"Essential Oils for Prenatal Nausea and Digestion" was originally Published in Midwifery Today Issue Number 116 (Winter 2015 )
The use of essential oils for nausea and fatigue during labor is just the crowning head to an incredible breadth of possible uses throughout the childbearing year. Yet, starting with essential oil uses for digestion is a good idea for midwives and moms-to-be who are just beginning to integrate this powerful natural health modality into practice.
There are many digestive troubles during pregnancy, but nausea and vomiting are the most common, affecting an estimated 85% of pregnant women. Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) and Ginger (Zingiber officinale), both in the plant family Zingiberaceae, contain HT3 antagonists called gingerols, which are thought to ease nausea by blocking serotonin receptors in the central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract. Spearmint (Mentha spicata), and other oils that are more appropriate for prenatal nausea, are thought to work similarly. One of many studies on essential oils for nausea reported that inhaled vapors of Peppermint (Mentha piperita) or Ginger (Zingiber officinale) not only reduced the incidence and severity of nausea and vomiting, but also decreased the need for antiemetic medication and improved patient satisfaction. (A brief review of current scientific evidence involving aromatherapy use for nausea and vomiting, J Altern Complement Med. 2012 Jun).
I clearly remember my first experience using essential oils for prenatal nausea. I was barely standing, having not slept in 40 hours or eaten in 15, and the nausea hit me. In a bubble with the intense pain of labor, I had lost touch with why I was suffering and could do nothing more than live from one moment to the next. Something wonderful happened and suddenly my nausea subsided completely. I was clear-headed, energized, calm, rejuvenated, and filled with love for the baby I would soon meet. With renewed determination, I could re engage with the process of birthing my first child.
The something wonderful that changed my experience so profoundly was the delightfully unexpected smell of Peppermint (Mentha piperita). I learned much later that a drop of Peppermint essential oil had been added to my sick bucket by my midwife, easing my nausea, refueling my energy, and awakening me to the moment like an unimaginable and unexpected gift.
Other digestive distress is common during pregnancy due to a number of factors: progesterone can relax the gastrointestinal tract and slow peristalsis, iron pills can cause constipation, and late-pregnancy space inhibition can all cause digestive discomforts, such as heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and acid reflux. Many essential oils, when used properly, may be used safely and effectively to provide comfort for each of these prenatal digestive issues, offering a simple, pleasurable, and easily taught method of self care.
Although ultimately a digestive blend is ideal for most digestive complaints, let’s first
take a look at a few single essential oils that are supportive to digestion and safe during pregnancy. Orange peel (Citrus sinensis) is a very gentle and ancient Chinese carminative that may aid with slow digestion, gas, diarrhea, and constipation and is also uplifting in a similar way to the sunshine it resembles. It is also a top note oil, which means that you smell it first and it is the first to fade.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is a seed-derived essential oil that is best known for supporting gas, heartburn, and bloating. Seeds are usually middle notes, which means that they are the second oils that you smell and the second to fade. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) calm and balance the nervous system, directing vital energy away from the physiological mechanics of the stress response and toward digestion; they are also middle notes. (Some aromatherapists recommend waiting to use these oils until the third trimester and labor.) Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) is very soothing, so think of it for sour stomach, stomach ache, and indigestion. Both of these oils are also known for easing nausea, especially in babies and children.
Also classified as middle notes, mint family oils, like spearmint (Mentha spicata), are cooling and tend to penetrate deeply into the digestive organs to support digestion, bile production, inflammation, cramping, and the perception of pain; spearmint is more gentle and may be a better option for pregnancy than peppermint; conservatively, use peppermint only after the second trimester. Base note oils which are the last that you smell, but also last the longest; rose (Rosa damascena) is a good option for a gentle base note best used in the third trimester of pregnancy. You’ll note in the formulas below that each blend contains a balance of top, middle and base notes with higher concentrations for the more dispersive, higher notes.
As hinted earlier, I often opt to use a digestive blend rather than to use a single oil. Here’s why. The modern, over-the-counter approach to dealing with digestive complaints is to use one remedy for constipation, a different one for diarrhea, and yet another remedy for heartburn. This approach tends to push the physiology in one direction (i.e. you wouldn’t take a laxative for diarrhea!) and lacks a certain holistic sensibility for balance. It is easy and effective to consult a chart and plug a different oil in for each different digestive upset, but to do so is more in line with an allopathic medicinal modal than a holistic health model. Single oils lack the complexity of blends, though they are certainly more balanced and complex than drugstore options.
Digestive blends, on the other hand, are a throwback to the old apothecary formulas that improve function to an entire organ system, calming ten issues with one simple formula. Instead of pushing physiology, essential oils, especially blends, support homeostasis, improve overall function, and decrease the likelihood of negative side effects. When well formulated, blends enhance health by overlapping the medicinal constituents from different plant compounds to create a broader and deeper therapeutic action. When produced for therapy, rather than scent, essential oils contain hundreds of therapeutic constituents, allowing for a symphony of harmonious interactions to take place between person and the plant. Even single oils will have this harmony because of their complexity.
Below you’ll find general guidelines as well as a few blends that you can try for supporting prenatal digestion in your home or practice. Once you have your magic formula, it is simple to learn how to apply the oils therapeutically.
Step 1: Use only therapeutic-quality essential oils (i.e. oils that are unadulterated and pure and that were grown and processed for therapeutic purposes, not for smell or flavor. )
Step 2: Select an essential oil. It is okay to choose an oil or oil blend by looking it up, but it is easy to work toward knowing it well enough not to have to do so by developing a combination of knowledge, repetition, experience, and intuition.
Step 3: Choose a method of application.
For symptoms of nausea or vomiting: Inhalation by diffusion or any other method works well in combination with topical application to the temples, abdomen, or wrists. For vomiting, place one to two drops of essential oil in a waste bucket.
For Other Digestive Complaints: Apply diluted oils topically to the area of affliction. For example, rub into the chest for heartburn or indigestion or over the intestines for cramping, bloating, diarrhea, pain, or constipation. Use a clockwise abdominal application for constipation and counter-clockwise abdominal application for diarrhea. Other methods of application include use of a nasal or room diffuser, inhalation directly from the bottle, or a topical application behind ears or on the temples or wrists. Be sure to rub the oils into the skin for best results. Avoid internal use during pregnancy.
Standard Dilution for Pregnancy: A 1% concentration (or one drop of essential oil per teaspoon of carrier oil) is recommended for massage application during pregnancy. Use about an ounce of carrier oil or lotion with six drops of essential oil and apply it two to four times a day via massage, covering a large surface area, or simply the chest or abdomen. When using essential oils on the temples or back of the neck, you may have the best results if you mix the blend with two to three drops of carrier oil per drop of essential oil. Pregnant women experience more skin sensitivity than non-pregnant women. Even with diluted massage application, it is a good idea to take extra care to test diluted oils on a small patch of skin on the wrist to ensure that there are no signs of skin sensitivity within six hours of use.
Step 4: Finally, keep in mind that no two pregnancies are alike and no one oil will work for everyone. If you try an oil and it doesn’t work, try another.
Essential Oil Blends for Prenatal Digestive Support
Formula 1 for use throughout pregnancy: Orange (Citrus sinensis) (3), Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) (2), Sandalwood (Santalum album) (1), 1 oz. carrier oil
Formula 2 for use in the third trimester and during labor: Lemon (Citrus limon) (3), Spearmint (Mentha spicata) (2), Rose (Rosa damascena) (1), 1 oz. carrier oil
Drops are indicated in parentheses.
Ginger- may be an irritant to sensitive skin, moderate use* in pregnancy only
Lavender- care for use with low blood pressure, for moderate use* in pregnancy from the third trimester on
Lemon- not for use in a bath, may be an irritant to sensitive skin
Orange- not for use in a bath, may be an irritant to sensitive skin
Peppermint- not for use in a bath, not for use with children under five, not for use with homeopathic remedies, may be an irritant to sensitive skin, moderate use* in pregnancy, may interfere with sleep if used after 6:00 PM
Roman Chamomile- for moderate use* in pregnancy
Rose- not for use with children under five, for moderate use* in pregnancy from the third trimester on
Spearmint- not for use in baths or with homeopathic remedies, may be irritating to sensitive skin, moderate use* in pregnancy
*Moderate use implies that after testing on the skin, essential oils are applied via massage with a 1% concentration two-four times a day. When applied to smaller surface areas, blend with two to three drops of carrier oil per drop of essential oil. Avoid internal use during pregnancy. Avoid essential oils in early pregnancy if there is a high risk of miscarriage.
Godec, Judy. Essential Oils, Carrier Oils, and Pregnancy: A Guide for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Trimesters. Kindle Edition, 2014.
Paz, Talya. Natural Treatment for Babies: During Infancy to One Year of Age. Natural Treatments, Book 1. Kindle addition, 2013.
Pylarinos, Lindsey. Healing Babies and Children with Aromatherapy for Beginners,
(2nd Edition). Kindle Addition, 2014.
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Tiran, Denise MSc ADM PGCEA RM RGN. Safety of Essential Oils in Pregnancy and Childbirth: A Guide for Midwives. Kindle addition, 2000.
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1) A brief review of current scientific evidence involving aromatherapy use for nausea and vomiting; J Altern Complement Med, Jun 2012
2) Examination of the effectiveness of peppermint aromatherapy on nausea in women post C- section; J Holist Nurs., Jun 2012
3) Physical and Psychological Effects of Aromatherapy Inhalation on Pregnant Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial; J Altern Complement Med., 2013
4) An investigation into the use of aromatherapy in intrapartum midwifery practice; The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 6(2), Burns E., Blamey C. Ersser S, et al., 2000