A particular herb can be a powerful source of medicine or it can pose significant risks or unwanted effects, depending on who is consuming it and when. In pregnancy, some herbs are incredibly beneficial, while others should be avoided entirely. The same is true when breastfeeding. In particular, some herbs are known to help increase the supply of breast milk, while others deplete or stop the supply. What is considered safe and ideal depends on the woman’s aim, among various other factors. If she is trying to build her supply, galactagogues are ideal. If she is trying to wean or needs to dry up her milk (perhaps because of infant loss), she may want to use a different set of herbs.
Or it may be that she is considering the use of an herb for a reason unrelated to breastfeeding and wants to know if and how those herbs may affect her supply.
Below is a partial list of common herbs that can build or deplete breast milk supply. It is always good to speak with your health care provider before beginning any new herb or medication when pregnant or breastfeeding.
Galactagogues: Herbs that promote breast milk production
Some of the most commonly used herbal galactagogues are:
- Blessed thistle (a bitter herb known to help liver and digestive problems as well)
- Anise seed (also considered good for colic and gas pains)
- Chaste Berry
- Fennel seed
- Milk Thistle seed
- Nettle Leaf
It is important to note, however, that most women do not need to take such herbs or take any other medications or foods to increase or maintain their supply.
Cases where such herbs may be useful include:
- Working mothers may use these herbs to increase their pumping output (since pumps are typically less effective at milk removal than babies are). This may be true even if their supply is adequate when baby nurses.
- Moms who adopt children may use galactagogues to increase the amount of milk they provide their babies.
- Some moms who have a genuinely low milk supply may use these herbs in combination with increased nursing and pumping.
If you suspect a low supply, you should speak with a lactation consultant and/or a La Leche League leader first.
Herbs that can deplete breast milk supply
These are herbs that most breastfeeding women will want to avoid, unless they are weaning or needing to abruptly stop breastfeeding with good cause. The ability of these herbs to deplete milk supply is dependent on how frequently and how much of the herb is consumed. Consuming a small amount of the culinary herbs below generally will not affect supply.
- Jasmine flowers
- Peppermint (especially peppermint oil)
- Black Walnut
- Stinging nettles (not nettle – that increases milk supply)
- Lemon Balm
- Periwinkle Herb
Word to the wise
When considering any herbal remedies while breastfeeding, it can help to follow these precautions:
- Avoid pharmacologically active herbal teas. Drink herbal teas in moderation.
- Limit herbal preparations that combines several active ingredients.
- Always check the label. Even vitamins and echinacea may contain herbs that should not be used by breastfeeding mothers.
- Use only reputable brands that have ingredients, concentrations expiration date and name of the manufacturer and distributor clearly marked on the label
- Be sure to check with your health care provider before taking any natural remedy, since it could interact with other medications.
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