Lactation Supplements: What are they and how do they work?

Throughout history, different foods and herbs have been given to new mothers for nourishment and to support lactation. Other women in the family often prepare foods including soups and stews with galactogogue ingredients so the mother is able to rest, recover and bond with her new baby. A traditional period of lying in for the first few weeks to several months in some cultures is thought to be protective of good health later in life for the mother and the baby.

A galactogogue comes from the Greek word “galacta” meaning leading milk.(1) There are galactogogues that are synthetic or man made as well as many different herbs and other plant based foods that promote lactation. For some people, a diet that includes foods that are nutritious and provide lots of vitamins and minerals to the body is enough, but for others, using lactation supplements helps increase their supply during their breastfeeding journey.


What can lactation supplements help with?

  • Boost milk supply
  • Encourage milk flow
  • Milk enrichment
  • Soothe colic and gassiness
  • Reduce stress
  • Mammary growth
  • Balance hormones
  • Boost nutrition 

How do galactagogues work?

Herbs have different properties. Knowing how they differ and how they work in the body can help you choose a lactation supplement that is a good fit for you. They are not one size fits all. There are also herbs and foods known as anti-galactogogues which can decrease milk supply. 

Herbs like Moringa, nettles and alfalfa are highly nutritious packed with vitamins and minerals that can support fertility, quality of milk, the mother’s energy levels and help detoxify the body. Support for the liver helps get rid of extra fluid after delivery that can cause swelling and engorgement, restricting milk flow. 

These herbs have been shown to boost prolactin levels. The pituitary gland is sometimes referred to as the master gland. It is where many hormones are made. Different glands in the body communicate with each other through hormones.(2) 

Herbs like alfalfa, nettles and moringa are phytoestrogens. Estrogen tells the pituitary gland to make prolactin, the milk making hormone. When your baby nurses it triggers the release of prolactin and its level in the blood supply increases telling the breasts to make more milk. 

Prolactin is not released until about 30 minutes after your baby begins to nurse.(3) That means, the milk your baby is drinking now, makes milk for the next time they are going to eat. Feeding your baby more often triggers the release of prolactin and helps sustain and even increase your milk supply. Prolactin is naturally highest during the middle of the night which is why those middle of the night feeds are important. When your baby nurses in the middle of the night, they are building a milk supply for the next day.

Lactation supplements to consider:

  • Cash Cow (can be taken in the last trimester)
  • Milkapalooza
  • Liquid Gold

  • Digestive herbs like fennel, black seed and anise can help with many stomach discomforts and improve gut health. Colic in babies is often improved when their mother is taking lactation supplements with these herbs. 

    Low milk supply is sometimes the result of hormonal imbalances and compromised gut health. These herbs can help restore balance and boost supply. PCOS and insulin resistance has been shown to improve by taking black seed

    During lactation, milk making glands become insulin sensitive and the insulin receptors send out more signals important during the time milk is shifting from colostrum to a milk supply with greater volume, protein, fats and carbs.(4) If someone is insulin resistant, it can take longer for their milk to come in and supply may be lower.(5) 

    Lactation supplements to consider:

  • Pump Princess
  • Lechita

  • If you have a history of low milk supply, didn’t experience an increase in breast size, have insufficient glandular tissue or have insulin resistance, Goat’s rue is an herb that may help stimulate mammary gland growth and regulate blood sugar. Goat’s rue influenced the drug metformin which has been used to lower high blood sugar. Goat’s rue can be taken in the last trimester if there is a history and concern for low milk supply.

    Lactation supplements to consider:

  • Cash Cow (can be taken in the last trimester)
  • Lechita
  • Liquid Gold

  • Did you know?

    An herb that has traditionally been used as a galactagogue but has been found to actually reduce milk supply for some people is fenugreek. For many people it can cause an upset stomach or uncomfortable gas and make your baby more irritable. 

    If you have a thyroid condition, fenugreek should be avoided. It lowers T3 and may lower prolactin which means your supply can actually decrease when taking fenugreek.(6) 

    Fenugreek can inhibit the let down reflex but herbs like shatavari increase oxytocin, the hormone that signals milk to release and flow.

    Herbs that balance thyroid hormones:

  • Moringa
  • Alfalfa
  • Fennel
  • Shatavari
  • Nettle

  • Seeing results

    • Some people see results in 24-72 hours, but may take up to 2 weeks
    • Not everyone needs to take galactogogues. Making “just enough” milk for your baby is normal. We do not need an oversupply. 
    • Weight gain, wet and dirty diaper output, your baby waking themselves to feed every 2-3 hours day and night, feeling breast fullness before a feed and comfortable after a feed, your baby is happy - all these are also good measures of if breastfeeding  is on track.
    • Continue to take your prenatal vitamin during your whole nursing or pumping journey.
    • Lactation supplements are not a replacement for frequent milk removal.
    • Is your baby able to feed efficiently? Rule out other possibilities like oral restrictions if you are experiencing low supply. 
    • Flange size needs to be optimal for pumping to be most effective. The fit should be comfortable and get more than one let down.

    Everyone is different! What works great for one person may not do much of anything for another person. It can take some experimenting to find the right lactation supplement for you. It is a good idea to check in with your IBCLC or healthcare provider before beginning any supplement since they know your complete health history.

    Footnotes:

    1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galactagogue
    2. https://www.yourhormones.info/glands/
    3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK148970/#:~:text=When%20a%20baby%20suckles%2C%20the,the%20next%20feed%20(20).
    4. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/262981
    5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4785481/
    6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10527654/

    Resources:

    https://www.une.edu/sites/default/files/adaptogens.pdf

    https://www.sghs.org/documents/Herbal-Milk-Boosters.pdf

    https://www.endocrine.org/patient-engagement/endocrine-library/hormones-and-endocrine-function/brain-hormones

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4165197/

     

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