Herbs have been used throughout time as food and medicine. It is important to remember that although herbs are natural, they can be quite powerful and each has risks as well as benefits. Some herbs have been used traditionally to support milk supply known as galactagogues. Understanding how an herb works and how it affects the body can help you choose which ones may be a good match for you to support or increase your milk supply.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is an herb from the legume family. The flowers on the clover-like leaves are white, yellow, or purple and look similar to regular garden pea plant flowers.(1) It is native to India and Northern Africa. The seeds and leaves have been used in cuisine for hundreds of years. The seeds are in many spice blends and recipes like curries, chutneys, and rice dishes. The leaves and fenugreek sprouts get added fresh to salads and cooked dishes.
In traditional Chinese medicine, fenugreek has been used to warm the body. Someone who is cold a lot of the time is said to have Yin excess or Yang deficiency. The bitterness of fenugreek seeds is used to cleanse the body, drying dampness, warming the body, and promoting elimination, increasing urine and bowel movements.(2) Many cultures believe in keeping the new mother warm in the early postpartum period, plenty of rest, and foods prepared with herbs that help replenish the body as she recovers from delivering her baby and support lactation.
Fenugreek has been one of the most widely used herbs for new parents to increase milk supply. Results for increasing milk supply vary greatly among women who have used fenugreek. Some have seen an increase in their supply as soon as 24-72 hours after beginning to supplement with fenugreek. Other people do not experience an increase up to 2 weeks later and some people find no benefit at all from using fenugreek.(3) It is considered to be generally recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.(4) Fenugreek is listed as an L3 for lactation risk which is considered probably compatible and can be used if the benefits outweigh the risks.(5)
Each person's sensitivity to fenugreek is different largely because we each have our own unique body chemistry and health histories. Side effects may be noticed by some from eating food cooked or seasoned with fenugreek while other people are only affected when taking supplements with higher dosages of the herb. In one survey of 85 women who used fenugreek to boost their milk production, 45% of them reported undesirable side effects for themselves or their babies.(6)
Common side effects
- Stomach upset
- diarrhea or gas for mom
- Diarrhea or gas for baby
- Green, watery stools in baby
- Skin reactions
- Can make asthma symptoms worse
- Can make urine and sweat smell like maple syrup
- Increase testosterone and sperm count
- Reduce painful menstruation
- Increase libido
- May increase breast milk production
- Reduce arthritis symptoms
- Reduce symptoms of menopause
- May improve insulin sensitivity
Interactions and risks
- May cause an allergic reaction for people with allergies in the same family such as chickpeas and peanuts
- Lowers cholesterol and blood sugar and may lead to hypoglycemia(8)
- Interacts with certain medications including anticoagulants can cause bleeding
- May cause delayed absorption or other oral drugs or herbs
- Can cause uterine contractions during pregnancy
Thyroid function and fenugreek
The thyroid produces hormones that play a role in all metabolic functions in the body including metabolism, fertility, and milk production. The hypothalamus communicates with the pituitary gland to produce TSH in the brain which in turn stimulates the thyroid gland to produce T4 and T3. Low thyroid hormones affect mammary gland growth during pregnancy. It may reduce the amount of prolactin which is a key hormone for making milk as well as oxytocin which is the hormone that triggers the flow of milk and the milk ejection reflex.
Fenugreek should not be taken if you have thyroid dysfunction. Fenugreek has been shown to disrupt the balance of thyroid hormones. In a study with mice and rats, the use of fenugreek was found to lower T3 which is a problem for people who are experiencing hypothyroidism.(9) People with hypothyroid are more likely to experience low milk supply and postpartum depression.
Legendairy Milk is Fenugreek free. Many women seek out herbal supplements due to their low milk supply. 1 in 20 women is affected by postpartum thyroiditis which can happen even if you did not have a thyroid imbalance before getting pregnant.(10) Many other herbs can be used to help increase milk production and milk flow that does not cause the imbalance of thyroid hormones like fenugreek does.
- Fennel seed
Nursing or pumping at least 8 times per day including the middle of the night is necessary for sufficient milk supply. If you do pump, be sure that you are using the correct size flanges for the best milk output. If you are still experiencing difficulties with milk production or milk flow, consider working with an IBCLC to dig deeper to uncover the root cause and help create a care plan that is supportive of your overall health and milk supply. It is recommended to discuss herbal supplements with your healthcare provider as they are aware of your complete health history.