Herbs are plants, which have been traditionally used, world wide, to improve health. Herbs are used in lactation, most often in conjunction with other methods, to increase a women’s milk supply.
Here in the United States the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate herbs as dietary supplements, as are vitamins and minerals.
Herbs are very different from prescription medications. Rather than a strong dose of a single active ingredient, herbs contain a blend of many active ingredients in much smaller amounts. Few herbs have been proven toxic and those that have cannot be sold legally in the US.
While side effects and toxic reactions to herbs are rare, they can occur. Natural products can still contain environmental contaminants or induce an allergic response. If you or the father of your baby has a family history of allergies, eczema, asthma, insulin-dependent diabetes, or rheumatoid arthritis or other autoimmune diseases, you need to be especially cautious about certain foods and herbs. Three medicinal plant families are well known for their allergic potential: the Fabaceae (or pea family, e.g. soy, peanuts, fenugreek, goat’s rue, and licorice), Asteraceae (or sunflower family), and the Apiaceae (or carrot family, e.g. parsnips, celery, anise, and fennel).
Prior to purchasing an herb to increase your milk supply, you need to ask yourself why you think this is necessary. A consultation with a lactation consultant can help you with this.
Is it because you have concerns that you are not giving your baby enough milk? If this is the reason, please make sure you read to, “How To Tell if Baby is Getting Enough,” and “Low Milk Supply.”
Do you want to increase your supply before returning to work? Many women start increasing their milk supply at approx 2 weeks prior to returning to work, to store up extra milk and also to compensate for any decrease in milk supply they may experience once they are back at work.
If your baby is not on the breast correctly, not draining the breast effectively, or not feeding often enough, then herbs alone will not increase your supply.
We stock 3 types of herbal products to boost milk production at the Maternal Connection and Maternal Network: herbal teas, Fenugreek capsules, and herbal tinctures. Teas are a blend of dried herbs steeped in a cup of hot water to extract the active ingredients. Dried herbs lose their potency with time, so fresher tea leaves are better. Also, water is a mild extractor, meaning many of the plants’ ingredients remain in the tea leaves and are not dissolved into the tea. A better extractor is alcohol. A tincture is a blend of fresh herbs that have been steeped in a small amount of alcohol, making a very concentrated and thus potent mixture. Alcohol is also a good preservative, so tinctures can keep for years if well sealed and stored away from light and heat. Tinctures are taken by dropperful under the tongue or in a very small volume of water so as not to dilute them. The amount of alcohol ingested is very small. The alcohol-free capsules we sell started as a tincture, but then the alcohol is evaporated off and the remaining herbal extract is dissolved in a small volume of glycerin and put into a non-gelatin capsule. Powdered herbs in capsules have not undergone an extraction process, but the herb has been pulverized to release some of the active ingredients. This method of releasing the active ingredients is not as effective as alcohol extraction, but the whole herb is ingested rather than just the herbal extract.
For a mild boost to your milk supply or to simply support your supply throughout your nursing experience, we suggest 1 or several cups of a Nursing Mother’s Tea daily. Most of the herbs in Traditional Medicine’s tea and HerbLore’s tea are on the Food and Drug Administration’s Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) list and are considered safe for the baby when ingested by the mother.
The herb that has received the most consistent reports for increasing milk supply is Fenugreek. Fenugreek is available as a powder in capsules or is one of the herbs in MotherLove’s More Milk Plus and Special Blend tinctures. For more information, see our handout on Fenugreek. If you are a diabetic or are allergic to soy or peanuts you should talk to your doctor prior to taking this herb.
We have several tinctures available. If you have many plant allergies, you should use the tinctures with caution, taking a small amount first & watching for a rash or aggravation of asthma. For example, many of the tinctures contain blessed thistle, which is in the alfalfa family and the source of hay fever for many people. The tinctures are very potent and designed to help with a serious milk supply problem. If you are considering taking a tincture, we highly recommend you talk to a lactation consultant.
Further information can be obtained from:
The Nursing Mother’s Herbal by Sheila Humphrey, which is available through our lending library.
Kathryn Higgins, herbalist at MotherLove. Visit MotherLove’s website (www.motherlove.com) or 1-888-209-8321.
Pam Caldwell, herbalist at HerbLore. Visit HerbLore’s website (www.herblore.com) or 1-877-808-5815.