Several women consider using herbs while breastfeeding to boost their milk production and supply. According to studies, herbs such as fenugreek, fennel, blessed thistle, and goat’s rue have galactagogue properties that may help maintain, promote, or induce milk production (1). However, their safety and efficacy for nursing mothers and their babies is inadequately researched. Thus, you should consult your healthcare provider before using herbs to avert any side effects.
Read on to learn the safety of herbs when breastfeeding, the herbs that may promote milk supply and those you should avoid, and precautions you should observe while using herbs when breastfeeding.
Is It Safe To Take Herbs While Breastfeeding?
The safety depends on the herbs you are taking. Herbs such as fennel and fenugreek may not be harmful if taken in small quantities, while herbs such as sage leaves and parsley may dry up the breastmilk.
Also, there is no conclusive research on the safety of herbs when breastfeeding (2). Herbal galactagogues are often considered safe by anecdotal accounts. Some herbs may be useful in increasing the supply of breast milk.
Herbs That May Help Increase Milk Supply
- Fenugreek: It is one of the commonly used herbs while breastfeeding. Fenugreek is grown mainly in India, Mediterranean countries, and Southern Europe (3). It is often used in warmer cultures for people with sweating problems. Breasts are modified sweat glands, which is probably why it has an impact on the breast.
However, if taken in excess, it may cause nausea or vomiting in mothers and/ or diarrhea in babies. If taken in excessive quantities, it is known to have a hypoglycemic effect (reduction in blood sugar level) in mothers with diabetes. Also, it may not be suitable for women having asthma. Also, it may produce a maple syrup-like smell in baby’s or mother’s urine, sweat, or milk.
- Blessed thistle: Blessed thistle’s white veins in the leaf represent breast milk in several folklores. The herb is considered to benefit the liver as well. It may have a laxative effect or cause an allergic reaction.
- Goat’s rue: Found mostly in Central and Southern Europe, this herbaceous plant is used in many products in combination with other herbs (5). Its galactagogue effect was first reported in 1873 to the French Academy (6). It is also taken in combination with fenugreek and other herbs for a stronger effect. It should not be used fresh as it may cause toxicity. The dried form (dry leaves) is not known to have side-effects.
- Fennel: It has also been used for treating gastrointestinal disorders. Its galactagogue properties were first reported by a Greek botanist. Since it is aromatic in nature, fennel is often added in regular meals in the form of seeds. It may cause allergic reactions or dermatitis.
- Aniseed/anise: It is an aromatic spice found in West Asia, Eastern Mediterranean, Mexico, and Spain. It may cause an allergic reaction in a few women.
- Alfalfa: A rich source of nutrients, its sprouts have a nutty flavor and are rich in estrogenic compounds. According to the American Pregnancy Association, alfalfa is often used in combination with fenugreek. However, it also acts as a laxative and may cause loose stool. Moreover, it is not recommended to people allergic to peanuts or legumes or having systemic lupus erythematosus.
- Blessed thistle: It is used in alternative medicines and is known to have a positive effect on milk supply. The herb is commercially available in the form of tea or capsules. According to the American Pregnancy Association, it works best in combination with fenugreek. Generally considered safe, it may cause an allergic reaction in some.
- Shatavari: Its roots have been used in the ancient Indian medicine system (Ayurveda) as a galactagogue. The roots are often consumed in combination with cardamom. However, there is scarce literature available in modern medicine in terms of dosage, efficacy, or side effects.
- Garlic: It is widely used as a culinary ingredient around the globe. It has been observed that the intake of garlic may increase the nursing time because of the milk odor. However, if your baby doesn’t like the peculiar garlic odor, the result may reverse too.
Herbs To Avoid While Breastfeeding
Some herbs can have an adverse effect on breast milk supply as they dry up the milk. Such herbs may be avoided by lactating mothers. However, women with hypergalactia or those trying to wean a toddler may want to use them. Hypergalactia means an overabundance of milk supply (7).
- Sage leaves: It is consumed in the form of tea made from the extract of its leaves. In addition to drying up breast milk, it may cause nausea, vomiting, or dizziness and some other side effects in patients with asthma, diabetes, or seizures.
- Parsley: It may decrease milk supply and lower prolactin levels in breastfeeding women, when consumed as a food. Usually, women who want to control or stop milk production, take these in the form of capsules in combination with sage. However, there is no clinical evidence to verify its effects.
- Jasmine: Its leaves applied topically on breasts may suppress milk supply. It is generally regarded as safe by the US Food and Drug Administration. However, there is a scarcity of information on its dosage, effectiveness, and side effects.
- Peppermint: Its oil is believed to reduce milk supply, reduce pain, and treat cracked nipples in breastfeeding women. However, it may be toxic when applied topically in high doses.
There is a lack of regulation on natural and herbal products, and thus it is good to exercise caution while using herbs.
Precautions While Using Breastfeeding Herbs
If you plan to have herbs while breastfeeding, then first discuss it with your healthcare provider and the baby’s pediatrician. Consider the following points before having herbs while breastfeeding (11).
- There is no adequate safety information for most herbs used while breastfeeding.
- The compounds found in herbs have the potential to pass into breast milk from where it can reach the infant’s body. The effects of the herb on the baby may not be known due to limited research.
- Some herbal products may not always follow GMP (good manufacturing practices), making the quality and purity of the product questionable. Therefore, select products made by reputed manufacturers.
Natural or herbal products are often available in our homes, supermarkets, or pharmacies. Their uses are passed down from generation to generation in the form of traditional or alternative medicine. However, their safety and effectiveness vary. Therefore, consult your physician and baby’s pediatrician before using herbs while breastfeeding.
- Tabares F. P. et al.; (2014); Pharmacological overview of galactogogues: Veterinary Medicine International 2014.
- Budzynska K. Gardner Z. E. Dugoua J. J. Low Dog T. & Gardiner P. Systematic review of breastfeeding and herbs: Breastfeeding Medicine 7(6) 489-503. (2012).
- Turkyılmaz C. Onal E. Hirfanoglu I. M. Turan O. Koç E. Ergenekon E. & Atalay Y. The effect of galactagogue herbal tea on breast milk production and short-term catch-up of birth weight in the first week of life: The journal of alternative and complementary medicine 17(2) 139-142. (2011).
- Nice F. J. Common herbs and foods used as galactogogues: ICAN: Infant Child & Adolescent Nutrition 3(3) 129-132. (2011)
- Galactagogues – Boosting Your Milk Supply and Production: American Pregnancy Association. (n.d.).
- Dog T. L. The use of botanicals during pregnancy and lactation: Altern Ther Health Med 15(1) 54-8. (2009).
- Eglash A. Treatment of maternal hypergalactia: Breastfeeding Medicine 9(9) 423-425. (2014).
- Drugs and Lactation Database (LactMed). Parsley: National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2018).
- Drugs and Lactation Database (LactMed). Peppermint: National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2018).
- Drugs and Lactation Database (LactMed). Jasmine: National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2018).
- Herbal medicines and Breastfeeding: The Women’s The Royal Women’s Hospital. (n.d.).