No. I’m not pregnant. But there seems to be an outbreak of morning sickness going around. When a friend messaged me to see if I had any advice for one of her friends who is trying to figure out how to manage her life from a crouched position in front of the toilet, I thought I would do some research to see how women of the past used herbal remedies to cope with pregnancy-related nausea and fatigue. After all, the birth rate was much higher in past generations. Surely, women became experts at morning sickness.
Today, an estimated 70-80% of women experience morning sickness. Much to my surprise, I found several references that asserted that pregnancy-related vomiting and nausea is considered rare among women of Asian, African, or First Nation heritage. I was writing this during the group working hours for the Vivero Digital Scholarship Fellows at Grinnell College (I co-lead the program), so I turned to the two Chinese women working near me and asked them their thoughts on this. They laughed and shook their heads. Apparently, it is not at all rare in their observations of their female relatives and friends. Go figure. Researchers also assert that women who are underweight, according to BMI measurements, are less likely to experience morning sickness. My petite younger sister who had her first baby a little over a year ago would laugh at this. So, too, might women who consume little to no meat, who also allegedly experience less pregnancy-related nausea. Clearly, there is a gap between the research and the anecdotal evidence that informs our experiences. In any case, the official word on the street is that what we call morning sickness is an old evolutionary trick used to protect the growing fetus from harmful toxins that thrive in meat and dairy products. Women in cultures more likely to consume the conduits of these toxins were more likely to experience pregnancy-related vomiting and nausea. Since American women today tend to eat significant quantities of meat and dairy products, as well as consume other toxins and toxin-carrying substances, it makes sense that morning sickness would be more common among us all.
Whatever our ancestral heritage or eating habits, our foremothers may not have experienced pregnancy-related vomiting and nausea the same way that we do today. Even if we could compare degrees of nausea or measure output of vomit (imagine that project! Ugh!), their experiences would have been understood differently than ours are.
For 21st century American women, pregnancy can be detected simply by peeing on a plastic stick in the privacy of your own bathroom. As I’ve indicated in a past post, previous generations had more complicated and less certain means of determining pregnant or not pregnant. In the weeks before quickening, women would have relied upon other bodily signals to guess whether or not they were pregnant. And the nausea, vomiting, and fatigue that folks began calling “morning sickness” in the mid-19th century would have been one of those signals.
“[M]orning sickness was a difficult condition to hide from the family and friends of nineteenth-century women. In an era when the confirmation of pregnancy came only with the passing of time, morning sickness was therefore a meaningful sign, the significance of which was passed down through generations of women.” — Rachael Russell
Morning sickness might have been a “meaningful sign,” but that doesn’t mean that it was welcomed with unmitigated enthusiasm. In my own experience, I was thrilled to be pregnant, and eager for any sign that I would not have a third miscarriage, but I still found the constant nausea and fatigue torturous. I remember sobbing to my obstetrician that I knew I was supposed to be grateful that my pregnancy was continuing, but I was just so tired of feeling miserable. Zofran was not available back in the dark ages of 2004. So, she sympathetically patted me on the shoulder and sent me on my way. Although I’m cautious not to project my own feelings onto women of the past, I do find it hard to believe that every woman who experienced “morning” sickness, even when she was thrilled to be pregnant, was thrilled to be nauseous and vomiting at all hours of day and night.
Much to my surprise, I have not found much about morning sickness in the many books I have related to herbal medicine. In fact, most authors caution against ingesting herbs in the first three months of pregnancy unless they have been professional prescribed. This, I suspect, is more an indication of our litigious world than an absence of knowledge. Nevertheless, turning to these volumes doesn’t provide much hope for relief. (Sorry.)
Matthew Wood* suggests applying a peach twig tincture to the inside of the wrists until you are able to keep it down; after that point, you should switch to drinking the tincture diluted with hot water. Robin Rose Bennett recommends a ginger foot bath, while the D&K guide directs us to sipping an infusion of grated fresh ginger. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to do both simultaneously. D&K also suggests fennel and german chamomile to relieve bloating and indigestion that might contribute to the nausea. Penelope Ody also recommends tinctures of ginger, fennel, or chamomile used in alternation with lemon balm, basil, or peppermint. Black horehound tincture also makes Ody’s list. The Peterson’s Field Guide offers indigenous North American remedies, including fresh dried wild yam root tea, or a tea made from the flowers and leaves of Hardhack Steeplebush.
Other than alternating sipping various commercial teas, none of these seem like remedies that I or most other 21st century American women are likely to have on hand. Perhaps morning sickness is a symptom of pregnancy that we simply cannot escape. Or maybe it is that each woman’s experience of pregnancy-related nausea is specific to her own circumstances, tastes, and lifestyle.
I don’t remember anything making me feel better throughout the first trimester. I’m curious to hear what has or has not worked for others.
*You can find the full bibliographic information for these sources on the Resources page.