Raspberry leaf is a traditional herb that has been used for centuries by indigenous cultures for medicinal purposes. However, it was not until the 1940's that western medicine recognised its possible use as a uterine tonic for childbirth. It is now estimated that up to 20% of pregnant women will take some form of raspberry leaf extract (as a tea, tablet or tincture) during their pregnancy or after the birth of their baby.
The botanical name for the cultivated variety of raspberry leaf is 'Rubus idaeus'. However, there is also the more potent wild variety called 'Rosaceae strigosus'. Other common names are 'red raspberry', 'bramble' and 'hindberry'. Raspberry leaf contains high concentrations of the alkaloid 'fragarine' (also called framamine) and flavonoids, which are believed to strengthen, tone and relax the uterus and pelvic muscles. Raspberry leaf also contains calcium, iron, zinc, phosphorus, potassium, manganese and magnesium and vitamins A, B (1 and 3), C and E. It is therefore regarded as a nutritive tonic (as well as a 'yin tonic'). The tannin in raspberry leaf is believed to be beneficial for treating diarrhoea and dysentery (although excess tannin can cause constipation). The organic citric and malic acids are mild astringents, aimed at helping to cleanse and heal wounds.
NOTE: Raspberry leaf may be prescribed by herbalists, naturopaths and maternity caregivers for a variety of reasons in many forms, doses and concentrations. However, its safe use during pregnancy remains unclear. At present, there is very little (or no) research to support the many benefits claimed by taking raspberry leaf.
The claimed benefits of raspberry leaf include:
- Balancing the menstrual cycle, regulating hormones, enhancing fertility, alleviating period cramping and reducing excessive bleeding with heavy periods.
- Helping to prevent or treat anaemia (because of the iron content).
- Possibly helping to prevent miscarriage and ease morning sicknessand vomiting. Although raspberry leaf can cause nausea in some people and many caregivers recommend avoiding the use of raspberry leaf during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy to avoid miscarriage. This is discussed in contradicting effects.
- As a remedy for leg cramps.
- Easing mouth ulcerations and bleeding gumsor gargling a raspberry leaf solution to treat a sore throat.
- Using it as a kidney tonic and helping to lower blood pressure.
- As an antispasmodic to help reduce and relieve painful Braxton hickscontractions (although raspberry leaf may increase Braxton Hicks contractions for some women).
- Possibly having a regulating effect on the uterus, making labour contractions more coordinated and efficient, perhaps shortening the labour and making the birth easier. Some say it may make the contractions less painful.
- Helping to deliver the placentaand control the bleeding after the birth.
- Increasing breast milk production and for treating mastitis.
- Treating diarrhoea and dysentery (although it may act as a mild laxative and cause diarrhoea if used for other purposes).
- As an antiseptic to cleanse wound, burns and ulcers.
Raspberry leaf may be prescribed by herbalists, naturopaths and maternity caregivers for a variety of reasons in many forms, doses and concentrations. However, while many animal studies exist, to date there is very little research on human use and the safety of taking raspberry leaf during pregnancy remains unclear. There are a couple of recent studies that look at the effects of raspberry leaf tea when taken by pregnant women. These have been conducted by a group of midwives at Sydney's Westmead Hospital, Australia.
- The first study is a retrospective observational study of 108 mothers over a 6 month period (Jan-July 1998). Of this group, 57 women (52.8%) consumed raspberry leaf products (tea or tablets) during their pregnancy and 51 women (47.2%) did not (being the control group). Most of the women taking raspberry leaf started doing so at some stage between 28 and 34 weeks of the pregnancy, but a few started as early as 8 weeks and others as late as 39 weeks. The study could not identify any side effects from taking raspberry leaf and it indicated that the herb may help prevent women having a premature or overdue baby and may be less likely to need an artificial rupture of their membranes (breaking the waters by the caregiver). They were also less likely to require a caesarean section, forceps or vacuum birth than the women in the control group. (Parsons 1999)
- The second study was a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial of 192 first time mothers (average age 28.5 years) who had their babies between May 1999 and February 2000. One group of women took raspberry leaf tablets (1, 200mg twice per day) from 32 weeks of their pregnancy until labour started and the control group took a placebo. There were no identified side effects for either mother or baby, but contrary to popular belief, it did not shorten the 1st stage of labour. The only clinically significant findings were a shortening of the 2nd stage of labour (by about 10 minutes), a lower rate of forceps deliveries (19.3% vs. 30.4%) and less chance of Caesarean (62.4% vs. 50.6%) for the women who took raspberry leaf. Both groups of women experienced similar occurrences of nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and constipation. (Simpson et al. 2001)
The herbal literature outlining the benefits and effects of raspberry leaf varies widely and is often conflicting. Anecdotal reports seem to indicate that the use of raspberry leaf can be unpredictable and in some cases produce the opposite effect to what you are trying to achieve. This may be related to the dose taken and/or perhaps each individual woman's physical response to the herb. For example:
- Some herbalists recommend raspberry leaf to help prevent miscarriage, while others advise against taking raspberry leaf during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy because it may stimulate the uterus and possibly cause a miscarriage. A few will recommend low doses during early pregnancy, increasing it after 12 weeks and again after 28 weeks. Raspberry leaf is also believed to reduce the chances of premature labour but has shown to increase uterine action after 16 to 20 weeks of pregnancy. At this stage, we do not know what the real effects are. Therefore, many caregivers err on the side of caution and advise avoiding it all together until the 3rd trimester.
- Raspberry leaf is said to help with fertility and hormonal balance, but again, may not be recommended during early pregnancy.
- It is believed that raspberry leaf can help with uterine cramping (during menstruation) and strong Braxton Hicks contractions during pregnancy. However, some women are more sensitive to the herb and can experience more cramping and stronger, more frequent Braxton Hicks contractions when taking raspberry leaf.
- Some practitioners recommend raspberry leaf for morning sickness, but some women experience nausea from taking raspberry leaf. (Again, its safety during early pregnancy is not known.)
- It is believed raspberry leaf can help with diarrhoea, but it may also act as a mild laxative and cause diarrhoea if used for other purposes.
Until we have more research, it can be difficult to know how beneficial raspberry leaf is and what the side effects may be.
At present there are no clear guidelines for the safe use of raspberry leaf tea, especially during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The lack of research on raspberry leaf means we do not know how much, how often and when to take raspberry leaf. The 2 studies outlined previously tend to indicate that raspberry leaf is probably safe for mother and baby when taken after 28 to 32 weeks of pregnancy, but further research is needed to confirm this.
It is important to remember that any treatment (whether 'medical' or 'natural') that is capable of producing noticeable effects on your body is also capable of creating unwanted (and even dangerous) side affects for you and/or your baby. Just because it is 'natural' doesn't necessarily mean it is safe. However, many women continue to take raspberry leaf without any major complaints and caregivers continue to recommend its use.
If you do want to take raspberry leaf during pregnancy, ALWAYS check with your caregiver or practitioner, as their recommendations will vary depending on their personal preferences. The following is a guide to what many caregivers will tend to recommend:
- Tablets- taking 4 x 300 mg tablets (or 3 x 400 mg tablets), 2 to 3 times a day with meals from 32 weeks.
- Teabags - having 1 cup of raspberry leaf tea per day during the first 12 weeks and increasing to 2 cups a day from 12 to 28 weeks and up to 3 to 5 cups a day from 28 weeks to the birth, freely during labour and after the birth as desired. Or just starting with 1 to 2 cups a day from 12 or 28 weeks and increasing to 3 to 5 a day after 28 weeks or the last month of pregnancy.
- A pot of tea or a cup of brew - 1 teaspoon of leaf per cup, adding the herb after bringing the water to the boil. Let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes, then strain the leaves before drinking. Having 2 to 3 cups per day after 28 weeks.
- Using a tincture (made up by a herbalist). This is an alcoholic extract of raspberry leaf and the dosage will depend on the strength of the tincture. Be aware that some preparations are very high in alcohol and probably should be avoided during pregnancy.
You may wish to add honey or sugar to the tea to make it more palatable, or mix the tea with other herbal teas such as peppermint or spearmint. You can buy raspberry leaf products from health food stores or herbal suppliers. Be aware that herbal preparations lack manufacturing regulations in Australia and many other countries (unlike medicines) and some preparations may be contaminated with other substances. Therefore, make sure you purchase through a reputable source.
Last revised: Tuesday, 10 September 2013
This article contains general information only and is not intended to replace advice from a qualified health professional.