility and prevent miscarriage, as well as support general health of the uterus (including the cervix) throughout her life. Enjoy her fluffy herbness, and smell her softish leaves. Does the smell appeal to you? Is it interesting? If the smell is offensive, the herb may be contaminated, old and moldy, or just may contain something your body does not want right now. Tasting the final tea will give you a good indication if it is appropriate or “safe” to drink. More on this later.
So, how much herb should be used? You could take just a teaspoon or tablespoon of the dried plant and steep in a cup of hot water for fifteen minutes or so. This ritual is calming and nourishing, and the benefits of slowing down and consciously sending loving energy to the womb are worth making just tea. However, you may want to experiment with creating a dense brew of an ounce or so of dried herb, brewed in about a quart jar for at least four hours or overnight. This is called an “infusion,” so describedby herbalist Susun Weed.2 Prepared in this way, the infusion is more like a nutrient-dense broth, containing important minerals and vitamins that are often ingredients in prenatal vitamins. I find that precisely measuring and weighing herb quantities to not be so useful if one considers that there are so many factors (where the plant was grown, neighboring plants, soil health, shady or sunny site, how harvested, etc.) that influence what minerals are present and what quantities. So, when working with whole herbs, I generally estimate filling about one fourth of the container I’m using by volume. Less if I don’t want something so strong, more if I want a super-dense robust tea flavor. With practice you will get a feel for the right quantity to use.
Another key element of infusion creation, according to Susun Weed, is that you not add other herbs to your infusion. This is called “simpling,” and the benefit of working with herbs in this way is that you can build an authentic relationship with just the one herb, without too many other herbs confusing your interpretation. And should you have a unpleasant reaction, if there were eight other herbs in your tea you wouldn’t know which one wasn’t agreeing with you. Most “pregnancy teas” on the market today contain many different herbs, plus they contain red raspberry leaf in such minute quantity that, as mentioned above, the main benefit is probably just the ritual of tea love, rather than much ingestion of nutrition.
Our next step is to place the glass jar somewhat near the pot or other container you plan to boil the water in (more than a quart-size pot). Any glass jar will do, as long as it isn’t too thin. I love mason jars because they are the perfect size and they make me feel crafty. I did have a client who used an empty pickle jar, and aside from her tea smelling slightly like pickles, she still enjoyed her infusion. (: When I was first making infusions I didn’t put the jar close to the heat source while I was boiling the water and when I poured the boiled water into the jar (especially on a cold day) it would sometimes break the jar, even thicker mason jars. I’d suggest placing the jar near the heating pot so glass and water heat up together.
Once the water has been brought to boiling, turn off the heat/flame and pour the water into your jar. Some people like to mix the herb around with a wooden spoon, but I’ve found just securing the lid and maybe turning the jar upside down once it has cooled a bit helps distribute the herb through the water.
Now we get to observe the magical transformation. I love to just sit and watch the first few moments when the clear water becomes infused, moment by moment, with the contents that used to reside within the cell walls of the plant. It feels like the plant is bleeding, giving her body back to the earth, back to me….I feel such gratitude.
Once your water is fully infused (again, at least four hours, up to 12 or so), you are ready to strain out the pulpy herbal material.
If you are using a mason jar, the cooling liquid probably created a vacuum seal (yes, just like canning!) if your water was hot enough. Simply break the seal, and remove the lid.
Now, pour the entire contents of the jar through something that will strain the pulp into some container that can hold more than a quart. You can use a metal strainer over the rim of your new container, but I love using a simple square cloth. Use untreated, dye-free, 100% natural material (cotton, linen, etc), preferably organic if available. You can cut up old T-shirts (the older the better – more dye is likely to have been leached out if colored). I’ve used old unbleached muslin curtains and old tea towels.
Gather up the edges of the cloth to keep the pulp inside, gently lift the cloth baggie out of the container, and squeeze all of that delicious and nourishing infusion out of the remaining herb. I love this step so much, particularly for pregnant women, because it reminds us that life is messy, birth is messy, and that’s what makes it so real and full of the power of life. Feel the infused water drip over your hands and fingers.
To further deepen our connection with this herb, be sure to return the plant material back to the earth. Sometimes I will sprinkle the pulp around the small but growing red raspberry plant in the garden, or feed it to another meaningful plant or tree, like the pomegranate tree that was nourished by my daughter’s placenta. You can add it to your compost bin, or if your living arrangements don’t allow it, simply sprinkle beneath any bush or tree near your home. Don’t be surprised if a new plant relationship emerges from this offering. (:
Depending on how much dried herb you used, you should have three to four cups strained out. Most midwives and/or herbalists recommend drinking about one cup per day, and the infusion will keep for a few days refrigerated.
I love the deep orange-red glow of raspberry leaf infusion. If I were an infant in the womb, I think this would be the first color I would see when the sun shines on my mother’s belly. Most women find that this liquid smells and tastes just like black tea, without the caffeine of regular black/green tea!
So, just as we did with the dried herb, inhale, take a small sip, and observe how you feel. If it’s too strong, you can always dilute it with some water. Feel free to heat it back up, and/or add a bit of honey or stevia. Generally midwives and other prenatal care providers recommend starting regular consumption at 32 weeks of pregnancy to supposedly “build up” the active ingredient and minerals in your system to support your labor. But I’ve know women to drink it at 38 weeks who found it enjoyable and claim it affected their labor experience. Here, we want to be careful of why we are drinking the tea/infusion of this herb. I believe our labors are as long as they need to be, and will begin when they need to. If you drink the tea with the attitude that you are supporting your uterus to do what it needs to do to help birth your baby, then I would consider this a healthy uterine-herbal relationship. If you are forcing down a cup of infusion daily so you can have a shorter labor, then perhaps reconsider what your true motivations are for drinking it. Where can you surrender more to the process rather than trying to manage your birth?
I like this step of the relationship, too, because it poses a question that only the pregnant (or non-pregnant) woman can answer: “Does my body want to drink this?” I’ve given hundreds of samples of this infusion to my doula clients, prenatal massage clients, and prenatal massage students, and I’m amazed at how varied their responses are. Some smile warmly, some ravenously drink their entire glass, some sip it gingerly, a few don’t like it.
But, is it safe?
I think the response to this question is quite complex. People in our culture are in general terrified of herbs, particularly wild herbs, because we are afraid of being poisoned. It makes sense since most of grew up with very little knowledge of the plants that grew wild around us. In fact, there are very few poisonous herbs out there, many of which affect different people in different ways.3 I believe that we are actually afraid of wildness, afraid of the mystery that is inherent in whole plants and feel more comfortable with active ingredients isolated in a lab whose doses are precisely measured and have predictable effects, and someone to blame if the effect is “wrong.” This parallels our fear of birth, the wild unpredictable nature of birth. Trust your body, your senses. If it feels wrong, tastes wrong, then don’t drink it!
Interestingly, some herbs in the parsley and mint families (common cooking herbs like parsley, basil, sage, thyme, etc.) are emmenagogues (i.e., they bring on menstruation) or are abortifacients (i.e., cause a miscarriage). And yet, I’ve never heard of a prenatal care provider recommending against their ingestion. If anything, peppermint and friends can help with nausea of early pregnancy. Perhaps it is because we are culturally very familiar with these food herbs. However, if one were to concentrate the active properties of basil, for example, into an essential oil and offer to a pregnant woman, the effects would be much stronger. Many essential oils (which are quite drug-like in their strength) are to be avoided in pregnancy. Whole herbs, like an infusion of dried raspberry leaf, however, are generally quite safe. (It’s an interesting comparison that chewing willow bark, which contains salicylic acid, the isolated active ingredient in aspirin, does not upset the stomach, while taking an aspirin tablet often will. There is something to be said for the protective quality of whole plants). An herbalist, midwife, and MD lists Red Raspberry Leaf under a table entitled “Herbs Considered Safe in Pregnancy.”4
There are very few studies in the literature that examine the effects of raspberry leaf on labor. A few show that women who used a tablet of the herb (not the infusion, which some herbalists would argue is much different than a tablet, i.e. capsule) had shorter “pushing” stages of labor, and less complications and interventions overall.5,6 A more recent study states in the abstract: “The efficacy of raspberry leaf is not convincingly documented. The use of raspberry leaf in pregnancy is a traditional herbal therapy and is recommended by some midwives. Due to the lack of evidence for safety and efficacy such recommendations are questionable.”7
According to the scientific model something must have measurable and repeatable results to be considered a valid scientific theory. I’m not against science, but it’s hard to argue with what generations of midwives and healers, women with deep relationships to plants, have been taught sometimes by the plants themselves. One herbalist writes, “….it’s rare for a Gypsy woman to go through pregnancy without drinking daily raspberry from time of conception and gives birth with the ease of the ‘wild vixen.’” 8 The world of herbs, like birth, is often hard to study. Herbs, like pregnant women, are vibrant living individuals. They are subjects, and not easily amenable to being an “object” of a study. It may also be that since red raspberry leaf is not available everywhere, often imported from other continents to where it is consumed, certain elements are missing in the relationship. Consuming a tablet or capsule, again, is much different than an infusion in how it is received by the body. I read one article where women were advised to take raspberry leaf in capsule form rather than the tea form if they didn’t like the taste. I would argue that taste is an important part of the relationship!
There is also much controversy and differing opinions about who should NOT take raspberry leaf regularly. Some women are told not to take it during the first trimester because it may overexcite the uterus and cause a miscarriage. Some are told to drink it in the first trimester because it will strengthen the uterus and prevent miscarriage. Some are told to avoid it if they are at risk for preterm labor, or had a previous cesarean birth, pregnant with twins, have preeclampsia or other complications where stimulating the uterus might result in preterm labor. Again, some are told it will help these conditions. It reminds me of the general recommended contraindications for prenatal massage to the abdomen. A nurturing massage therapist’s deliberate and gentle hands on your belly would never cause a miscarriage or preterm labor, (in fact, it may help you relax enough to prevent both situations), but because a miscarriage is more likely to happen in the first trimester, or preterm labor to happen with certain conditions, belly rubs are often avoided to prevent an association with the possibly undesired outcome. It comes down to practitioners’, perhaps justifiably, fears of being sued or blamed. Perhaps the same is true of red raspberry leaf.
I hope this article provided some herbal food-for-thought, and that you might consider making a new plant friend on your birth journey.
- Edwards, Gail Faith. Opening our Hearts to the Wild Herbs. Woodstock, NY Ash Tree Publishing. 2000.
- Weed, Susun. Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year. Woodstock, NY Ash Tree Publishing. 1986.
- Thayer, Samuel. “Into the Wild and Other Poisonous Plant Fables” (article from foragersharvest.com)
- Romm, Aviva. Mothering Magazine. “Herbs for Pregnancy”. Jan-Feb 2008.
- Parsons M, Simpson M, Ponton T. 1999. Raspberry leaf and its effect on labour: safety and efficacy.Aust Coll Midwives Inc J 12(3):20-5
- Simpson M, Parsons M, Greenwood J, et al. 2001. Raspberry leaf in pregnancy: its safety and efficacy in labor. J Midwifery Women’s Health 46(2):51-9
- Holst L, Haavik S, Nordeng H. 2009. Raspberry leaf – should it be recommended to pregnant women? Complement Ther Clin Pract 15(4):204-8
- Parvati-Baker, Jeannine. Hygeia: A Woman’s Herbal. North Atlantic Books. 1978.