What Herbs Encourage Breast Milk?
Katherine Zieman, ND, LM
Herbs that encourage milk production are called galactogogues -- from the Greek word gala meaning "milk" and agogos "to lead". Following is a list of the many plants used traditionally for increasing a nursing mother's milk supply. Many of these herbs can also be used to help induce lactation in a mother wishing to breastfeed an adopted baby, even if she has never lactated before.
The galactogogues have varying actions. Some are nourishing tonics that encourage increased milk supply by supplying important nutrients, while others act directly on breast tissue to increase production. All these botanical medicines also have other effects besides serving as galactogogues. Some have a soothing effect, others act as mild laxatives, while others have properties that treat or prevent mild conditions in the newborn such as colic and thrush. The other actions of the different plants will help a mother choose which herbs will work best in combination for her particular situation.
Of course, with all botanical remedies, it is best to consult with a knowledgeable practitioner before self-prescribing.
Anise Seed: This plant is well known for its flavor as well as to aid digestion, dispel gas, nausea, and colic. Anise will increase milk supply and increase libido through increasing estrogen production. Blessed thistle (Cnicus benedictus): This plant increases milk production by stimulating blood flow to the breast tissue, and works well combined with red raspberry leaves. It is good for treating postpartum blues as well. It should not be used in pregnancy.
Borage Leaves (Borago officinalis): The seeds and leaves of the borage plant have been used to increase the mild supply, however the plant contains an alkaloid that can be harmful to the liver and should not be for longer than one week. It may be best to use another plant with no known side effects. This herb is contraindicated in pregnancy. Fennel Seed- (Foeniculum vulgare): This plant is familiar for its carminative action or "gas" reducing properties The leaves and/ or seeds are traditionally used to increase milk supply by stimulating blood flow to the mammary glands. An added benefit of using this herb is that it will help to soothe the colicky baby and ease after pains post partum.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenumgraecum): The seeds of this plant have a pleasing maple syrup-like flavor that is often used as a flavoring in imitation maple syrup products. Most people know it as a digestive aid or have used it as a poultice because of its mucilaginous properties; however it is a well-known popular herb for increasing milk supply, because of the hormonal precursors it contains. One should be aware that it will also make the mom and baby have a maple syrup aroma. It should be used with caution by those with diabetes because it will lower blood sugar and be avoided by those with asthma. It is contraindicated in pregnancy because it can cause uterine contractions.
Goat's Rue (Galega officinalis): Goat's Rue stimulates mammary gland development and can increase milk production by up to 50%: making it one of the most powerful galactogogues in the herbal formulary. Is used both by nursing mothers and farmers to increase milk production in their livestock. Interestingly the fresh juice is also used in cheese making. It is a very safe and effective galactogue.
Hops (Humulus lupulus): This herb is promotes relaxation and sleep, making it a wonderful herb for insomnia. It is a good plant to use in the evening for milk production as it will help with nighttime feedings and improve the quality of the mother and child's sleep. It increases milk supply because of its relaxing properties as well as its estrogenic effects. The tastiest way to ingest hops is in beer. Beware however, that the best source is either homemade, craft, or microbrewery beers that have a high hops content and no chemical additives. Commercial beers usually do not have these properties and can be harmful. There are also alcohol free hops brews available.
Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum): This is one of the oldest traditional galactagogues. It's action is most likely to balance hormones in the mom through its effect on liver function. Currently milk thistle is used extensively for the treatment of liver conditions as it has both a protective and regenerating effect on liver cells. It is a powerful antioxidant, has anti tumor properties as is anti-inflammatory as well. Milk thistle has also been effective in treating PUPPP (Pruritic urticarial papules and plaques of pregnancy).
Nettle Leaf: Nettle leaf is a delicious green vegetable best collected in the springtime to take advantage of its rich vitamin and mineral content. It contains easily digestible iron, calcium, vitamin K, and folic acid, and is a wonderful pregnancy tonic and is known to increase breast milk supply because of its nutritive properties.
Red Raspberry Leaves (Rubus idaeus): This plant is extremely high in vitamins and minerals, making it a wonderful tonic. It also has a toning and strengthening effect on the uterus so it useful both during pregnancy and post partum. It too is associated with increasing milk supply, because it is so high in nutrients.
Shatavari (Asparagus racemosa): This is an aruyvedic herb with a long tradition of use in India. It has a particular affinity for the female reproductive system making it an important remedy for hormonal imbalances including infertility, menstrual disorders, menopause, and morning sickness. It will increase milk supply and is nourishing to both the mom and the child.
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