You’ve probably heard about herbal remedies being used to treat various women’s health problems.
You might have even tried some yourself.
If you have an awareness of herbal treatments used in conception and pregnancy, then you might also be aware of how herbs are used to help increase breast milk supply.
This article discusses the use of herbs for breastfeeding women.
Can herbs increase milk supply?
Throughout history, many herbs have been used by breastfeeding mothers to help increase their milk supply. Historical records show these herbs, known as galactagogues, were used as part of ancient, traditional medical practices.
Some herbs used to help increase milk supply throughout time have been:
- Fennel seeds
- Milk thistle
- Blessed thistle
- Stinging nettle
- Anise seeds
- Goat’s rue
- Fenugreek seeds
Although there is a long history of the use of herbs to increase breast milk supply in almost all cultures worldwide, there is little scientific evidence to prove that the use of any herb results in increased maternal milk secretion.
If you suspect you have an insufficient milk supply, seek help from a certified lactation consultant. A lactation consultant will be able to advise you on the best way to maintain or increase milk supply.
What are the best herbs for breastfeeding mothers?
Although most people think of herbs as a natural alternative to prescription medications, it’s still important that you seek professional advice about the use of herbs while you are breastfeeding.
Fenugreek is probably the most widely known galactagogue used amongst breastfeeding women to boost lactation; fenugreek, however, can potentially have contraindications for breastfeeding women.
For more information about the fenugreek you can ready BellyBelly’s article: Fenugreek And Breast Milk Supply – Does It Help?
A naturopath is a health professional with specialized knowledge in the use of herbal medicines. Jade Walker, a qualified naturopath, has shared some insights into the safe use of herbs for nursing mothers.
‘There are several herbs that naturopaths and herbalists have long used as galactagogues. Some of them are based on ancient wisdom, while others have shown promise in the research.
‘Moringa leaf and the well know Ayurvedic herb, Shatavari, have both been shown to increase prolactin. Fennel seed is another popular herb believed to support breast milk supply by its phytoestrogen components. Some studies have shown promise with the use of fennel seeds; however, they were small sample sizes. Nevertheless, fennel is safe for breastfeeding mothers in the form of a tea or supplement, so may be beneficial for mothers with low milk supply.
‘Another herb that’s aptly named for this topic is milk thistle. A 2008 study showed that using a micronized extract of milk thistle significantly increased breast milk production, compared with a placebo. Goat’s rue is another popular herb to support milk supply, but there’s no solid research to support this yet.
‘It’s always important to note that some herbs exert other effects that may or may not be right for an individual based on their medical history, so it’s always best to consult with an accredited Naturopath’ – Jade Walker, Jade Walker Naturopathy.
Factors that affect breast milk supply
To understand the factors that can affect breast milk supply, you first need to understand how milk production works.
Breast milk production begins around week 16 of pregnancy, when a combination of estrogen, progesterone and prolactin is circulating in the mothers body. This causes the monumental expansion of milk ducts and the formation of alveoli clusters within the breasts. Colostrum is present in the breasts from around week 16 onwards.
To find out more about what is happening in week 16 of pregnancy, you can read BellyBelly’s article: 16 Weeks Pregnant | Belly, Ultrasound And Symptoms.
When a woman gives birth to her baby, the level of progesterone in her body drops abruptly. This signals her body to start breast milk production.
The production of breast milk is maintained by the removal of milk. This means the more milk that is removed from your body (by breastfeeding your baby), the more milk your body will make. This is referred to as supply and demand.
Although herbal remedies or prescription medications might be helpful in boosting lactation, the single most important way to increase milk production is to increase milk removal.
Are herbs safe for breastfeeding mothers?
There are several herbs with potential health benefits. Most of the current research into the use of herbs in lactating women, however, is lacking information on their safety and effectiveness.
Herbal medicines and herbal supplements fall under the umbrella term of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). The use of complementary and alternative medicines in breastfeeding is not regulated.
Regulatory authorities like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensure the safety and efficacy of approved drugs. This does not mean that all herbs are dangerous because they are not regulated; there are many herbs that have proven health benefits. What is important to note, however, is that not all herbs are safe for pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers.
It is important to remember that anything you ingest while you are breastfeeding has the potential to be passed on to your baby, through your breast milk.
If you are thinking about incorporating herbs to help increase your breast milk supply, speak to your healthcare practitioner first.
St John’s Wort
St John’s Wort has often been prescribed as a herbal remedy for the treatment of postpartum depression.
The most current advice from The Royal Women’s Hospital states that:
‘Some complementary and alternative medicines have very good information about their safety and effectiveness while breastfeeding; others have very little because not enough research has been done on them. There is very little information available about the safety and efficacy of St John’s Wort in breastfeeding women. It is recommended that an alternative medicine be considered. See your doctor or pharmacist for advice before starting St John’s Wort’.
If you think you could be experiencing postpartum depression, talk to your doctor about appropriate medications that are compatible with breastfeeding.
Just like all dietary supplements, breastfeeding supplements provide you with nutrients that might be missing from your diet. A dietary supplement works if you are deficient in a vitamin or mineral. It does not give your body more of this vitamin or mineral if there is already a sufficient amount in your body.
Common postpartum deficiencies can include iron, vitamin C and D, zinc, and magnesium. Being depleted or deficient in essential vitamins and minerals is not optimal for overall health.
For some breastfeeding women, deficiencies might affect breast milk supply. Simply taking a breastfeeding supplement, however, will not result in a significant difference in the supply of breast milk.