Once upon a time - not too long ago, the ancient craft of midwifery and the art of herbal healing were intimately linked. Both were women's domains. In fact, the word 'mid- wife' derives from the Anglo-Saxon 'med-wyf' meaning wise woman. The tradition of wise women healers dates back to times when women held the positions of priestesses and counselors and were revered for their innate affinity with the realm of the sacred and the mysteries of life and death. This affinity expressed itself in the monthly menstrual cycles that mirror the rhythms of the moon and in women's ability to give birth, which reflects the fertility of Mother Earth.
During the middle ages the art of healing was increasingly taken over by the patriarchal forces - as was the realm of the sacred. No longer could women become priestesses and medicine became a subject that had to be studied in colleges from which women were excluded. Only in the remote, rural areas where access to doctors was practically non-existent, could women continue to practice their traditional healing arts. Midwifery in particular remained a women's craft since most men feared the mysteries of birth and death. Whilst respected and revered by the country people who came to them for healing and counsel, midwives were despised by the church-officials. The traditional midwife became the prototype of the witch, personification of all evil, as far as the Christian church fathers were concerned. The underlying reason for this projection lies in the fact that women per se were regarded as sinners. Eva was to blame for the fall from grace for her sin of sexual desire. Therefore all her female descendents were partly to blame and thus should suffer during childbirth, as a reminder of this shameful episode. After all, God himself had put the curse on women after he had discovered Eve's disobedience:
"I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee..." (Genesis, 3.14)
Midwives defied the curse because they knew, as they had done since ancient (pre-Christian) times, that Mother Nature had provided a multitude of herbs that could help women control their own fates. They knew the herbs that could prevent or even terminate a pregnancy, promote fertility, speed up and ease the process of labor and reduce its associated physical pains. When the forces of the inquisition were unleashed onto Europe, women in general and midwives in particular were being victimized. Many thousands of midwives and herbalists died at the stake for their knowledge of how to prevent death in childbirth or ease pregnancy related discomforts. (Since it was 'God's will' for women to suffer during childbirth, giving remedies that lessened labor pains was considered heretical and a crime punishable by death). Finally, by the end of the 19th century, midwives were outlawed altogether and their craft was taken over by male obstetricians. Only the emerging women's movement during the 60s has managed to reclaime midwifery as a woman's natural domain. However, due to hundreds of years of brutal persecution much of the traditional lore and wisdom has been lost. Many modern midwives do not know the herbal secrets associated with women's health. Nevertheless, despite all the odds, some traditional remedies have survived these dark times, though the majority of herbs used in western midwifery today are derived from Native American Indians, who compassionately taught the first settlers about the uses of local herbs and plants. Subsequently this knowledge made its way back across the Atlantic and substantially revitalised the impoverished European herbal midwifery tradition.
Herbs And Fertility
In the old days the question of fertility was of prime importance. Agriculturally based societies the world over performed annual rituals and ceremonies to ensure the fertility of fields, animals and last but not least, humans. Fertility meant abundance and it was regarded as the sacred gift of Mother Earth. If the womb of a woman did not 'quicken' within the first year of her marriage it quite often was a cause for serious concern. In such situations the 'unlucky' woman would seek the help of a midwife. Being knowledgeable in both medical and magical herbalism the midwife would most likely recommend a mixture of both sympathetic and remedial measures. These days midwives no longer advise barren women to eat figs and pomegranate or to make a mandrake charm and recite certain spells under the full moon. Modern midwives may urge women who have difficulties conceiving to examine their lifestyles, since many physical, physiological or emotional factors may be involved. Sometimes it may be necessary to consult a doctor in order to determine the exact causes of infertility so that specific remedies can be administered.
Midwives of ancient times too would emphasize the importance of a 'pure nest' for the embryo to grow in. Indeed, purifying the body through diet and cleansing herbs often can do wonders to prepare the womb. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and Burdock Root (Arctium lappa) are cleansing herbs that work on the liver. The liver is the great purifier of the body and is also largely responsible for the metabolism and the production of important hormones. Herbs which specifically tone the reproductive system, such as Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris), Raspberry leaves (Rubus idaeus), and those that normalize hormonal functions such as Chasteberry (Vitex Agnus Castus) and False Unicorn Root (Chamaelirium luteum) are also indicated. Sometimes stress can be a contributing factor in infertility. Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), Valerian (Valeriana officinale) and St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) may be used as a standard tea to calm and nourish the nervous system and alleviate symptoms of stress. A sensuous, relaxing massage may also do much to release tension. Pure essential oils of Rose, Lavender, Jasmine, Neroli or Ylang Ylang blended into a base oil (e.g. almond oil) would be perfectly suited for this purpose.
In order to purify the body and womb it is of course essential to pay close attention to the diet. It is best to avoid alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine containing beverages as well as processed foods, not just during pregnancy but also in preparation of pregnancy. The diet should consist of nutrient-rich, natural and if possible organic foods and pure water, herb teas as well as fruit and vegetable juices. The B vitamin group, folic acid and zinc play a particularly important role in conception and should be supplied in a wholesome diet.
Herbs During Pregnancy
Once the womb has conceived a very special and transformative time begins for the expecting mother. Life is generated within her womb - at first inseparable from herself, but as time passes the new being makes itself more and more noticeable. The state of physical well-being during pregnancy depends on many factors. In modern society pregnancy is often regarded as a medical condition rather than a natural process and thus, many women experience a strong sense of anxiety with regards to their pregnancies. Anxiety itself can have very detrimental effects on the body, even under normal circumstances. During pregnancy severe anxiety may actually threaten the foetus' survival. If a miscarriage is threatened because of anxiety a regular tea of Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) and St.Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) perhaps with a small amount of Valerian (Valeriana officinale), may be all that is needed. Essential oil of Rose and Lavender evaporated in an oil-burner will also help. If a weakened womb or trauma (acute or previous) is at the root of the problem a tea of False Unicorn Root (Chamaelirium luteum) and Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus) may be able to avert an impending miscarriage.
Miscarriage is a traumatic experience and although relatively common, quite often also unnecessary. However, if the conditions just are not right for the embryo no herbs nor magic will be able to prevent it from happening. The first 3 months of pregnancy are the most vulnerable time for mother and child. Midwives throughout the ages have always advised women to pay special attention to their lifestyles and to what they eat, drink or otherwise absorb during this time. It is essential to avoid all toxins and strong stimulants in order to minimize the possibility of negative effects on the baby's development. After all, whether mother or baby like it or not, the growing embryo has its share in whatever the mother ingests or exposes herself to. Needless to say one should abstain from alcohol (even is small amounts) caffeine and nicotine containing substances as well as any chemical substances. Herbs that have a stimulating effect on the womb and thus could accidentally cause a miscarriage should also be avoided. These are the same herbs that can help to bring on a delayed period. Sage (Salvia officinalis), Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), Wormwood (Artemisia absinthum), Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum) and other Artemisias, Thuja (Thuja occidentalis), Black Cohosh (Cimcifuga racemosa), Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), Golden Seal (Hydrastis canadensis)...to name but a few (but not all), that should be avoided. Generally speaking it is best to avoid taking herbs altogether for the first 3 month to minimize any possible risks.
The diet should contain calcium, phosphorus and iron rich foods. Nettle soups, spinach and watercress salads and green leafy vegetables are especially nutritious. These plants are very rich in iron and are particularly recommended if there is any sign of anemia. Iron is essential in forming red blood cells, which transport oxygen throughout the body. Lack of red blood cells or the iron necessary to make them, can leave the mother feeling tired, dizzy and easily exhausted. It also affects the child's ability to form its own vital red blood cells. If this is the case Yellow Dock Root (Rumex crispus) is often given as a remedy to increase iron in the blood. However, it should be noted that iron is very difficult to absorb. It is usually taken in conjunction with vitamin C to facilitate assimilation. Inorganic iron should be avoided altogether.
Morning sickness is a common phenomenon during pregnancy. Sometimes it can be remedied by modifying the diet. Certain foods and smells may have to be avoided altogether. Herbal standbys are Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) and Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), which both have stomachic and carminative properties that can help soothe a nauseous stomach, especially when the nausea is due to over-acidity. Essential oil of Spearmint evaporated in an oil-burner during the night may also be a great help. Traditional midwives recommend eating frequent small amounts of food throughout the day rather than stressing the digestive system with the customary three big meals a day. They also recommend carefully watching the overall intake of food. Whilst western medicine recommends eating practically as much as is desired so that one may give birth to big, strong healthy babies, Native American and other traditional wisdom places the emphasis on the nutritional value of the food ingested. It is a lot easier to give birth to a 6 lb. baby than to a 9 lb. one. If the mother's diet was balanced and sufficiently nutritious during pregnancy then the baby will show no signs of nutritionally related underdevelopment.
After the first 3 months the embryo is fairly well established in the womb and is not quite so vulnerable to the possibility of miscarriage and thus other herbs can be included in the diet. A standard Raspberry Leaf tea (Rubus idaeus) has proven its worth throughout the centuries for strengthening the womb, toning up the system and usually ensures an easy and relatively speedy delivery.
Essential oils can be wonderful helpers at all times. Besides having very powerful and significant healing powers they also stimulate our senses. The sense of smell is one of the oldest sensual perceptive functions in human evolution. Scents speak to us on a subconscious level. Being surrounded with luxurious, sensuous fragrances puts one in touch with the body. During pregnancy a woman's body goes through a tremendous amount of changes, some of which can be quite stressful. A little sensual indulgence is not only well deserved but can also alleviate many of the associated discomforts. However, because they are so concentrated and powerful in their effects it is important to research every oil individually before using. During the first 3 months it is perhaps better to avoid direct contact with essential oils altogether. Certain oils should not be used at all. Most are safe to use externally after the first three months. None should be taken internally. Some specific oils to avoid are Sage, Tansy, Wormwood, Bay, Pennyroyal, Yarrow, Wintergreen, Thyme, Thuja and other emmenagogic oils.
One of the worst discomforts during pregnancy for many women is the sense of extreme heaviness and the aching back that goes with it. Especially in the later months this can be quite bothersome. Lavender and Rose pure essential oil can help reduce such discomforts. Mixed in a nutrient rich oil base such as Almond and Wheatgerm and massaged into the womb and lower back can have a very soothing effect on the nerves and muscles. Lavender and Wheatgerm oil also both have a reputation for reducing or even eliminating the possibility of getting stretch-marks.
If varicose veins or haemorrhoids are a problem try keeping the legs up as much as possible. Let someone else do the housework and treat yourself to a leg and foot massage. The massage oil should contain a few drops of Geranium and Cypress essential oil, which can be gently massaged into the affected areas. The direction should be from the feet towards the heart.
When blending massage oils with essential oils remember that a little goes a long way. A couple of drops in 25ml of baseoil is often enough to achieve the desired result.
© Kat Morgenstern, 1996 (article first appeared in the Herb Quarterly in 1997)
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