Beyond Fenugreek: A Guide to Herbs to Increase Your Milk

Many factors can contribute to low milk supply including hormones, preexisting maternal conditions, ineffective latch and infrequent nursing. Mothers facing supply issues should always seek the counsel of a board certified lactation consultant who can help pinpoint and treat the true cause or causes. It should be noted that herbs alone will not cure or treat poor supply problems caused by ineffective latch or infrequent nursing, though they may play a part in an overall holistic treatment plan.
For some moms, herbal galactogogues may be a part of that treatment plan. While most mothers are familiar with fenugreek, they may overlook other natural galactogogues which could play an important factor in boosting milk supply. Herbs like goat’s rue, fennel, hops, blessed thistle or oats are all thought to boost a low or waning milk supply in nursing mothers. Many mothers see greater effects when they supplement with multiple herbs rather than a single herb.

Alfalfa is a common, mild galactologue that is often used in concert with other more powerful galactogogues like fenugreek. Alfalfa is a highly nutritive plant which is very high in essential vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients. It is, perhaps, these nutrients that may boost milk supply in breastfeeding mothers as well-nourished mothers suffer from fewer supply problems than under-nourished mothers.

Alfalfa’s efficacy as a galactologue has not been well-studied or researched; however, Asa Hershoff and Andrea Rotelli, authors of Herbal Remedies: A Quick and Easy Guide to Common Disorders and Their Herbal Remedies, write that alfalfa stimulates milk production, improving both the quality and quantity of mother’s milk.

The optimal dosage for alfalfa is four capsules three times daily. Alfalfa is largely considered to be very safe with very few side effects, though there have been isolated reports of allergic reactions.

Anise is a member of the apiaceae family of flowering plants and is native to the Mediterranean and southwest Asia. The herb has been traditionally used as a galactologue for new mothers in China and other parts of Asia, but little research on the use of anise to stimulate milk production exists. Anise does have estrogenic compounds which may contribute to its use as a galactologue.

Anise is traditionally served as a tea to aid in milk production. Mothers can prepare anise tea by gently crushing two teaspoons of anise seed and then pouring boiling water over the crushed seeds. The tea should be allowed to steep for ten to twenty minutes, and may be sweetened to preference.

Though anise doesn’t pose any risk with customary use, very few people may experience an allergic reaction to the herb. According to The American Herbal Products Association, anise should not be used during pregnancy. Mothers should also take care to avoid using star anise as some regular star anise might be contaminated with Japanese star anise which is highly toxic and associated with adverse neurological effects.

Blessed Thistle
Blessed thistle is a member of the asteraceae family of flowering plants which also includes asters, daisies, chamomile and sunflowers. The asteraceae family also incluedes milk thistle, another herbal galactogogue. Blessed thistle is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe, and has been traditionally used during lactation to increase milk supply in breastfeeding mothers.

Mothers using blessed thistle may need to take up to four capsules three times daily for it to be effective, though blessed thistle is often used in combination with other herbs. Mothers allergic to daisies or members of the asteraceae family should not use blessed thistle.

Fennel is in the same family as anise, also an herbal galactogogue. Fennel is widely used in tonics and over-the-counter preparations for breastfeeding mothers. Fennel is native to southern Europe and southwestern Asia where it is often featured in local cuisine.

Fennel is a commonly used and highly effective herbal galactogogue that is often used in concert with other herbal galactogogues. It is thought to primarily aid in promoting let down rather than actually increasing milk supply and this could be very effective for pumping moms who may suffer from periodic inhibited milk ejection reflex.

Fennel can be prepared as a tea or taken as a tincture. To prepare fennel tea, mothers may take two teaspoons of fennel seeds and crush them before pouring boiling water over the crushes seeds and allowing the tea to steep for ten minutes. Alternatively, mothers can take up to 4 ml of fennel tincture three times daily. Fennel oil can be toxic in doses greater than one teaspoon, so mothers should take care to avoid ingesting fennel oil.

Fenugreek, an herb in the fabaceae family of flowering plants, is perhaps the most well-known of herbal galactogogues. Originally from southern Asia where it is often featured in regional cuisine, fenugreek is a relative newcomer to the western herbal medicine cabinet.

Fenugreek, like many herbs and pharmaceutical medications, is associated with beneficial effects on the digestive system and is traditionally used to treat stomach and intestinal complaints such as flatulence. The herb contains high levels of phytoestrogens which may account for its ability to increase milk supply.

A study published in the September 2000 issue of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine’s News & Views measured the breast milk production of exclusively pumping mothers taking three capsules of fenugreek three times daily. The average daily volume of milk increased 124% from 207 ml/day to 464 ml/day among mothers taking the herb.

Most mothers taking fenugreek will notice an increase in production within 24-72 hours, though it may take up to five days for some mothers to see an effect. If you take fenugreek and do not notice an increase in milk production make sure that you’re taking at least 3500 mg of the herb daily. It is also wise to double check the freshness of the herb as its efficacy may have faded as the herb aged. If you’re in doubt about whether the herb is fresh, open a capsule and check to make sure the fenugreek powder is vibrant in color with a distinct odor of maple syrup.

Rarely, mothers may experience an allergic reaction to fenugreek including wheezing or other asthmatic symptoms. Mothers who are sensitive or allergic to peanuts, chickpeas and other legumes may also be allergic to fenugreek and should be cautioned against its use. Odd as it may seem, it is normal for the sweat, urine and milk of mothers taking fenugreek to smell like maple syrup.

Occasionally, a baby may exhibit fussiness or diarrhea when his or her mother takes a high dose of fenugreek but these side effects often subside within a week. If these symptoms continue beyond a week, the mother may have actually developed an oversupply while on fenugreek and so may not actually need to continue taking the herb.

Goat’s Rue
Goat’s Rue is a traditional galactologue that has been used for centuries. Goat’s rue, like fenugreek, belongs to fabaceae family of flowering plants. Goat’s rue’s latin name is galega officinalis which is derived from “gale” which means “milk” and “ega” which means “to bring on.”

Goat’s rue was first used by European dairy farmers who noted an milk production increase of 35-50% in animals who grazed on this wild herb. Some mothers have reported a doubling of their pumping out put while taking goat’s rue. Additionally, goat’s rue is thought to increase mammary tissue which may offer some hope for women with hypoplastic breast tissue or women suffering from PCOS who have underdeveloped breasts.

Goat’s rue should be taken in tincture form, and mothers should slowly build up to a dosage of 2 ml three times a day. Some mothers experience nausea, vomiting and other side effects while taking goat’s rue so it’s wise to always consult a professional herbalist before using the herb.

Other Herbal Remedies
There are many commercially prepared remedies that include multiple herbal galactogogues. For many mothers, taking commercially prepared capsules, tinctures or teas is more effective and easier than taking isolated herbal galactogogues.

Mother Love, a company that provides herbal support for pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, offers More Milk which is a tincture of nettle, blessed thistle and fennel. Mother Love also offers More Milk Special Blend which is a tincture of goat’s rue, fenugreek, blessed thistle, nettle and fennel. More Milk Special Blend is recommended by Mother Love specifically for mothers with PCOS as well as mothers breastfeeding after a breast reduction. These tinctures tend to have an unpleasant taste, but the taste can be disguised in a flavorful drink.

Traditional Medicinals offers Organic Mother’s Milk Tea which combines fennel, anise, coriander, fenugreek and blessed thistle with a proprietary blend of spearmint, lemongrass, lemon verbena and marshmallow. The tea tends to be spicy and sweet with a strong anise flavor.

Yogi Tea offers Nursing Mom Tea which combines chamomile, fennel, nettle, anise, fenugreek and lavender. Some moms find that the Yogi Tea blend is more pleasant to the taste, but less effective than the Traditional Medicinals Tea.

Vitanica offers an herbal supplement for nursing moms called Lactation Blend which combines several galactogogues including fennel, nettle, blessed thistle, vervain, hops, goat’s rue, oat straw, raspberry leaf, chasteberry, fenugreek and milk thistle.

Where to Buy
Single herbs, and occasionally herbal combinations and supplements, are available at many health food stores, through herbalists and naturopaths as well as online through sites like Puritan’s Pride. Yogi and Traditional Medicinals Tea are often available at your local supermarket and your local health food store as well as online through their respective websites. Mother Love tinctures and supporting products are also available online. Vitanica’s Lactation Blend is available through your naturopath or online.

Published by Jennifer McGruther


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